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Ethiopia's Tribes Cry for Help

February 13, 2012
Al Jazeera

By Dominic Brown


A drive to become a world leading sugar producer threatens the livelihoods of thousands of people in rural areas.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - The Lower Omo Valley in south-western Ethiopia is a vast and rugged region of mountains and valleys, inhabited largely by nomadic agro-pastoralist tribes numbering some 200,000 people. Many live a simple existence, living in straw thatched huts and have little contact with the outside world. But the Ethiopian government's new found appetite for large-scale sugar production threatens the very existence of many of these tribes. 

Nearly 300,000 hectares of land in the Omo and Mago National Parks, which comprises much of the Lower Omo Valley, has been earmarked for the Kuraz Sugar Development programme. Backed by large-scale investment from Indian companies, the programme aims to help increase overall sugar production in Ethiopia to 2.3 million tonnes by 2015, with the goal of achieving a 2.5 per cent global share by 2017.

Whilst revenues from the sugar plantations will undoubtedly fill the coffers of central government, the forced relocation of tribes from their traditional lands is already having catastrophic consequences. The permanent damage to a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is also raising alarm amongst environmentalists. 

"We stand to lose everything," one tribal leader explained, tears welling in his eyes, as he stood surrounded by his villagers. "Our traditional hunting grounds, the land we use for grazing our cattle, our homes. Everything will be gone. We will be left with nothing. We need the outside world to help us."

Early in 2011, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi spoke of the importance of the project to the country's economy, outlined in the government's Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). "In the coming five years there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone. Even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilisation, it will become an example of rapid development."

Human rights abuses

This "rapid development" has come at a price. There have been almost inevitable human rights abuses inflicted upon those resisting relocation since the Kuraz Sugar Development programme began last June. A report [PDF] by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think-tank, details how Ethiopian Defence Forces "arrive at Omo Valley villages (and in particular Bodi, Mursi and Suri villages) questioning villagers about their perspectives on the sugar plantations. Villagers are expected to voice immediate support, otherwise beatings (including the use of tasers), abuse and general intimidation occurs".

Other allegations of abuse to have leaked out include the rape of male tribesmen, as well as of women and children by Ethiopian soldiers. Dozens of villagers from the region also remain in detention after voicing opposition to the development plans. 

Violent clashes between the Ethiopian army and tribes from the region are on the rise. A local human rights worker told me of their fears of an escalation in the crisis to civil war. "Many tribes are saying they will fight back rather than be moved off their traditional lands to make way for these plantations. They are living in fear but feel they have nothing to lose by fighting back."

Roadblocks are now in place in many parts of the Lower Omo Valley, limiting accessibility and ensuring the relocations remain out of the spotlight. Tribal rights NGO Survival International is leading calls for a freeze on plantation building and for a halt to the evictions. They have been campaigning to draw more attention to the deteriorating situation in the region since the Ethiopian government announced plans for the Gib III Dam [PDF] - Africa's tallest, and one that is scheduled for completion later this year.

When completed, it threatens to destroy a fragile environment and the livelihoods of the tribes, which are closely linked to the river and its annual flood. Up to 500,000 people - including tribes in neighbouring Kenya - rely on the waters and adjacent lands of the Omo River and Lake Turkana, most of which lies in Kenya. The Karo people, now estimated to number just 1,500 along the eastern banks of the Omo River, face extinction. Already suffering from dwindling fish stocks as a result of the dam, the reduced river levels have also harmed their crop yields.

A 'worrying trend'

Liz Hunter, a campaigner at Survival International spoke of her alarm about the situation facing those in the region. "We are extremely concerned about the leasing of the Omo Valley tribes' land by the Ethiopian government to state and foreign companies. By regulating the flow of the Omo, the dam will enable irrigation of the plantations. So the tribes face a double whammy - loss of the natural flood and therefore their ability to feed themselves through the flood retreat cultivation, and now loss of cattle grazing land to state and foreign companies."

Land grabbing is becoming a worrying trend throughout rural Ethiopia and is not isolated to the Lower Omo Valley region. Human Rights Watch stated in a recent report that the Ethiopian government's "failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation".

More than 70,000 people are estimated to have been forced off their land in the Gambella Region in the west of the country to make way for Saudi Arabian and Chinese-owned rice growing plantations. The Ethiopian government maintains that much of the land they are leasing to foreign investors is unfarmed and unsuitable for smallholder farmers. But Tichafa Makovere, a permaculture and farming expert from Zimbabwe, disputes this stance. "One can never say that land is not in use. Even unfarmed land provides a vital habitat for wildlife. To tamper with it affects ecosystems that we all depend upon for our survival." 

The increasing levels of foreign influence are also raising anxiety amongst people in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "It's a new form of colonialism," one Ethiopian NGO worker told me in a coffee house. "We fear where we will we be in ten years' time, when more and more of our land is controlled by these foreign investors." Anxiety threatens to swell to resentment, with many Chinese and Indian companies operating in the country flying in their own workers, depriving Ethiopians of work, and ultimately leading to huge reserves of money leaving the country. 

With thousands facing uncertain futures, never before has sugar left such a sour taste in the mouth.


Dominic Brown is an independent filmmaker, writer and human rights campaigner. His latest documentary is Forgotten Bird of Paradise.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.