Africa Rising: Economic progress vs. cultural preservation in Ethiopia
Ethiopia's state project to make it into one of the world's top sugar producers requires the resettling of semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages. Which priority wins out: cultural preservation or economic progress?
• Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Sixteen ethnic groups occupy the scorching, low-lying region, raising cattle, and growing crops, often along the fertile banks of the Omo River that wriggles its way through the bush.
Western tourists, archaeologists, and anthropologists are regular visitors to observe the unique cultures and pre-human fossils.
But the Ethiopian government has begun a project to build sugar farms in the area in an effort to take the nation into the top ten of global sugar exporters. The plan, which would require resettling semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages, puts the effort to modernize Ethiopia's archaic agricultural system at loggerheads with the desire to preserve the cultural identities of local ethnic groups.
A push for economic development
The state-run project launched this year – combined with other large-scale farming investments irrigated by the outflow from an under-construction hydropower dam – look likely to alter the area forever, initially for some Bodi and Mursi communities who will be resettled to make way for the sugar fields.
"They will still be pastoralists, but agro-pastoralists. They will not roam around in search of water and grazing land," Abay Tsehaye, head of the state-owned Sugar Corporation, says. "They will have enough grazing land because we will supply them with irrigation."
The farms will be made possible by the regulated outflow from the upstream Gibe III hydropower plant. The plant, which will almost double Ethiopia's power generating capacity, is scheduled to be finished in 2013.
It will provide electricity to Ethiopia and also generate scarce foreign exchange by supplying the region. Ethiopia's large hydropower potential – due to plentiful rainfall in its highlands and mountainous terrain – is a vital asset that must be utilized to bring the country out of poverty, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's leader of two decades, says.
Roads have been improved, scrub land demarcated, and construction of a diversion weir begun for the six plantations fed by the Omo that will occupy at least one-eighth of the Lower Omo area and use 3 billion cubic meters of water per year. Despite the progress, resettlement plans and technical studies on the plantations have not yet been completed, the Sugar Corporation says.
Mr. Abay says agricultural experts, irrigation schemes, and social services will bring much-needed development to a neglected backwater. Critics like Survival International, a British charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, argue communities' rights are being trampled and that the water use will parch Lake Turkana, another World Heritage Site that straddles the Ethiopia-Kenya border.