Abreham Bekele, 58, a resident of Meshenti village, close to Bahir Dar city, in Ethiopia's Amhara region became a destitute after the land he and his eleven family members derived livelihoods from was acquired by an investor in 2008 to grow rose flowers.
"We were displaced without appropriate compensation," recalls the visibly angry Abreham, and "now we are struggling to survive with no land, no food, no water."
Abreham, now a causal laborer in Bahir Dar, earns less than 15 dollars per week that he spends fending for his family.
His story mirrors the lives of millions of Ethiopians that have lost their land to investors, targeting production of flowers and other nontraditional agricultural exports.
Ethiopia is the second largest flower exporter in Africa after Kenya, shipping flowers to the Middle East, France, Germany, Canada, Sweden, UK, and the Netherlands among other countries.
Data from Ethiopian Horticulture Producer Exporters Association (EHPEA), indicates that Ethiopia earned 300 million US Dollar from the sale of flowers and other horticulture products in 2017. And during the last fiscal year, the horticulture industry generated up to 271 million US Dollar to Ethiopia, majorly through exports of flowers.
Zelalem Berhanie, the head of the national planning commission says Ethiopia targets to "earn half a billion dollars from the floral industry by the end of the second edition of the Growth and Transformation Plan." The second Growth and Transformation Plan (2015/16-2019/20) GTPII is considered an important milestone towards realizing Ethiopia's vision of becoming a lower middle income country by 2025.
But all is not well! As Ethiopia's floral industry blossoms, every year, 3,000 people are displaced by investors that acquire land to establish flower farms according to reports from the Amhara National Regional State Disaster Prevention and Food Security Program Coordination Office.
The Land Matrix database, which compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media and citizen contributions, has tracked about 1.4 million hectares of land grabbed in Ethiopia in recent decades. 120 deals have been completed across the country, with 15 deals under negotiation, which would take up another 0.5 million hectares if completed.
Two thirds of the grabbed land in the country was allocated to international investors. Indian companies have acquired the most and largest swaths of land, especially biofuels production and large-scale agriculture, including flower farms. Companies from Saudi Arabia, USA, Italy, Malaysia, China, Austria, Israel, Turkey, Canada and Singapore are also big investors.
Just like Abreham, Hiwote Yazie, 27, a resident of Zenezelma Village, close to Bahir Dar city, in Amhara region narrates that his community members have been reduced to, "immigrants on the land that once belonged to our ancestors."
She says her community did not only lose land but also water bodies. "We have natural water but we never drink it. Investors took it," adds Hiwote.
Zenezelma village where Hiwote used to live is situated three km from river Nile and about 4.7 km from Lake Tana, the source of Blue Nile.
Ethiopia recently made available 6000 hectares of land for the use of horticulture in areas including Bahir Dar, on the lake side of Lake Tana and Blue Nile River side according to Amhara Investment commission.
Up to 10 biggest horticulture investments in Ethiopia are located close to Lake Tana and Blue Nile, covering 1,200 hectares on Tana lakeside, and another 2000 hectares on Blue Nile river side. This is according to data from the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA), which cites some of these companies to include Giovanni Alfano Farm, Condor Farms PLC, Fontana Horticulture PLC, Pina Flowers PLC, Arini Flowers PLC, Solo Agro Tech PLC, Tal Flowers PLC, and Joy techfresh PLC among others.
It is evidently clear that these companies target not just the fertile land in this region but the water of the two water bodies.
Asrat Tsehay, the head of the Ethiopian Blue Nile River basin Authority says compared to the residents, floral investments in the area consuming more water.
"While in the dry north of Ethiopia people have to survive on five liters of water per person per week and livestock die in masses," argues Asrat, "roses (there) consume an average of seven liters of water per stem per week."
Adem worku, the head of public relation department at Amhara National Regional State Water, Irrigation and Energy Development Bureau, feels this is slowly, "draining water bodies in the region."
Production of flowers in this region requires around, "20,000 Olympic swimming pools full of water each year," says Meselech Zelalem, a water scientist with Amhara national regional state Water, Irrigation and Energy Development Bureau. This is water dawned from Lake Tana and Blue Nile river.
Dr Mesay Abebe an expert and analyst in Ethiopia's floral sector, blames the floriculture industry for, "severe use of natural resources."
"This," maintains Dr Mesay, "is resulting into soil, water and air pollution due to, inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides and poor waste disposal system."
