Com­pe­ti­tion over land squeezes Ethiopian an­cient for­est farm­ers’

The East African - - BUSI­NESS -

By TOM GARD­NER

EV­ERY MONTH, cof­fee farmer Ze­lalem Tadesse makes the long and ar­du­ous jour­ney to court to fight for the re­turn of the land, deep in Ethiopia's south­west­ern forests, that he in­her­ited from his fa­ther.

The 46-year-old fa­ther of three says a nearby com­mer­cial cof­fee farm took the land from him.

"When I go to get my land back, it's very expensive," he said of his trips to the nearby town of Jimma and, more re­cently, the cap­i­tal Ad­dis Ababa. “But my life de­pends on this land."

Ze­lalem has no formal ti­tle deeds to the land and, al­though Ethiopia recog­nises some cus­tom­ary rights to for­est ac­cess, in prac­tice, these are of­ten ig­nored by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and in­vestors. He and his neigh­bours in Chira, a small high­land town in the coun­try's south­west de­pen­dent on cof­fee pro­duc­tion, com­plain that their liveli­hoods are be­ing squeezed by com­mer­cial in­vestors in the re­gion's an­cient forests.

Ze­lalem's friend Ti­lahun Mamo said he too was tak­ing a lo­cal cof­fee in­vestor to court for un­fair land ex­pro­pri­a­tion, wav­ing a let­ter he had de­liv­ered to the lo­cal gov­ern­ment early this year.

"The in­vestor took my land in 2011," he said. "I asked for com­pen­sa­tion, but they laughed at me. They promised us em­ploy­ment, road ac­cess, elec­tric­ity and a health cen­tre, but none of it hap­pened."

In Ethiopia all land, in­clud­ing forests, is for­mally owned by the state, mak­ing dis­pos­ses­sion eas­ier. The com­plaints of farm­ers like Ze­lalem and Ti­lahun are echoed across this part of the coun­try, where many de­pend on cof­fee forests and where com­pe­ti­tion for land is of­ten in­tense.

Ethiopia is Africa's largest cof­fee pro­ducer and the bean con­trib­utes to the liveli­hoods of more than a quar­ter of the coun­try's 100 mil­lion peo­ple. The south­west­ern forests — thought to be cof­fee's birth­place and the cen­tre of its genetic di­ver­sity — have long been a fron­tier for agri­cul­ture ex­pan­sion, in the form of ei­ther large-scale clear­ances or piece­meal en­croach­ment by small­hold­ers. Over the past four decades, one-third of the re­gion's for­est cover is es­ti­mated to have been lost this way.

One cof­fee plan­ta­tion in the re­gion, owned by a ma­jor Saudi Ara­bian in­vestor, is the world's largest and cov­ers some 22,000 hectares.

In the dis­trict of Gera around Chira, com­mer­cial cof­fee farms are smaller, but their im­pact is widely felt. A re­cent study by Tola Ge­mechu Ango of Stock­holm Univer­sity found more than 1,500 hectares of for­est in Gera dis­trict alone were trans­ferred to mostly Ethiopian pri­vate com­pa­nies in the late 1990s and 2000s. By 2013, one had failed to ex­port cof­fee, while two other had closed or were in­ac­tive. Only 13 farm­ers had re­ceived com­pen­sa­tion for lost land.

Dis­trict leader Ab­du­laziz Muhammed said not all the in­vestors who ac­quired land from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were cul­ti­vat­ing it. He said the com­pen­sa­tion paid to farm­ers, which was be­tween 200 and 5,000 Ethiopian birr ($7-$180), was not enough.

But a man­ager at Trakon, a farm near Chira who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity said: "We gave them com­pen­sa­tion and we are not pre­vent­ing them from us­ing their land. The farm­ers didn't com­plain when con­struc­tion first started. It was only later that they started de­mand­ing com­pen­sa­tion."

Ear­lier this year protests broke out in Chira and other towns in the re­gion, where an­gry lo­cals tar­geted

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