“Have you heard about the investors, who come to cultivate our soil? They come from all over the world and invest. How shall it go for our country? Let the farmer keep his soil.” This is what three Ethiopian farmers sing in the beginning of the film Dead donkeys fear no hyenas by the Swedish director Joakim Demmer. They smile and move happily to the rhythms of the music – a strange contrast to the bleak topic of the film: land grabbing and its consequences.
It took Demmer and his team seven years to complete the film, which often involved huge risks for the employees and the protagonists. The documentary portrays the environmental journalist Argaw Ashine who is about to investigate on Gambella, a region in western Ethiopia. This is the home region of the Anuak indigenous group. But this group of people has been displaced due to the so called “villagisation programme” introduced by the Ethiopian government in connection to the “Protection of Basic Services” (PBS) – a development programme funded by among others the US, the EU and the World Bank.
PBS was set up in 2006 in the context of political crisis and aims at promoting and protecting the delivery of basic services and basic health services. Officially the Ethiopian government claimed that the distribution of food assistance through PBS would be facilitated in these new villages. But that was only one side of the coin. “The help that they promised was not present in the new villages”, says an Anuak woman in Demmer’s film. She had been forced to move away from her home land. In reality, the Ethiopian government misused the PBS-programme to clear the ground for international investors. The population was being forced by militaries to leave their land, which they used to cultivate and live on. Their own land became someone else’s property. “How can they say this is not our land? Our ancestors are buried here, we were born and raised here”, a man from Gambella says in the film. For the local population the relocation did not only mean loss of land, but also loss of social, religious and traditional ties.
Consequences due to land grabbing are particularly visible in the African continent, since Africa provides extremely cheap land and has the largest area of arable land. But companies and corporations do not only have agricultural interest in African land. In the Amadiba area for example, a coastal region in South Africa the local Pondo people fear the opening of a titanium mine by an Australian investor. This would not only harm the environment but also destroy the area that is used for agriculture by the locals. Much like in Dead donkeys fear no hyenas the project is being supported by the national government under the pretext of useful development. Also the risks vary from case to case: In the city of Arlit in Niger for example the company Areva removes Uranium since 1976. The health issue of the mine workers who lack knowledge on the dangers of radioactivity is a huge problem.
Demmer’s documentary shows much of the cruelty connected to land grabbing: corruption in a country led by a regime, oppression of people and ideas, misleading and missing communication between the global institutions and the local population. But when the credits roll down the screen something basic, yet crucial becomes clear: Development work in all its forms can be extremely far away from the actual problem on a strategic, political, and ethical level. “Dead donkeys fear no Hyenas” reminds us of this power imbalance and controversy.