TIM­O­THY CLACK vis­its an area of east Africa, which rep­re­sents both the cra­dle and cru­cible of our species but is now doomed by a ma­jor dam project

The New European - - Expertise -

En­com­pass­ing large swathes of Ethiopia, South Su­dan and Kenya, the Omo-turkana Basin is one of the old­est land­scapes in the world that is known to have been in­hab­ited by Homo sapi­ens and is now one of the world’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­am­ples of eth­nic di­ver­sity.

In the lower Omo Val­ley alone, a var­ied his­tory of cross-cul­tural en­coun­ters has played out to pro­duce eight dis­tinct eth­nic groups, speak­ing many lan­guages from Afro-asi­atic to Nilo-sa­ha­ran.

On a visit there, at a cat­tle camp on the bank of the an­cient Omo River a Mursi el­der im­plored me to “tell our story so that oth­ers might know us be­fore we are all dead in the desert”. Where the river ends in Lake Turkana, this sen­ti­ment was echoed by lo­cal fish­er­men: “You will find our bones in the desert.”

The story of the Omo-turkana Basin is now that of the Ethiopian state ex­ploit­ing its pe­riph­ery in the name of ‘devel­op­ment’, tram­pling on the hu­man rights of its ci­ti­zens in the process. Over the past decade, the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment has pushed ahead with a huge hy­dro-elec­tric dam on the Omo, known as Gibe III. With­out any mean­ing­ful con­sul­ta­tion with the com­mu­ni­ties af­fected, the state has also ap­pro­pri­ated graz­ing lands and fresh­wa­ter, threat­en­ing their vi­tal re­sources and lo­cal her­itage. All of this has hap­pened de­spite the area gain­ing the sta­tus of a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site in 1980.

The com­ple­tion of Gibe III – Africa’s tallest dam to date – has elim­i­nated the an­nual flood and rad­i­cally re­duced the Omo’s flow, which pro­duces 90% of Lake Turkana’s fresh­wa­ter in­put. In do­ing so, it has re­duced sed­i­ments and nu­tri­ents crit­i­cal for tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture, river­side pas­tures and fish habi­tat.

More than 30% of the lake in­flow will be di­verted for com­mer­cial ir­ri­gation pro­jects. The re­sult could be a fall in lake level com­pa­ra­ble to that of Cen­tral Asia’s Aral Sea, which has shrunk by more than two thirds since the 1960s be­cause of ir­ri­gation ab­strac­tions and which has been called “the world’s worst en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter”.

To make way for the com­mer­cial plan­ta­tions planned for the Omo Val­ley, tens of thou­sands of hectares of land will be ex­pro­pri­ated and thou­sands of lo­cal peo­ple dis­placed.

The need to see ‘devel­op­ment’ as more than a sim­ple mat­ter of an in­crease in GDP is well es­tab­lished. In his sem­i­nal work, Devel­op­ment as Free­dom, the No­bel Prize-win­ning econ­o­mist, Amartya Sen, demon­strated that sus­tain­able devel­op­ment must be based on uni­ver­sal ac­cess to so­cial and eco­nomic ne­ces­si­ties as well as po­lit­i­cal and civil rights. The many com­mu­ni­ties in the Omo-turkana Basin have suf­fered a sys­tem­atic

cur­tail­ment of their most ba­sic and es­sen­tial rights.

In­ter­na­tional agree­ments which the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment signed up to, such as the 1993 In­ter­na­tional Covenant on Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights and the In­ter­na­tional Covenant of Eco­nomic, So­cial and Cul­tural Rights, re­quire it to pro­tect and pro­mote the rights of mi­nor­ity cul­tures and en­sure the “right of every­one to take part in cul­tural life”.

Since 1948, Ethiopia has also been signed up to the Con­ven­tion on the Preven­tion and Pun­ish­ment of the Crime of Geno­cide. Ar­ti­cle II pro­vides against the de­struc­tion of “a na­tional, eth­ni­cal, racial or re­li­gious group”. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘geno­cide’, fa­mously de­fined the spe­cific need to

Pro­jects which set out to in­crease eco­nomic growth with­out re­gard for so­cial jus­tice and in­di­vid­ual rights are not wor­thy of the name ‘devel­op­ment’

pro­tect against the “dis­in­te­gra­tion of the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­sti­tu­tions of cul­ture, na­tional feel­ings, re­li­gion, and the eco­nomic ex­is­tence of na­tional groups”.

It is dif­fi­cult not to con­clude that what we are see­ing in the Omo is the whole­sale dis­re­gard of these com­mit­ments by the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment. Its devel­op­ment poli­cies are not only trans­form­ing land­scape and her­itage but de­stroy­ing com­plex sys­tems of sus­tain­able liv­ing that have en­dured for mil­len­nia. The huge in­jus­tice of all this is that the eco­log­i­cal costs will be borne by lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties while the prof­its will be en­joyed by cen­tral and in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions.

Mean­while, cen­turies of col­lec­tive wis­dom re­lat­ing to live­stock di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, flood de­pen­dant cul­ti­va­tion and cus­tom­ary obli­ga­tions and mech­a­nisms of live­stock ex­change, will be made re­dun­dant.

This is not to deny, of course, that devel­op­ment, in the sense de­fined by Sen, is a laud­able and nec­es­sary en­ter­prise. But we must also recog­nise that largescale in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects are likely to have far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the life­styles and cul­tural iden­ti­ties of those they dis­place.

Pro­jects which set out to in­crease eco­nomic growth with­out re­gard for so­cial jus­tice and in­di­vid­ual rights are not wor­thy of the name ‘devel­op­ment’. Devel­op­ment must ben­e­fit lo­cals and for this to hap­pen their voices must not only be heard but also given a cen­tral and de­ter­min­ing role in any dis­cus­sions about the fu­ture of their lands and liveli­hoods.

Both cra­dle and cru­cible of our species, the Omo-turkana Basin is unique and pre­cious. Its her­itage and his­tory, as well as re­spon­si­bil­ity for its fu­ture, are shared by us all.

Tim­o­thy Clack is a lec­turer in ar­chae­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at thecon­ver­sa­

Photo: Carl De Souza/ Afp/getty Im­ages

THREAT­ENED: Mem­bers of the Karo tribe be­side the Omo River in Ethiopia’s south­ern Omo Val­ley re­gion. The Karo tribe – fa­mous for their body paint­ing – de­pend on the river for their sur­vival and way of life

DEVEL­OP­MENT: Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam, has rad­i­cally re­duced the flow of the Omo River

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