(AFP) – When protesters torched a nearby Dutch-run farm in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, Marc Driessen watched anxiously as smoke billowed above the horizon, fearing his own business would meet the same fate.
“I was really terribly scared because I saw AfricaJuice burning from our farm and we were getting noise from people that most likely our farm would be next,” he told AFP from his flower farm, Maranque, which boasts recently installed solar panels worth 600,000 euros ($650,000).
The farm, some 125 kilometres (77 miles) south of Addis Ababa, is at the heart of the restive Oromia region where anti-government anger erupted into violence after at least 55 people died in a stampede at a religious festival on October 2.
An employee of Maranque was among those killed in the disaster. The stampede was blamed on police who fired tear gas at Oromo demonstrators, who are waging an unprecedented protest movement against the authoritarian Ethiopian government.
After nearly a year of protests demonstrators turned their anger to foreign investors who they blame for occupying land appropriated by the government.
Not long after AfricaJuice, a Dutch fruit farm, went up in flames, hundreds of protesters brandishing sticks, rocks and a few guns gathered in front of Maranque.
It was a group of elders from the nearby village who rushed to the farm on their scooters, who saved the day.
“We put ourselves in front of the protesters and we told them ‘Maranque is our property, do not burn it. Burning this farm will not change the government. You’ll kill us rather than destroying this farm’. And our youngsters backed away,” said community elder Shumi Telila.
More than 800 residents of the village of Alaga Dore work at the farm.
– ‘It was like a war’ –
The spike in violence after the stampede, during which government buildings and more than a dozen foreign companies were targeted, prompted authorities to declare a six-month state of emergency for the first time since the fall of communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
“It was like a war,” said Abraham Negussie, an employee at AfricaJuice, describing an attack by thousands of men, some armed with Kalashnikov rifles, according to witnesses.
“Protesters say we don’t want to hurt the people, only to destroy this property completely,” he added.
The attack left a trail of destruction with warehouses destroyed and vehicles and equipment burned.
Outside the farm several tonnes of passion fruit now lie rotting in the sun as they can no longer be processed into juice destined for Europe.
Large rocks used by protesters as barricades still line the road, which is now patrolled by numerous soldiers.
The unrest began in November in the central Oromia region then spread to Amhara in the north.
The protesters accuse the country’s leaders, who largely hail from the northern Tigray region, of monopolising power.
– ‘It will affect investors’ –
International rights groups estimate at least 500 demonstrators have been killed in a bloody crackdown on protests over the past 10 months.
The violence in Ethiopia poses a threat to its reputation as an oasis of relative political stability and its double-digit growth, which make it a magnet for foreign investment.
Driessen, who has been in Ethiopia for 12 years, is convinced that carefully nurtured ties to the local community helped protect his farm, where chrysanthemums, dahlias and lavender grow in greenhouses.
“We built a water line in the village, we put a cement floor in the school, we fixed their electricity generator… we need to do what we can to help the people surrounding us,” he told AFP.
Driessen said he was drawn to the Horn of Africa nation by its low production costs and the ideal climate of the Rift Valley. His company has invested 10 million euros in Ethiopia.
“It will affect new investors dramatically,” he said of the recent violence.
Marc Driessen’s Maranque Plants was under threat of attack by around 250 protesters in the days of unrest following a stampede that occurred in Bishoftu on October 2, 2016, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia ©Zacharias Abubeker (AFP/File)