Ethiopian development and the destruction of lives

Ethiopia's Omo Valley

By Graham Peebles

In many parts of the world development has become an invisible cloak under which all manner of state sponsored atrocities and human rights violations are being committed.

Married to growth, development has been largely reduced to economic advancement, meaning maximizing Gross National Product figures month on month, year on year, and turning over glowing returns to the insatiable global monetary bodies – the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – and profit to private investors.

A term overflowing with contradictions, development is often employed to dignify corporate activities which are commonly no more than exploitation and profiteering, as in the case of the worldwide appropriation of land, usually to irresponsible, profit-driven foreign corporations and private hedge funds and equity fund managers, who boast of returns of between 20 and 40 per cent on investments. A broader and more substantive definition of development would include the fulfilment of innate potential, the continuation of traditional lifestyles and the integrated development of individuals.

Lower Omo Valley

Over 70 different tribal groups contribute to the rich cultural tapestry that makes up Ethiopia. The beautiful Lower Omo Valley, in the southeast of the country, is home to a group of eight ancient tribes, indigenous people who have lived on the land for thousands of years, leading self-sufficient, simple lives in harmony with the environment. They live east and west along the 760-kilometre-long Omo River, which flows from Ethiopia into Kenya, where it comes to rest in Lake Turkana.

In order to develop the rich and fertile land of the region, and honour leasehold agreement with foreign companies, the government is evicting indigenous people from their homes and driving them into settlement camps where “the government promises us paradise, but we know that we are going to hell”, says one of the aggrieved.

Their homes destroyed and their land stolen from them, local people tell of horrendous government abuse. They say they are being subjected to a range of atrocities: arbitrary killings, rape, false imprisonment and torture are the tools of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in the region as they clear people off land that is rightfully theirs, and either forcibly relocate them, drive them into the forests to perish or simply kill them in cold blood.

Land rights are complex, and while the Ethiopian constitution (written by the ruling regime but used at its convenience) states that all land ultimately belongs to the state, indigenous people are protected by a range of international treaties to which Ethiopia is a signatory and binding articles within their own constitution. In addition, the government has said that the only land appropriate to be leased is land described as “marginal”, “unused” or “wasteland”. Land regarded by the government as marginal is seen as central to the lives of indigenous people.

“Because the land is traditionally owned, under international law the traditional owners have the right to it as property. Changes to its use or seizure are illegal without the consultation and compensation of the lands’ traditional owners”, according to Human Rights Watch. As well as protecting indigenous people, the constitution also safeguards agro-pastoralists – the majority of affected tribal groups. Driving local people off ancestral land which supplies their food and medicine also breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This states that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”. In addition, it breaches the Right to Culture and Religion and the Right to Health.

Gibe III Dam and associated land development

Remote and culturally diverse, with prized United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage status, the Lower Omo valley is home to over 200,000 indigenous tribal people, including the Kwegu, Bodi, Mutsi, Suri and Nyangatom tribes. Their ancient ways of life and the delicate ecosystem is being threatened by the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam, known as Gibe III, on the Omo River and associated plans for large scale irrigated agriculture. The massive Gilgel Gibe III dam was started in 2006 and is now 62 per cent complete. Funding for the 2-billion-dollar project has come from a range of sources, including the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The Europeans looked at the project and, concerned by the lack of impact assessment studies, culturally appropriate project consultations (required under the constitution), and under heated pressure from non-governmental organizations, wisely decided not to get involved, as did the World Bank.

International and regional aid organizations, including Survival International, believe “the Gibe III Dam will have catastrophic consequences for the tribes of the Omo River, who already live close to the margins of life in this dry and challenging area”. Gibe III will be the largest dam of its kind in Africa (243 metres tall), causing potentially some of the worst environmental and human carnage, by seriously impacting the lives of tribal groups of the Lower Omo area, as well as the 300,000 people who live around Lake Turkana in Kenya, which receives the majority of its water from the Omo River.

Water from the dam, which will double Ethiopia’s energy capacity, will be stored in a giant reservoir that will feed the plantations (445,000 hectares have so far been earmarked by the government) via hundreds of kilometres of pipelines. Up to 200 kilometres (125 miles) of such primary irrigation canals have already been built, along with an “earthen dam” to water the plantations which, the Oakland Institute tells us, “has stopped the annual flood that all people along the river depend on for agriculture, and in the process inundated cultivation sites of the Bodi and Kwegu people upstream”. In addition, according to Survival International, the combined effects of the projects “will result in the drying out of much of the riverine zone and will eliminate the Riparian Forest. Indigenous people such as the Kwegu who rely almost exclusively on fishing and hunting will be destitute”. One could be forgiven for thinking that this government is working to intentionally destroy the native peoples’ lives and shatter the delicate ecology of the region.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this government is working to intentionally destroy the native peoples’ lives and shatter the delicate ecology of the region.

The construction of the Gibe III dam and the interconnected development project of leasing ancestral land for agriculture (including bio-fuels) are being pursued by the government in a manner that is violating a range of human rights and internationally binding legal agreements. Both schemes have been widely condemned by human rights groups and concerned NGOs. Even USAID, Ethiopia’s largest single donor, has berated the regime over its mistreatment of indigenous people.

