Surviving the Second Conquest: Emperor Menelik and Industrial Plantations in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley

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Susan Hurd
A Mursi girl and young man, photographed in 2008.

The many times I arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there was always a sign that said “Welcome Home.” Its meaning never registered until an official from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said it reminds all visitors that their ancestors were originally Ethiopian. Not only have fossils of our pre-human ancestors Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, and Ardi, Ardipithecus ramidus, been found in Ethiopia, but so have the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens. These come from an area near the Omo River, now home to a small indigenous group, the Mursi. This area was designated the ‘Lower Valley of the Omo World Heritage Site’ in 1980 because of “its fundamental importance to the study of human evolution.”1 One theory has it that humans may have first settled on the shoreline of Lake Turkana 200,000 years ago when the lake was about 60 miles north of where it is today.2,3 Lake Turkana was once so large that it connected to the Nile River, with which it still shares the same species of fish. Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake. It has no outlet and counter-balances the inflow of the Omo River, from where it receives 90 percent of its water, by evaporation.4

The Omo Valley is currently home to a great diversity of ethnic groups: the Bodi, Mursi, Kwegu, Nyangatom, Kara, and Dassanech, who still live along the Omo River today, and the Suri, Hamar, Dime, and Dizi, who live in the higher, mountainous regions surrounding the valley. Lake Turkana is home to about 300,000 people,5 including the Turkana, Dassanech, Samburu, El Molo, Gabra, and Rendille groups.

The Omo Valley and Lake Turkana have long been an arena of conquest. In 1896, the Italians tried to seize Ethiopia, but were swiftly defeated by Emperor Menelik’s armies at Adwa.6 Shortly afterwards, Menelik sent a party of 30,000 Ethiopian warriors to take control of Southwest Ethiopia—which was formerly an area of independent groups and small states—to keep it out of the hands of European powers. Taking a page out of the Berlin Conference rulebook on how Europeans were to colonize Africa, Menelik occupied the southwest and planted flags at the north end of Lake Turkana.7

Colonizing forces set off waves of ecological consequences. The Italians unwittingly imported rinderpest via Indian cattle brought through the port of Massawa, Eritrea in 1887. Rinderpest subsequently spread through Ethiopia and all of Africa, killing 90 percent of its cattle. A third of Ethiopia’s population died from the resulting hunger, forcing many pastoralists to turn to agriculture. In stories the Mursi tell of their distant past, they used to nonchalantly plant sorghum seeds in the dung build-up of old cattle kraals and come back months later to harvest the grain. In the meantime, they looked after their first love, cattle.8 It seems likely that the rinderpest epidemic was instrumental in the Mursi becoming dependent, as they are today, on agriculture. Although many groups in the lower Omo have cattle-based cultures, they rely mostly on agriculture for their daily sustenance. The Tishana-Me’en, for example, have very few cattle, but still have a cattle-based culture. They use cattle in weddings, funerals, and in every other important ritual.9

Because of the loss of cattle and the reduction in grazing, the rinderpest epidemic likely led to the growth of woody thickets and a greater infestation of tsetse flies. Tsetse flies caused the epidemics of sleeping sickness that hit the area, killing humans and even more cattle. We know this scenario played out in nearby Uganda.10 Menelik’s troops, along with sleeping sickness and rinderpest, exterminated some ethnic groups, such as the Murtu and Gumba.11

Around this time, a British Consul was established on a cold mountain, in a tiny town, on the Ethiopian frontier. Its job was to stop Ethiopians from slave raiding in the British colonies of Kenya and Sudan.12 Slaves went to the Arab peninsula or domestic Ethiopian markets, and the incursion of the Amhara highlanders into the region dramatically increased slave-taking. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Dizi people in the mountains around the Omo Valley were reduced to 20,000.13 The worst hit were settled farmers in mountainous areas. Pastoralists gathered up their cattle and ran, sometimes into the Sudan,14 or they hid in the malarial lowlands around the Omo River, which highland Amhara were afraid of on account of “the fever.”15

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Will Hurd
The Tama Plains, found between the Omo River and the Mago Park, in the land of the Bodi and Mursi.

Slave-taking led to a curious phenomenon where peripheral pastoralists gained territory from settled farmers. As Italy again attempted to colonize the area in 1936, Amhara highlanders were forced to retreat.16 The Italians poured chemical weapons from airplanes onto Ethiopians on horseback, in contravention of international agreements.17 The Ethiopian defeat ended the slave trade, and with the Amhara gone, pastoralists took over lands denuded of farmers. The old Dizi terraces I saw while trekking in the pastoral Suri highlands were an eerie reminder of the slave trade.

For the next half century, the people of the Omo Valley were once again left mostly to their own devices. But in 1996, the Ethiopian government secretively commissioned the Omo-Gibe Basin Masterplan. The plan recommended that a large dam be built on the Omo River, accompanied by irrigated agriculture downstream.18 In 2006, rafters reported seeing major construction on the Omo.19 This was the first the world knew of the dam, which now reaches nearly 800 feet in height. As a result, the annual floods of the Omo have stopped, and so has much of its flow. Irrigated sugarcane plantations have been established in the northern areas of the Lower Omo Valley and are moving southward, carving large chunks out of the territories of local people, as well as the Omo and Mago National Parks.20 As of now, there seems little hope of the local ethnic groups recovering from this second conquest of the Omo Valley, as they did from Menelik’s conquest of 100 years ago.

