Ethiopia

The Lower Omo Valley in Southwest Ethiopia stretches west into Sudan, south into Kenya and drains the Omo River into Lake Turkana just below the Ethiopian border. It is home to roughly thirteen different ethnic groups. Despite the increasing presence of agricultural, mining and tourist industries, it remains one of the least modernized areas in the world. In 2010 the Ethiopian government received funding from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to begin construction of a dam far upstream on the Omo River and in early 2011 large tracts of the lower valley went up for lease to agricultural investors.

I had been in the area for a period of two months the previous year assisting a friend with a film, and had stayed with two tribes in the region—the Hamar and the Kara—to whom I had been introduced by the German anthropologist Ivo Strecker, who has worked in the region with his wife Jean Lydall since 1970. I received news of the developments described above in the spring of 2011 and made plans to return. The trip would be, in part, an investigation into the degree to which the tribes who would be affected were aware of the projects and their potential impacts. I also hoped, with time and attention, through photo, film, and the recording of song and story, I could help to document the lives of the people who inhabit the valley before they are changed forever. In almost every corner of the world, the substitution of self-sufficient local economies with capital economies and the influx of foreign goods has irrevocably redefined the relationship between people and place, at the expense of the dignity and intimacy of locality that comes with meeting the demands of human life with our heads, our hands, and the resources available to us. In witnessing some face of these cultures and their transition into modernity, I wished to translate what is transpiring in the Omo into a medium available to the West—to document what is there while it remains with the hope, too, that the more international attention the issue receives, the more pressure the Ethiopian government will face to grant the tribes rights to make their own decisions about their futures.

This website is a work in progress. I am still in the process of editing down audio and video from the Omo and will upload this material as I am able.

Read more about the Omo»


In January of this year, Prime Minister Meles Zanawi announced a five year development plan for the Lower Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. Centering around 150,000 hectares of irrigated state-run sugarcane plantations, the project is by no means the first to raise dispute in the area in recent years. Already, plans for the second largest hydroelectric project in Africa, the Gilge Gibe III Dam, had been initiated far upstream; already, thousands of hectares of fertile grazing land had become available for lease to foreign investors for export cultivation; the tribe’s own cattle herds had already caused extensive desertification throughout the valley, from the banks of Lake Turkana to the south, the border of Sudan to the west, and to the Mago and Omo national parks to the north. These issues among others served as the most recent additions to the geopolitical backdrop of a long running drama between the thirteen (often waring) ethnic groups of the region, numerous NGOs, regional and federal government organizations, missionaries and church groups, domestic and international private interests split between the tourist and agricultural sectors, international contentions with the Kenyan border to the south and the Sudanese border to the West; and all these players with disparate political agendas and wide ranging ambitions for the future. In short, his announcement came as a twist in the early chapters of the already complex and multifaceted story of development, conflict, food scarcity and water shortage in the Omo Valley. Understanding this region and the promises and perils that now face it, then, will be no easy task.

The Lower Omo Valley is UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home around thirteen tribes. Among these, the Kara and Kwegu are chiefly agricultural and depend almost entirely on the annual flood season of the Omo River to farm sorghum and maze along its banks. The other tribes are primarily pastoralists who depend upon grazing cows and goats in the increasingly arid regions on both sides of the river. These groups rely on the river to varying degrees. Some engage in smaller scale cultivation along its banks, while others do not have flood-dependent agriculture but trade for grains from those who do in the dry season or take their cattle to the river’s banks to water. Due to their diverse methods of food production, these tribes will be affected in different ways and to different extents by the unfolding developments.

In his January speech, given in Celebration of Ethiopia’s 13th annual Pastoralist Day, Zenawi drew a clean line between two camps of opinion regarding the future of the Omo: he stands on one side with the proponents of development and modernization, and on the other are the ‘friends of backwardness and poverty,’ the nations and NGOs who oppose this brand of development on humanitarian and/or environmental grounds. This line becomes increasingly fuzzy the more one zooms in, but in painting some broad strokes it may prove useful. Much of what divides these camps are questions of differing moralities and perspectives, ie is development worth the cost of loss of cultural diversity? Does healthier mean happier? Number of years vs. quality of years, etc. Much more of what divides these camps are questions of science. Who, in the end, will ultimately benefit most from these developments, and who will suffer? According to the latter, more concrete questions the Prime Minister’s assertion that his opposition is motivated solely upon a desire to “keep the pastoralists as a tourist attraction and make sure no development happens in pastoral areas” is ultimately untenable. For if we zoom into the line that divides the above-mentioned camps, we find that very few of those opposing the plantations, leases and dams do so on grounds of cultural preservation (though it is often cited as a secondary cost).

