LONDON - A report published Monday by Human Rights Watch
says the Ethiopian government is forcing tens of thousands of people from their land in order to set up sugar plantations.
According to Felix Horne, a consultant to the New York-based rights group who was in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley researching the report last June, approximately 245,000 hectares of land will be cleared for planting sugar.
"Studies show that approximately 200,000 people live on that area, so we can expect 200,000 people to be impacted in the lower Omo Valley," he said. "Across the border, in Lake Turkana, another 300,000 people rely on the lands around Lake Turkana for their livelihoods."
Irrigating the plantations, he added, will impact the flow of water from the Omo River to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, a move that comes amid disruption caused by construction of a dam that is set to open in 2014 and will aid in irrigation.
"In Lower Omo, this is just part of an integrated development plan that also considers the massive Gibe III dam, which [includes] a lot of road infrastructure," said Horne. "There is also drilling for oil and gas in the region now, so a lot of changes are happening to indigenous people at once."
The changes are exacerbating tensions between the government and the region's traditional inhabitants, agro-pastoralists whose livelihood depends on the ability to wander with their cattle.
"They are being told that they will have to reduce their cattle numbers, that they will have to settle in villages that the government is planning for them, is building for them, and there is a lot of frustration in the region because of this," said Horne.
While the report says the plan's Ethiopian opponents have experienced intimidation, arrest, and violence, the government denies the charge, saying that communication lines are open and that no one is being forced from their residence.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon, who calls the report "biased" and "patronizing," says the rights group is trying to “micromanage” Ethiopia, in part by continually opposing development.
"It's true that we are conducting investment in sugar plantations that we need badly, and it is based on human considerations in consultation with respective indigenous people," said Simon, adding that planning officials have considered the population's needs.
"It's an ongoing project, which will benefit all Ethiopians, with particular attention to the indigenous peoples, the historical and cultural treasures being maintained as well," said. "Land has been allocated for them to do their houses. So everything is line with the plan and it is a democratic, humanist approach that is exercised."
In May, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that four million hectares of land had been made available to agricultural companies.