The government’s plan is to force cattle-herders to give up their cattle and settle parcels of land too small for self-sufficient food production. This will exacerbate food insecurity in the area. Already, extreme hunger is being reported in the Omo Valley as the Gibe III reservoir holds back the Omo River’s annual flood.21 Abstraction of Omo water for plantations is projected to cause Lake Turkana’s water level to drop up to 65 feet.22 Fish stocks will plummet, and the lake’s already brackish water will become too salty to drink. Violence is inevitable, both around Lake Turkana and in the Omo Valley, as people will fight over ever-dwindling resources.23

The conflicts between irrigation and herding go well beyond the Omo Valley. For example, Karrayyu and Afar pastoralists were never compensated for the loss of land resulting from sugarcane plantations created in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley in the 1950s. They were denied access to the Awash River and were forced to drink from ponds of factory waste with high pesticide and fertilizer content. In 2010, food insecurity affected 93 percent of Karrayyu households.24,25 In the Malkaa Dakaa irrigation scheme in Kenya, destitute pastoralists were settled by a donor-supported, government project. When the donors left, the farm equipment fell into disrepair, production was much lower than expected, and the pastoralist that remained subsisted mainly from food aid.26

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Will Hurd
Mursi Community Conservancy scouts look at satellite imagery of their territory in 2009.

Solutions to the Omo problem are not going to be easy. According to the anthropologist David Turton, who has more than 45 years’ experience in the area, the resettlement project is woefully inadequate in following good development practice. Additional investigations suggested by independent reviewers need to be completed. The impact assessment of the Kuraz Sugar Development Project should be made public. The “three Cs: communication, consultation and compensation” have not been up to standard or have simply been ignored. Instituting “transparent communication,” “meaningful consultation with those to be displaced,” and “detailed and adequately-funded compensation and benefit-sharing strategies,” would go a long way to ensuring this becomes a true development opportunity for local people. A well-funded program of “livelihood reconstruction” needs to be put in place. This should focus on integrating existing livestock herding with the irrigated agricultural land the people have been promised.27 The peoples of the Omo Valley must be allowed to keep their cattle, a current point of contention. The vital protein that the milk provides wards off stunting that affects 40 percent of Ethiopia’s children.28 Cattle are also sold in markets to buy grain in times of hunger, thereby constituting a kind of famine insurance. The size of the irrigated plots given to the people should be increased.

The land area to be devoted to plantations needs to be scaled-back drastically from current plans. This would lessen the threat to Lake Turkana and leave more vital land for local people, while scaling back the number of highland migrant workers to the area, now estimated at 500,000.29 Migrants threaten to take large sections of local land and increase HIV rates. A global glut in the sugar market makes the idea of exporting sugar less feasible, and scaled-back plantations would fill domestic need. The technical demands of sugarcane cultivation in this remote region presents challenges to profitability.

Dr. Turton also rightly points out the need for local people to lead in the development process: “Above all, and given the knowledge, experience, and expertise of the affected people, they should be the ones to take the lead in arriving at the most effective solutions, and in planning specific strategies, with the government and NGOs playing a supportive and facilitating role.”30

Thankfully, groundwork towards these recommendations has already been laid. Local people have been developing a Community Conservation Area (CCA) and tourism project since 2008. It started when the Mursi visited CCAs in Kenya and Namibia. Kenya’s Il Ngwesi is run by the Maasai. They graze their cattle on the CCA and tourist revenue goes to send Maasai children to school and to other development projects. In Namibia, an impressive 17 percent of the country’s land area is now CCAs. After seeing these, the Mursi decided to form their own CCA and convinced the Bodi to join them. They instituted a community-wide hunting ban. Local scouts were hired through their Indigenous Community Association. Records showed a rise in wildlife populations. By managing the already high tourist volume, the Mursi raised USD$10,000 in the first six weeks—a large amount for Ethiopia at that time.31 Despite its promise, however, the CCA could not get government recognition and was stopped.

This remains an exciting possibility that can fulfill some of the good development practice guidelines of livelihood reconstruction, community-driven development, and integration of cattle-herding. A lodge and campsites, owned and run by the people with managerial assistance from NGOs and the government, could boost the local people’s revenue. Tourism to the area is criticized by the government and draws the ire of anthropologists (it is not a pretty sight in its current form). However, the Mursi and other local groups like it for one reason: it brings in money. At high season, droves of Landrovers flock to the Mursi, who currently only get a few dollars posing for photographs. Giving the Mursi more control over tourism would enable them to increase their income by, for example, offering wildlife tours and accommodation.

The CCA would work in conjunction with the Mago and Omo Parks for a greater combined area of wildlife protection. When the warden of Mago Park heard Mursi guards were guarding local game he exclaimed: “Half of our problem of wildlife protection is solved!” A long corridor left free of plantations on the Omo River would allow the Mursi and their cattle access to the Omo River, while wildlife would have a corridor to move between the Omo and Mago Parks. The Mursi-Bodi CCA plan is already supported, in some form, by the southern regional Culture and Tourism Bureau. Of particular interest is the Tama Plains between the Omo River and the Mago Park, which is the land of the Bodi and Mursi. It is of little value to the plantations, as it is too elevated to irrigate, but is suited to grazing cattle alongside wildlife. Local cattle raising can feed the demand for meat that will come with an influx of workers.

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Will Hurd
A Mursi wearing the peritoneum of a sacrificed ox that declared the beginning of the Mursi-Bodi CCA in 2009.

This project holds promise, if only it could get government approval. Hundreds of negative articles decrying the treatment of the ethnic groups and worrying about their future have appeared in the press, and local officials complain that this has affected the image of their region. After 50 years of literature on the adverse impacts of development projects,32 Ethiopia could be lauded as one of the countries to finally do development well—a feather in their cap to add to their impressive economic growth. But, if they continue on the path toward the disaster looming on the horizon, they will instead be known for committing one of the world’s worst environmental and developmental disasters.