Ethiopia's tribes cry for help
A drive to become a world leading sugar producer threatens the
livelihoods of thousands of people in rural areas.
13 Feb 2012 06:42
by Dominic Brown
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - The Lower Omo Valley in south-western Ethiopia
is a vast and rugged region of mountains and valleys, inhabited
largely by nomadic agro-pastoralist tribes numbering some 200,000
people. Many live a simple existence, living in straw thatched huts
and have little contact with the outside world. But the Ethiopian
government's new found appetite for large-scale sugar production
threatens the very existence of many of these tribes.
Nearly 300,000 hectares of land in the Omo and Mago National Parks,
which comprises much of the Lower Omo Valley, has been earmarked for
the Kuraz Sugar Development programme. Backed by large-scale
investment from Indian companies, the programme aims to help increase
overall sugar production in Ethiopia to 2.3 million tonnes by 2015,
with the goal of achieving a 2.5 per cent global share by 2017.
Whilst revenues from the sugar plantations will undoubtedly fill the
coffers of central government, the forced relocation of tribes from
their traditional lands is already having catastrophic consequences.
The permanent damage to a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is
also raising alarm amongst environmentalists.
"We stand to lose everything," one tribal leader explained, tears
welling in his eyes, as he stood surrounded by his villagers. "Our
traditional hunting grounds, the land we use for grazing our cattle,
our homes. Everything will be gone. We will be left with nothing. We
need the outside world to help us."
Early in 2011, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi spoke of the
importance of the project to the country's economy, outlined in the
government's Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). "In the coming five
years there will be a very big irrigation project and related
agricultural development in this zone. Even though this area is known
as backward in terms of civilisation, it will become an example of
Human rights abuses
This "rapid development" has come at a price. There have been almost
inevitable human rights abuses inflicted upon those resisting
relocation since the Kuraz Sugar Development programme began last
June. A report [PDF] by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think-tank,
details how Ethiopian Defence Forces "arrive at Omo Valley villages
(and in particular Bodi, Mursi and Suri villages) questioning
villagers about their perspectives on the sugar plantations. Villagers
are expected to voice immediate support, otherwise beatings (including
the use of tasers), abuse and general intimidation occurs".
Other allegations of abuse to have leaked out include the rape of male
tribesmen, as well as of women and children by Ethiopian soldiers.
Dozens of villagers from the region also remain in detention after
voicing opposition to the development plans.
Violent clashes between the Ethiopian army and tribes from the region
are on the rise. A local human rights worker told me of their fears of
an escalation in the crisis to civil war. "Many tribes are saying they
will fight back rather than be moved off their traditional lands to
make way for these plantations. They are living in fear but feel they
have nothing to lose by fighting back."
Roadblocks are now in place in many parts of the Lower Omo Valley,
limiting accessibility and ensuring the relocations remain out of the
spotlight. Tribal rights NGO Survival International is leading calls
for a freeze on plantation building and for a halt to the evictions.
They have been campaigning to draw more attention to the deteriorating
situation in the region since the Ethiopian government announced plans
for the Gib III Dam [PDF] - Africa's tallest, and one that is
scheduled for completion later this year.
When completed, it threatens to destroy a fragile environment and the
livelihoods of the tribes, which are closely linked to the river and
its annual flood. Up to 500,000 people - including tribes in
neighbouring Kenya - rely on the waters and adjacent lands of the Omo
River and Lake Turkana, most of which lies in Kenya. The Karo people,
now estimated to number just 1,500 along the eastern banks of the Omo
River, face extinction. Already suffering from dwindling fish stocks
as a result of the dam, the reduced river levels have also harmed
their crop yields.
A 'worrying trend'
Liz Hunter, a campaigner at Survival International spoke of her alarm
about the situation facing those in the region. "We are extremely
concerned about the leasing of the Omo Valley tribes' land by the
Ethiopian government to state and foreign companies. By regulating the
flow of the Omo, the dam will enable irrigation of the plantations. So
the tribes face a double whammy - loss of the natural flood and
therefore their ability to feed themselves through the flood retreat
cultivation, and now loss of cattle grazing land to state and foreign
Land grabbing is becoming a worrying trend throughout rural Ethiopia
and is not isolated to the Lower Omo Valley region. Human Rights Watch
stated in a recent report that the Ethiopian government's "failure to
provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger
and cases of starvation".
More than 70,000 people are estimated to have been forced off their
land in the Gambella Region in the west of the country to make way for
Saudi Arabian and Chinese-owned rice growing plantations. The
Ethiopian government maintains that much of the land they are leasing
to foreign investors is unfarmed and unsuitable for smallholder
farmers. But Tichafa Makovere, a permaculture and farming expert from
Zimbabwe, disputes this stance. "One can never say that land is not in
use. Even unfarmed land provides a vital habitat for wildlife. To
tamper with it affects ecosystems that we all depend upon for our
The increasing levels of foreign influence are also raising anxiety
amongst people in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "It's a new form
of colonialism," one Ethiopian NGO worker told me in a coffee house.
"We fear where we will we be in ten years' time, when more and more of
our land is controlled by these foreign investors." Anxiety threatens
to swell to resentment, with many Chinese and Indian companies
operating in the country flying in their own workers, depriving
Ethiopians of work, and ultimately leading to huge reserves of money
leaving the country.
With thousands facing uncertain futures, never before has sugar left
such a sour taste in the mouth.
Dominic Brown is an independent filmmaker and writer. His latest
documentary is Forgotten Bird of Paradise.
Follow him on Twitter: @zevion
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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