ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Human rights activists say tens of thousands of people in western Ethiopia are being driven off fertile ancestral lands so the government can lease or sell large tracts of farmland for commercial agriculture to investors, including foreign governments.
Since the 2008 global food crisis wealthy Middle Eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and others, such as India and China, have been buying up vast areas of arable land across Africa to grow food to feed their burgeoning populations.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2011 that over the last decade global food prices have risen an average 83 percent.
Human Rights Watch said this month in a report titled "Waiting for Death," that the Addis Ababa regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is forcibly moving tens of thousands of villagers out of the remote Gambella region of western Ethiopia.
Human Rights Watch said the people received little compensation and were moved to villages elsewhere that have inadequate food and lack health and education facilities.
By 2013, Addis Ababa plans to resettle 1.5 million people from Gambella and the regions of Afar, Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz, Human Rights Watch said.
Gambella, the size of Belgium, has a population of 607,000. Its richly fertile soil has attracted foreign and domestic investors who have leased large tracts at "favorable prices."
Between 2008 and last January, Human Rights Watch said, Ethiopia had leased out at least 9.5 million acres of land.
The report says the government has repeatedly denied the clearances are linked to large-scale land-leasing for commercial agriculture. But Human Rights Watch said many villagers it interviewed claim they were told this was the reason.
These land grabs have been widely criticized as a new form of neo-colonialism that leaves large parts of Africa in the hands of foreign states and investors while displaced local populations are left to suffer and go hungry.
In 2010 up to 123.5 million acres of African land -- double the size of Britain -- have been snapped up or is being negotiated by governments or wealthy investors, various assessments conclude.
Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007.
Last fall, Oxfam International reported that Asian and Middle East companies had bought up 560 million acres of farmland in developing countries, often at bargain prices, with some reportedly less than $1 a hectare.
Oxfam estimated Ethiopia now supports the export of fruit and vegetables worth $60 million annually, as well as flowers worth $160 million per year.
It noted that Ethiopia's per capita income is around $1,000 per year. That's less than Haiti, often listed as the world's poorest country at $1,200 per year.
Rich Arab states like Saudi Arabia have bought up huge tracts of land across Africa in recent years in a bid to combat global food shortages, water scarcity and desertification and to feed their swelling populations.
But now the scramble for Africa is intensifying, with investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds, corporations and business tycoons out to grab some of the world's cheapest land -- for profit.
China has leased 6.91 million acres in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the world's largest oil palm plantation.
South Korea's Daewoo conglomerate planned to buy 2.9 million acres of Madagascar until the deal collapsed in 2009 when rioters toppled the Indian Ocean island's government.
"Foreign direct investment in agriculture is the boardroom euphemism for the new land grab and those promoting the grab spin it as a win-win situation," Le Monde Diplomatique reported recently.
As African leaders sign away their people's land to foreigners, the continent's people, among the poorest on the planet, face joining the estimated 1 billion people in the world who don't have enough food.
In the end, critics say the continent faces widespread conflict over resources in the not-too-distant future.
"Unchecked land-grabbing carries with it the seeds of conflict, environmental disaster, political and social change, and hunger on an unprecedented scale," Le Monde Diplomatique warned.
"There's a new scramble for land in Africa and it's growing at an incredible rate," says Alex Wijeratna of the U.K. development agency Action Aid.
"There's massive secrecy and poor communities can't get information and they're not being consulted."