Gulf states should work with developing country farmers to attain food security

28 February 2013

A farmer from the Ethiopian Highlands
A farmer from the Ethiopian Highlands, in the Muka Turi area, harvesting barley by hand.

Arid Gulf states looking to secure their future food supply should work with farmers in neighbouring countries for mutual benefit rather than acquire the land farmers rely on to survive, recommends a PhD candidate from the University of Sydney.

Writing for Georgetown University's Doha-based Centre for International and Regional Studies Ben Shepherd outlines research into the investment practices of Gulf states, principally Saudi Arabia, in Ethiopia to pursue long-term food supplies. His findings contribute to the growing global debate over foreign ownership of farmlands, especially in very poor countries.

All land in Ethiopia is state-owned and has traditionally been cultivated by a combination of settled farmers, and seasonal and nomadic pastoralists. In an effort to increase foreign exchange reserves, the Ethiopian government has taken to awarding land leases to foreigners seeking arable land to meet their own growing food requirements. While principal investors in Ethiopia are from India and Pakistan, the Gulf States also have their eyes on its fertile soil.

"The Saudi government is actively involved in land acquisitions in Ethiopia," says Shepherd. "Its King Abdullah Initiative for Agriculture Abroad sends Saudi officials to Addis Ababa to pave the way for private investors."

Shepherd's conversations with officials reveal the Ethiopian government offered the Saudis a million hectares for the King Abdullah Initiative at a single meeting. About a quarter of the land was in the Gambela region, where he conducted fieldwork. There, Shepherd saw the displacement of Ethiopians from fertile soils to inhospitable land, depriving thousands of already malnourished people of their primary source of food and water. In other parts of the country, investment projects have resulted in deforestation, erosion and run-off damage to locals' plots, badly impacting their livelihoods.

Perversely, Shepherd found the Ethiopian government receives no visible financial benefit from these deals. Rent is set at negligible levels and employment opportunities for locals are very limited, with educated and skilled labour are brought in from offshore. Furthermore, he says there is little evidence of workable farms resulting from these offshore land leases.

Despite the desolate situation painted in his report, Shepherd says there are ways of making foreign land investments in Ethiopia mutually beneficial. He suggests foreign investors in Ethiopian land develop smallholder-focused projects that deliver productivity improvements. As well as improving the incomes and livelihoods of Ethiopia's poor and hungry, the possibility exists — even in food insecure Ethiopia — for local farmers to generate surplus produce that can be exported to investors' markets.

"Farmers in Ethiopia know how to farm their land but are unproductive because they don't have irrigation, storage, transportation, mechanisation and access to pesticides and the best available seeds.

"If investors use their capital to provide these basic improvements to Ethiopians and work with, instead of against, the local farmers, farm yields are likely to grow substantially."

Shepherd says more research needs to be done on developing the mechanics of such partnerships but believes initiatives creating profit for local communities are more likely to succeed in the long term.

Aside from working more closely with farmers, he suggests Gulf States embrace the more transparent and internationally accepted investment practices endorsed by the United Nations.

GCC States' Land Investments Abroad: The Case of Ethiopia (PDF, 1.2MB) is part of Shepherd's research into foreign land acquisitions as a food security strategy for Arabian Gulf states. He is based at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies.

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