Ethiopian tribes' ancient ways threatened by UK-backed sugar project

Commercial agriculture is creating an uncertain future for tribes like the ancient Hamer. Photo: Matthew Newsome.
Commercial agriculture is creating an uncertain future for tribes like the ancient Hamer. Photo: Matthew Newsome.
A massive sugar plantation and up to 700,000 migrant workers will occupy almost 2,000 of Ethiopia's Omo Valley, with the help of British aid finance. But the valley's native inhabitants have been given no choice in the matter, and are being forced to abandon their homes, lands, cattle, and entire way of life, or go to jail.
We feel like we have no choice. This is being forced on us. We have not been asked what we want or need. If we do not accept the resettlement plans we will be taken to jail.

In the late afternoon sun, Longoko Loktoy, positions his traditionally engraved stool on parched earth and brushes the dust off his Kalashnikov while children close-by pursue small birds with bows and arrows.

Keeping a diligent eye on the movement of his goat herd he says he is unaware of large scale infrastructure projects that will soon encroach on his life and livelihood as an agro-pastoralist. "I haven't heard of any government plan for a dam or a sugar project. All I have heard is that we will have to move."

Longoko is a member of the Nyangatom tribe, one of twelve ethnic groups living in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for being one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world.

"I am leading two lives. I have children who take care of herds and I have children who are at school. When drought comes my family will depend on my children working in the town."

Coming soon - a sugar plantation covering 1,750 square kilometres

Scattered behind him are unfinished straw thatched domes being built by the Ethiopian government to resettle Nyangatom people soon to be displaced by one of the country's largest irrigation complexes- a 175,000 ha sugar plantation.

Major social and environmental changes loom over the lower Omo valley This savannah landscape, home to around 100,000 agro-pastoralists, is set to become a major centre for commercial agriculture.

The Ethiopian government is currently preparing resettlement villages for thousands of agro-pastoralists to make way for foreign agribusinesses and Government plantations intent on growing exportable cash crops such as sugar and palm oil.

These sprawling plantations will be made possible once the Gibe III, Ethiopia's tallest hydro-electric dam is constructed and providing year-round irrigation.

Despite the stereotype perpetuated by highlander Ethiopians about lowlander tribes being mobile herding nomads, the pastoralists' economy also depends largely on flood retreat agriculture in the wet season, when annual flooding of the perennial Omo river makes it possible to cultivate crops along the river bank.

However, the dam and its associated irrigation projects are expected to significantly reduce the river's level making flood retreat cultivation impossible and an abrupt transition to sedentary farming inevitable for the local people.

All the benefits of modernity are promised

The government is reassuring agro-pastoralists that modernity and development will improve their lives and that once they resettle they will benefit from roads, irrigation, schools, markets and health care. However, they are also expected to give up their cattle and their mobility.

Lore Kakuta was educated by Christian missionaries and is currently a Nyangatom security chief in Kangaton town, situated on the Omo river.

We feel like we have no choice. This is being forced on us. We have not been asked what we want or need. If we do not accept the resettlement plans we will be taken to jail.

He is enthusiastic about his community becoming settled and believes the influx of modernity into the Nyangatom community makes many aspects of the tribe's tradition dispensable.

His aspirations have led him to swap the traditional dome hut for a square concrete building surrounded by corrugated iron.

"We are teaching our people to modernise. Many of our people practice pastoralism because of the dry season when there is no water available for food or cattle. Once we have irrigation canals we will not have to keep large herds of animals."

His wife sits next to him preparing goat broth over a fire. She is wearing a polyester dress imported from China, while her cousin sits next to her scantily clad in cow hide, clasped round her arms are numerous metal bracelets and from her neck droops a heavy heap of wooden beads.

"I believe in God and that he will keep giving us water despite these projects and that the government will make sure the river level does not go down", he says.

The Ethiopian government has said that the flow of the Omo will not change and that 'pastoralists' will benefit from developments. According to government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal,

"We are giving those people a better life, they will have access to hospitals, schools and employment. We should not exclude them from the country's progress".

