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In happier times, a Kwegu family on a maize field next to the Omo river. Photo: via Survival International.
In happier times, a Kwegu family on a maize field next to the Omo river. Photo: via Survival International.
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Ethiopia: Kwegu tribe starves, victims of dam and land grabs

Oliver Tickell

13th March 2015

The Kwegu people of Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley are facing starvation because of the loss of their land to a huge sugar plantation, the destruction of their forest and the damming of the Omo river - supported by a UK, EU and World Bank funded 'aid' program.

There has been almost no consultation of the indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley about these projects on their land, and resistance is met with brutal force and intimidation.

Local sources report that the Kwegu, the smallest and most vulnerable tribe in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, are suffering severe shortages of food and facing starvation.

The situation follows from the enclosure of much of their land for the huge Kuraz sugar plantation, the destruction of their forest and the damming of the river on which they depend for fish and flood irrigation of crops.

The Kwegu, believed to number no more than 1,000, hunt, fish and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River. Although the smallest of the indigenous tribes of the Omo valley, they are the original people of the area who have lived there, according to our source, "since time immemorial".

Now the massive Gibe III dam and associated large-scale irrigation infrastructure for commercial plantations on their land and that of other ethnic groups has stopped the Omo River's regular annual floods.

The alarm has been raised by Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Total crop failure as floods fail to irrigate fields

Normally the Kwegu grow crops of sorgum, maize and 'green gram', a protein-rich lentil, on land moistened and fertilized by the receding flood waters. But last year's flood never took place as the water instead went to fill the Gibe III reservoir - as confirmed by recent satellite images.

Fish stocks on the Omo river are also greatly depleted as a result of the low flows on the river and the total failure of the annual flood.

As well as farming, the Kwegu also maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, eating a wide range of foods including wild fruits and leaves, insects including termites, wild animals and mushroms. Another delicacy is honey from their hives.

But they have been cut off from most of these food sources after their land was taken by force for the Kuraz plantation. The Kwegu have become dependent on food from neighboring tribes to survive, notably the Bodi, a pastoralist tribe with a long history of cooperation with the Kwegu.

"We have reports of children with distended bellies as the food shortage hardens", said our source. "The Kwegu are now entrusting their children to the Bodi who are nourishing them with blood from their cattle."

But the Bodi themselves are in an unsustainable position, as much of their grazing land has also been taken for the Kuraz plantation and their remaining pastures have also suffered from the absence of flooding.

"You have to wonder how everyone will survive", said our source. "We are incredibly concerned that they will start dying. This has been widely predicted - and at this point there is no indication that it's not going the way everyone warned it would go."

"This is the first test case for all the tribes below the Gibe III dam, and the others are much more populous. The Ethiopian government promised there would be controlled floods form the dam to allow those that depend on the water to survive - but as we see that's not true. It was just a smokescreen."

In disturbing video testimonies filmed in 2012 during the clearing of their land, a Kwegu man said, "Maybe we will die. The river keeps us alive. If they take the water out of the riverbed where will we live? If the fish are gone what will we feed the children?"

Maybe we will die Kwegu tribespeople in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley report that they are starving as a result of being forced from their land and of the irrigated plantations that are drying up the river on which they depend. Filmed in 2012, during the clearing of their land for a government sugar plantation.


 

Omo Valley indigenous tribes never consulted, victims of official violence

There has been almost no consultation of the indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley about these projects on their land, and resistance is met with brutal force and intimidation.

Army units have been despatched to the Omo valley to quell opposition to the Gibe III dam and the Kuraz sugar plantation, and local sources report that soldiers have raped indigenous women and imprisoned both men and women for voicing their objections.

A member of the Suri, a neighboring people to the Kwegu, told Survival earlier this week, "The government has told us to live in new houses but we don't want to ... They did not try to explain what they were doing or ask us what we wanted."

UK aid supporting forced resettlement

Several tribes are being forcibly settled by the government in a process known as 'villagization', which has received financial support from a massive $4.9 billion World Bank program called 'Promoting Basic Services' (PBS), to which the UK government has committed almost $780 million, and the European Commission $66 million.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US, UK and German aid. DfID, the UK's donor agency, recently announced it will stop funding the PBS program which has been linked to the forced resettlement of tribes in the Omo Valley.

However, the UK has not reduced the total amount of its aid to Ethiopia and makes no reference to the resettlement program. DfID's total aid budget for Ethiopia is £368,424,853 for 2014/2015.

The report of a donor mission to the area in August 2014 by the Development Assistance Group - a consortium of the largest donors to Ethiopia including USA, the UK, Germany and the World Bank - has not been released, despite the growing humanitarian crisis in the Lower Omo.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival, said: "Donor agencies need to reform to ensure taxpayers' money is not spent propping up governments responsible for evicting tribal peoples from their lands.

"DfID says its aid supports the poorest - yet it turns a blind eye to the many reports of human rights abuses in the Lower Omo, and continues to support an oppressive government hell bent on turning self-sufficient tribes into aid-dependent internal refugees."

 


 

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