Saudi Star Agricultural Development plans to pump $100 million into a rice export project in Gambella region of Ethiopia despite allegations of human rights violations surrounding the "villagization" program under which the land has been taken from indigenous Anuak pastoralists to lease to foreign investors.
The company is owned by Mohamed al-Amoudi, who was born in Ethiopia to a Saudi father and an Ethiopian mother. Al-Amoudi made a fortune from construction contracts to build Saudi Arabia's national underground oil storage complex. Now a billionaire many times over, al-Amoudi has invested heavily in Ethiopia where he owns a gold mine and a majority stake in the national oil company.
Al-Amoudi was one of the first to invest in a new scheme under which president Meles Zenawi offered to lease four million hectares of agricultural land to foreign investors and his company was also one of the first to become the subject of controversy. After Saudi Star was awarded a 10,000 hectare (24,700 acres) lease in 2008, a dozen aggrieved Anuak villagers attacked Saudi Star's compound in Gambella in 2010 and killed several employees.
Saudi Star abandoned work at the time but this past November the company announced that it would return to invest millions to grow rice using new large-scale flood irrigation techniques. Saudi Star hopes to sell its produce to Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah's Food Security Program.
"We know we're creating job opportunities, transforming skills, training local indigenous Anuak," Jemal Ahmed, Saudi Star CEO told Bloomberg. "The government wants the project to be a success and see more Gambella people able to work and produce more, that's the big hope."
But activists say that Saudi Star's newly invigorated project in Gambella is likely to have a detrimental impact on the local population, notably pastoralist groups like the Anuak as well as the Nuer.
"Sadly, right now, the Anuak, nearly all small subsistence farmers, are becoming refugees in their own land as they are internally displaced from indigenous land their ancestors have possessed for centuries," Obang Metho, Executive Director of Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, told the Africa Congress on Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa.
"They have become 'discardable' by a regime that wants their land, but not for them, in order to lease it to foreigners and regime-cronies for commercial farms," he added.
All told as many as 1.5 million subsistence farmers are expected to be offered voluntary relocation to new settlements where the government has told them that they will be given housing, social services and support infrastructure under the villagization program.
However, activists like Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute say that the relocation process has been plagued by violence and broken promises.
Instead of getting housing, villagers are forced to build their own tukols - traditional huts - and risk beatings if they speak out, says Human Rights Watch, which conducted interviews of 100 residents during the first round of villagization that occurred in 2010.
The majority of resettlements did not have a school, health clinic or even water wells, says the Oakland Institute. Lack of agricultural assistance such as seeds, fertilizers, tools and trainings, have further exacerbated the risk of hunger and starvation among families.
The traditional pastoralist communities also say that they are having a hard time adapting to sedentary farming practices in the new settlements. "We want you to be clear the government brought us here...to die...right here," an Anuak elder in Abobo district told Human Rights Watch. "They brought us no food, they gave away our land to foreigners so we can't even move back. On all sides the land is given away, so we will die here in one place."