June 18 (Bloomberg) -- Human Rights Watch said tens of thousands of semi-nomadic people in southern Ethiopia may be forced off their land to make way for state-owned sugar-cane plantations. The government denied any displacement would occur.
Last year, Ethiopia’s state-run Sugar Corp. began building six processing factories and clearing as much as 175,000 hectares (432,000 acres) in the Lower Omo Valley area to produce the sweetener. The government denied the Kuraz Sugar Development Project would displace anyone and instead will bring infrastructure, services and jobs.
“There is a real risk that the livelihoods of 500,000 people may be endangered, tens of thousands will be forcibly displaced, and that the region will witness increased inter-ethnic conflict as communities compete for scarce resources,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa’s second-most populous nation, is in the middle of a five-year plan to boost agriculture and industry and create sustainable growth. The Horn of Africa nation’s economy grew 7.5 percent last year and expansion averaged 10.5 percent annually in the five years to July 2010, the International Monetary Fund said.
Plantations covering 245,000 hectares will deprive eight ethnic groups access to the Omo River, HRW said, citing a 2010 study by European Investment Bank consultants. Large-scale irrigation in the valley is possible because the Omo River’s volume can be managed by controlling the flow from the Gibe III hydropower dam that is being built.
“There is no one to be relocated at all, let alone forced relocation, due to the sugar development project,” Sugar Corp. spokesman Yilma Tibebu said on June 15 in an e-mailed response to questions.
The state is spending 23.8 million birr ($1.3 million) “to make the people benefit from a settled way of life” alongside the sugar farms, he said. Around 2,250 resettled households will be given 1,700 hectares of irrigable land, public services and a grain mill, Yilma said.
The government estimates the Kuraz project will create as many as 118,000 jobs for local residents, he said.
“With no education and no contact, they lived being victims of natural disasters and harmful cultural practices which gives them nothing except remaining to be an amusement for foreign tourists,” Yilma said of the valley’s inhabitants.
Ethiopia is breaking its international and domestic human rights obligations by starting the project without adequate consultation or impact assessments, according to the report. Ethiopian security forces regularly visited villages last year to “intimidate residents and suppress dissent,” HRW said.
Consent from “tribal chiefs and the people” was obtained beforehand and the state-owned Water Works Design & Supervision Enterprise conducted a study on the project’s effect that will be made public, Yilma said.
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