Photo: Xurzon/iStock

We received many questions about our “Blood Roses”-campaign. We are pleased about this, because it shows that the issue is as important to you as it is for us. That’s why we decided to compile a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” and the according answers.

Click on the question you are interested in and read our response to it. If you can’t find your question about Blood Roses on the list, you are of course welcome to send an email to

1) Who are the Oromo?

The Oromo people are one of Africa’s largest nations. They live in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. In Ethiopia, they are the largest ethnic group (approximately 35 percent of the entire population) with at least 33 million members. As alleged opponents of the government, they suffer from relentless oppression and persecution. The Oromo have been complaining about discrimination in the economy and society as well as about serious human rights violations for decades. From the viewpoint of the Ethiopian security agencies, anyone who advocates for the human rights of the Oromo or supports the Oromo liberation movements is a “terrorist”. Most of the Oromo are Muslims, but some of them are Christians.

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2) What is the human rights situation like in Ethiopia?

The human rights situation in Ethiopia is catastrophic. There is no freedom of expression, no freedom of the press and no Internet freedom. The Ethiopian authorities deliberately silence human rights activists, non-governmental organizations and critical journalists. Also, hundreds of political prisoners – including politicians, intellectuals, students, NGO representatives, and Oromo peasants – are kept detained without fair trials, while there are arbitrary restrictions on the religious freedom of the Muslims. Since 2005, the authoritarian government of Ethiopia has come up with several repressive laws to impede the work of independent journalists, NGO-representatives, and opposition politicians. For example, dozens of human rights groups and humanitarian organizations had to give up their work in Ethiopia because of the “Charities and Societies Proclamation”, which was adopted in 2009.  In addition to a strict obligation for NGOs to register, the law provides that no such organization is allowed to receive more than ten percent of its financial resources from abroad. Further, the organizations are not allowed to use more than 30 percent of their funds for “administrative costs”. Thus, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council was already forced to lay off more than 75 percent of its staff.

The situation regarding the freedom of information is extremely difficult throughout Ethiopia, but especially in the federal state of Oromia. As there are no independent media, there is no unbiased media coverage – and especially human rights activists cannot move or investigate freely. Therefore, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Society for Threatened Peoples have to rely on courageous local activists who pass on information to the outside world, for example via social media.

In addition, the land sell-off in Ethiopia is increasing dramatically. Land grabbing is a threat to indigenous peoples such as the Anuak, the Somalis from the Ogaden or the Oromo peasants.

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3) Are rose plantations the only reason for land grabs in Ethiopia?

No, the rose plantations are only part of the problem of land grabbing in Ethiopia. However, there has been an increase in rose exports from Ethiopian to Germany in recent years, probably making up about 40 percent of the roses sold here in winter. Since the origin of many of the flowers is unclear, it is difficult to cite exact figures. Sometimes, African roses are misleadingly labelled as Dutch products when they are re-exported after being auctioned in the Netherlands.

In the metropolitan area of the capital of Addis Ababa – which is located in Oromia, the Oromo region – the increasing production of cut flowers is inseparably linked to land grabbing, as can be seen from the rapid growth of the plantations: While there was only one plantation in 1995, there were already 100 in 2015. Evidence suggests that this trend will continue, probably even more pronounced. The Ethiopian government is going to considerable efforts to win over further investors for rose plantations: In Ethiopia, investors are granted tax exemptions, they can lease land cheaply or even for free, and the flower growers do not have to worry about the environmental issues they increasingly have to grapple with in the Netherlands. Studies have shown that it is economically much more advantageous for Dutch flower growers to build up new businesses in Ethiopia than to invest in existing plantations in the Netherlands. This is also the reason why there has been a steady decrease in the number of rose growers in the Netherlands for several years (from 765 in the year 2000 to 142 in 2014). All observers expect that more and more Dutch businesses will shift their activities to Africa – and there is already a massive transfer of Dutch expertise.

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4) How can I imagine land grabbing in Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian government continues to offer land to foreign investors, arguing that the land would not be used otherwise. However, this is not true. Many of the stretches of land that were cleared for large plantations recently were used as traditional hunting grounds of smaller nations as well as for agriculture. The authorities are ignoring the traditional land rights of these peoples. The state-sponsored land grabbing in Ethiopia is destroying the livelihood of tens of thousands of smallholders and many indigenous peoples. Farmers are forcibly relocated and massively intimidated by the security forces, and anyone who dares to resists or to call for resistance must expect to be arrested.

Almost one-third of the entire leased land is controlled by foreign companies. Among the most important foreign tenants, there are several companies from India that primarily produce cotton, wheat, oil palms, natural rubber, oilseeds and sugarcane. Also, there are several Saudi Arabian companies on the former land of the indigenous communities in Ethiopia.

