Last year I built the website for a new documentary due to premiere this year about the issue of land-grabbing in Africa. I'd first been introduced to the production team at an remarkable week as part of the Swim Lab, and been struck silent as the director, Joakim Demmer, explained in plain terms how while we are sending billions in aid to countries like Ethiopia, we are also, inadvertently, helping big foreign companies take people's land, throw them off it, and even imprison them if they complain. I still can't quite believe this happening, inadvertently with our help - and so can't wait to see the film which explains the process. At a time where economic migrants are coming from so many countries where the locals livelihoods have been ruined this issue would seem to be one of great relevance to anyone trying to offer a solution to the #migrantcrisis other than 'let them drown' or 'let them come here'.
Anyway, in clips from the film, Pastor Omot Agwa, explains his dreams of creating a safe national park after a million hectares of indigenous land was sold off to investors and the people who've lived there for generations, kicked off. Omot talks about not fearing death as much as fearing torture, but now he's now been imprisoned, facing both his own - and the filmmaker team from WG Films' - worst fears He was arrested while heading to a workshop about food security - he's never, as far as I know, had any link to anything other than peaceful campaigning. But he's now facing charges of terrorism simply because he dissented! How can that word be an acceptable label given to an activist in a country trying to be taken seriously in the world. In my simple understanding, because Ethiopia participates in world trade, whose coffee, music and culture I was drawn to, it is hard to reconcile. Lem Sissy's R4 Homecomings where he described traveling to Addis Ababa were brilliant - I sat in the audience for one rehearsal.
But this is someone seemingly standing against a cruelly corrupt sector, driven with bribes, backhands and lots of foreign meddling. I'm very naive about these things, and perhaps I'm missing something, but clearly he shouldn't be in prison for trying to go to a workshop in Kenya. Is Ethiopia part of the wider world or not? He's an important voice in helping us in the west figure out how to treat developing, majority-world countries like Ethiopia better. The only people who can suffer from his free speech are the rich foreign businesses (or perhaps the officials so dependent on their bribes as to not be able to cope without).
Anyway, it's still a bit unclear to me what the best thing is to do other than bring your attention to an Indiegogo fundraising appeal for the families of him and the other defendants. The families are worried for their security, and each have lost their income. Once their safety is ensured I imagine the next priority is to petition the Ethiopian embassies and relevant ministries for the release of Omot, Ashinie, and Jamal but imagine Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders, who are working to raise awareness around the case will suggest the best approach.
Meanwhile there's a number of issues that I think are relevant to us (in documentary, human rights or just with a heart):
- If the subject of your documentary is imprisoned and charged with terrorism, perhaps because they spoke in your film, what should you do? Ideally before this happens.
- To anyone who cares about human rights, what can we do about campaigners being imprisoned under terrorist charges?
- And to anyone concerned by the ongoing migration and refugee crisis, or just rising inequality in the world, what are our responsibilities as relatively wealthy westerners, when the (unintended) consequences of globalisation can lead to significant suffering and injustice, to the profit of companies whose tax revenues fund our own services.
Support the families of Omot, Ashinie and Jamal here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-ethiopian-food-land-rights-activists#/