Survival International, which advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples across the globe, reports that a major land grab in southwestern Ethiopia is resulting in death and massive dislocation.
Large numbers of tribal people in the Omo Valley are being evicted at gunpoint after the national government seized their land to lease“to state and private companies for conversion into large-scale sugar cane, cotton and biofuels plantations.”
Agrofuels — the term we prefer for fuels derived from farmed crops — are the major focus of the UC Berkeley Energy Biosciences Institute, which was created with $500 million from BP.
When the Berkeley administrations and academics heavily vested in the program were selling the proposed Energy Biosciences Institute to skeptical faculty, students, and the public, Chris Somerville, the bioengineer imported from Stanford to head the BP-funded program, insisted that research was aimed at making the U.S. energy independent from nonfood crops grown on marginal farmlands “east of the Mississippi [where] there is adequate rainfall to grow very highly productive species.”
But that was quickly by Steve Koonin, hired away from Cal tech by BP to head the corporate side of program during a 13 June 2007 U.S. Energy Association breakfast briefing for political insiders in Washington.
Koonin, who would become head of science of the Department of Energy less than two years later under Secretary of Energy and former Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory Director Steve Chu, told the gathering:
BP is a global company. And of course, while the U.S. may be currently 25 percent of worldwide petrol use or crude use, there’s a whole other world out there. And so we are interested in feedstocks and fuels for many different locales around the globe. . .If you look at a picture of the globe … it’s pretty easy to see where the green parts are, and those are the places where one would perhaps optimally grow feedstocks.
Most of the world’s “green parts” are in Africa, Latin American, and Asia.
And let’s not forget that Amyris, the company created by UC Berkeley genetic engineer Steve Chu, concentrated its since-failed efforts to commercially produce agrofuel using genetically tweaked microbes, in Brazil, where there have been numerous reports of slave labor on sugar cane plantations, where the crop is used to produce ethanol. Amyris had concentrated on using the leftover cellulose from cane ethanol production to make its fuel.
Tragedy in the Omo Valley
The Omo River flows south from the Ethiopian highlands into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and the Ethiopian government has been busily expropriating tribal lands along the river’s course to lease out, mainly to foreign corporations eager to capitalize on dams the government is building along the river’s course.
As the leases are signed, massive evictions of tribal peoples are underway, sometimes at gunpoint.
And people are dying.
Here’s the latest report from Survival International, issued this week:
Survival has uncovered shocking new evidence of human rights abuses against tribes in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, as government efforts to develop lucrative sugar cane plantations in the region intensify.
Bulldozers are flattening land near a UNESCO World Heritage Site, destroying villages and forcing local communities to give up their pastoral way of life.
Fear is growing as violence becomes commonplace and reports of beatings, rapes and arrests spread among tribes close to the Omo River.
As recently as January 2012, Survival received reports of three Bodi men being beaten to death in an Ethiopian jail.
The government is also ordering families to sell their livestock. One man told Survival, ‘My money is my cattle. My bank account is my cattle.’
One Mursi man said, ‘The government is building sugar cane plantations on my land. When you see it you will cry – there are no bushes in the Omo Valley now.’
Two UN bodies have already asked Ethiopia to provide evidence that tribes are being consulted, and that current developments are not damaging the area’s cultural and natural heritage. However, Ethiopia has ignored such calls.
Survival has also received disturbing reports that Ethiopia has begun the process of forcibly resettling tribes in the Omo Valley, a tactic known as ‘villagization’.
Communities have been given one year to relocate, in a programme similar to that reported by Human Rights Watch in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region.
More details from a report filed in November:
The authorities have organized community meetings to inform people of their controversial plans to lease out tribal lands to state and private companies for conversion into large-scale sugar cane, cotton and biofuels plantations.
After one such meeting, a group of Bodi and Chirim tribal people were shown where they are to be resettled. However, after seeing the place, they refused to be moved. The government responded by calling on the security forces to attend a follow-up meeting. When they still refused to move, four young men were rounded up and jailed.
Some Bodi felt so intimidated that they said the government could take the land for sugar, because they ‘could see that death was very near for them if they said no.’
Members of the Suri tribe have also been arrested in the town of Tum for opposing a plantation run by a Malaysian company, which has swallowed a large part of their land where they graze their cattle.
Many Suri say the arrests are a show of force, to intimidate them into not opposing the plantation. ‘We lived there in peace, in the heart of Suri land, the place where all of the Suri cattle were grazing during both the rainy and dry seasons. Now, in this place there is a plantation, owned by a rich Malaysian company.’ said one young Suri man.
‘The Malaysian investors and the government trained 130 soldiers who were given 130 machine guns. If Suri become aggressive towards the farms the soldiers are to kill Suri men, our sons,’ said a Suri woman.
Meanwhile part of Mursi land has been cleared for a site to house plantation workers, with a second camp currently under construction. Officials reportedly told the Mursi that they will soon look for Mursi elders and young men who oppose the plantation plans and imprison them.
It is estimated that there are up to 200 Bodi, 28 Mursi and 20 Suri in jail.
Many now fear that the security forces may start killing people.
Up to 300,000 hectares of tribal lands and national parks have been earmarked for plantations in the Lower Omo Valley.
More background from a UC Berkeley prof
In the wake of the departure of European colonial regimes, land tenure in most of Africa was assigned to the state, rather than tribes or individuals, giving remote national governments the power of life or death over distant pastoral and farming peoples.
Huge sums change hands over land grabs, and those most affected have no say in the outcome.
One UC Berkeley professor has worked closely with peoples in the region, and she was interviewed by National Geographic for a story appearing last July:
“The government has already initiated extensive agricultural irrigation schemes . . . for private corporations and the government, forcing large numbers of the indigenous population out of these agricultural and livestock grazing lands,” said Claudia Carr, a professor of international rural resource development at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Since they have nowhere to go for alternative survival, armed conflicts in the region are sharply rising,.” Carr added.
According to a 2009 Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG) report, the Gibe III dam could reduce the level of Lake Turkana by as much as 66 feet (20 meters) and affect as many as half a million people living in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Such a drastic drop in water level would not only threaten wildlife in the region—including hippopotamus, crocodiles, and migrant waterfowl—but it would also increase the lake’s salinity because the salt concentration in the lake increases as the water level drops, Carr said.
“Lake Turkana is already just borderline potable for humans and livestock,” she added. “An increase in salinity would push conditions over this limit, as well as disrupt the entire biology of the lake itself.”
The ARWG report is posted online here [PDF].
And note that Berkeley’s BP-funded EBI sent researchers to Africa even before the University of California Board of Regents had signed the agreement creating the EBI.
Sometimes “green” is really “red” — blood red.