Unheard Voices: The Human Rights Impact of Land Investments on Indigenous Communities in Gambella

The Ethiopian government has committed egregious human rights abuses to make way for agricultural land investments, in direct violation of international law, said the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at NYU School of Law in a new briefing paper released earlier this month.  The briefing paper, entitled “Unheard Voices: The Human Rights Impact of Land Investments on Indigenous Communities in Gambella,” was prepared for and released by the Oakland Institute in New Delhi, India on February 5.  It calls on the Ethiopian government to put an end to the illegal forced evictions of indigenous peoples in areas targeted for land investment.

Unheard Voices”—which was authored by IHRC students Wendy Liu ’14, Alex Sinha ’13, and Rikki Stern ’13 under the direction of Professor Smita Narula—builds on the Oakland Institute’s extensive in-country research on land investments in Ethiopia, and on the Clinic’s expertise on the human rights impacts of large-scale land investments.  The briefing paper also features testimony of two indigenous human rights defenders, Obang Metho and Nyikaw Ochalla, who traveled to New Delhi to call on Indian investors to ensure that their investments respect human rights. Indian investors make up the majority of private investors in Ethiopian agricultural land.

Since 2010, the Ethiopian government has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples to make land available to investors. This relocation process, which the Ethiopian government calls “villagization,” has destroyed livelihoods, rendering small-scale farmers and pastoralist communities dependent on food aid and fearful for their own survival. Ethiopian officials have also beaten, arrested, and intimidated individuals who have refused to comply with relocation policies. These actions are in direct contravention of Ethiopia’s obligations under international human rights law. The Ethiopian government has systematically failed to answer for these abuses, and continues to tout the infrastructure and service-related benefits of villagization—benefits that, by and large, have failed to materialize.

The briefing paper calls on the Ethiopian government to ensure that its agricultural investment policies are carried out in accordance with international human rights law. Specifically, it calls on the government to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples, including securing their free, prior and informed consent before enacting any development or investment-related plans that affect indigenous groups’ territories.  The briefing paper also calls on foreign investors to exercise due diligence by conducting impact assessments both prior to and during investment activity in order to mitigate and address potential adverse human rights impacts; and make these impact assessments publicly available.

Unheard Voices,” which generated significant media coverage, was released ahead of an unprecedented gathering of Indian civil society groups who came together to share information on their own land-related struggles and address the prominent role of Indian investors in agricultural land investments in Ethiopia