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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?

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"They want these people to remain as primitive as they used to be, as poor as they used to be, as naked as they used to be so that they will be specimen for research and an agenda for raising funds," Abay says about the project's naysayers.

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'I want my children to be pastoralists'

But while the government says it has had extensive consultation with the communities, several members of the Bodi tribe, who number about 7,000, say such claims are exaggerated.

"The government is building it themselves. They are not sharing it with other people, they did not call a meeting," father of three, enrobed Dori Bella, who moves every month to graze his cattle said in a new school just outside the village of Hanna. "We don't want to be begging in town, I want my children to be pastoralists."

Activists spoke of a widespread fear of reprisals for speaking out and predicted armed resistance to what they see as a government land grab.

A report this month from Survival also claimed that over 100 individuals from the Mursi and Bodi were arrested for protesting the plan. But locals said that recent detainments were not directly related to the project.

As our Land Cruiser wound its way to the Omo valley along a sturdy gritted track, a broken-down truck carrying panels for plantation workers' homes almost blocked the road after failing to mount a steep incline – an indication of the huge logistical challenges involved in bringing commercial farming to this far-flung region.

The water extracted for the farms will result in a five-meter reduction in the level of Lake Turkana and eventually fewer fish, according to Sean Avery, an engineer who published a report on the area for the African Development Bank in November. Concerns over effects on Turkana prompted a UNESCO committee to make a futile call for the government to halt construction of Gibe III in July. A "fragile environment and the livelihoods of tribes" will be destroyed, Survival states.

For the several thousand Turkana and Dassenech people depending on the lake for their livelihood, the future is uncertain.

Educated Kenyan fisherman Michael Irgeno from the Dassenech tribe believes the dam is a mixed blessing. Power and irrigation are welcome for the deprived regions, but "at this time it's bad as most people have not heard about Gibe III," he says in the half-light of his domed hut near the wind-lashed shore. "It would be better if people come together with one mind and decide what to do," he says. "But if they start without informing people it will have an effect. Most of our community is illiterate so it is hard for them to have an opinion."

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