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AAAS Geospatial Report: Ethiopian “Villagization” Policy is Displacing Farmers in Gambella Region

Satellite images confirm that villagers living within the Gambella region of Western Ethiopia have been relocated to smaller and less desirable plots of land, possibly to make way for large foreign-owned commercial farms, according to a new report by AAAS.

The study by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project details the apparent destruction of dozens of small homes and other structures, most occupied by small-scale subsistence farmers. At the same time, satellite images collected by the project show construction of hundreds of new buildings, and at one location, a new, large-scale industrial farm.

The AAAS report was prepared in support of an extensive study released today by Human Rights Watch. The satellite images complement testimony from distraught local residents who were moved under Ethiopia’s “villagization” program. They were told that they would be compensated with lots of three to four hectares; instead, the reports say, each new dwelling comes with about a quarter-hectare of land.

“Using satellite imagery, we came up with the same result as people on the ground,” said Susan Wolfinbarger, the senior program associate for the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project.

In 2009, the Akuna farming community is visible, with multiple small structures near small agricultural fields. By late 2011, however, all of these structures are missing (indicated by circles) and the adjacent fields have been abandoned. | Satellite images ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Location: 7°54’36.2”N, 34°38’53”E

Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights is a project of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Open Society Institute, it uses science and technology to support work by local and international human rights organizations. Geospatial technologies include a range of modern tools, such as satellite images, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems.

In its study, Human Rights Watch questions the Ethiopian government’s claim that the program will improve lives by consolidating people around infrastructure. In fact, according to their report, it’s doing the opposite.

Human Rights Watch requested the assistance of AAAS in documenting the disappearance of the area’s rural population, and to confirm the site of so-called relocation centers. A satellite photo taken in 2009 reveals a community with 68 structures nearby cultivated fields. By late 2011, the fields lay barren, the structures have disappeared, and new structures appear near an alleged relocation center, along with cleared lands which are small in size—under a quarter of a hectare each, said Jonathan Drake, an analyst in the Geospatial Technologies project.

The Ethiopian government plans to resettle 1.5 million people by 2013. Although the government dismisses any link between the resettlements and commercial interests, the Human Rights Watch report says that it’s no coincidence that indigenous people have been removed from land for lease. In resource-rich Gambella, on the western border by Sudan, 42% of the land is marketed for lease, or has already been awarded to foreign investors, according to their report.

The satellite images captured between 2007 and 2011 do not confirm this accusation by revealing industrial plots on land once cultivated by locals. “While the imagery indicates that this intensive cultivation has thus far been limited to areas that were previously undeveloped, the situation may be different elsewhere in the region,” says the AAAS report. “Moreover, when viewed in the context of the observed resettlement trend, it appears possible that future development could take place on expropriated land.”

Added Felix Horne, a consultant on the Human Rights Watch report: “A lot of land has been awarded to investors, but because they haven’t cleared it yet, it hasn’t shown up in the images.”

One 19-hectacre industrial farm is captured in a 2011 image, but the land appears uninhabited in the corresponding 2007 shot. The plot belongs to a food company owned by a Saudi billionaire, who leased a total of 10,000 hectares in Gambella last year. Two villagers had told Human Rights Watch that they had used the area. Horne says it’s possible that they hunted and gathered plants on the land, activities easily missed in a snapshot.

“If we could fast-forward 10 years,” he said, “I’m sure we could show that these large-scale commercial agricultural operations will occur on land once inhabited by villagers.”

Still, pictures hold parties accountable for their actions, said Horne. “The satellite images are a powerful tool for illustrating these violations. They provide irrefutable evidence.”

Compared to satellite imaging projects in areas ravaged by war, the transformations in Ethiopia will take longer to document from space. “In Libya, we see craters in the road and buildings destroyed over a period of just a few days,” explained Wolfinbarger. “These smaller-scale processes happening over a long time-frame are not obvious in satellite imagery.” For this reason, she said, partnership with an organization on the ground is vital.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, abuse associated with “villagization” has already begun. Women say they’ve been raped by soldiers, and men report beatings for resisting evacuation orders. Some relocated populations face hunger and even starvation. The organization demands that the Ethiopian government stop moving people involuntarily, and that they compensate them for their losses and prevent further human rights violations. They also ask international donors to ensure that their support towards development is not funneled into the forced displacement of indigenous people.

Wolfinbarger said AAAS hopes to continue monitoring the situation in Gambella.

Amy Maxmen

17 January 2012