The violence of agrarian extractivism in Ethiopia

Locusts, state authoritarianism and webs of US imperialism

We are pleased to share you with our latest discussion paper in our “Multiple shocks in Africa series”.

We show how the locust swarms that hit the Horn of Africa over the course of 2020 were yet another in a series of shocks already battering smallholders in the region, following successive spells of droughts and floods. Principally, through the prism of Ethiopia, we explore how the state’s drive for agricultural industrialisation has played a key role in shaping the context that the locusts hit. 

Because of the particularly active role that the Ethiopian state has played in the national economy, the case brings into sharp relief how the agency of the African state is central in understanding the drive for the Green Revolution in Africa. The consequent desire to exercise political control over smallholders further sharpens the importance of the relationship between African smallholders and their respective governments. 

We show that the Gates Foundation, as well as the World Bank and USAID, have been able to capture Ethiopia’s agriculture and push the Green Revolution through corporate and private sector expansion, because the state’s authoritarianism conveniently insulates them from democratic pressure or accountability.

© JONATHAN ALPEYRIE/GETTY IMAGES

The state’s Green Revolution push in Ethiopian agriculture has taken place through attempts to industrialise smallholder agriculture and attracting global finance into large-scale land investments. However, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, where tens of millions still suffer from extreme hunger and rely on food aid, and where inequality and unemployment (especially of young people) are ballooning. Similarly, large-scale land investments have dramatically failed to achieve even the production targets hoped-for by the Ethiopian government, while masses of rural dwellers have been displaced, their natural and other resources robbed from them. 

Millions of Ethiopians exist in a state of agrarian distress. With the violent instability that recently hit South Africa and still besets the Tigray region of Ethiopia, we have to ask the important question: what is the connection between this agrarian distress, processes of agricultural industrialisation and politically-incited conflict? The Ethiopian political context is highly complex, and the same complexity underpins the current conflict in Tigray. However, one of the recent historical aspects to these multiple dynamics that cannot be ignored is the role of ruling parties in imposing unjust and ecocidal development models on their people while looting state resources. Similarly, it highlights the role of the same predatory ruling classes in fomenting conflict when their access to political and economic power is cut off, and hence the opportunities to continue looting the state, as in the case of the former ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) [1].  

The implications also speak to how it appears many states on the continent do not conceive that transformation in society could be driven by ordinary people organised around democratically-determined ideals. Rather, most seem to see development as the prerogative of capital, and that people’s agency must surrender to this force. Similarly, Africa is a continent of a growing youth population, but whose economies and political elites have cared little to create space for them to thrive, or to support them to create a space for themselves. Unemployed and disenfranchised youths’ frustration with African economic and political systems that never change, combined with a political elite that seems hell-bent on outright looting of the people’s resources, only holds for so long.

This context described by the paper also poses particular warnings in light of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which reflects a disproportionate influence of the corporate agenda and the global ‘development consensus’ that has a particular vision for Africa’s agricultural development path. Overall, the paper shows that achieving just African food systems will require a rejection of false solutions drawn up in undemocratic international spaces to suit the corporate agenda. Solutions to the multiple crises besetting Africa and its peoples cannot be separated from a fundamental re-crafting of social and political relationships on the continent, and our relationships with nature, and between the continent’s people and the rest of the world. In this regard, African food systems that serve people and planet require that the knowledge, experiences and voices of African food producers and movements are elevated in democratic deliberation to defend and advance food systems that are grounded in human need, biodiversity and ecological integrity. To counter Africa’s subordinate place in the global economy, the plans for intensified neo-colonial, corporate looting of the continent, and the collusion of our elites with this global agenda, calls for a genuine people’s Pan-African vision for our food systems.

Please click here to read the full report.

Please click here for the summary.

[1] As explained in the paper, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led the ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) from 1991, but was removed from power in 2018.