• Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.
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.
"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.
'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."