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Sugar, Land Grabs and Human Rights

October 6, 2014

When you look at Western news sources today (such as the New York Times) and search for articles on Ethiopia, not much has been covered in the past year unless it’s related to our national security. The most recent article about Ethiopia in the Times (which was posted today) is not about Ethiopia at all, but rather remembering the shooting at the Westgate Mall in Kenya a year ago and about combating the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab. The article notes that the Islamic Courts Union, of which Al Shabab is the armed wing of, “set off alarms” in Washington and so they “gave the green light” for Ethiopian troops to enter Somalia in 2006 and battle the terrorist group. I often find that Western media distorts our image of what’s going on in the rest of the world by largely covering issues as they relate to our national and international security or terrorism. But what was really going on in Ethiopia this time a year ago, aside from troops battling terrorist groups in Somalia? We need to turn to Ethiopian news sources to get a picture of what was happening on the ground.

Around this same time last year, ZeHabesha, the “Latest Ethiopian News Provider,” provided a controversial outlook on the land grabs in South Omo led by Ethiopian officials. The article focused more on local opinions of indigenous semi-nomadic people, such as the Mursi, in regards to the frequent land grabs by the Ethiopian government. For the Mursi, this issue hit home—literally. The semi-nomadic population has lived on the lands of Omo for as long as they can remember, and now the government is forcing them to move out so they can build a giant sugar plantation. According to the government, the state plan is to “house them in new villages in exchange for their compliant departure” and that “the Mursi, like a growing number of ethnic or tribal groups in Ethiopia, are voluntarily moving out of their ancient lands.” Locals and human rights groups say otherwise. It seems as if the real story involved police raping women and pressuring locals to leave Omo.

Groups such as the Oakland Institute, Survival International and Human Rights Watch have spoken out about the human rights abuses associated with this issue, but the prime minister’s spokesperson, Getachew Reda, responded saying that these groups help to “drag Ethiopia back to the Stone Age.” State authorities have also spoken out about the Mursi’s “very bad cultural practices” like their lip plates and stick fighting. It seems as if the government would rather see 700 square miles of state-owned sugar plantations instead of the characteristic lip plates and painted, scarified bodies that attract anthropologists and photographers alike. To make matters worse, Omo could expect to see an influx of about 700,000 migrants to work on the sugar plantations. Imagine how this could affect Mursi culture and women?

The Oakland institute shares this telling quote from a Mursi man in their brief from 2013, “[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.” Because of the Mursi women’s role in their ethnic group, they are often out tending to crops and collecting water, firewood and other materials for cooking. This puts them in a vulnerable position for unexpected rape by military forces and migrants, since they seem to be targeted most often while they are away from the home. And it’s not just the women; their brief notes that a Bodi boy was raped too, leading us to believe that there are a lot more instances of rape on both men and women of the various tribes in Omo.

Though the Mursi and other indigenous peoples have hoped that the sugar plantation project wouldn’t take place, it really developed since that ZeHabesha article was written. So far, five sugar factories have been built in South Omo and the government boasts of the 6,695 new jobs created for the “local community” to contribute to their economy.  Sure, there are plenty of job opportunities available (if you know how to apply online or have access to their YouTube tutorial on how to do so), but what do groups like the Mursi get? How is this development diminishing indigenous culture? How is rape and the fear of rape affecting Mursi women’s abilities to care for their families and their health?

“They are cutting down our bush and forest, and bulldozing our gardens then they want us to sell off all our cows. No one is going to sell their cattle. They should go away. They should leave our forest alone and leave it to us to cultivate with our hands.”

          -South Omo agro-pastoralist