Due to its excessive richness of nutrients, narrates Dr. Mesay, such contaminated water easily leads to dense growth of plant life in water bodies. Several studies and news stories show that Lake Tana, is being lost to the invasive water hyacinth.
Besides, flower farms have been criticized for using fertilizers and pesticides which can easily be washed into the neighboring Blue Nile river and Lake Tana. Tadele Yeshiwas Tizazu, the agriculture and environmental sciences researcher says such chemicals easily, "leach into the groundwater."
As cut flowers are prepared for market, a lot of wastes such as leaves containing chemical residues are produced. If not well disposed of such residues could lead to health problems in people and livestock as well.
For example, Shega Belay, one of the local farmers says his community does not only face, "reduced land for farming but also deaths of livestock after ingesting pesticides."
"We complain to regional government officials but, nothing has been done. The government benefits from taxes as we suffer," laments Shega.
Ethiopian Horticulture Development Agency (EHDA) is the government agency dedicated to supporting the horticulture sector in Ethiopia, which incorporates flowers, fruits and vegetables and the herbs sectors.
Alem Weldegerima, the Director General of this agency says the floral sector in Ethiopia developed around the small private sector initiative which was focused on, "exploiting the soil, water, ecological and market-proximity opportunities that Ethiopia offers to flower growers."
Solomon Worku, the Nile Water for Nile people initiative activist says most foreign horticulture investors that acquired land for agriculture in the source of Blue Nile region, displacing several local people, did not help them live descent lives.
"They took large tracts of land and resources in the name of development which we haven't seen," contends Solomon.
Some of these farms have been accused of failure to use their allocated land solely for the intended purposes.
Alem Weldegerima, the EHDA Director General acknowledges the fact that some investors have not exhaustively used their given land.
He reveals that his agency has issued a warning letter to some 25 growers over this issue.
Land grabbing victims speak out
Amelework Yazi, 28, a resident of Bezawit village in Bahir Dar, accuses government of favoring foreign investors and neglecting the local communities.
"The doors are locked for the local hopeful youths, but open for foreigners," says Amelework.
Aster Tesema, the chairperson of the local traditional farmers association in Zegeie village says, although most employees of floral companies in his village work hard, "they earn a peanut" that can "hardly sustain them while investors generate millions of dollars annually."
Critics of the foreign horticulture companies in Ethiopia have repeatedly said that while such companies are getting richer, the local Ethiopians are hardly making any progress.
Yordanoes Mandefero, 33, from Zegie Village works with one of the foreign horticulture companies in the area. Yordanoes asked us not to disclose the company where he works, fearing that his bosses could sack him for talking to us. He reveals that most Ethiopians in the company where he works earn about, "30 euros a month."
Investors and local government respond to accusation
Sami Banchu the representative of Giovanni Alfano Farm says, "they are working with local communities, helping them through construction of schools and hospitals to stimulate development."
Likewise in a rewritten response, Mohammed Mohayub, of Yemeni farm, adds that, "everything they do is in accordance with the standard requirements."
"The use of pesticides is the same as what is permitted in Europe. We have fair trade certification," says Mohammed.
Yehenew Belay, the head of investment office for the Amhara regional state acknowledges the fact that most farmers in the area have been displaced by horticulture investment in the last 10 years.
He blames this on the "government policy" that targets "attracting foreign investors at the expense of the host communities".
Toward a workable solution
A range of studies including a 2008 report by the Forum for Environment, an Ethiopian environmental advocacy NGO, and a 2016 report by Ethiopian researcher Asnake Demena, have cautioned widespread negative effects of land grabs on the local communities in Ethiopia that were originally living on the land, including evictions and loss of access to natural resources that support their livelihoods. Arable lands, virgin forests and woodlands have also been cleared and allocated for biofuel projects, which destroys the natural ecology, the reports found.
Dr Mesay Abebe, an expert and analyst in Ethiopia's floral sector suggests that the government of Ethiopia should investigate these evictions and displacements and ensure that farmers are resettled and compensate in a manner that respects the rights of residents and adhere to Ethiopian law.
He adds that a sustainable solution lies in the government of Ethiopian teaming up with the Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA) to formulated clear regulations that call for sustainable extraction of water from water bodies in this region for farming of flowers.
"All flower farms in the region should be forced to use drip irrigation system which helps to conserve water resources," concludes Dr. Mesay.