ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia is forcing tens of thousands of people off their land so it can lease it to foreign investors, leaving former landowners destitute and in some cases starving, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday.
The Horn of Africa state has already leased 3 million hectares - an area just smaller than Belgium - to foreign farm businesses and the U.S.-based rights group said that Addis Ababa had plans to lease another 2.1 million hectares.
The United Nations has increasingly voiced concern that countries such as China and Gulf Arab states are buying swathes of land in Africa and Asia to secure their own food supplies, often at the expense of local people.
HRW said that 1.5 million Ethiopians would eventually be forced from their land and highlighted what it said was the latest case of forced relocation in its report "Ethiopia: Forced Relocations Bring Hunger, Hardship."
"The Ethiopian government under its "villagisation" program is forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities," HRW said, adding it had interviewed more than 100 people for the report.
"The first round of forced relocations occurred at the worst possible time of year - the beginning of the harvest. Government failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation," it said.
Government officials deny the charge and say the affected plots of land are largely uninhabited and under-used, while it has also launched a program to settle tens of thousands from the remote province in more fertile areas of the country.
"Human Rights Watch has wrongly alleged the villagisation program to be unpopular and problematic," government spokesman Bereket Simon told Reuters.
"There is no evidence to back the claim. This program is taking place with the full preparation and participation of regional authorities, the government and residents," he said.
Ethiopia says its prime intention in leasing large chunks of land is technology transfer and to boost production in a country that has been ravaged by droughts over the past few decades.
Editing by Richard Lough and Ben Harding