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Ethiopia’s Kwegu Tribe in Dire Situation, Reports Say

Anti-dam activists say the Gibe 3 project will result in widespread suffering in Ethiopia and Kenya
Anti-dam activists say the Gibe 3 project will result in widespread suffering in Ethiopia and Kenya

The global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, Survival International, says it has received reports that an Ethiopian tribe, the Kwegu, is facing severe hunger. Their plight is blamed on the destruction of surrounding forests and the drying up of the river on which their livelihoods depend.

The Kwegus live along the banks of the Omo River in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. The tribe, which includes about 1,000 people, hunt, fish and grow crops along the river banks. Survival International reports that the massive Gibe III Dam and large-scale irrigation taking place in the region is robbing the Kwegu of their water and fish supplies.

“The situation with the Kwegu is extremely serious. Survival has received very alarming reports that they are now starving, and this is because they hunt and they fish and they grow plants along the side of the river Omo. All of this livelihood now, right as I speak, is being destroyed,” said Elizabeth Hunter, an Africa Campaign Officer for Survival International.

She explained that the Gibe III, a hydro-electric dam billed as the tallest in Africa, would stop the Omo River’s floods and destroy fish stocks. The Kwegu and other tribes depend on flood waters to help cultivate crops alongside the river bank.

In addition, Hunter said a massive land grab is taking place under the direction of the Ethiopian government to create plantations along the Omo River.

“The plantations, particularly the sugar cane plantations, the Kuraz project which is a government run project is going to need a lot of water. So they’re already syphoning off water into irrigation channels from the river. So for the Kwegu, this means that the fish are going to disappear, and as the plantations expand they’re saying that all the river and forests that they depend on for honey, because they have hives up in the trees, has all been destroyed,” explained Hunter.

She said this clearing of land is forcing the Kwegu to depend on other tribes and the government for survival.

Alemayehu Tegenu, the Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy for Ethiopia, said the Gibe III Dam and the irrigation that is being done for their projects will not affect the water supply of the tribes along the Omo River banks.

“The upper stream of the dam is in a gorge. So it will not affect anybody in the gorge. Down streamside, the dam will not affect the people because the water that we will release from the dam is very regulated water. The people will not be affected by the dam,” he insisted.

Elizabeth Hunter of Survival International said the Gibe III Dam Hunter is also forcing the Kwegus into resettlement areas.

“The government claims this is all being done in the name of development. The big problem is that there has been no consultation, or very little consultation, and certainly none of the tribal people who live in the Lower Omo have given their full, free, prior and informed consent to these projects, both the dam and the plantations. So this means that, for example, the Kwegu say ‘we know absolutely nothing about this. The government comes for us. They don’t tell us anything. All they say is that you are going to be forced to move off your land in this project known as villagization,’ ” said Hunter.

The Ethiopian minister said the government will build homes for the tribal people without moving them off of their land.

“[There are] no plans to mobilize to other places. But we have constructed houses for them to settle in their location,” said the government minister.

He explained the Kwegu will receive a plot of land and access to water as part of the resettlement program. He also countered Survival saying the government has discussed this arrangement directly with the Kwegu.

“We have sufficiently discussed [with the Kwegu]. And people currently-- they request to be part of the sugar plantation. Accordingly, we accommodated and will accommodate [them],” said the Ethiopian minister.

Alemayehu emphasized the tribes along the Omo River banks will benefit from the dam and sugar plantations.

“The sugar plantation is very far from the dam. And the life of the people is part of the sugar plantation program. There will be irrigation schemes for the people around the sugar plantation. The sugar plantation will improve the life of the people in that area,” he said.

Survival International’s Elizabeth Hunter says her group was recently told by people along the banks that they do not want to live in new houses and were never asked what they wanted.

“The other extremely worrying thing is the government has not come up with any compensation plan for these people who are being asked to give up everything, their livelihoods, their way of life, that very deep connection they have as tribal people to the land, and no mitigation measures have been put in place,” lamented Hunter who also posed the question, “if there will be no floods, how can they graze their cattle or grow their crops?”

“The answer the government gives is certainly not development, it’s dump them all in resettlement camps where effectively they’ll be like internal refugees, and they’ll be totally reliant on the government for food aid. So in the eyes of the tribal people and Survival, this is not development,” said Hunter.

She also said that as part of the resettlement program the Kwegu will receive five or six heads of cattle, which she said is nothing compared to the amount of cattle they now have. She says cattle are like money in the bank for the tribal people because when crops fail, the cattle can be traded at local markets for money for them to buy food.

But without cattle to trade, they will no longer be independent.

Hunter said some of the tribal people do want the benefits that go along with development of the land such as having schools and health clinics. But she said these benefits should not come at the cost of them having to give up their land.