25 January 2011 was an important day in Jinka, capital of the South Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples Regional State...not because we passed through that day on our way to see the Mursi...but because the President of Ethiopia was in town...for the 13th Annual Pastoralists Day Celebrations... and the news he brought will have far reaching consequences for the exotic tribes of the Lower Omo Valley.
The President had cancelled all pre-booked accommodation for Western tourists in Jinka, so we suddenly had nowhere to stay...ended up in Konso, a few hours drive away...so early start that day...breakfast in Key Afar...with Ethiopian coffee...after all we are on a "coffee tour" of Ethiopia...soldiers everywhere...then onto Jinka...possibly my favourite name for a destination.
Flags everywhere...there's the President's helicopter...tell this soldier where we are going...no problem...enter Mago National Park...about two & a half hours...up, down, along a narrow dirt road/track...through miles of burnt hillsides...like bushfire country in Oz...but here burnt by man to promote growth for cattle to graze...into Mursiland...the home of the Mursi...pastoralists & hoe-cultivators...and also the Kwega, Mugaju, & sometimes the Hamar & Banna for cattle herding & the Aari for
The Mursi traditionally occupy the area between the Omo & Mago Rivers to the Mara River in the north...the best agricultural land...between the Omo & Mago National Parks.
There are also Mursi settlements in the Omo & Mago National Parks...which creates conflict between the park management authorities and the tribal groups within. Some have been forcibly relocated here so the issues are not just political...but lifestyle-threatening.
In 1978 a Report to the Wildlife Conservation Department recommended the merging of the two parks and forcible relocation of the Mursi & Bodi.
In 1995 a project funded by the European Development Fund began the Preliminary Phase of the Southern National Parks Rehabilitan Project which included the resettlement of people living within the parks. There was no prior consultation. The project was abandoned.
In late 2005 the Ethiopian Government signed an Agreement with the African Parks (Ethiopia) PLC for the latter to manage Omo National Park for 25 years with an option for a further 15 years, and replenish the park with wildlife, build lodges and promote tourism.
I have read the Agreement.
It deals with relocation of animals...but not the intended relocation of people.
The only mention of people living within the parks is in Clause 1.4 that commences:
"The Company undertakes as far as is practically possible to take community interests into consideration."
At the end of the document under "Objectives" it includes:
"To take account the needs of indigenous people, including subsistence resource use, in so far as these will not adversely affect the objectives of management."
At that time there were eight ethnic groups in the Omo Park. There was hostility between them as they competed for land, water etc...many men carried automatic or semi-automatic weapons...and wildlife had been decimated.
On 31 October 2007 Survival International warned African Parks that they risked being complicit in the abuse of human rights of the Mursi & other tribes in the Omo park unless it gave formal assurances to them regarding traditional rights of occupation and use.
On 7 December 2007 African Parks terminated its management of the Omo National Park.
Its reasons included that the park had unsustainable use by ethnic groups, often in competition with each other. Also it stated there needed to be formal agreements on the limits of resource utilisation with various
It concluded"Failure of the process will almost certainly result in the permanent loss of the parks and continued conflict among ethnic groups."
African Parks stated they could "not solve the complexities of Omo" and "to continue was a waste of resources." They thus got out of their Management Agreement after only two years.
As we drove through Mago National Park we were advised the tribe we were visiting had been forcibly relocated from next to the river to its present drier location...and dry it was...an encampment of loose grass temporary dwellings...surrounded by thorny pieces of bushes & a fence of sticks to keep out predators...the least fancy huts I saw in this country of about 82 tribes or ethnic groups.
We picked up an armed local Guide whose rifle was adhered to his person...in fact the only local guide we used among the Omo Valley tribes who was armed.
We were met by painted boys & youths on the road as we approached the settlement...then warriors with AK47 Russian automatic weapons over their shoulders...some with similar Chinese models...women with lip plates...or empty stretched lips...many with babies...all begging for 2 birr per photo...and I
was happy to oblige at 2 birr "per person"...arranged through our local guide...of course!
Our Guide, Gobeze from Footprints Ethiopia advised us how to handle the traumatic pressures of the Mursi to tourists...can be aggressive in extracting payment for photos...those who are "in the know" are aware of these issues.
On arrival we toured the village without cameras...four Aussies...no other tourists...got to know the people...softening leather...grinding sorghum...feeding babies...tugging for photos...but we do not have cameras!
When there was a peaceful aura over the village...we went back to the 4WD for cameras...and I wandered the village alone doing my thing. There was no aggression at all.
My only concern was the light was so intense...and shadows were black.
I shook hands with all who posed for me...reaching into my pocket each time from the 100 one birr notes I had brought for the occasion...until my pockets were empty.
I am aware of the issues of the effect of the tourist trade on exotic tribes...whether it is beneficial... whether it is exploitative...demeaning...distracting them from pursuing their pastoral lifestyles...etc...but in my perception there were more pressing & profound issues...that were occurring at that moment nearby.
in Jinka, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia announced plans to convert 150,000 hectares of the Lower Omo Valley into irrigated sugar cane plantations by completion of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam, which is expected to begin operations in 2013 and which will eliminate the annual flood of the Omo River. The dam will commence filling in June 2012.
Human rights groups have expressed concern the dam could have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of over half a million people, in both Ethiopia & Kenya who depend on the annual floods for cultivation and that it will affect Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya that is fed by the Omo.
In his speech the Prime Minister dismissed such concerns, saying they came from "the friends of poverty and backwardness" who wanted to keep pastoralists as "a case study of ancient living for the benefit of tourists, scientists and researchers."
So how much longer for the Mursi?...
I am privileged to have visited them that fateful day...yes 25 January 2011 was a fateful day...seen one of the tribes that are "jewels of African tribes"...their way of life may not be with us much longer...progress versus tradition...
Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule, with the exception of the 1936-41 Italian occupation during World War II. In 1974 a military junta, the Derg, deposed Emperor Haile SELASSIE (wh...more info