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Indigenous Peoples

Ethiopia, displaced indigenous communities in the Lower Omo Valley deserve inclusive development

So-called development projects in the Lower Omo Valley, including a dam and sugar plantations, have come at an unbearable cost for indigenous communities. Elizabeth Fraser, Senior Policy Analyst at the Oakland Institute, on why the only way forward is for Ethiopia to address such abuse.

For centuries, the Omo River has played an integral role in the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. Of particular importance is its annual flood. During the rainy season, the snaking river swells, filling the river beds and naturally occurring ponds with water. As the flood waters retreat, the valley becomes a lush and fertile canvass used to cultivate crops and graze cattle. This rhythmic ebb and flow provides the backbone for indigenous livelihoods and their local economy.

But over the past 13 years, this way of life has been eroded as the Ethiopian government pushed forward with its plans to “transform” the region. In 2006, the then-government began constructing the Gibe III Dam to harness the power of the Omo River, increase Ethiopia’s energy potential and enable the development of large-scale irrigated plantations. By 2011, plans for the Kuraz Sugar Development Project (KSDP) – a massive sugarcane plantation project with five associated factories that was originally earmarked 245,000 hectares located downstream from the dam – were underway. These projects are both predicated on the halting of the Omo’s annual flood and eviction of local indigenous groups from the land, and have pitted so-called “development” in Ethiopia against the lives, livelihoods and existence of indigenous communities. The results have been devastating.

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Karo mother and child sitting along the banks of the Omo River in Kortcho village. A factory can be seen on the right. Photo taken in November 2017 and featured in the Oakland Institute’s report, How They Tricked Us: Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia © Kelly Fogel

The devastating costs of “development”

Last month, the Oakland Institute released a new report based on field research in the Lower Omo Valley between September 2017 and May 2018. It confirms the disastrous costs of these two projects on three indigenous groups in the region: the Bodi, Mursi and Northern Kwegu. The end of the Omo River’s flood has decimated local livelihoods. Initial promises made by the government and Italian construction company Salini Impregilo, responsible for building the dam, that an artificial flood would be released have never materialised. Today, communities face acute hunger, displacement, lack of livelihoods, and the erosion of their culture and identities.

The government has pressured communities to abandon pastoralism and adopt sedentary lifestyles. But resettlement sites offered for this purpose have been riddled with failed promises and abuse. Plots are often not big enough to feed families, ripened crops have been ploughed over, communities have been forced to dig their own irrigation canals under perilous conditions, and key services that were promised – schooling, healthcare, grinding mills, food aid and electricity – have either failed to materialise or been woefully inadequate.

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Cattle gathering in the Karo’s Kortcho village. Photo taken in October 2017 and featured in the Oakland Institute’s report, How They Tricked Us: Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia © Kelly Fogel

As with many so-called development projects, the KSDP came with the promise of hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the region. But only a small percentage of this employment has actually been created and most has been given to migrant workers from other regions of the country. This is rapidly changing demographics in the region, making indigenous peoples minorities in their own lands. The jobs that have been offered to the Bodi, Mursi and Northern Kwegu – hunting buffalo that eat sugarcane for the men and removing crushed sugarcane refuse for the women – are mostly seasonal, temporary and low paid.

In the face of these changes, hunger is widespread. Food aid that was initially used to draw local communities to resettlement sites has been used to coerce people to stay in those sites.

The impacts of this developmental “transformation” are reflected in the words of a Mursi elder.

This is terrible. If the flood had come, we would be at the Omo now catching fish. But we are now sitting in the plains with nothing to eat … Death is near.
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Surma/Suri boy with traditional face painting in the Kibish region near the border with South Sudan.
Photo taken in April 2018 and featured in the Oakland Institute’s report, How They Tricked Us: Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia © Kelly Fogel

The time is ripe for change

But change could now be on the horizon. In April 2018, a new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, took office in Ethiopia with a reform agenda that emphasizes human rights and medemer – an Amharic word for coming together and synergy. At the same time, there is a growing international consensus among academics, international policy-makers and journalists, among others, of the need for action to address the situation in the Lower Omo.

The time is thus ripe for Prime Minister Abiy to address past abuses and demonstrate his commitment to human rights for all in Ethiopia. In doing so, he must cut ties with past leaders, who consider the indigenous in the region “backward”, and instead honour these communities and involve them in co-creating development plans. The Bodi and Mursi have already put significant thought into this, having advocated for their own Mursi Bodi Community Conservation Area for over a decade. Such projects should be seriously considered as part of a new era of development, one that benefits and includes indigenous communities, showing the world that development doesn’t have to come at the cost of their lands, lives and livelihoods.

After years of broken promises and abuse, this is the only way forward.

This op-ed is based on the Oakland Institute’s latest report, How They Tricked Us: Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia. Please click here for the full report and associated citations.
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