A tug of war between the Ethiopian government and human rights activists has spurred a tense standoff between the two groups, which onlookers warn is the result of opposing development agendas which must meet for the greater good.
Activists claim that government sanctioned infrastructural developments in Ethiopia are out of touch with the reality of a devastating drought affecting the region currently.
According to an assessment of conditions in the region released by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit-Somalia (FSNAU), a project funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission, this is the worst drought in more than half a century in Eastern Africa and has brought on the region’s worst food insecurity in 20 years.
U.S. and international estimates find that more than 12 million people in this region are expected to be affected by the widespread food insecurity.
It is against this backdrop that a Survival International expose last month revealed that vast blocks of fertile land in the Omo River area in south west Ethiopia are being leased out to Malaysian, Italian and Korean companies, as well as being cleared for vast state-run plantations producing export crops, even though 90,000 tribal people in the area depend on the land to survive.
Survival International further reported that the Ethiopian government is planning to increase the amount of land to be cleared to at least 245,000 hectares (605,408 acres), much of it for sugar cane plantations.
Also on the cards, is the current construction of the Gibe 3, the biggest hydroelectric dam in sub-saharan Africa. Dams 1 and 2 have already been built.
It is anticipated that the new Gibe III dam will produce 6,500 GWh of energy a year, and surplus energy is expected to create 300 million euros (£282m; $407m) in revenue, according to the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), the sole provider of power in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s neighbors, such as Djibouti, Yemen, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, would all be in a position to purchase the excess energy.
The EEPCo sees another benefit of the project in regulating the flow of the river, which floods annually, and thereby making it navigable all year.
This assertion has been disputed, amongst others by environmental and human rights organization International Rivers which has stated in a report that the practice of flood retreat cultivation is central to the lives of people along the Omo River.
The report says families plant riverbank plots as the floods begin to retreat; harvesting takes place a few months later. The silt-laden floodwaters mean additional fertilizers are not needed.
International Rivers says the size of cultivated areas can vary year-to-year depending on the height of the flood, but the reliability of the harvest makes it a fundamental practice for the region’s food security.
Meanwhile, Survival International says the dam project was signed off after Ethiopia’s commitment to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Kenyan activist Ikal Angelei has expressed concern over the government’s lack of consultation with local people’s who depend on the river for their livelihood.
However, this has been refuted by the Dam’s project manager Azeb Asnake who said that detractors of the project worried about public consultation “have been wrongly informed.”
“We have conducted a lot of public consultations. We have a standalone report on public consultation. This is our usual routine at EEPCO,” she said.
Asnake said that before the dam project began, studies were conducted to assess its feasibility and that “these studies indicate that the dam will give a lot of benefits to both upstream and downstream residents along the river.”
Asnake said that the dam project would, upon completion, address the shortage of energy in the country.
But it is this infrastructural development that is at odds with human development, as Delme Cupido, who is the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) Indigenous People’s Rights Programme Manager, points out.
Cupido explains that the Ethiopian government’s plans for economic development created tension between short term and long term objectives and benefits.
“This debate happens every time the state initiates infrastructural development and that tension is always there when developing countries look toward these projects to meet their economic needs,” he said.
Cupido said that when major infrastructural projects were undertaken, Indigenous Peoples, the most vulnerable in society were the losers – with no voice to express their objections, their very existence was overridden by those in power.
“We have to re-think the development paradigm in that development that happens at the exclusion of local peoples is not only problematic, it’s almost doomed to fail because it doesn’t deliver to the people it is supposed to deliver to because they didn’t participate in it.
What is the aim of development? We find that trading away our food stores or digging up minerals that is of value in another part of the world; it shows a tradeoff between immediate economic benefit as opposed to long term development,” Cupido said.
What is clear is that economic and human development cannot be viewed as two separate strategies, rather the success of attaining both these ideals is the blueprint for development in its broadest sense.
The video below describes the area the Indigenous Peoples occupy and how it will be affected by the building of the dam.