Ethiopia’s World Heritage Site Tribes Threatened – by Jerome Mwanda
NAIROBI (IDN) – While millions in East Africa are caught in the cobweb of a devastating drought that has spread its tentacles across Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, the government in Addis Ababa is snatching some of Ethiopia’s most productive farmland from local tribes and leasing it to foreign companies to grow and export food.
A Survival International investigation has uncovered shocking evidence that vast blocks of fertile land in the Omo River area in south west Ethiopia are being leased out to Malaysian, Italian and Korean companies. Vast stretches of land are also being cleared for huge state-run plantations producing export crops, even though 90,000 tribal people in the area depend on the land to survive.
The investigation shows that the government is in fact planning to increase the amount of land to be cleared to at least 245,000 hectares, much of it for vast sugar cane plantations.
“The region’s worst drought in 60 years has left millions starving. The Omo Valley tribes, are for now, relatively secure. But the government views them as ‘backward’ and is determined to ‘modernise’ them: it wants to turn them from self-sufficient farmers, herders and hunters into workers in vast plantations. However, they may be simply evicted from their land,” says Survival International, an organization working for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide.
The Lower Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia is a spectacularly beautiful area with diverse ecosystems including grasslands, volcanic outcrops, and one of the few remaining ‘pristine’ riverine forests in semi-arid Africa which supports a wide variety of wildlife. It is believed to have been a crossroads for thousands of years as various cultures and ethnic groups migrated around the region.
Survival International points out that the Bodi (Me’en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom live along the Omo and depend on it for their livelihood, having developed complex socio-economic and ecological practices intricately adapted to the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the region’s semi-arid climate.
The annual flooding of the Omo River feeds the rich biodiversity of the region and guarantees the food security of the tribes especially as rainfall is low and erratic. They depend on it to practice “flood retreat cultivation” using the rich silt left along the river banks by the slowly receding waters.
They also practice rainfed, shifting cultivation growing sorghum, maize and beans on the flood plains. Some tribes, particularly the Kwegu, hunt game and fish.
Cattle, goats and sheep are vital to most tribes’ livelihood producing blood, milk, meat and hides. Cattle are highly valued and used in payment for bride wealth.
They are an important defence against starvation when rains and crops fail. In certain seasons, families travel to temporary camps to provide new grazing for herds, surviving on milk and blood from their cattle. The Bodi sing poems to favourite cattle.
Other peoples, such as the Hamar, Chai and Turkana, live farther from the river but a network of inter-ethnic alliances means that they too can access the flood plains, especially in times of scarcity.
Despite this cooperation there are periodic conflicts as people compete for natural resources. As the government has taken over more and more tribal land, competition for scarce resources has intensified. The introduction of firearms has made inter-ethnic fighting more dangerous, Survival International says.
Part of the government scheme involves the construction of a series of dams along the Omo River, including Gibe III, which will be the biggest dam in Africa. Hundreds of kilometres of irrigation canals will follow the dam construction, diverting the life giving waters. “This will leave the tribal people without annual floodwaters to grow their crops,” Survival International warns.
In July 2006 the Ethiopian government signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build Gibe III. In violation of Ethiopia’s laws, there was no competitive bidding for the contract.
Work started in 2006 with a budget of 1.4 billion euros. One third of the dam has already been built but costs are escalating.
The dam will block the south western part of the Omo River which runs for 760 kms from the highlands of Ethiopia to Lake Turkana in Kenya. The Lower Omo Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, in recognition of its archaeological and geological importance. Here the Omo flows through the Mago and Omo National Parks, home to several tribes.
Ethiopian environmental law stipulates that an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) must be carried out before any project is approved. Despite this, the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the ESIA retrospectively, in July 2008, two years after construction work started.
The ESIA was carried out by an Italian company, CESI, and paid for by EEPCo (Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation) and Salini, raising questions over its independence and credibility. Its report, published in January 2009, found in favour of the project, stating that the impact on the environment and tribes concerned will be ‘negligible’ and even ‘positive’.
According to independent experts, the dam will have an enormous impact on the delicate ecosystem of the region by altering the seasonal flooding of the Omo and dramatically reducing its downstream volume. This will result in the drying out of much of the riverine zone and eliminate the riparian forest.
“If the natural flood with its rich silt deposits disappears, subsistence economies will collapse with at least 100,000 tribal people facing food shortages,” cautions Survival International.
A group of international campaigners launched an online petition against Ethiopia’s dam project in 2008 over human rights concerns.
Survival International has found out that local people are being intimidated to stop them talking to outsiders or journalists, and there have been no meaningful consultations.
A visitor who was recently in the region told the organisation that the government and police are cracking down, jailing and torturing indigenous people and raping women, so they do not oppose the land grabs. One tribesman said: “Now the people live in fear – they are afraid of the government. Please help the pastoralists in southern Ethiopia, they are under big threat.”
Survival International’s Director, Stephen Corry, says: “The Omo Valley tribespeople are neither ‘backward’ nor need ‘modernising’ – they are as much a part of the 21st century as the multinationals that seek to appropriate their land. The tragedy is, forcing them to become manual labourers will almost certainly lead to a drastic reduction in their quality of life and condemn them to starvation and destitution like so many of their fellow countrymen.”