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State projects leave tens of thousands of lives in the balance in Ethiopia – study

June 13, 2019
The Guardian

Tom Gardner

Giant dam and irrigated sugar plantations mean people in lower Omo valley face starvation and conflict, says US thinktank

A giant dam and irrigated sugar plantations are “wreaking havoc” in southern Ethiopia and threaten to wipe out tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, a US-based thinktank has claimed.

The Oakland Institute says that while the Ethiopian government has made considerable progress on human rights under prime minister Abiy Ahmed, it has yet to address the impact of state development plans on indigenous populations in the lower Omo valley, where people face loss of livelihoods, starvation, and violent conflict .

Acute hunger is now widespread, the organisation said in a report, due to blockage of the Omo River by Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam. Since late 2015, the dam has stopped the river’s annual flood, a natural event that the valley’s inhabitants have relied upon for centuries for farming. As a result, entire communities have been tipped into destitution.

Responding to the report, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and electricity , said that while the government accepts there are problems, “the points raised in the paper are not properly documented or balanced”.

Seleshi said solutions had been put in place to mitigate the impact of the dam, including small-scale irrigation and outgrower schemes.

According to the report, however, such promises have not materialised. Moreover, said the study, communities claim they were tricked into leaving their ancestral land in order to make way for sugar plantations built by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation as part of its mammoth Omo-Kuraz sugar development project (OKSDP). The project, a 100,000 hectare (247,000 acre) irrigated agricultural scheme, is fed by the waters of the Omo.

Indigenous populations were told the sugar plantations would bring hundreds of thousands of new jobs to the region. They were pressed to give up nomadic livestock-herding and adopt sedentary lifestyles, as part of the Ethiopian government’s controversial “villagisation” programme, which has since been halted. Some were threatened with having their cattle seized or killed by police.

The report alleges that resettlement sites are not big enough to feed families, and that promised services — schooling, healthcare, grinding mills, food aid, and electricity — either remain undelivered or have been woefully inadequate. Only a small percentage of new jobs have materialised, with a large majority given to migrant workers from other regions of Ethiopia.

Seleshi countered that the Sugar Corporation had spent 79m Ethiopian birr (£2.1m) constructing infrastructure and social services in the valley, including schools and health centres.

An aerial view of the Omo River in the district of Nyangatom. Photograph: Charlie Rosser

In May, the Guardian visited a “villagisation” site — Napusmoria, in the South Omo district of Nyangatom — and spoke to villagers whose accounts echoed the report’s claims.

Nalia, an elderly inhabitant, said the government ordered her and her family to move to the new village in 2011.

“They promised us services, like water, a health clinic and a plot of irrigated land,” she said. “But apart from some food at the start there was nothing.”

This is Oakland’s fourth report on South Omo. In 2013 it accused the Ethiopian government of using killings, beatings and rapes in order to force indigenous communities to accept the sugar cane projects. It also accused western aid agencies of covering up evidence of the abuses.