Ethiopia tribesmen fear forced end to “backward” lifestyle

Posted on December 21, 2011


“We are a dying people,” says Gorgis, a cattle herder from the Bodi tribe who lives in the bush near Hana town in South Ethiopia, home to semi-nomadic Mursi and Bodi tribes.Like his fellow tribesmen Gorgis moves around with cattle in search of water and grasslands.

His family of two wives and eleven children grows crops along the banks of the Omo River that flows through Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, territory of sixteen indigenous tribes that live fossilized lives and listed as a world heritage site.

Just outside Hana, Ethiopia’s state-owed sugar corporation has ceased 150,000 hectares to set up a sugar plantation, annually sucking up three billion cubic meters of water from the river and occupying its fertile banks.

The plantation is part of a development plan that will transform the wild into cash crop producing farmland, Ethiopia says. Upstream the country is building one of Africa’s largest hydropower dams.

The two billion-dollar dam called Gibe III will double Ethiopia’s power capacity, it says. The dam’s regulated outflow will be used to irrigate large plots of sugar farmland from a 150 kilometers-long reservoir.

The push for development includes resettlement of thousands of tribesmen into permanent settlements where Ethiopia says they will have access to health facilities and schools. The days of southern tribes, popular among tourists and academics, “walking around naked” and living a “backward” lifestyle are over, Ethiopia says.

“There are people who say they are concerned about pastoralists,” longtime leader Meles Zenawi said in a speech earlier this year. “But they want pastoralists to remain a tourist attraction forever. The pastoralists don’t want to live as a tourist attraction. They want a stable, improved life.”

Most of the Bodi around Hana say Ethiopian officials haven’t informed them. “The government is already building new villages and wants us to move there,” Gorgis says. “We haven’t been asked anything and our King says they are thieves.”

Rights groups have criticized Ethiopia’s dam and the United Nations called for an immediate stop of construction. The opponents say the dam will forever alter the lives of hundred thousands indigenous people depending on the Omo River. They fear widespread hunger and conflict over water.

Duri Bela, a Bodi pastoralist wearing a red chequered toga, says he never heard about the plans until bulldozers arrived in Hana to build the plantation. Now “they have taken our land, use our water, and are building on our fields”, he says. “We might grow hungry.”

Survival International, a rights group campaigning tribal rights, reported a crackdown on locals in Hana opposing the dam, saying “over a 100” protestors had been arrested. People in the area wouldn’t confirm the report, but said they are afraid to speak out against the plans.

An expert in the region who asked to remain anonymous said there is no doubt that the tribes will take up arms against the government: “A revolt is going to happen.”

Ethiopian officials say this is “false propaganda” from environmentalists trying to undermine their development agenda. It says locals will benefit from new jobs and will be compensated for resettlement.

But policemen in Hana detained Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s correspondent for five hours after visiting the sugar corporation’s local office, only to release him after a regional manager dashed into town in his four wheel drive, showing little confidence about journalists nosing around at the project site.

Duri Bela says he prefers living in the bush to a new life in a settlement. “I need my children to be pastoralists,” he says. “When I see the town, I see few people making money. They sleep on the streets and beg. We don’t want to become beggars in a town. Pastoralists don’t beg.”

This article was published on the website of Radio Netherlands Worldwide on December 21, 2011