November 2010

July 2012

A home to 200,000 indigenous people is being turned into an industrial powerhouse.

Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to 200,000 agro-pastoralists, is under development for sugar plantations and processing. The early stages of the development have resulted in the loss of land and livelihoods for thousands of Ethiopia’s most vulnerable citizens. The future of 500,000 agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya is at risk

Lower Omo Valley

The Lower Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia is one of the most culturally and biologically diverse places on earth. Approximately 200,000 indigenous people live in the Lower Omo Valley.

The Omo River flows south into Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake and approximately 300,000 people live along its shores. The Omo and Turkana watershed is home to five national parks, and two World Heritage sites.

The Lower Omo Valley is one of the most remote and underdeveloped regions of Ethiopia. But that is set to change...

Government Plan

In January 2011, Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi stated “… there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this [South Omo] zone. I promise you that, even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”

Plans include:

Click here for more information on Ethiopia’s Lower Omo development plans

Cultural diversity

The Lower Omo Valley is home to many distinct indigenous peoples. All rely on the lands and waters around the Omo River for their livelihoods and cultural identities.

Most people in this region are pastoralists and raise cattle. Some also grow sorghum along the Omo River and its tributaries, while others harvest fish from the river.

Ethiopia’s sugar industry

Ethiopia produces 300,000 tons of sugar each year. With the new sugar plantations in the Omo valley, the country aims to increase annual production to more than 2.25 million tons. This increase will be used to offset domestic sugar supply shortfalls, for ethanol production, and for export to sugar markets. Exports of sugar and various biofuels have become very lucrative under the EU’s Everything But Arms treaty (EBA) which gives preferential trading terms to Least Developed Countries (LDC) such as Ethiopia.

Early development

As of January 2013, 6% of land had been cleared to make way for the sugar plantations. Sugar nurseries have been established and a diversion dam was built to fill the 200 kilometers of irrigation canals that were developed to supply water to this thirsty crop.

The vast majority of the 6,500 hectares of land cleared to date was land traditionally used by the Bodi people for cattle grazing and for crop production.

Changes to the Omo River Valley

November 18, 2010

This is the Omo River before the start of construction activites related to the Sugar Block 1 project. There are over 20 distinct areas along the banks of the Omo that are used for traditional farming by local communities.

January 6, 2013

There are dramatic changes in the landscape along the Omo River after more than a year of construction activities related to Sugar Block 1 project: over 4,800 hectares of land have been cleared for cultivation, and 200 traditional homes have been submerged under the reservoir created by the diversion dam.

April 14, 2013

There are continuing construction activities related to the Sugar Block 1 project along the Omo River. More than 1,600 hectares of additional land has been cleared for cultivation, 90 kilometers of new survey lines and 17 kilometers of new roads have been laid, with ongoing work on expanding the main irrigation canal and resettlement villages.

Diversion dam

The construction of a diversion dam caught affected residents by surprise when it was constructed in May 2012 to divert the waters of the Omo River into the irrigation canals feeding the sugar plantation. However the earthen structure was not built to proper engineering standards and broke twice before successfully diverting waters into the irrigation canals. Rising floodwaters behind this dam resulted in the flooding of Bodi farms, huts, and granaries.Two hundred and twenty households were displaced and they lost their sorghum crops for the year. The impact was also felt downstream, where water levels dropped dramatically.


According to Ethiopian government documents, all indigenous people in the Lower Omo Valley are to be resettled into permanent villages, ostensibly to provide them better access to government services. With their traditional lands being cleared for sugar plantations, the Bodi communities are being resettled into three permanent villages, but these village locations are dry and most services are not yet available.

Some people receive some food aid when they arrive in the new villages. Many Bodi stay long enough to receive food aid and then leave the villages to return to their home areas. In the Bodi areas, as of January 2013, an estimated 500 households had been resettled into the new villages.

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Current impact

Twelve hundred Bodi people living in the area of the reservoir that was created behind the diversion dam have lost their homes and seen their livelihoods decimated as the floodwaters engulfed their farms and grain stores. Some have moved into the new settlement villages, others are moving around with their cattle in the areas that have yet to be cleared for sugar plantations.

Many Mursi and Kwegu families have also had their farms, beehives, and grain stores cleared. Beekeeping is a key component of the livelihoods of Bodi, Kwegu and other Lower Omo peoples who consumed, sold or traded the honey for other goods.

These events are already devastating for the affected individuals and their families, raising many concerns about what the consequences will be when the development scheme is fully implemented.

The future

Under the current proposals, all 200,000 of the Lower Omo Valley’s indigenous people will be displaced from their ancestral lands and relocated to permanent villages to provide labor for the sugar plantations.

They are concerned about the end of their way of life and the potential for inter-communal conflict sparked by increased competition over diminishing grazing land.

They are fearful about how they will feed themselves and the social problems that may emerge as their communities transition from agro-pastoralism to farm labor.

There are also concerns in Kenya where independent studies have projected that water levels in Kenya’s Lake Turkana may drop by up to 22 meters, with potentially devastating consequences on the lives of the 300,000 Kenyans who rely on the lake for their livelihoods.


Some of Ethiopia's most vulnerable citizens are on the verge of losing their livelihoods and ability to feed themselves due to Ethiopia's ambitious development plans in the Lower Omo Valley. Ethiopia should respect the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley to give free, prior, and informed consent before their traditional land is taken or used, and ensure that all impacted people are fully consulted, compensated appropriately, and are full participants in the development plans of their traditional lands.

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