Rather, numerous studies have independently concluded that almost every angle of development now underway will be completed at the net expense of the tribes. Following the completion of the 1800 MW Gilge Gibe III hydroelectric project, the annual floods that come after the rain season in the highlands will cease to raise water downstream of the project site to significant levels. Those who farm in the flood retreat zone of the Omo River will face the eventual obsolescence of their primary mode of food production. Those tribes who trade for grains grown along the river will need to seek alternative sources of food during dry season. As the plains outside of the flood zone are increasingly utilized for industrial agriculture, less and less land will be available for those same pastoralist tribes to graze their cattle and goats. In the past, periods of food shortage due to droughts have precipitated brutal, widespread intertribal warfare; in replicating these droughts through the damming of the river we would expect the perpetual conflict between ethnic groups in the Omo to escalate.

Beyond food security there are social and health concerns. Chinese, Indian and Ethiopian contractors have been working on various sections of a highway which will connect the Omo to commercial centers to the north and in Kenya to the south. Once completed, these roads will rapidly accelerate the progress of the irrigation projects with the easy import of machinery and labor. If history is any teacher, where roads come, capital economies follow; and where capital economies come, so come prostitution, STDs, alcoholism and drug use- issues that are currently virtually nonexistent in tribal areas.

The economies of each ethnic group in the Omo is intertwined with every other. So on one hand, the exploitation of large tracks of tribal land by the government and foreign investors for the cultivation of cash crops and the loss of annual floods brought about by the construction of the Gibe III will have drastic consequences for them all. And given time, the socio-cultural and health related impacts of the introduction of a capital economy and the influx of a large transitory workforce may well outweigh them.

On the other hand, the tribes already face their own dilemmas largely unrelated to the current developments. Droughts cycles have always caused periods of hunger and scarcity, sparking conflict and shaping over the years a complex network of alliances and enmities between them. In the past three decades the region has been flooded with automatic weapons from Sudan and Kenya which raised the stakes of war and quickly resulted, with the help of foreign sport hunters, in the annihilation of many local game species. For the pastoralists this necessitated an increased dependence on cattle, and this dependence in hand with already growing populations of cows and people has resulted in widespread overgrazing and desertification. Infant mortality is high and life expectancy low due to diseases such as malaria, dysentery and measles and little to no access to medical care or clean water. So by measurements of health, education, and in some cases food security, many smaller developments also underway (water pumps, small-scale local-production irrigation projects, clinics, schools) would benefit the valley greatly.

We are left, then, with more questions than answers. Is the loss of cultural diversity worth the merits of modernity? Do self-sufficient economies provide healthier, more stable livelihoods than capital economies? Is it the place or indeed the responsibility of modern nations to develop ‘backward’ ones? Or, conversely, is it our place or responsibility to preserve their cultures at the price of the benefits and amenities that we all enjoy? And, should we allow or facilitate modernization in undeveloped regions, can we expect them to actually receive those benefits? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Who should be answering these questions: us, or them?

History, in the meantime, may offer a few answers of its own, for this is not a new story. The interests of indigenous communities to maintain rights to their land and livelihoods has come into conflict with the interests of industry and development nearly everywhere in the world. Poverty and disease are often distant precursors to the comforts of modernity if ever they come. It seems the best future of the Omo we can fight for will seek the best in both worlds: first and foremost assuring food security through sustainable means, whether those be traditional or modern; making education and healthcare available where necessary to provide tribes with the tools and knowledge to cope with a rapidly changing world; allowing the social cohesion of traditional practices and family structures to continue to source the sense of self-worth and cultural dignity that is so often the first casualty of modernization; allowing indigenous communities to continue their own food production methods where possible to minimize dependence on aid. If we as the international community can assure the responsibility and accountability of government land distribution and private and governmental land use, and a platform for dialogue between the tribes, the private and governmental interests, and the international community is sustained, perhaps a brighter future in the Omo is possible.

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