A rights' watchdog is urging Canada and fellow aid donors to pressure Ethiopia into ending an abusive and systematic practice of forcing rural villagers off their land.
A report released Tuesday by New York-based Human Rights Watch blasts the Horn of Africa country for its "villagization" program that it says has forcibly relocated 70,000 indigenous people, and aims to move 1.5 million by next year.
The forced expulsions have cut villagers off from food sources, basic health services while forcing them to endure abuse from the Ethiopian army, the report alleges.
An Ottawa-based researcher and author interviewed more than 100 Ethiopians during a clandestine investigation last year that accuses their country's leaders of sacrificing its own tribes to broader foreign corporate interests.
Researcher Felix Horne says the situation violates Canada's own Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which says all aid spending must meet international human-rights standards.
Canada gives Ethiopia about $170M annually
Ethiopia is the third-largest recipient of foreign aid from Canada, at about $170 million a year.
Horne told The Canadian Press he had off-the-record discussions with officials at the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, about his findings, but got little meaningful response.
Ethiopia is forcing locals off their land, so they can offer up millions of hectares of fertile farmland to foreign companies from countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia for large-scale farm factories, said Horne.
"Canada is a huge donor to Ethiopia so they have an obligation to ensure that Ethiopia is not doing these sorts of things," he said.
Ethiopia has a democratically elected government, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi exerts totalitarian control over the country. He was one of several African leaders that Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted in a outreach session of the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka.
Still, Ethiopia is one of CIDA's two-dozen "focus" countries and it is among the poor countries that receives funding related to the Harper government's signature child and maternal health initiative.
Canada also assists Ethiopia with food security and agricultural programs.
"The fact of the matter is people are absolutely starving," said Horne. "The villagization program is lessening food security in the region."
'The fact of the matter is people are absolutely starving. The villagization program is lessening food security in the region.' — Researcher Felix Horne
Zenawi's government is trying to improve access to schools, clinics and other services by moving rural farmers to more controlled villages.
The four regions of Ethiopia where this is happening are the four regions where there is extensive land investment for foreign companies, said Horne.
The report says the first round of forced relocations saw people moved to areas with dry, poor soil. Seed, fertilizer and temporary food assistance was not forthcoming from the government, causing hunger and starvation, the report says.
Villagers who refuse to leave beaten by soldiers
Horne's interview subjects told him they built new huts in their new villages under careful military supervision. Sometimes the army had to resort to beatings and other coercion to force villagers to comply.
One villager quoted in the report said soldiers beat his father with the butt of their guns when he refused to leave his land.
"He said, 'I was born here — my children were born here — I am too old to move so I will stay,"' the report says.
Jan Egeland, a senior director at Human Rights Watch, said donor money is being used "directly or indirectly, to fund the villagization program."
Donors have a responsibility to ensure that their donations are not being used for that purpose, added Egeland, the Norwegian-born diplomat, who became a high-profile United Nations humanitarian rights undersecretary.
"The villagization program is being undertaken in the exact same areas of Ethiopia that the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agricultural operations," Egeland said in a statement. "This raises suspicions about the underlying motives of the villagization program."
A spokesman for Canada's International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One year ago, Oda's department announced a project to enhance agricultural development in Ethiopia.
"Canada is proud to be working with the World Bank and other donors to support Ethiopia's Agricultural Growth Program. Well-targeted investments in areas such as rural infrastructure and stronger linkages to markets can help to transform subsistence farmers into commercial producers," Deepak Obhrai, Oda's parliamentary secretary, said in a Jan. 28, 2011, statement.
Obhrai was announcing a five-year CIDA funding commitment of nearly $19 million toward an agricultural growth program for small farmers in 83 Ethiopian districts.