The EPRDF is pursuing a land sale policy that is causing enormous suffering to the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people throughout the country. With the Lower Omo Valley projects there is a real risk “that the livelihoods of 500,000 people may be endangered, tens of thousands will be forcibly displaced, and that the region will witness increased interethnic conflict as communities compete for scarce resources”, Human Rights Watch says.

Over 375,000 hectares of fertile land in the Lower Omo valley, the Oakland Institute reports, is being turned over for “industrial scale plantations for sugar and other mono-crops“ – the controversial, albeit high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop, year after year, on the same land. Such methods damage the soil ecology, creating dependency on pesticides and fertilizers (all good for the agro-chemical giants) and use lots of water. Driven solely by profit, investors are interested only in high-quality, well irrigated water with good water supplies: they care little about the environmental impact on eco-systems and the devastation being caused to indigenous people and rural livelihoods – nor, it would seem, do the ruling EPRDF.

Human Rights Watch estimates that around 100,000 hectares is being made available to private investors – corporations from Malaysia, India, Italy and Korea which are planting bio-fuels and cash crops. In addition, there is the state-owned sugarcane and cotton plantations run by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, which has taken 150,000 hectares of tribal land for itself and whose operations, the Oakland Institute says, “will [negatively] impact the people of the Lower Omo most, especially the 170,000 along the river”.

Violent evictions, killing and rape

Mass displacements are accompanying these projects. According to the Oakland Institute, “260,000 local people from 17 ethnic groups in the Lower Omo and around Lake Turkana [in Kenya]—whose waters will be taken for plantation irrigation—are being evicted from their farmland and restricted from using the natural resources they have been relying on for their livelihoods”.

The military are the violent enforcers of much of the regime’s unlawful policies up and down the country, including in the Omo valley.

Human Rights Watch says that “on the east bank of the Omo River, where farms are being cleared, grazing lands have been lost, and livelihoods are being destroyed. Furthermore, the Guardian newspaper reports, government maps and local sources say this is just the beginning of a major transformation of the Lower Omo area, where more than 2,000 soldiers are said to have been drafted downstream of the dam and where most of the Omo valley is now off limits to foreigners.

This resettlement of indigenous people to allow for the commercialization of their land is taking place without the “free, prior and informed” consent legally required for any development project, with no compensation for loss of land and livelihood and without consultation, required within the constitution.

Far from consulting with local people, military units regularly visit villages, Human Rights Watch says, to “suppress dissent related to the sugar plantation development [and associated resettlement plans]. According to local people anything less than fully expressed support for sugar development was met with beatings, harassment, or arrest.” According to the Guardian, killings and repression are now common. The paper recounts the story of a villager who says he “was shot with a bullet in my knee [when walking on his land]. That day 11 people were killed and the soldiers threw four bodies off Dima Village Bridge. They were eaten by hyenas”. Rape is the military’s weapon of choice and is employed to frighten and intimidate. The Oakland Institute relays the particularly distressing account of “the gang rape of a young herd boy. They took a small boy that was herding cattle. They had sex with him for a long time in the forest. He was screaming. The boy couldn’t walk afterward. He had to be picked up and carried.”

Frustrated, angry and seeing no alternative, members of the Suri tribe on the west bank of the Omo river have taken up arms against the military. The government has destroyed their land, clearing trees and grass to allow Malaysian investors to establish plantations. Water has also been diverted from the mainstay Koka River to these plantations, leaving the largely pastoral Suri without water for their cattle, according to the Oakland Institute.  Government forces are maintaining a brutal campaign aimed at the Suri people. Friends of Lake Turkana, a Kenyan NGO reported in May 2012 that,

government forces killed 54 unarmed Suri in the market place at Maji in retaliation [for Suri actions against the military]. It is estimated that between 57 and 65 people died in the massacre and from injuries sustained on that day. Five more Suri have been killed since then… [and] Suri people are being arrested randomly and sentenced to 18, 20, and 25 years in prison for obscure crimes.

The government is not only destroying the lives of these tribal groups, but is also creating food insecurity and dependence on humanitarian food aid. Barred from cultivating their own fields and with the military destroying crops and grain stores to cause hunger, people are then lured to the resettlement sites with food aid from international agencies.

In 2011 then Ethiopian Prime-Minister Meles Zenawi asserted that the industrial farms would “benefit the people of this area and hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians, by creating employment”. Hollow political rhetoric. In fact, the government’s development plans for this region are destroying lives and livelihoods for the pastoralist indigenous people, whose only choice, the Oakland Institute says, “will be work on plantations for a low wage”. Zenawi cited the example of sugarcane plantations established in the Awash Valley, but failed to say that tribal groups in the region lost their homes and their way of life and are now dependent on food aid to feed their families – the same is now happening in the Lower Omo Valley.

In addition to losing their land, their homes and livelihoods, with the arrival of foreign workers, plus 2,000 soldiers in this previously quiet, hidden corner of Ethiopia, the people of the Lower Omo Valley have become exposed to a spate of health concerns. Prostitution is flourishing and due to men’s arrogant refusal to wear condoms, HIV/Aids is now prevalent among tribal members and “numerous cases of Hepatitis B, a disease transferred through blood and sex”, has been reported in the area. Food insecurity, violent evictions, including killings and rape, cultural carnage, environmental destruction, prostitution and HIV/Aids: all these ills have been brought to the beautiful Lower Omo Valley by the government, and all in the name of development.

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