Saudi Star Agricultural Development plans to pump $100m into a rice export project in Gambella region of Ethiopia despite allegations that land has been taken from indigenous Anuak pastoralists under a ‘villagization’ programme to lease to foreign investors.

The company is owned by Saudi-Ethiopian businessman Mohamed al-Amoudi, who made billions from construction contracts to build Saudi Arabia’s national underground oil storage complex.

Al-Amoudi was one of the first to invest in President Meles Zenawi’s agricultural investment scheme in 2008, and the company was one of the first to attract controversy after a dozen aggrieved Anuak villagers attacked Saudi Star’s compound in Gambella in 2010 and killed several employees.

Saudi Star abandoned work at the time, but has now announced that it will return to invest millions to grow rice using large-scale flood irrigation techniques and export its produce to Saudi Arabia.

“We know we’re creating job opportunities, transforming skills, training local indigenous Anuak,” Jemal Ahmed, Saudi Star CEO told Bloomberg.  “The government wants the project to be a success and see more Gambella people able to produce more — that’s the big hope.”

But activists say the newly invigorated project in Gambella is likely to have a detrimental impact on the local population, particularly among pastoralist groups like the Anuak.

“Sadly, right now, the Anuak, nearly all small subsistence farmers, are becoming refugees in their own land, as they are internally displaced from indigenous land their ancestors have possessed for centuries,” Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, told the Africa congress on ‘Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa’ (ECOGA).

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In total, as many as 1.5 million subsistence farmers are expected to be offered ‘voluntary’ relocation to government settlements, where they will be given housing, social services and support infrastructure, under the villagization programme.

However, activist groups like the Human Rights Watch reported Anuak being forced to build their own tukols, or traditional huts, at the risk of beatings if they speak out, in 100 interviews conducted in 2010 during the first round of villagization.

The Oakland Institute added that the majority of resettlements did not have schools, health clinics or even water wells, and that a lack of agricultural training and materials like seeds, fertilizers and tools had further exacerbated the risk of hunger and starvation among families.

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