The Lower Omo valley is a ‘prehistoric site’ near the border with Kenya in southwestern Ethiopia. It is home to nearly half a million people from eight of the key tribal groups including the Suri, Mursi, Bodi, Kwegu, Karo, Nyangatom, Daasnach and Turkana. A significant number of them rely on flood retreat cultivation for their livelihood, a tradition that’s been practiced for hundreds if not thousands of years. This fertile soil has caught the eye of corporations looking to use the land for sugar plantations.
Not one to miss a good moneymaking opportunity, the Ethiopian government has been evicting tribal groups, without consent, forcing them to live in camps in a process known as ‘villagisation’. Once resettled, locals have to give up their traditional way of life and survive off government aid. The process of resettlement has been carried out by the Ethiopian military. ‘Those who oppose their demands often have their grain reserves and valuable pastoral land destroyed’ according to Survival International’s expert Elizabeth Hunter. The activity has come hand in hand with reports of human rights violations, including ‘beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion and the denial of government assistance’.
‘When the government came here they brought us only bad things…. When they got out their vehicles, they were carrying guns in a threatening manner… They went all over the place and they took the wives of the Bodi – and raped them... They then came and they raped our wives here.’ Said a Mursi tribesman to an investigator from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
This 2012 investigation was launched after public concern that US and UK foreign aid money was being used to support forced and the related human rights abuses. As one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of just $410 per annum, Ethiopia currently receives the second largest amount of aid in Africa at $3.5 billion in 2011, with $791 million from the US. Funding has been directed at development projects to improve the country’s education, healthcare and industry. Unfortunately for the tribes of the Omo, some of the money is being manipulated to support the government’s resettlement process.
In a report called ‘Waiting Here For Death,’ Human Rights Watch noted that foreign donors in the east of Ethiopia in Gambella are ‘…paying for the construction of schools, health clinics, roads and water facilities in the new [resettlement] villages. They are also funding agricultural programmes directed towards resettled populations and the salaries of the local government officials who are implementing the policy.’ Survival’s Elizabeth Hunter says, ‘it’s a similar story in the Lower Omo valley, development money is helping to fund the villigisation process and the human rights violations that accompany it.’ The World Bank’s Pastoral Community Development Project in the Lower Omo for example, has been funding the infrastructure for the villigisation programme of tribal groups.
Luckily, on 27th January US Congress took an unprecedented stand against the resettlements in Ethiopia. It passed an Appropriations Bill to ensure aid going to the country won’t be used to kick Lower Omo tribespeople off of their land. This means development projects can only be funded when they’re supporting the livelihoods of indigenous groups, not destroying them. It’s been called a ‘landmark decision’ and campaigners hope that it will inspire other governments – particularly the UK’s – to follow suit.
Whilst this bill is good news, it could well be the case of too little too late. The driver of the resettlement schemes is the Ethiopian government’s hell-bent ‘Growth and Transformation Plan’. It aims to increase the country’s agricultural growth by 8.1% every year between 2010-2015 and to improve the country’s economy. Between 2007-2013, Ethiopia’s GDP has skyrocketed with a 93% growth in just 6 years. It’s why some people have started calling the Ethiopian economy ‘African Lion’ and explains how the country is currently ‘creating millionaires at a faster rate than any other country on the continent.’ Superficially, this is great news but the human and environmental cost of such fast growth is alarming.
To achieve targets, the government needs more fertile land with an irrigation source and there’s plenty of that in the Lower Omo valley. The forced resettlements in the region are also intrinsically linked to other nearby development projects. The controversial Gibe III dam is Ethiopia’s largest investment project to build a hydroelectric dam across the Omo river. It will have a two-fold effect, 1) double Ethiopia’s electricity capacity and 2) regulate water for industrial agriculture downstream. This dam will eventually transform the UNESCO heritage Lower Omo valley into a plethora of sugarcane and biofuel farms.
Back in 2010, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi famously declared he would finish the dam ‘at any cost’ and his successor is staying true to the former PM’s word. The government violated its own domestic and environmental laws to begin construction and since the start of the project in 2006, it has recently reached 75% completion. Another factor sealing the Lower Omo tribes’ fate is the availability of investments from countries with scant regard for human rights. Chinese funding bodies and Indian banks are reported to have shown interest in plantations in the region. Already a Malaysian company has created a sugarcane plantation on tribal land in Koka. Their operation has come hand in hand with reports of ‘massacres’ of local tribespeople.
Whether the US bid to help indigenous groups of the Lower Omo valley will have much effect against the corrupt forces driving Ethiopia’s economy is yet to be determined, but the outlook is bleak. Back on the ground, the tribal groups remain determined. In the words of a Mursi ‘If my land is taken, I’m going to die fighting for it’.
Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue