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Families forced from homes as big firms buy up Ethiopia

Tens of thousands of families are being moved out of their homes in Ethiopia as rich countries buy up huge chunks of its farmland to grow food for themselves.

Across the world's poorest countries, rich governments and businesses are turning the lives of poor families upside down as they buy up the rights to millions of hectares of farmland.

The controversial rise in land deals could mean poor countries growing food for rich countries at the expense of their own hungry people, the United Nations Food and Agriculture's Jacques Diouf, has warned.

In Ethiopia, where about 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, an Indian food company has just snapped up a £150 a week 50 year lease on a patch of land the size of Dorset.

Bangalore-based Karuturi Global was offered the land deal in Gambella province near the Sudan border by the Ethiopian government. And next year it will start to export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from there across the world.

Ethiopia is one of the world's biggest receivers of international aid. Last year the central East African country took more than 700,000 tonnes of food and £1.8bn in aid. But it has offered three million hectares of its farmland  to foreign businesses such as Karuturi.

The Gambella region is at the forefront of a global rush for cheap land, triggered by the oil price rise in 2008, when food riots hit. But Gambella's government denies claims that families are being forced from their homes and land to make space for foreign businesses.

"This year we will relocate 15,000 people to give them better access to water, schools and transport,” said Kassahun Zerrfu from Gambella's department for investment.” [But] it is a coincidence that the investors are coming at the same time as the villages are being relocated,"  he told the Guardian newspaper.

The government is moving three or four villages a time closer to roads and services, but many families said they were too scared to complain, or that they weren't getting compensation and are still waiting for the promised services. "We were promised a school, a health clinic and fresh water eight months ago. We only have one water pump so far," said Udul Ujulu, chief of Karmi village, a new village on the edge of Gambella town.

Across the world, the cheapest land prices are in Africa, where at least 35 million hectares of land has been bought or leased to 36 different countries.

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