Skip to main content

Documentation of Villagization: Gambella Region, Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, a part of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), partnered with Human Rights Watch (HRW) in order to investigate concerns regarding villagization in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia. Villagization is a process instigated by the Ethiopian government of relocating rural population into concentrated, permanent settlements. The villagers were agro-pastoralists and practiced shifting cultivation. In Gambella, reportedly, once the people had been moved, the land could be made available for development of commercial agriculture. HRW requested the assistance of AAAS in using high-resolution satellite imagery to document the disappearance of the area’s rural population, and to identify the new construction in relocation villages.

Figure One: Case Study Location

Data Sources

In conjunction with HRW, AAAS staff identified several locations within the Gambella region which likely were targets of villagization. Three locations were chosen (Figure One) and high-resolution satellite imagery was obtained, the details of which are listed in Table One.

Table One: Location and Imagery Information
Location Satellite/Sensor Image Date
Gog Jingjor WorldView-1 12 January 2010
  QuickBird-2 04 May 2011
Akuna GeoEye-1 23 June 2009
  GeoEye-1 21 December 2011
Perbongo and “Gambella 2″ IKONOS 10 March 2007
  GeoEye-1 (via Google Earth) 18 December 2010
  QuickBird-2 04 May 2011

Analysis and Results

A. Gog Jingjor

In January 2010, two small settlements are visible in the area of Gog Jingjor (designated A and B in Figure Two, below), each consisting of a number of primary structures and a comparable number of outbuildings. By May of 2011, however, these outbuildings had been augmented by numerous additional small structures at both settlements (Figure Three). At settlement A, twelve additional buildings were observed to have been constructed, most along the side of the road that leads northnorthwest away from the settlement. The expansion of settlement B was more prodigious, with fiftynine new structures arranged in a quasi-gridlike arrangement southeast of the existing buildings. The dimensions of these new structures are consistently small (approximately 3-4 meters square), and given the limitations of the available imagery, their purpose is difficult to discern.

Figure Two: Gog Jingjor Settlement

Image ©2011 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Settlement A: 34º30″12.55′E, 7º34″50.16′N. Settlement B: 34º29″21.27′E, 7º35″38.23′N.

Figure Three: New Construction in Gog Jingjor Area

Image ©2011 DigitalGlobe, Inc

B. Akuna

In June of 2009, large numbers of small structures are scattered throughout an area centered on 7º54″45′N, 34º39″18.94′E, consistent with HRW’s information concerning the former location of the Akuna community (Figure Four). The structures in question are small- generally three to four meters square, and are often associated with modest cultivated fields, consistent with small-scale subsistence agriculture (Figure Six). Two settlements consisting of larger, more permanent-looking structures are visible to the south, located at 7º53″06′N, 34º39″27′E, and 7º52″55′N, 34º39″39′E; the latter set of coordinates corresponding to those reported by HRW to be a relocation destination. Consistent with reports of relocation from HRW, by December 2011, the number of structures in the original Akuna community north of the relocation villages has dropped substantially with the removal of 68 structures (Figures Four and Six), while a large number of small new structures have appeared surrounding the alleged relocation center (124 new structures). In addition to the new structures, nearby land has been cleared, presumably for crop production. The area cleared totals approximately 32 hectares, only 0.25 hectares of crop land per new structure (Figure Five).

Figure Four: Evidence of rural displacement and villagization in the Akuna area

Figure Four: Evidence of rural displacement and villagization in the Akuna area
Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Location: 7º53″06′N, 34º39″27′E

Figure Five: New structures and cleared lands in Akuna area

Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Location: 7º53″12′N, 34º39″23′E

Figure Six: Removed structures in Akuna area

Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Location: 7º54″36.2′N, 34º38″53′E
In 2009, the Akuna farming community is visible, with multiple small structures visible near small agricultural fields (top image). By late 2011, however, all these structures are missing (indicated by circles), and the adjacent fields have been abandoned (bottom image). | Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Location: 7º54″36.2′N, 34º38″53′E

C. Perbongo and “Gambella 2″

Two additional areas of interest, designated Perbongo and “Gambella 2″, were located in close proximity to one another (5km apart). These locations were captured in the same images, from 10 March 2007 and 04 May 2011, and an additional image from 18 December 2010 (Table One). As indicated by HRW, settlement in the Perbongo area was small and concentrated in 2007. By 2010-11, many changes are visible in the area. Settlement changes occurred in Perbongo over the period between March 2007 to May 2011, and were examined using three images (Table One). In 2007, the only structures visible in the area are several metal-roofed buildings and a very small number of smaller structures (Figure Seven). Between 2007 and 2010, the number of structures visible in the area expanded dramatically, particularly in the southern portion of the image (adjacent to the structures which were apparent in 2007). Also during this period, some clearing and settlement were beginning to occur to the north of the main settlement area, but in a much more dispersed pattern than in the southern area. Finally, between December 2010 and May 2011, at least 20 new structures are observed to have been constructed, mainly in the northern portion of Perbongo.

Figure Seven: Perbongo Settlement Increase

In the above image (collected 04 May 2011), the red circle indicates the existing structures of Perbongo in 2007. The orange box represents the area of growth which occurred in the period from 2007- December 2010. The green box delineates the area where growth occurred between December 2010 and May 2011. | Image ©2011 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Location: 34º27″31.15′E, 7º54″11.4′N

Of the three locations examined in this study, the area identified as “Gambella 2″ most clearly exemplifies the conversion of land into large industrial-style agriculture. While this conversion occurred on unutilized lands south of Adobo, Figure Eight is an excellent example of an area that has undergone this transformation.

Figure Eight: Large-Scale Agriculture

The “Gambella 2″ location on 10 March 2007 (top) has been converted to large-scale industrial agriculture by 4 May 2011 (bottom). In total, the area is comprised of 96 fields (each 50m x 40m), creating a total agriculture area of 0.192 sq. km (approximately 19 hectacres). Top Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Bottom Image ©2011 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Location: 34º29″17.93′E, 7º51″10.5′N

During the same time period as the above agricultural development, Adobo, an area less than three kilometers to the north has been populated with 80 new structures (Figure Nine). This increase in settlement is likely a result of the increased agricultural production and associated employment.

Figure Nine: Increased settlement in Adobo

Top Image ©2011 GeoEye, Inc. Bottom Image ©2011 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Location: 34º30″9.85′E, 7º52″52.89′N


An analysis of satellite imagery for the Gambella region reveals that significant changes took place in the spatial distribution of structures and agriculture between 2007 and 2011. These two metrics tend to be strongly correlated with human activity, and the observed decrease in low-density rural settlement alongside a corresponding increase in higher-density village areas represents a pattern which is consistent with villagization. Furthermore, the area of the newly-cleared land adjacent to these settlements appears to represent a net loss in the per-capita allotment of arable land for the resettled population. The appearance of large-scale industrial agriculture near the areas in question lends further credence to the events reported by Human Rights Watch. 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. Moreover, when viewed in the context of the observed resettlement trend it appears possible that future development could take place on expropriated land.

Further Resources

Human Rights Watch Press Release “Ethiopia: Forced Relocations Bring Hunger, Hardship” is available here.

The Human Rights Watch Report “Waiting Here for Death” is available here.