Nearly 100 commercial farming investors in Gambella are losing thousands of hectares of land because the region leased by mistake, lands under federal jurisdiction.
“You should talk to the federal government. I wish to give no comment on the case,” said Gatluak Tut Kon, president of the Regional State, when contacted by Fortune.
The first 30 investors in Dima Wereda, were notified in December by the wereda administration. These investors had between them leased 48,443ha, with individual holdings ranging from 500ha to 2,000ha. However, the Agricultural Investment Land Administration Agency (AILAA) has informed the Region that 67 other investors in the adjoining Gog Wereda, also have to leave the land for the same reason.
The 50-year leasehold agreement originally called for an annual payment of 30 Br per hectare, which was later adjusted to 111 Br. By that agreement, the regional government is obliged to give them six months notice if it wanted to terminate their contracts.
Since 2009, some 1,226,293ha or 12,262sqkm of land, set aside for large investments as part of a designated special economic zone (SEZ), fall under the administrative jurisdiction of the Agency. This constitutes almost half of the State’s area of 29,783sqkm. In Dima Wereda alone, 100,000ha was allocated for the SEZ.
Thirty of the investors received the eviction letter, signed by Otor Okugu, head of the wereda, on December 18, 2015. It came without notice, in breach of the leasehold agreement
The letter said the decision had been made after a meeting with the wereda’s Board of Land Administration in October, 2015, adding that alternative land would be arranged for the investors.
Some of the investors indicated that they had been dealing with the regional administration since 2009 to lease land.
After they were given their investment licences, Roch Bayak, head of the region’s investment agency until September 2015, instructed Dima Wereda officials to arrange for the investors to receive land. The 30 signed lease agreements with the State between February 2015 and June 2015. The 67 investors in Gog Wereda signed leasehold agreements shortly after that.
News of their eviction came only months after they had their land. The Agency’s Communication Director, Daniel Zebene, claimed that it heard around July and August 2015, that investors were grabbing its land. That led to a process which ended with the eviction notice. Abera Mulat, head of the Agency, talked with regional officials to arrive at the decision, Daniel said.
Some of the investors Fortune talked to said that they had raised 4.2 million Br and built a bridge and road connecting the Dima and Gog Weredas. One investor who had leased 1,000ha said that he had already cleared 50ha at a cost of 45,000Br per hectare to grow sesame.
“I am an outsider; I have no clue that the land is under federal jurisdiction,” he told Fortune.
The Agency established back in 2013 is mandated to regulate lands reserved for agricultural economic zones in regions. All requests for land over 5,000ha are referred to it from all regions. It is through AILAA that foreign commercial farmers acquired lands in Gambella, Benishangul and Southern regions. Among these was the troubled Indian company, Karuturi, which recently lost the 100,000ha it had leased.
Up to 2015, of the 5,680 local and foreign investors licensed, 5,583 contracts were handled at the regional level, covering a total of 1.94 million hectares. The Agency leased a total of 476,000ha to 97 investors. However, by its own assessment, the investors utilized only 30pc to 35pc of the land.
It therefore cancelled the licences of three foreign companies and one local company, issued first warnings to one local and six foreign companies, and gave last warnings to five local and two foreign companies.
“The case of these 30 local investors is about the issue of legality; for us they are illegal,” said Daniel. “The officials in the wereda may have given them land with all the legality but still they are illegal,” he argued.
A hierarchy of officials was involved in the process that led to the investors getting the land from the region. These included Okello Kom, who was head of the wereda, and kebele chairman, as well as other officials from various bureaus including agriculture, land administration and environment, the mineral agency, and the investment agency.
Fortune met six investors who said they were not sure if they would be compensated for what they spent on their lands so far. The lands they were forced to leave are now under police protection, they said.
“We should not be the ones to suffer because the regional and federal governments are not coordinated,” said one investor who had leased 1,200ha of land. “It is their own mess,” he added.
Daniel blames“good governance” problems and “rent seeking” as part of the cause to the problem. There were cases, he said, where regional officials gave title deeds for lands to other investors, whereas the Agency had already assigned the same lands to others.
Following the eviction letter, the investors in Dima went to the Region’s head of the Agency, Ojulu Gnyigwo, whose response, they claim, was not encouraging. They also tried to meet the regional president without success. They then sat with Tefera Deribew, minister of Agriculture & Natural Resources, who affirmed to them that they and the others in the Gog Wereda, were given the wrong land.
An attempt to talk to various officials, including Ojulu Gnyigwo, investment head and Roch Bayak who is now head of the Environment Protection Office as well as Otor Okugu, the current head of the wereda. All of them were either unwilling to comment or unavailable for comment.
“I have no mandate to comment on the issue,” said Roch, who as investment head, had approved the investment licences.
One of the investors contacted by Fortune, said they had left all their properties at the farm sites to show that they do not accept the decision and until they can get a final resolution. They submitted an appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office on February 25.
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