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

July 4, 2019

Elizabeth Fraser

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.

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.