A land grab twice the size of France is under way in Ethiopia,
as the government pursues the wholesale seizure of indigenous lands
to turn them over to dams and plantations for sugar, palm oil, cotton
and biofuels run by foreign corporations, destroying ancient cultures
and turning Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, into a new
Aral Sea. What is happening in the lower Omo Valley shows a complete
disregard for human rights and a total failure to understand the
value these tribes offer Ethiopia in terms of their cultural heritage
and their contribution to food security.
There is growing
international concern for the future of the lower Omo Valley in
Ethiopia. A beautiful, biologically diverse land with volcanic
outcrops and a pristine riverine forest; it is also a UNESCO world
heritage site, yielding significant archaeological finds, including
human remains dating back 2.4 million years. The Valley is one of the
most culturally diverse places in the world, with around 200,000
indigenous people living there. Yet, in blind attempts to modernise
and develop what the government sees as an area of 'backward' farmers
in need of modernisation, some of Ethiopia's most valuable
landscapes, resources and communities are being destroyed.
A new dam,
called Gibe III, on the Omo River is nearing completion and will
begin operation in June, 2015, potentially devastating the lives of
half a million people. Along with the dam, extensive land grabbing is
forcing thousands from their ancestral homes and destroying
ecosystems. Ethiopia's 'villagisation' programme is aiding the
land-grab by pushing tribes into purpose built villages where they
can no longer access their lands, becoming unable to sustain
themselves, and making these previously self-sufficient tribes
dependent on government food aid.
What is happening in the lower Omo
Valley, and elsewhere, shows a complete disregard for human rights
and a total failure to understand the value these tribes offer
Ethiopia in terms of their cultural heritage and their contribution
to food security. There are eight tribes living in the Valley,
including the Mursi, famous for wearing large plates in their lower
lips. Their agricultural practices have been developed over
generations to cope with Ethiopia's famously dry climate. Many are
herders who keep cattle, sheep and goats and live nomadically. Others
practice small-scale shifting cultivation, whilst many depend on the
fertile crop and pasture land created by seasonal flooding.
life source of the Omo River is being cut off by Gibe III. An Italian
construction company began work in 2006, violating Ethiopian law as
there was no competitive bidding for the contract and no meaningful
consultation with indigenous people. The dam has received investment
from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the World Bank,
and the hydropower is primarily going for export rather than domestic
use - despite the fact that 77% of Ethiopia's population lacks access
People in the Omo Valley are politically vulnerable
and geographically remote. Many do not speak Amharic, the national
language, and have no access to resources or information. Foreign
journalists have been denied contact with the tribes, as BBC reporter
Matthew Newsome recently discovered when he was prevented from
speaking to the Mursi people. There has been little consideration of
potential impacts, including those which may affect other countries,
particularly Kenya, as Lake Turkana relies heavily on the Omo River.
At risk: Lake Turkana, 'Cradle of Mankind' Lake Turkana, known as the
'Cradle of Mankind', is the world's largest desert lake dating back
more than 4 million years. 90% of its inflow comes from the Omo.
Filling of the lake behind the dam will take three years and use up
to a years' worth of inflow that would otherwise go into Lake
Turkana. Irrigation projects linked with the dam will then reduce the
inflow by 50% and lead to a drop of up to 20 metres in the lake's
depth. These projects may also pollute the water with chemicals and
nitrogen run-off. Dr Sean Avery's report explains how this could
devastate the lake's ancient ecosystems and affect the 300,000 people
who depend on it for their livelihoods.
Tribal communities living
around the lake rely on it for fish, as well as an emergency source
of water. It also attracts other wildlife which some tribes hunt for
food, such as the El Molo, who hunt hippo and crocodile. Turkana is
home to at least 60 fish species, which have evolved to be perfectly
adapted to the lake's environment. Breeding activity is highest when
the Omo floods, and this seasonal flood also stimulates the migration
of spawning fish. Flooding is vital for diluting the salinity of the
lake, making it habitable. Livestock around the lake add nutrients to
the soil encouraging shoreline vegetation, and this is important for
protecting young fish during the floods. Lake Turkana is a fragile
ecosystem, highly dependent on regular seasonal activity,
particularly from the Omo. To alter this ancient ebb and flow will
throw the environment out of balance and impact all life which relies
on the lake.
Severely restricted resources around the lake may also
lead to violence amongst those competing for what's left. Low water
levels could see the lake split in two, similar to the Aral Sea.
