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Ethiopia’s Omo Valley: a global heritage under threat

International Rivers | 6 March 2012
Map of Lower Omo sugar plantations. Abay Tsehaye, Director General of Ethiopia's state-owned Sugar Corp., says foreign investment is being sought to develop 5 million hectares of land that has been identified for sugar production.

The national parks of the Lower Omo Valley in Southwest Ethiopia are among “the last unspoiled biodiversity hotspots in Africa” and constitute “resources of all people in the world.” These are not the words of tree-hugging foreign environmentalists, but of Ethiopian government officials who recently prepared a report about the region. The Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations associated with it are now putting these unique biodiversity hotspots at risk.

The remote Lower Omo Valley is home to eight different indigenous peoples, three national parks and a World Heritage Site. According to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, the region preserves the “outstanding biodiversity of the country,” with more than 300 bird and more than 80 large mammal species. It is a refuge for elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, buffaloes, gazelles and other species.

The unique wildlife of the Lower Omo Valley is not a rich man’s luxury. As the Wildlife Authority points out, it supports the livelihoods of the local people through wild food, medicinal plants, subsistence hunting, and revenues from tourism activities. The biodiversity also “plays a significant role” in helping the region cope with the impacts of climate change.

The sensitive ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley are now under threat. The Gibe III Dam, which is currently under construction upstream of the national parks, will allow the creation of large sugar plantations and other cash-crop farms that are irrigated with water from the Omo River. A government map which was just leaked to International Rivers delineates sugar plantations with a total area of 2,450 square kilometers – almost the size of Luxembourg – which are largely carved out of the national parks (see image). The plantations are part of a government plan to increase the country’s sugar production from 300,000 to 2.3 million tons.

The lands which have been designated as sugar plantations have been inhabited by indigenous peoples since time immemorial. The government has already started putting pressure on the local Mursi and Njangatom communities to move into resettlement camps under its control. International Rivers receives regular updates about the harassment, rape and imprisonment of tribal people in the Lower Omo Valley by security forces.

“We are the original people of these areas, we know the land and the land knows us,” reads one appeal from December 2011. “This is our ancestors’ land and we do not need rich people to come to us and play on us like they play football. Now the government is going to clear our tribes out like it is clearing the bush from our land for sugarcane. Tell them to go away from here!”

So far no social or environmental impact assessment for the sugar plantations has been completed. Even so, a new report by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority recommends a series of measures to mitigate their impacts on the region’s national parks. The proposed measures include the extension of the national parks to compensate for lost land, the creation of corridors within the plantations to protect the seasonal wildlife migration, and the investigation of the social and economic impacts of the plantations on the local communities.

The Ethiopian Sugar Corporation is under direct control of the country’s Prime Minister, and is politically untouchable. The Wildlife Authority is not free to ask whether turning one of Africa’s most valuable biodiversity hotspots into sugar plantations can be justified. It does not assess either what impacts the water withdrawals for the plantations will have on the fragile ecosystem of Lake Turkana, which sustains 300,000 people and depends completely on the inflows of the Omo River. The new report does make a valuable contribution by documenting what is at stake when indigenous lands and national parks are turned into agricultural export processing zones.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets @PeterBosshard.

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