The flooding of the Omo River feeds the rich biodiversity of the region and ensures tribes such as the Bodi, Mursi and Dassanach can feed their cattle and produce beans and cereals in the fertile silt left behind. In addition to this indigenous communities are also suffering from violent human rights abuses, as plans are implemented forcibly to resettle those who stand in the way of the government's plans, and to take away their cattle.
Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to a great diversity of peoples speaking more than 80 languages. Still, Ethiopia has no legislation that protects or address the rights of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples in the regions of Gambela and the lower Omo Valley have been affected by the government’s foreign investment and land lease policy and villagization programme.
The indigenous peoples of Ethiopia make up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated 95 million population.
Around 15 per cent are pastoralists and sedentary farmers living in the lowlands. Hunter-gatherer communities include the forest-dwelling Majang (Majengir) and the agro-pastoralist Anuak people who live in the Gambella region.
More than 80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia, with the greatest diversity found in the south-west. Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya and Somali are spoken by two-thirds of the population.
Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has no national legislation that protects indigenous peoples. Ethiopia has neither ratified ILO Convention 169, nor was it present during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
Ethiopia’s obligations under the international human rights mechanisms that has been ratified - e.g. the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination - remain unfulfilled.
Main challenges for the indigenous peoples in Ethiopia
Ethiopia's pastoralists are living on land that, in recent years, has become the subject of high demand from foreign investors.
Since 2008, when concern about a potentially global food crisis increased demand for agricultural land, the Ethiopian government has leased millions of hectares of land throughout the country to agricultural investors, both foreign and domestic. Pastoralists’ customary rights to the land are being consistently violated, as they lose their land to private companies. Land grabbing and forced relocation of indigenous peoples happen in agreement with the Ethiopian government in return for foreign investment.
The Ethiopian policy of villagization - a policy for resettlement of people into designated villages - has also forced indigenous peoples to relocate. Even though the villagization is designed to provide “access to basic socioeconomic infrastructures” to the people it relocates, the resources provided by the government has proved insufficient to sustain people in the new villages. Indigenous peoples’ access to healthcare as well as to primary and secondary education remains inadequate.
Conflict in Gambella
The Gambella region in Ethiopia has since the mid-1990s witnessed factional fighting and inter-community violence between the Anuak and the Nuer, mainly over resources and for socio-cultural reasons.
The rise of ethnic tensions between the Anuak and Nuer are fuelled by the porous border between South Sudan and Ethiopia. Gambella already hosts some 330,211 refugees from South Sudan, due to the ongoing conflict in the country, which continues to displace people inside the country and force them into neighbouring countries. Ethiopia is currently the second largest receiving country for refugees from South Sudan, the vast majority of whom have found shelter in Gambella.
Along with the increased Nuer population, tensions and violence have escalated with Anuak communities over claims to traditional lands and access to jobs. Land use rights in Gambella remain contentious.
Threatened water security in the Omo valley
The building of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam, which was officially opened by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on 17 December 2016, has significantly impacted water security in the Omo valley region. According to publicly available data, water levels are falling in the Omo River, a source that is vital for the 500,000 indigenous people living in that region.
Falling water levels pose a threat to food security and lead to increased conflict over existing resources. Reports from external sources say that the lives of indigenous peoples living in the region have been “fundamentally and irreversibly” changed by the building of the dam, making it very difficult for the half a million indigenous people living in the area to sustain their traditional livelihoods.
According to the Dam’s Public Consultation and Disclosure Plan, only 93 members of four indigenous communities were consulted after the construction of the dam had already begun.
Reports have shown that investors have not been utilizing land allocated to them by the Ethiopian government appropriately. The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture will therefore need to re-evaluate the current status of land in the possession of investors before allocating further land for investors.
The report "Waiting Here for Death” was released on January 16, 2012, according to Human Rights Watch press release. The report examines the first year of Gambella’s villagization program. It details the involuntary nature of the transfers, the loss of livelihoods, the deteriorating food situation, and ongoing abuses by the armed forces against the affected people. Many of the areas from which people are being moved are slated for leasing by the government for commercial agricultural development.
It's the deal of the century: £150 a week to lease more than 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset – for 50 years. Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global says it had not even seen the land when it was offered by the Ethiopian government with tax breaks thrown in. Karuturi snapped it up, and next year the company, one of the world's top 25 agri-businesses, will export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from Gambella province – a remote region near the Sudan border – to world markets.