A Changing Omo River Valley

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“People of our village and other villages, we don’t want to lose this river, to lose our land, our forests. This is our original place. What would you think if someone came to your home area and said, ‘You go, I want to take your home and land for my own project?’ Would you like that if someone came and just moved you from your home, from your land? Would you like that? That is what is waiting us. What we know is we just have to wait and see what is going to happen with this river. If the government comes, they should just kill us, here, next to our river.”

- Kara woman from Lower Omo Valley, interviewed by Jane Baldwin

Since 2005, photographer Jane Baldwin has been making annual trips to the Omo River Valley to document the lives of women in this remote part of Ethiopia. Her multimedia project about the Omo River cultures from the women’s point of view, Kara Women Speak, documents the human rights and environmental issues that now threaten their way of life. Baldwin’s Notes from the Field report documents her impressions about the industrialization of the Omo Valley and its dramatic impacts on local women, as well as the voices of the Kara women she’s come to know and respect in the past decade.

The Gibe III Dam was the first massive project to disrupt local lives. A Kara woman told Baldwin:

“I went to see the dam along with other Omo people. It is huge. I was scared. The water behind the dam is huge. I was really sad. There will be no water for us. When this river comes high it brings food for us. If we lose our river, no option, we will die. All the crocodiles and fish will die. Everything will die.”

Omo woman at work.
Omo woman at work.
Copyright 2014 Jane Baldwin

Now, the Lower Omo Valley is being parceled out for industrial plantations, the land leased to foreign agribusinesses or converted to huge farms by government-owned businesses. Gibe III Dam is enabling this huge industrial conversion of indigenous lands, by regulating the river and storing water behind the huge dam wall. The local people are losing so much, so fast. Baldwin writes:

“Indigenous Omo River cultures have been living self-sustainably for hundreds of years. They grow their own food, make their own clothes from the leathers of their goats, and forage wild fruits, seeds, and edible plants from the forest. They harvest honey from their beehives and gather medicinal plants. The Omo River provides fish and abundant water for their cattle, goats and agriculture. This self-sustaining lifestyle is rapidly changing, however. Since 2012, massive tracts of Kara ancestral forests and bush-land have been bulldozed and laid bare. Land grabs are well under way. The Ethiopian Government has seized and leased thousands of hectares of land to the Omo Valley Farm Cooperative PLC, operated by a Turkish agri-business company to plant cotton – all without compensation or consultation with the Kara or other indigenous communities of the Omo River Valley. This is only one of many land leases going on in the Lower Omo. The Kara have been thoroughly marginalized by these changes.

Download the full report or view it below

Notes From the Field: Ethiopia's Changing Omo River Valley