Ancient customs forcibly discouraged

However, the Mursi tribe, further upstream, have been feeling the pressure of villagisation more than other communities in the region since the sugar plantation began appropriating their ancestral territory.

A Mursi elder living in a resettlement village at a junction of a newly constructed road shared his concerns about the future.

"The government is telling us to sell our cattle. They are taking away land we use for grazing and seasonal cultivation and giving it to the sugar plantation. How can we survive in the future if we have no access to land and water?"

He spoke of how traditional customs are being forcibly discouraged such as the famous ornamental clay lip plates worn by Mursi women.

"We have regular meetings with the government who tell us we have to modernise and become like townspeople. They want us to sell our cattle and become agrarian. This is impossible because cattle are at the centre of Mursi life. Our cattle are also an important source of milk for children and food during periods of crop failure."

The 10,000 Mursi are worried about the immigration of between 200,000 and 700,000 migrant workers from the highlands to work on sugar plantations that will occupy their land, he said. "This will bring disease and distort our culture."

"We feel like we have no choice. This is being forced on us. We have not been asked what we want or need. If we do not accept the resettlement plans we will be taken to jail", he said.

UK Government turns a blind eye to human rights abuses

Ethiopia's major development projects are promoted as being for the development of all its 90 million citizens. The Gibe III Dam will begin generating up to 1,870 megawatts of power in 2015 and is expected to boost the country's economic growth, which has been averaging 10% in recent years, from the sale of surplus electricity to neighbouring countries.

However advocacy groups like Survival International and Human Rights Watch believe that a lack of consultation with agro-pastoral communities are excluding its members from benefits of such national projects.

Lotabo Lokuja, a Nyangatom local official, sits finishing off his lunch in an outdoor ramshackle restaurant owned by a migrant highlander. And he for one is not convinced by the government's case:

"Education, health, roads, are good for the Nyangatom but we should not be expected to change our culture or our cattle herding. The government must understand we are not farmers, we are cattle herders. If they force us then this is unfair. They should talk to us so that we can negotiate."

The UK's Department for International Development (DfID) has been accused of ignoring evidence of human rights abuses allegedly linked to their financial support for Ethiopia's Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme - which is described as "expanding access and improving the quality of basic services in education, health, agriculture, water supply and sanitation."

DfID officials have visited communities in the Omo valley four times since January 2012. However, it claims it has been unable to "substantiate allegations" - despite being told by men and women from the Mursi and Bodi ethnic groups about the forced eviction of people from their land to make way for commercial investments, as well as incidents of rape, arrests and intimidation.

Indigenous rights must be respected

"Time is running out for the Lower Omo tribes and unless DIFD and other foreign donors exert their influence over the Ethiopian government, our taxpayers' money will have contributed to the destruction of some of Africa's most unique and vibrant peoples", says Survival International campaigner, Elizabeth Hunter.

David Turton, an anthropologist from the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, has been studying the Mursi for over 40 years. He believes this should not be seen as a conflict between modern and traditional values.

"The Mursi and their neighbours have had to be highly pragmatic, highly adaptable and opportunistic to survive in the Omo valley for thousands of years. They could see the advantages of a more sedentary existence, if it genuinely were to their advantage."

If done properly, Turton believes, there is no reason why resettlement should not be a success. What's needed, he says, is full information sharing with the affected people, together with genuine consultation, compensation and benefit-sharing.

"Ways should be found of helping them to maintain their cattle herds. This is not just because cattle are in their cultural DNA but for the sake of their children's health."

"This is often presented as a problem about how to reconcile development with 'cultural preservation'. Ultimately, you can't have both. But you must be able to reconcile development with social justice. Otherwise people end up worse off than they were before and there is no development worthy of the name."



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Matthew Newsome
is a journalist based in East Africa. His articles appear in the Guardian, the Observer, New Internationalist and Inter Press News. He is also a contributor to BBC's World Service.


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