HUMAN Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed that Ethiopia is forcing thousands of people from their land in the southern Omo valley to make way for sugar plantations, a charge denied by the government.
“The Ethiopian government is forcibly displacing indigenous pastoral communities in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo valley without adequate consultation or compensation,” the New York-based group reported.
Pastoralists are communities whose main livelihood is raising livestock.
Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that an official with the group estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people have been displaced.
About 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of land has been earmarked for commercial agriculture in the Omo valley, where several state-run sugar plantations and cotton farms are already in operation.
But the government denied the accusation and said any relocation in the area is happening voluntarily.
“There is no forcing out of people from their residence, the direction of the government in this regard is to engage the public, if there is any reason to relocate people, then it is based on… open communication,” government spokesman Bereket Simon told AFP.
The rights watchdog accused Ethiopian authorities of intimidation, arrest and violence against those who oppose the plans.
“Government officials have carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, and other violence against residents of the Lower Omo valley who questioned or resisted the development plans,” HRW said.
But Bereket said the sugar plantation schemes in the Omo valley would develop and modernise the region.
“We are concerned with (community) wellbeing, their cultural heritage and this is not a project to dismantle their cultural heritage, it’s the opposite actually,” he said.
Most of the 200,000 people living in the Omo valley are agro-pastoralists using the land for cultivation and animal grazing.
The Omo River is also a lifeline for the communities in the valley who rely on its annual flooding for growing crops.
Rights groups said the construction of the Gibe III dam upstream – already half complete – will regulate the river’s flow, threatening the livelihoods of the communities that rely on it.
The government rejects these claims, saying the dam will provide a steady water source and will produce electricity for the 55 percent of the Ethiopian population that does not have access to power.
But HRW’s senior Africa researcher, Ben Rawlence, accused the Ethiopian government of neglecting the needs of local communities.
“Ethiopia’s desire to accelerate economic development is laudable, but recent events in the Omo valley are taking an unacceptable toll on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities,” he said in a statement.
The rights group called on the government to halt construction of the dam and stop the development of sugar plantations.
Bereket accused HRW of trying to “micromanage” Ethiopia and of routinely opposing development schemes.
“They want us to remain poor and I don’t know how these people can claim to be humanistic when they just oppose any endeavour that we do to benefit our people,” he said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in May that four million hectares of land have been earmarked for commercial investment throughout the country.