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Rights group: Ethiopia forcing tens of thousands off land to make room for investors

The Ethiopian government is forcing tens of thousands of people off their land so it can be leased to foreign investors,  Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Tuesday.

The Horn of Africa state has already leased 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres)  to foreign farm businesses and the U.S.-based rights group said that the government had plans to lease another 2.1 million hectares (5.2 million acres), Reuters reported.

Courtesy Human Rights Watch

The new village of Bildak in Ethiopia's Gambella region, which the semi-nomadic
Nuer who were forcibly transferred there quickly abandoned in May 2011 because
there was no water source for their cattle, according to Human Rights Watch.

HRW said that 1.5 million Ethiopians would eventually be forced from their land and highlighted what it said was the latest case of forced relocation in its report "Ethiopia: Forced Relocations Bring Hunger, Hardship."

"My father was beaten for refusing to go along [to the new village] with some other elders," HRW quoted a former villager as saying.  "He said, 'I was born here -- my children were born here -- I am too old to move so I will stay.'  He was beaten by the army with sticks and the butt of a gun. He had to be taken to hospital. He died because of the beating -- he just became weaker and weaker."

The United Nations has increasingly voiced concern that countries such as China and Gulf Arab states are buying swathes of land in Africa and Asia to secure their own food supplies, often at the expense of local people.

"The Ethiopian government under its "villagization" program is forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, health care, and educational facilities," HRW said, adding it had interviewed more than 100 people for the report.

"The first round of forced relocations occurred at the worst possible time of year -- the beginning of the harvest. Government failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation," it said.

Government denial
Government officials deny the charge and say the affected plots of land are largely uninhabited and under-used, while it has also launched a program to settle tens of thousands from the remote province in more fertile areas of the country.

"Human Rights Watch has wrongly alleged the villagization program to be unpopular and problematic," government spokesman Bereket Simon told Reuters.

"There is no evidence to back the claim. This program is taking place with the full preparation and participation of regional authorities, the government and residents," he said.

Ethiopia says its prime intention in leasing large chunks of land is technology transfer and to boost production in a country that has been ravaged by droughts over the past few decades.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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