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Sreelatha Menon: Thorns in the rose garden

Karuturi Global has turned Ethiopia into a rose garden, but human rights groups are not smiling

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Karuturi Global’s model of agriculture, or floriculture, has been a booming success, making the Bangalore-based company the world’s largest producer of cut roses. The initiative is unique because the company has based its rose revolution not in the fields of Karnataka or any other agricultural land in the country, but in far away Kenya and Ethiopia.

Founder Balakrishan Karuturi now has a bank of 30,000 hectares of leased land in Ethiopia alone. And, he has plans to cultivate not only roses, but maize, corn, paddy and several other commodities.

Whether or not it is good for outsiders to take land on lease in a country for commercial cultivation, Karuturi has always claimed it equally benefits Ethiopians and his company. He cites the example of palm oil, which is now imported by the country. Ethiopia will soon become self-sufficient, as his palms will start giving enough oil to the nation, he says.

This has been made possible because the Ethiopian government thought it wise to lease out large chunks of land for commercial agriculture to Karuturi as well as several others.

The government is also carrying out a parallel drive called “villagisation”, under which it plans to relocate 200,000 people in the Gambella region and 1.5 million in four other regions in three years.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a recent report called ‘Waiting Here For Death: Displacement and Villagisation in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region’ suggests that the villagisation programme and leasing of land to investors such as Karuturi are linked. It has asked foreign donors aiding the programme and investors not to assist the villagisation programme. Karuturi has said he has not even heard about it.

The stories of villagers in the Gambella region, as told during interviews conducted by HRW, are even more pathetic than those of displaced persons in Indian states such as Orissa. The villagers are mostly native tribes who make a living through traditional methods of cultivation. Villages are being uprooted by security forces. The people are being asked to move to far away places, where they are forced to build shelters.

The new settlements are being created under the programme with the intention of improving access to infrastructure and basic services such as schools and hospitals. The report says it did not find any such improved access in the new villages.

Some of the areas fall in Karuturi Global’s leased land, too. In reply to queries by HRW, Karuturi says it has started agricultural operations in Gambella only in land leased by the government, and which is free from any possession claims by the community and villagers. He also points out that the Anuak community, which are mainly tribals, have been accommodated in the leased area and are not being asked to move out, contrary to information with the human rights NGO.

So, while Karuturi claims it is clean, the goings-on in that country are far from it.

According to the report, the villagers were told by the government that they were being removed from their villages to new settlements because “they were not farming their land productively and that commercial investors would make better use of it”.

Today, with 70,000 villages in Gambella already moved to new locations under the villagisation programme, children are without schools in many places, homes without land for cultivation or even wells. The report narrates stories of villagers who run back to their old homes to fetch water, only to be driven back, or threatened or even arrested. Some have also taken the drastic step of running away to Kenya as refugees.

The harm by foreign investors cannot surpass what is being done by the government itself, when it chooses to be insensitive to its own people.

First Published: Sun, January 22 2012. 00:58 IST