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Change and development: overview

‘Change and development’ is a catch-all phrase, used here to refer to the combined impacts of state incorporation and globalisation. The lower Omo became part of the Ethiopian state in the 1890’s, when the Emperor Menilek II established his control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan. Viewed from the centre, this lowland periphery was a hot, disease ridden and unproductive tract of land, upon which no recognisable imprint of civilization had been left by the ‘nomads’ who wandered across it, ‘hanging on to the tails of their cattle’. The soldier-settlers who followed the armies of Menilek to the southwest made no attempt to settle in the Omo lowlands, preferring to establish themselves in the surrounding highlands, where they found a familiar climate and a settled agricultural population which they could readily incorporate into their feudal system of expropriation and control.

It was not until the 1960s that the Ethiopian state began to establish the kind of control over the lower Omo region which allows us to speak realistically of state incorporation. The establishment of the Omo and Mago national parks was a key step in this direction. First, it helped to create, at least on paper, a simplified and ‘legible’ space, more suited to the administrative needs of the state than the apparently random and unpredictable patterns of indigenous land use and settlement. Second, the parks offered opportunities for the state to raise revenue from this hitherto 'unproductive' area through the development of tourism.  The creation of national parks has been one of the most effective means of state building (if not of wildlife conservation) in the lower Omo to date. But other means are now emerging which will enable the state to advance its project of political control and revenue extraction much more rapidly, although in ways which are not compatible with biodiversity conservation.

The Gibe III hydroelectric dam, now under construction in the middle Basin of the Omo and due to be completed in 2014, will greatly modify the flood regime upon which thousands of people in the lower basin depend for their livelihoods. By regulating the river flows, and ‘uplifting’ the low flows during the dry season, it will also make possible the development of large-scale commercial irrigation schemes. The most ambitious of these is already being implemented by the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation on land either taken from the Omo National Park or currently occupied by the Bodi, Mursi, Nyangatom, Kara and Kwegu. If current plans are realised the lower Omo will become by far the largest irrigation complex in Ethiopia, at least doubling the total irrigated area in the country.

These plans also appear to envisage the resettlement of the entire agro-pastoral population of the lower Omo and their transformation into wage labourers and sedentary cultivators, although no resettlement plans, impact assessments or feasibility studies have so far been released for public discussion.

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