‘We are ready to die for our land’, say pastoralists in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley

Dried up Omo River in Ethiopia
Efforts to re-direct the Omo River for irrigation are drying up a key water source for tribes (image: Survival International)
A hydroelectric dam Gibe III in south-west Ethiopia threatens the livelihood of the ancient tribes of the Lower Omo River, say the campaign group Survival

Agro-pastoralist peoples have lived with their cattle along the Lower River Omo in south-west Ethiopia for several thousand years.

From its source in the Ethiopian highlands the Omo flows through one of Africa’s most spectacular landscapes and into Africa’s largest saline lake, Lake Turkana in Kenya. In a harsh and challenging environment, it is a vital lifeline for humans and a rich assortment of wildlife.

The Lower Omo Valley became a World Heritage site. UNESCO describes it “unlike any other place on Earth in that so many different types of people have inhabited such a small area of land over many millennia… The discovery of many fossils there, especially Homo gracilis, has been of fundamental importance in the study of human evolution.”

Every year the Omo floods depositing rich silt along its riverbanks where tribes like the Mursi plant sorghum, beans and maize. In Daasanach land, the river overflows its banks in August and floods large areas of grassland which, as the flood recedes, provide valuable dry season grazing for cattle.

However, the Lower Omo tribes are facing new and unprecedented threats to their livelihoods and survival.

The Gibe III dam is being constructed some 200 kms up river. When completed next year it will be the tallest dam in Africa and will destroy the natural flood on which so many tribes rely for cultivation.

The dam is integral to the government’s project to lease out huge swathes of tribal land to state and private enterprises, including international investors from Europe and Asia, to grow cotton, sugar, and palm oil and jatropha for biofuels. The dam will regulate the flow of the Omo and end the natural flood, thereby ensuring that irrigation canals provide constant water to these plantations.  

The impact on the Lower Omo Valley’s famous tribes will be catastrophic as I learned when I recently visited communities along the river. Remarkably similar testimonies emerged, portraying an autocratic government which relies on fear, intimidation and brutality to repress all dissent. Community organizations have been dismantled and individuals are afraid to speak out openly.

No consultations with indigenous communities were carried out nor was there any attempt to obtain tribal peoples’ free, informed and prior consent to either the dam or the plantations project. No independent environmental and social impact assessments have been carried out on the impact of the either the dam or the plantations on the communities and wildlife.

Even local government workers I met voiced their concerns. One warned 'The future will be difficult. If the government gives out land for investment, there will be serious conflict.'

For several months fleets of giant bulldozers, operated by highland workers and protected by soldiers, have been razing the grasslands and forested river banks to prepare the land for the plantations.

Protests are met with brutality. Dozens of Bodi, Mursi and Suri have been arrested and are stuck in jail. Earlier this year at least three Bodi were beaten to death in custody for trying to prevent bulldozers from razing their land. Some women have been raped by soldiers.

Yet many are defiant. One Bodi elder declared that “The government can come to kill us like slicing onions, and collect us like meat, but we are ready to die for our land.”

Among the hardest hit are the tiny Kwegu tribe, hunter-gatherers who rely on fishing for much food, as they do not keep cattle. One told me 'We live in the bushes because they cleared our homes. All the land has been cleared. The river level is going down. It’s muddy and the fish are disappearing.'

Water is now being diverted from the Omo into an irrigation canal which will water the plantations. One person told me 'I’ve never seen the river this low. During the dry season, like it is now, you can usually cross by foot, and water reaches your knees. Now I could cross without my feet getting wet.'

The government’s endgame is to force the Bodi and Mursi into resettlement areas. Three areas for the Bodi have already been cleared and houses are being constructed. The Mursi have been told they will be resettled by the end of this year and that they have to sell off their cattle.

Many people told me that cattle are their bank account and vital in lean times when crops and rains fail. Cattle milk provides nutrition - most goes to the children. Social security systems for pastoralists like the Mursi and Suri depends on distribution and exchange of cattle. Marriage (you can’t get married without cattle), relationships, sharing and support, and socialization of young men, are all are based on cattle herding. Take away the cattle and you take away the whole purpose of life. The government does not need to kill or imprison people - it will effectively destroy their identity, cohesion and independence simply by taking their cattle.

Underlying all this is a barely disguised racism and contempt for the pastoralist way of life. Last year in a speech to mark the annual Pastoralist Day, President Meles declared that 'even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.'

But development for whom and at what cost? The bitter irony is that some of the most self sufficient and independent peoples in a country facing food insecurity will become destitute. There will be no flood this year, as the dam reservoir starts to fill and people have been told they will be given food aid in compensation.

Western government aid departments are channeling billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to prop up a government which is intent on destroying unique and self sustaining tribes.

An old Mursi woman urged me: 'Tell your government not to give money to the government. Tell the world we are angry and we are crying.'

Survival is calling on the Ethiopian government to halt the land grabs and controversial resettlement scheme and to consult with tribal peoples.

Elizabeth Hunter is a campaigner at Survival International

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