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The Omo and Mago National Parks

The Omo and Mago National Parks, showing the approximate area of Mursi occupation. Map 4

The Omo and Mago National Parks – an unresolved problem

The Mursi live within and between the Omo and Mago National Parks, which include most of their best agricultural and grazing land (Map 4). The Omo National Park (4,068 sq. km.) was designated in 1966 and the Mago National Park (2,162 sq. km.) in 1978. Apart from the Mursi, members of another seven ethnic groups live in and/or utilize the Omo Park for hunting, herding and cultivation: the Chai, Nyangatom, Dizi, Me'en, Bodi and Kwegu. The Mursi, Kwegu and Muguji live in both the Omo and the Mago Parks. The Mago Park is also utilized at certain times of the year by the Hamar and Banna for cattle herding and by the Aari for bee keeping. The boundaries of the parks were not agreed with local people and, to this day, have not been legally established (gazetted). They are, in effect, ‘paper parks’.

The management of these parks has represented an unresolved problem for the wildlife authorities since they were first designated. A report submitted to the Wildlife Conservation Department (as it then was) in 1978, recommended the merging of the two parks into a ‘Greater Omo National Park’, and the forcible resettlement of the Mursi and Bodi. In March 1993, an Italian consultancy firm, Agriconsulting, carried out a feasibility study for a project funded by the European Development Fund, focusing not only on the Omo and Mago, but also on the Nech Sar National Park near Arba Minch. This project, which became known as the ‘Southern National Parks Rehabilitation Project’, began in 1995, with a three-year ‘Preliminary Phase’, among the objectives of which were the gazettement of the three parks, according to their then boundaries, and the resettlement of people living within them. Neither of these objectives were achieved and the project did not proceed beyond its preliminary phase.

In February 2004, a Netherlands-based organization, African Parks Foundation (APF), also known as ‘African Parks Conservation’, ‘African Parks’ and, most recently, ‘African Parks Network’, signed an agreement with the Ethiopian Government, allowing it to manage the Nech Sar National Park on a 25 year lease. The agreement included a clause stating that existing government plans to resettle the inhabitants of the Park (Kore agriculturalists and Guji pastoralists) would be completed before APF’s management began. Several thousand Guji were still in the park, however, when APF took over in February 2005, and are still in the park to this day (February 2008).

At about the same time that it was negotiating its agreement to take over the Nech Sar` National Park, APF had also expressed an interest in taking over management of the Omo National Park. In preparation for this, the Southern Region Government set about the ‘demarcation’ of these parks, in preparation for their gazettement. A ‘demarcation ceremony’ was held in the Omo National Park in March 2005, at which members of various local groups were asked to sign (with their thumbprints) documents describing the park boundaries. They were not given copies of these documents, so were not able to seek legal advice on the implications of what they had signed for their traditional land rights. The then Chair and main funder of APF, the Dutch business man the late Paul van Vlissingen, was present at this event.

APF’s management of the Omo Park began in January 2006. Its agreement with the government lists the ‘rights and obligations of the company’ and the ‘rights and obligations of the government’ but makes no mention of the rights of local people, who live in and around the park and whose livelihoods have traditionally depended on the use of natural resources within it. The agreement merely states (paragraph 1.4) that ‘the company undertakes as far as is practically possible to take community interests into consideration’. The agreement was not discussed with local people before it was signed, nor was it made available to them until eleven months after APF’s management of the park had begun. Various human rights organizations expressed concern about these and other aspects of APF’s management of the Omo Park.

In September 2007, after several months of negotiation, local staff of African Parks reached an agreement with representatives of Guji living in the Nech Sar park which would have allowed them to remain within the park boundaries, but excluded them from a fenced ‘core area’. This agreement was not endorsed by the Government. Meanwhile, criticism by human rights organizations of African Parks’ record in the Omo Park continued. In a letter to African Parks dated 31 October 2007, Survival International warned that it risked being complicit in the abuse of the human rights of the Mursi and other local people living in and around the Omo Park, unless it gave them certain formal assurances concerning their traditional rights of occupation and use. On 7 December 2007 African Parks issued a statement announcing its decision to ‘terminate’ its management of both the Nech Sar and Omo Parks. A year later it formally handed over management responsibility for the Omo National Park to the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Regional State (SNNPRS).

More information

For a clip from the film 'Shooting with Mursi', in which Mursi give their views about the National Parks, click here.

For a discussion of the EU funded ‘Southern National Parks Rehabilitation Project’ see David Turton, ‘The Mursi and the Elephant Question’, in D. Chatty and M. Colchester (eds.) Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development,Berghahn Books, Oxford and New York, 2002, pp.97-118.

Agreement between the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State, and African Parks (Ethiopia) PLC concerning the management of the Omo National Park’.

'African Parks Foundation and the Omo National Park', by David Turton, May, 2006

Letter from Survival International to African Parks Foundation, 31 October 2007.

Announcement by African Parks Network of the termination of its management activities in the Nech and Omo National Parks, 7 December 2007.

For a summary of international conventions and guidelines relating to the rights of indigenous peoples threatened with forced displacement from, or restriction of access to, their traditional lands, see the website of Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees.

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