Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 73-page report, titled “‘What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?’: Abuses against the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley”, on Monday.

In the report, mainly based on 35 interviews conducted last year, among others, HRW called on the Ethiopian government “to suspend the construction of Gibe III and the associated sugar plantations” projects taking place in the Southern Ethiopia.Ethiopia - The Lower Omo Valley (map)

HRW claims that, “the significant changes planned for the Omo valley are linked to the construction of Africa’s highest dam, the controversial Gibe III hydropower project, along the Omo River. Downstream, the sugar plantations will depend on irrigation canals. Although there have been some independent assessments of the Gibe dam project, to date, the Ethiopian government has not published any environmental or social impact assessments for the sugar plantations and other commercial agricultural developments in the Omo valley”.

According to the report, “…as of June 2012, irrigation canals have been dug, land has been cleared, and sugar production has begun along the east bank of the river. The full implementation of the [Sugar cultivation] plan could affect at least 200,000 people in the Omo valley and another 300,000 Kenyans living across the border around Lake Turkana, which derives up to 90 percent of its water from the Omo River”.

The report alleges that “the Ethiopian government is forcibly displacing indigenous pastoral communities in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo valley without adequate consultation or compensation to make way for state-run sugar plantations”.

It also quoted ‘community representatives’ as saying that “state officials had told them, without any other discussion, that the communities would need to reduce the number of their cattle and resettle in one place, and that they would lose access to the Omo River”.

In HRW’s view:

These developments…are being carried out in contravention of domestic and international human rights standards,……..Ethiopia has not recognized any rights over the land of the indigenous communities of the area, including tenure security,…..Neither has it taken steps to adequately consult with…in particular taking into account the scant formal education of most of the population.

HRW raised the issues to Ethiopian officials, during the preparation of the report. The officials responded noting that “the plantations will bring benefits to the indigenous populations in the form of employment”. However, the report rejects the response saying that:

“Employment may be a welcome benefit for affected communities. But the prospect of some jobs does not remove the urgent need for the government to suspend plantation development until rigorous assessments have been carried out, the rights of the indigenous communities over their land has been recognized and consent sought, and any displacement or acquisition of land is shown to be strictly necessary, proportionate, and compensation provided”.

A senior official of HRW said, in a press release on June 18, that: “Ethiopia’s desire to accelerate economic development is laudable, but recent events in the Omo valley are taking an unacceptable toll on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities. The government should suspend the process until it meets basic standards, and donors should make sure their aid is not facilitating abuses.”

Human Rights Watch also called on Kenya to “press for new environmental and social impact assessments that examine the cumulative impact of the Gibe III dam and the irrigated commercial agriculture scheme”.

No official response, yet.

The Ethiopian government has not issued an official response to date. Though some sort of official remark is expected at some point, there are indications that the government might not react as fiercely as it deed to prior reports of HRW.

However, Bloomberg’s correspondent in Addis, William Davison, had obtained some comments from relevant officials. Davison wrote, last Monday (June 18) that: 

“There is no one to be relocated at all, let alone forced relocation, due to the sugar development project,” Sugar Corp. spokesman Yilma Tibebu said on June 15 in an e-mailed response to questions.

The state is spending 23.8 million birr ($1.3 million) “to make the people benefit from a settled way of life” alongside the sugar farms, he said. Around 2,250 resettled households will be given 1,700 hectares of irrigable land, public services and a grain mill, Yilma said.

The government estimates the Kuraz project will create as many as 118,000 jobs for locals he said.

“With no education and no contact, they lived being victims of natural disasters and harmful cultural practices which gives them nothing except remaining to be an amusement for foreign tourists,” Yilma said of the valley’s inhabitants.

Ethiopia is breaking its international and domestic human rights obligations by starting the project without adequate consultation or impact assessments, according to the report.

Consent from “tribal chiefs and the people” was obtained beforehand and the state-owned Water Works Design & Supervision Enterprise conducted a study on the project’s effect that will be made public, Yilma said.


Read HRW’s press release Ethiopia: Pastoralists Forced off Their Land for Sugar Plantations (here).


Pastoralists: Resettlement an option? | Ethiopia

Ethiopia: UN Committee inquires about Gibe III dam, Sugar project

On Gibe III dam : Weighing the UN Committee’s decision | Ethiopia

Check the Human Rights archive or the Gibe III dam archive for related posts.

Daniel Berhane

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