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The Mursi are facing the threat of being denied access to land they depend on for cultivation and cattle herding in the Omo and Mago National Parks of Southern Ethiopia. Although these parks were set up over thirty years ago, the Ethiopian Government is only now taking urgent steps to have their boundaries legally established. This follows an agreement with African Parks Foundation, a private non-profit organization based in the Netherlands, which will assume management of the Omo National Park later this year.
Encompassing more than 2,400 square miles, these parks are home to approximately 20,000 tribal peoples, the majority of whom are Mursi. The tribe is well known for the lip plates worn by the women.
’Now [the government] wants to take this land without our permission,' said Ulikoro, a Mursi tribal member in a message seeking help from outside sources. ’We cannot do anything about the national park taking this land. … Maybe the government will come and shoot us.'
According to Ulikoro, government officials told the Mursi last March that they should ’go to live in the Maganto area, plus their cattle too – the government say that four wells in the Elma River will supply all the water needed.'
If this happens, the Mursi will be confined to one small part of their present territory that lies outside the park boundaries. This would severely disrupt their present economy, a semi-nomadic mix of cattle herding, riverbank cultivation following the Omo flood and bushland cultivation following the main rains. It is said that four boreholes (the ’four wells' referred to by Ulikoro) are to be drilled in the Maganto area, to provide permanent water, in preparation for permanent settlements. But this would deprive the Mursi of their most fertile agricultural land along the banks of the Omo River. It would also undermine their pastoral economy by depriving them of their main areas of dry season grazing. Livestock are a vital resource for the Mursi, not only as a source of milk and meat, but also because they can be exchanged for grain in the highlands at times of crop failure.
As their traditional livelihood would be severely disrupted, the Mursi would become dependant on food aid. The concentration of cattle around a few boreholes would soon create a dustbowl, as it has in many other parts of Africa. This would be the ironic result of a ’conservation' organization moving in.
According to a number of Mursi men, officials from the Mago Park told them in March that they would have to abandon one of their villages on the Mago River, called Kon Ba, or there would be ’a big fire in the village.' The warden of Mago National Park said last March that African Parks Foundation not only wanted the local people removed from the Omo and Mago Parks, but that it was also planning to put up an electric fence to ’protect' the park from squatters and poachers. This has subsequently been denied by African Parks.
African Parks, which currently manages national parks in Zambia, South Africa, Malawai, and another park, Nech Sar, in Ethiopia, counts among its funders the Walton Foundation (the family behind Wal-mart) and the U.S. Department of State.
Complicating matters, the area surrounding Omo and Mago parks is heavily populated by diverse armed tribes whose tense relationships often boil over into conflict. ’The Ethiopian government should be very worried about the prospects of even more violence if they go ahead with their apparent policy of removal in the Omo/Mago area,' said David Turton, a British anthropologist with over 30 years experience of working among the Mursi. ’Any attempt to encroach on Mursi territory will ratchet up the existing pressure on resources in the lower Omo area.'
So far, neither the Ethiopian government nor African Parks has shown signs that they are worried by this prospect. According to one report of an eyewitness, officials from Awassa, the Southern Regional State capital, staged a ’celebration' in March this year at the Omo Park headquarters to mark the demarcation of new park boundaries, in preparation for their legal ratification. As the beer flowed, supposed ’representatives' of the Mursi were asked to ’agree' to the boundaries, on behalf of the whole group, by putting their thumbprints on documents they could not read.
African Parks took over management of the Nech Sar National Park, also in southern Ethiopia, in February 2005, having signed an agreement to this effect with the Ethiopian Government in February 2004. In November 2004, 463 Guji houses located inside the park boundaries were burned down by government park officials and local police. According to a Refugees International report, this was done to force Guji residents to leave the Park.
’We usually hear news on the radio even when a single house is burned down by criminals. We hear all different kinds of crimes reported. In our case we lost 463 houses, but it was not reported at all,' said one Guji tribal member.
According to the African Parks 2004 annual report, the ’resettlement of the Kore and Guji people was an internal affair of the Federal and regional governments, and African Parks had no role to play in the matter.'
Refugees International said that some Guji, including those whose houses were burned, have been resettled south of the park, along with the Kore. More than 5,000 Guji remain confined to the park's northern extremities. The Guji say they've been told by the Nech Sar park officials that if they do not move voluntarily they will be forced to do so and that, once they have left, the park will be enclosed by an electric fence.
Paul van Vlissingen, a millionaire Dutchman who founded African Parks, has given assurances that his company has no intention of forcing people to move from the Omo and Mago parks and has disassociated himself from government attempts at forced eviction from Nech Sar.
"African Parks has never been and will never be involved in questions of a political nature, such as the resettlement of people," he said, after the burning down of houses in Nech Sar National Parks was reported by Refugees International.
Survival has written to the Ethiopian authorities expressing its concern and urging it to uphold the Mursi's land rights.
By Will Hurd