• Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia

    Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia

    Ethiopia is home to a great diversity of peoples speaking more than 80 languages. Still, Ethiopia has no legislation that protects or address the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • Diversity

    80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia
  • Rights

    No national laws protect indigenous peoples
  • Climate

    500,000 indigenous people in the Omo valley threatened by water insecurity

Ethiopia 2011

Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia include the pastoralists and the hunter/gatherers.1 Pastoralism in Ethiopia constitutes a unique and important way of life for close to 10 million of the country’s total estimated population of 80 million.2

Pastoralists live in around seven of the country’s nine regions, inhabiting almost the entire lowlands, which constitute around 61% of the country’s landmass. Pastoralists own 40% of the livestock population in the country. They live a fragile existence, mainly characterized by unpredictable and unstable climatic conditions. They are affected by recurrent droughts, persistent food insecurity, conflict, flood, inadequate services and infrastructure and they are among the poorest of the poor in terms of disposable incomes, access to social services and general welfare. Access to health care and primary and secondary education is very low compared with other areas (mid- and highlands) of the country.

The pastoral population is heterogeneous in its ethnic composition and social structure, having some larger ethnic groups such as the Afar, Oromo and Somalis with well over four million pastoral people between them. The rest are Omotic pastoral groups such as the Hamer, Dassenech, Nygagaton and Erbore, and the Nuer and other groups in the western lowlands.

There is no national legislation in Ethiopia mentioning or protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. Ethiopia has not ratified ILO Convention 169, and Ethiopia was absent during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Villagization and forced evictions

During 2011, the government continued it scheme to lease out land to foreign investors for large-scale commercial farming in the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples of the South Omo and Gambella (Western Ethiopia) (see The Indigenous World 2011).

To make the land available to these foreign investors, the government first of all had to evict the indigenous and other farming communities from their ancestral lands and settle them somewhere else, under a programme called “Villagization” that was initiated in 2010.3 The current policy of transformation, reflected in the villagization programme, basically uses the same “reasoning” applied by the British towards the Maasai pastoralists at the turn of the 20th century: “Maasai land is idle land”. One official of the current government in Addis Ababa told a community in Gambella the same thing: “We will invite investors who will grow cash crops. You do not use the land well. It is lying idle.”4

To avoid criticism from the international community, the government is trying its best not to relate the villagization programme to the land grabs. However, according to Associated Press,5 the government has told the Gambella communities who are affected by the villagization programme that it will lease out huge tracts of their land to commercial farmers, who grow cash crop and generate “development” instead of the pastoralists keeping the land idle. According to Human Rights Watch,6 former government officials also confirm these allegations.

The villagization programme is exposing its victims to deplorable conditions, leaving them without alternative land, shelter or food and vulnerable to disease. The government claims that the resettlements (evictions) carried out under the programme have made it possible for the resettled peoples to harvest all sorts of agricultural produce and have made them rich.7 The truth is, however, exactly the opposite. As one older person told Human Rights Watch:

We want you to be clear that the government brought us here … to die … right here. We want the world to hear that the government brought the Anuak people here to die. They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can’t even move back. On all sides the land is given away so we will die here.8

The scale of the land grab is massive and is not only taking place in Gambella but also in South Omo, Afar and Oromia. According to Human Rights Watch, in a span of three years, the government has leased out at least 3.6 million hectares of land, an area the size of the Netherlands. An additional 2.1 million hectares of land is available through the federal government’s land bank for agricultural investment. In Gambella, 42 percent of the total land area is either being marketed for lease to investors or has already been awarded to investors, according to government figures. Most of the communities that have been moved for villagization are within areas slated for commercial agricultural investment.9

The fact that only the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples are being targeted is likely to be a question of racism and ethnic discrimination. From a human rights perspective, the Government of Ethiopia has violated not only its own Constitution, which calls for a proper legal process before evictions are conducted, but also fundamental international law, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. By international standards, it is absolutely essential that a process of free, prior and informed consent take place with the indigenous communities in question prior to any evictions. No form of consultation whatsoever have been conducted with the indigenous communities. Like its predecessors, the current government does not recognize the rights of indigenous communities, nor does it recognize their livelihood system as a valuable traditional way of life in Ethiopia. Pastoralism is considered inferior to farming and an unproductive livelihood system. This discourse legitimizes the leasing of their land to foreign investments without any prior consultation or compensation.

