- Indigenous groups in southwestern Ethiopia are suffering from starvation and disease after being displaced from their land for construction of a dam and the installation of large-scale sugarcane plantations, according to a report from the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank.
- These projects have deprived the communities living in the Lower Omo Valley of their ability to farm and maintain their livestock herds, but this “catastrophe” has gone largely unnoticed in the shadow of even wider hunger and displacement due to civil war in the northern Tigray region, the report says.
- Humanitarian NGO World Vision International delivered some food aid to the region in November 2022.
- But the Oakland Institute said more food and medical care is urgently needed, along with the return of the land back to the Indigenous groups who have lived in this region for centuries, and is urging the government and the humanitarian community to respond immediately.
A flagship dam and large-scale sugarcane plantations in southwestern Ethiopia are causing starvation and disease among several Indigenous groups driven off their land by the projects, according to a report by the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank.
Construction of the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo River began in 2006. The intention was to provide water for irrigation to commercial plantations and generate electricity, some of which would address the country’s power deficit and some that would be sold to neighboring countries like Kenya. Five years later, the government started the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, slated to cover at least 150,000 hectares (nearly 371,000 acres), which is almost the size of London, and include six sugar-processing factories. Some estimates suggest plantations could cover 245,000 hectares (more than 605,000 acres).
To make room for the plantations, the government planned to resettle 200,000 people living in the Lower Omo Valley. Now, research by the Oakland Institute alleges that the lives and livelihoods of the Bodi, Kwegu, Mursi and other Indigenous groups have been radically altered.
These groups have kept herds of cattle and other livestock, and farmed the seasonally flooded plains of the Omo River for centuries, if not longer. The region is home to five national parks, and in 1980, UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site because of the rich archaeological finds that have yielded clues about the origins of humankind and some of our most ancient ancestors.
With the Omo’s flow now throttled by a compacted concrete dam wall rising nearly 250 meters (820 feet), the natural flood patterns of the river on which the people of the Lower Omo rely are likely a thing of the past.
“We try to cultivate near the sugarcane plantation but guards sent by the sugar factory warned us that we needed to clear the area, or else they threatened to burn our homes near the river,” a Kwegu villager said as quoted in the Oakland Institute report. “No one is helping us.”
Deprived of their traditional livelihoods to provide sustenance, many in the communities are now struggling to survive, Anuradha Mittal, the Oakland Institute’s executive director, told Mongabay. Yet this burgeoning “catastrophe” has gone largely unnoticed in the shadow of even wider hunger and displacement due to civil war in the northern Tigray region.
“It is very important that the government and international aid agencies start providing relief to people,” Mittal said.
The Oakland Institute first warned of the hunger, displacement and conflict the valley’s original inhabitants were facing in 2019. When researchers returned in 2022, community members, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from plantation security forces, told them that they were facing malnutrition and starvation. In October, 22 Mursi community members reportedly died of malnutrition. The humanitarian NGO World Vision International delivered bags of wheat to villages in the region in November, but Mittal said the response has been “totally inadequate.”
World Vision did not respond to a request for comment from Mongabay.
Residents said the government had promised jobs — as many as 150,000. But the ones that did materialize only paid the equivalent of $7 to $28 a month, they said. Meanwhile, double-digit inflation in Ethiopia has driven the price of the 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of maize needed to feed an average family for a month to around $56, according to the report.
Reports also surfaced during the research of cholera outbreaks in some communities, possibly due to the release of sewage from encampments of plantation workers and security personnel upstream from the tributaries that serve as water sources for some communities. The researchers report that several dozen Kwegu, Bodi and Mursi have died of cholera in the past three years.
In November 2022, the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front agreed to a cease-fire. For now, a fragile peace seems to be holding. That should open the door to delivering food and medical aid immediately to the people of the Lower Omo Valley, Mittal said, along with beginning the process of “undoing” the “so-called development projects.”
“The land should be given back,” she added, “and the land rights of the Indigenous should be respected.”
Banner image: Herders in the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Image © Kelly Fogel.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
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