Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Jonah WEDEKIND, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

A decade after the 2007/08 surge in agricultural land deals in Ethiopia, it is time to shift the empirical focus from ascertaining the size, scale and scope of investment projects to investigating the various reasons for why a significant number of them have since stalled. Numerous investors failed to use their leased land productively, had their investment licenses cancelled and their land confiscated, or were socially contested. A closer look at stalled projects allows us to consider to what extent agricultural investments can be organized to contribute to a responsible and equitable rural development process in Ethiopia. Indeed, there are notable economic sectors in Ethiopia where agricultural investments have stimulated national industrialization and international export in accordance with developmentalism―e.g. the flower-cut agro-industry―while the development of other sectors is stunted―e.g. the sugar-cane agro-industry―and yet others have failed or were abandoned completely―e.g. bio-diesel crop production and processing. While the general task should be to learn from all aforementioned sectors (successful or unsuccessful), this paper draws on insights from one of latter sectors, thus tracing the relatively short-lived boom and bust of biodiesel investments (2007 to 2015). The case of failed biodiesel investments allows us not only to analyse what happens to land and labour 'when investments in farmland fail to produce' in accordance with land lease agreements or the national developmental strategy. It also reveals the numerous rent-seeking behaviours (i.e. "value-grabbing" strategies) by which national and foreign investors have sought to reap profits from their land lease without agricultural production (i.e. 'profiting without producing'). Scholars have already traced in detail the initial institutional and policy changes which enabled and facilitated large-scale investments in land in Ethiopia. This paper seeks to shed light on the relatively recent institutional and policy changes (re- and de-centralizing land administration, limiting land lease sizes, cancelling unproductive investments, etc.) and argues that these are part-and-parcel of an ongoing political-economic attempt to overcome the phenomenon of value-grabbing; indicating moreover the inherent difficulties of ensuring that large-scale agricultural investments contribute to responsible and equitable rural development in Ethiopia.