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Ethiopian Sugar Alleged to Destroy Pastoral Communities of Lower Omo

July 18, 2013

Mursi sleeping the in cattle camp, January 2012, Photo: Will Hurd, Oakland Institute


Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC) is benefiting from forced resettlement of pastoral people in the Lower Omo Valley - a United Nations cultural heritage site - to make way for new sugar plantations and factories, according to a new report from the Oakland Institute.

Will Hurd, the author of the new report, is one of the few outsiders to speak the language of the local Mursi people. He was hired to work as a translator for an international fact finding team from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who traveled to the region in January 2012 to investigate allegations of human rights abuse. The funders provide support for Ethiopia’s Protection of Basic Services Program.

To his dismay the team ignored what the local people told them.

“Forced evictions, denial of access to subsistence land, beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of government assistance are all being used as tools of forced resettlement,” writes Hurd. “(D)onor agencies were given highly credible first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations during their field investigation and they have chosen to steadfastly ignore these accounts.”

Together with the report, Hurd has released transcripts of the testimony of the villagers that the team met with to back up his findings.

Under plans developed by the Ethiopian government for the Omo Kuraz Sugar Development Project, a total of 260,000 people from 17 distinct ethnic groups are to be evicted from some 375,000 hectares (1450 square miles) in south western Ethiopia around Lake Turkana and the Lower Omo Valley, a site where some of the oldest human fossils were discovered.

The ten groups that will be worst affected are the Bodi, Dassanach, Dizi, Karo, Kwegu, Mugudji, Murle, Mursi, Nyangatom and Suri peoples who live along the banks of the Omo river where a large earthern dam has been built blocking annual floods to downstream areas. A second planned dam could cause the water level of Lake Turkana by as much as 72 feet causing havoc for local fisherfolk and farmers as well as for drinking water supplies, according to experts from the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

ESC has started planting sugarcane on the lands that have already been cleared and six sugar factories are being built by the Metals & Engineering Corporation (METEC), an Ethiopian military-run company.

ETS freely admits that is building "three villages that enable to resettle 20,000 pastoralists is underway" in a press release on its Facebook page which immediately contradicts itself by claiming: “A single pastoralist will not be relocated due to the project." 

“A total of 6, 695 jobs, including 505 permanent jobs, were created for the local community in this fiscal year,” Nuredin Asaro, the general manager of Omo Kuraz sugar development project, was quoted as saying. 

When Hurd visited the communities with the fact finding team last year, they were told in no uncertain terms that the community had been kicked off the land. 

“Now the government has brought its big muscle, its big force, and says that it will take our cattle and take our land,” said one interviewee. “We have left it without any people there and we are staying here in the plains being hit by the sun …. Now, if you go to the . . . cultivation sites along the Omo River will you see any Mursi there?”

“[The soldiers] went all over the place, and they took the wives of the Bodi and raped them, raped them, raped them, raped them. Then they came and they raped our wives, here,” said another Mursi man.

“(W)e the people here are tired,” said a third. “The government should come and light us all on fire.”

A USAID official is heard replying: “Well, should we say that we hope it doesn’t come to that.”

A few months later Human Rights Watch released a report backing up the community. “Ethiopia’s ambitious plans for the Omo valley appear to ignore the rights of the people who live there,” Ben Rawlence, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said in a report released in June 2012 titled “What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?: Abuses against the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley.” “There is no shortcut to development; the people who have long relied on that land for their livelihood need to have their property rights respected, including on consultation and compensation.”

Yet in a U.S. State department report published in in April 2013, government officials reported that “development partners did not find evidence to support this claim … of government harassed, mistreated, and arbitrarily arrested persons in South Omo in order to clear or prepare land for commercial agriculture,”

“It is difficult not to conclude that DFID and USAID have decided to support the current policy of the Ethiopian government, their strategic ally in the Horn of Africa,” Hurd concludes in the new report. “By doing so, they are willful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible devastating impacts on the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.”

ETS is just the first investor to develop the Lower Omo Valley. Other companies – from India, Italy and Malaysia together with Ethiopian diaspora-owned companies in the U.S. - are expected to establish cotton, grain, palm oil and sugarcane plantations in the region soon.