Of course, it is not our desire to demonize investors, but the investors and the Ethiopian government must respect the interests of the rural population. An improvement in the trade balance alone will not help; the long-term consequences of an extensive sell-out must be considered as well. Ethiopian agricultural experts have been arguing about a fair and equitable agricultural policy for quite a while now. However, it is counterproductive that this dispute cannot be held in public, as the Ethiopian government has muzzled the country’s civil society with new laws. This development is very problematic, both for the country’s rule of law as well as regarding long-term prospects of raising the standard of living, which must be accompanied by granting constitutional fundamental rights. For us as a human rights organization, this is the core aspect of our activities – so it is our duty to also shine a light on the dark side of the development in Ethiopia and to stimulate a public debate.

Ethiopia’s small farmers as well as the rural population, who have been suffering from famines over and over again, will hardly benefit from the large plantations since the products are mostly exported. Due to the land grabbing, the smaller nations find it more and more difficult to feed the people – especially in the south and the south-west of Ethiopia. Thus, instead of fighting hunger in the country effectively, new dependencies are created.

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5) Should the current drought in Ethiopia not be of more immediate importance than the land grabbing?

Currently, Ethiopia is suffering from a massive drought which might even exceed the catastrophe of the mid-eighties. Due to the fact that there was no rain in the summer of 2015 and due to the so-called El Nino phenomenon at the end of 2015, nearly 18 million Ethiopians are now threatened with starvation. According to estimates by the United Nations, about 1.4 billion dollars will be needed to prevent famine in Ethiopia this year. It is especially the nomadic and pastoral tribes that are affected by the drought. Their animals are dying, destroying their livelihood.

Also, Ethiopia’s water policy – which focuses on the construction of large dams – has led to increasing fears of human rights violations and impending war over the last years. There are scientific calculations predicting a significant drop in the water level of Lake Turkana in Kenya, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. As the neighboring country Ethiopia is building a major dam project, Gibe III, on the Omo River, vast areas might dry up completely – and the fishing grounds of the 300,000 people living in the vicinity of the lake could be destroyed. In the first few years at least, there will be no real inflow to Lake Turkana, because the 211-square-kilometer reservoir has to be filled. 85 percent of the water that flows into the lake every year comes from the Omo River.

The megaproject will not only destroy life in and around Lake Turkana; it is also a threat to the 500,000 people living along the Omo River in Ethiopia, including many native peoples such as the Mursi, Kara and the Odi. They will have to give up their pastures near the river because of a 151 km long reservoir. Also, the Ethiopian authorities are planning to offer huge stretches of land to foreign investors for them to establish large agricultural projects.

Here, the deliberate land grabbing is supposed to attract long-term lease investors from India and Saudi Arabia by offering them attractive irrigated land. This will be the end for several smaller indigenous communities living in the region, as they are dependent on the river. These indigenous peoples do not want to leave their traditional land, but Ethiopia’s authorities don’t tolerate any protests. The dam is considered to be a showcase project that is to be implemented at any cost.

For Ethiopia, it will be mammoth task to feed its ever-growing population appropriately in the long term. However, we are not convinced that the actual plans for a modernized agriculture – which ignores the affected rural population – and the country’s water policy will help to solve the problems.

Due to the dwindling groundwater levels, the increasing El Nino phenomenon, and the according failing rains, there have to be other medium or long-term solutions. In order to avoid new shortages in food supplies for the population, it will be necessary to openly discuss the high water demand of the plantations and the consequences for the other users of the land as well as for the entire country. It is scandalous that Ethiopia is asking for international food aid while stealing more and more land from the local farmers to make way for projects of foreign investors that focus on export production – especially if the foreign investors ship the wheat that was grown on crops in Ethiopia to India in order to sell it to the United Nations to feed the people of Ethiopia.

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6) What do the Oromo’s current protests against the Ethiopian government have to do with the roses?

The Oromo have been protesting against the government’s land reforms since November 2015, and the government has responded with bloody crackdowns on the protests. The Oromo are suffering from institutionalized discrimination and exclusion by the ruling elite. Not only do they have to fear displacement, they are also socially marginalized. Cultural or political commitment by Oromo people is often interpreted as active support for rebel groups, and activists are harassed and persecuted. In addition to the accusations and threats, there are frequent arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment in prison – and even extrajudicial executions.

The specific cause of the current protests was, not for the first time, the government’s so-called “Master Plan”, due to which the capital is to be expanded into the surrounding areas where the Oromo live. Thus, the Oromo fear another wave of evictions. Due to the proximity to the airport and the other transportation infrastructure, the aspect of rose cultivation plays a much greater role in the debate on land issues within a radius of 50 km around Addis Ababa, the capital city, than it does in the more remote regions. The rose farms are especially dependent on an airport nearby in order to bring their products to the global market as quickly as possible, as cut flowers don’t last for very long. The Oromo, who are affected by the envisaged land reform, are aware of this. In the last two months, there have been three arson attacks on rose farms, as a form of protest against the “Master Plan”. Because the plantations are intensively irrigated, the violent protests did no cause a lot of damage. Of course, we cannot approve of the violence, but it is a clear indication that there is a connection between the recent protests and the cultivation of roses. Following the outbreak of protests in late autumn, there was also a meeting at which the rose growers in the Netherlands discussed the possible consequences of the protests for their production. Some growers expressed concerns and announced that they would hold back planned investments and await the further development.

