News / Africa

HRW: Ethiopians 'Forced Off Land'

A Karo tribesman of the remote lower Omo valley guards his goats on a bank of the Omo, Ethiopia, April 2002.
A Karo tribesman of the remote lower Omo valley guards his goats on a bank of the Omo, Ethiopia, April 2002.
Selah Hennessy
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.

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Comment Sorting
by: Sabrina from: US
June 18, 2012 11:44 PM
The above commenter need to understand that it is because people like him, native Ethiopians, fail to stand with their brethren that Human Rights Watch is doing what it is doing. It is a commendable job. HRW may still be working with the regime too, we don't have information indicating otherwise. Please make sure you know what you are saying before starting to criticize. And most of all please desist from using that old tired excuse, "you are dictating, are patronizing,...its because you are rich ...etc"
It doesn't work anymore.
In Response

by: Gideon from: Washignton, DC
June 20, 2012 3:21 PM
I agree that basic human rights are essential pillars of society and its quest for development; however I have grown increasingly suspicious of the real intentions by HRW. There isn’t a single development activity that HRW hasn’t opposed to. We are not building nuclear weapons but anything Ethiopia does is being criticized as if we are building nuclear weapons. Does the world want to condemn us to poverty forever? We build roads they criticize us, we build dams they criticize us, we allow commercial farming they criticize us, we build railroads they criticize us. What do these people want for us? Do they want us to be condemned to poverty, famine and begging forever? I don’t understand.
In Response

by: Mekdes Hagos from: Boston
June 19, 2012 5:45 PM
This comment is for Sabrina, we are not naive Ethiopians. You are the one who is being naïve by interfering in our country affairs. And you have the audacity to tell others to stop expressing themselves. We know what is best for our country and the people of Ethiopia are with the government on this. We are sick and tired groups like HRW crying crocodile tears. Stay way from our country, we don’t need you. You can talk about this and that until the cows come home. You cannot deter us what we want to accomplish for our country.

by: Ethiopian from: US
June 18, 2012 4:01 PM
The fact that the International community is concerned with the affairs of the indigenous people of the Omo Valley is great. However, how the community chooses to address and possibly resolve the issue is a matter I disagree with. Publishing articles implicating the government will not solve the problem. I am for the protection of the indigenous people, but I feel this article will contribute nothing that is positive for the locals. It will only aggravate the matter. As hard as it is, you need to work with the government in mediating and finding a solution that is mutually beneficial there is always a mid point where everyone can meet and resolve problems. But being from the rich countries, it sounds like you are planning to dictate your wishes on a country.

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