Competition over land squeezes Ethiopian ancient forest farmers’
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