A few weeks ago, the government decided to officially suspend the reforms of the “Master Plan” as a consequence of the escalating protests and the rising death toll. Since then, the Ethiopian media have hardly commented on the issue – but the protests continue. Clearly, the protesters are not only upset about the territorial reforms any more. Now, they are also fighting against the structural discrimination and the massive use of violence in recent months.

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7) Does the local population not benefit from the investments in Ethiopia’s rose plantations?

This question is not exactly easy to answer. To date, there is a political debate going on about how to assess the benefits or disadvantages of rose cultivation in Ethiopia. Here, human rights activists, development experts, and economists have here very different viewpoints and arguments. While some might see Ethiopia as an interesting example for promising development measures to ensure a better living for the people, other development experts fear that the local population will be left out. The aspect of wages and the development of social institutions are not enough to assess the benefits. The current protests against the rose plantations clearly show that there is a problem with participation. This issue must be resolved in order to prevent more violence.

Rose cultivation can surely help to push Ethiopia’s exports and improve the trade balance – but the price to be paid is high. Economically, Ethiopia’s initiatives to attract more foreign investors in the scope of rose cultivation are disastrous: Land can be leased for free (or at crash prices), there are tax-exemptions of five years and cheap government-subsidized bank loans; machinery can be imported, and cut flowers can be exported free of charge, there are government-subsidized airfreight rates for cut flowers, and there have been legislative changes to facilitate the export flowers from different plantations. These measures are aimed at establishing a modern industry. However, the question arises whether it will be possible for the Ethiopian state to change the extremely unfavorable conditions to its own benefit one day.

In any case, the example of Ethiopian large-scale plantations in the animal feed sector is not very encouraging. This first major foreign agricultural projects have failed. The Ethiopian government had decided to forcibly relocate 30,000 members of the indigenous community of the Anuak in the Gambella region (in south-western Ethiopia, near the border with South Sudan) to provide agricultural investors from India and Saudi Arabian with huge acres. However, because the peculiarities of the local ecosystem and the knowledge of the local small farmers were not considered, the government’s plans for a modern agriculture turned into a disaster. To date, the foreign investors can use only a small part of the leased land, while vast stretches of land remain unused. A few years ago, the Ethiopian government awarded one of the main investors, the Indian company Karuturi, for contributing to the modernization of the agriculture sector – but the company has now fallen out of favor and was sanctioned for leaving the state-leased land unused.

As a human rights organization, our primary interest lies in the human rights situation, which has not exactly improved since the introduction of the restrictions on the work of the Ethiopian NGOs. Of course, the Oromo’s demands and points of criticism are about far more than just the land issue. But we are deeply concerned about the fact that the protests and the violence continue. With our work, we want to create awareness – also on the side of the European certification bodies – about how problematic the land issue is.

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8) What problems are the certification agencies confronted with in the scope of land grabbing and the general situation in Ethiopia?

Unfortunately, the issue of certifications for roses from Ethiopia is much more complex than it may seem at first glance. We have entered a dialogue with “fair trade”-certifiers in Germany and the Netherlands in order to stimulate a broader discussion about the pros and cons of rose cultivation in Ethiopia. The certifiers TransFair assured us that that their ten farms in Ethiopia will be checked once again, focusing on the aspects of land rights and human rights. We are aware of – and have mentioned – the according limitations.

For TransFair, it is of crucial importance that the farms have a “legal right to use the land”. In a country like Ethiopia, however, such criteria and standards have to be met with skepticism, as there is no real rule of law. If a small farmer who was driven off his land were to contact the police, he would most probably be arrested and, in the worst case, even tortured. From the viewpoint of the ruling elite, an Oromo farmer who protests against the land reforms would have to be seen as an “enemy of the state”, as the expansion of the rose-industry is considered as an important contribution to the country’s economic development, a matter of national interest. Apart from that, the constitution governs that all land belongs to the Ethiopian government – a holdover from the communist regime. Thus, the local population has no land titles, “only” a legitimate traditional right to use the land. The two colliding legal opinions can hardly be brought in accordance with each other. For example, as the laws do not recognize the traditional land rights of the Oromo, the requirements for the “fair trade” label are not met. The concept is based on the ideal of a constitutional state in which property is effectively protected, which is not the case in Ethiopia.

We will continue and intensify the dialogue with the certification agencies. TransFair has offered us to make suggestions for the optimization of the certification procedure. We will certainly make use of the offer.

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