Having acted as a natural boundary between people, there is concern
that conflict will be inevitable. Fear is already spreading amongst
the tribes who say they are afraid of those who live on the other
side of the lake. Conflict may also come from Ethiopians moving
into Kenyan territory in attempts to find new land and resources.
The dam is part of a wider attempt
to develop the Omo Valley resulting in land grabs and plantations
depending on large-scale irrigation. Since 2008 an area the size of
France has been given to foreign companies, and there are plans to
hand over twice this area of land over the next few years. Investors
can grow what they want and sell where they want.
The main crops
being brought into cultivation include, sugar, cotton, maize, palm
oil and biofuels. These have no benefit to local economies, and
rather than using Ethiopia's fragile fertile lands to support its own
people, the crops grown here are exported for foreign markets.
Despite claims that plantations will bring jobs, most of the workers
are migrants. Where local people (including children) are employed,
they are paid extremely poorly.
750km of internal roads are also
being constructed to serve the plantations, and are carving up the
landscape, causing further evictions. In order to prepare the land
for plantations, all trees and grassland are cleared, destroying
valuable ecosystems and natural resources.
Reports claim the military
have been regularly intimidating villages, stealing and killing
cattle and destroying grain stores. There have also been reports of
beatings, rape and even deaths, whilst those who oppose the
developments are put in jail. The Bodi, Kwegi and Mursi people were
evicted to make way for the Kuraz Sugar Project which covers 245,000
acres. The Suri have also been forcibly removed to make way for the
Koka palm oil plantation, run by a Malaysian company and covering
76,600 acres. This is also happening elsewhere in Ethiopia,
particularly the Gambela region where 73% of the indigenous
population are destined for resettlement.
Al-Moudi, a Saudi tycoon,
has 10,000 acres in this region to grow rice, which is exported to
the Middle East. A recent report from the World Bank's internal
watchdog has accused a UK and World Bank funded development programme
of contributing to this violent resettlement.
For many tribes in the
Omo Valley, the loss of their land means the loss of their culture.
Cattle herding is not just a source of income, it defines people's
lives. There is great cultural value placed on the animals. The Bodi
are known to sing poems to their favourite cattle; and there are many
rituals involving the livestock, such as the Hamer tribe's coming of
age ceremony whereby young men must jump across a line of 10 to 30
bulls. Losing their land also means losing the ability to sustain
themselves. As Ulijarholi, a member of the Mursi tribe, said, "If
our land is taken, it is like taking our lives." They will no
longer be independent but must rely on government food aid or try to
grow food from tiny areas of land with severely reduced resources.
Ethiopia is currently experiencing economic
growth, yet 30 million people still face chronic food shortages. Some
90% of Ethiopia's national budget is foreign aid, but instead of
taking a grass-roots approach to securing a self-sufficient food
supply for its people, it is being pushed aggressively towards
industrial development and intensive production for foreign markets.
There is a failure to recognise what these indigenous small-scale
farmers and pastoralists offer to Ethiopia's food security. Survival
of the Fittest, a report by Oxfam, argued that pastoralism is one of
the best ways to combat climate change because of its flexibility.
During droughts animals can be slaughtered and resources focused on a
core breeding stock in order to survive. This provides insurance
against crop failure as livestock can be exchanged for grain or sold,
but when crops fail there can be nothing left. Tribal people can also
live off the meat and milk of their animals.
Those who have long
cultivated the land in the Omo Valley are essential to the region's
food security, producing sorghum, maize and beans on the flood
plains. This requires long experience of the local climate and the
river's seasonal behaviour, as well as knowledge of which crops grow
well under diverse and challenging conditions. Support for
smallholders and pastoralists could improve their efficiency and
access to local markets. This would be a sustainable system which
preserved soil fertility and the local ecosystem through small-scale
mixed rotation cropping, appropriate use of scarce resources (by
growing crops which don't need lots of water, for example) and use of
livestock for fertility-building, as well as for producing food on
less productive lands. Instead, over a billion dollars is being spent
on hydro-electric power and irrigation projects. This will ultimately
prove unsustainable, since large-scale crop irrigation in dry regions
causes water depletion and salinisation of the soil, turning the land
unproductive within a couple of generations. Short of an
international outcry however, the traditional agricultural practices
of the indigenous people will be long gone by the time the disastrous
consequences becomes apparent.