The government denies that it is forcibly evicting anyone. As claimed by the Minister of Communications Affairs, Bereket Simon:

No one is forced. This is an absolute lie. … People around Gambella are sparsely inhabiting their place in a very scattered manner. They cannot be beneficiaries of development like electricity, water and telecom. So for all practical purposes of helping those people who are denied in the past such basic infrastructural amenities, the government has decided to settle them. But it is not [just] a decision; we have discussed the issue in a very thorough manner with the beneficiaries; they have accepted it.10

However, the members of the communities who have been evicted/resettled claim that there was no free, prior and informed consent and that, on the contrary, they were told to leave their land.

In Gambella, indigenous communities were outraged by these violations. They refused to leave their land and settle in a harsh environment somewhere else in rural Gambella where the government wanted them to. As a result, the violence of the state was unleashed against them in 2011. Women were raped, people were beaten, some to death, and many others were arrested.11

Hydro-electric project in south omo

South Omo is a very large region with very fertile land. It borders Kenya in the south and part of Lake Turkana lies within its territory. The Bodi (Me’en), Daasanach, Kara (Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom pastoralists live along the Omo River that flows into Lake Turkana and depend on it for their livelihood, having developed complex socio-economic and ecological practices that are intricately adapted to the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the region’s semi-arid climate. These communities depend on the annual flooding of the Omo for an agricultural practice of shifting cultivation in which they skilfully utilize the waters of the flooding river for farming.

A few years ago, the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya agreed to initiate a joint hydro-electric project on Lake Turkana, to be funded by the World Bank. The initial plan revealed that the impact of the power dam, dubbed Gilgel Gibe III, would have devastating consequences for the livelihoods of the indigenous communities on both sides of the border, involving pastoral, fishing, hunting and gathering communities. The funding requirements of the World Bank require that an environmental impact assessment be done before the initiation of a project. However, no such assessment was done, and civil society organizations in Kenya launched a campaign against the construction of the dam arguing that no environmental impact assessment had been done and that no alternative livelihoods were being provided for the affected indigenous communities, estimated at half a million on the Kenyan side alone. The Kenyan government quickly backed down and abandoned the project. Its Ethiopian counterpart stuck with it, however, since it faced no opposition from advocacy or human rights NGOs, which have all been made defunct by the Charities and Associations Law.12

According to International News:13 “Hundreds of Kilometers of irrigation canals will follow the dam construction, diverting the life giving waters.” And Survival International warns that, “This will leave the tribal people without annual floodwaters to grow their crops.”14 Independent experts assert that the dam will “have an enormous impact on the delicate ecosystem of the region by altering the seasonal flooding of the Omo and dramatically reducing its downstream volume. This will result in the drying out of much of the riverine zone and eliminate the riparian forest.”15 Consequently, Survival International warns, “If the natural flood with its rich silt deposits disappears, subsistence economies will collapse with at least 100,000 tribal people facing food shortages”.16

In 2011, indigenous communities in South Omo, including the Nyangaton, protested against the construction of the dam and refused to be evicted from their ancestral land. In response to the protests by the Nyangaton community, government troops were quickly dispatched to violently punish this community for protesting. A number were killed in the incident while scores more were arrested. Recent reports indicate that violence is still continuing in other areas of South Omo.17

Donors’ complicity

A great silence prevails among donors when it comes to the deplorable situation in Ethiopia, a silence that constitutes a policy of double standards on human rights violations. The donor community is well informed of the gross human rights violations in Ethiopia, including gross violations of freedom of expression and basic civil and political rights, the rights of women, and social and economic rights. The rural population as a whole is subjected to a great deal of violent repression, in particular the rural indigenous communities, such as pastoralists, hunters and gatherers who are oppressed and discriminated on the grounds of ethnicity. The donor community, however, tend to conveniently ignore these violations and instead tend to believe the government’s claims to have “generated economic growth”.

The Government of Ethiopia is also taking advantage of the situation in Somalia to present itself as fighting terrorism. It portrays itself as an ally in the war against “global terrorism” supported by the US and the rest of the donor community, and the gross human rights violations unleashed by the government are thus tolerated.

Some donors seem not only to tolerate but even to support and defend the current crimes being committed against indigenous communities, such as, for example, the “villagization” (evictions) programme. Thus USAID conducted an assessment of the villagization programme in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz and concluded that the relocations were “voluntary”.18 Jan Egeland, director of Human Rights Watch Europe and formerly a high-level UN official,19 says, however, that, “It seems that donor money is being used, at least indirectly, to fund the villagization program. … Donors have the responsibility to ensure that their assistance does not facilitate forced displacement and associated violations”.20 Jan Egeland is fundamentally questioning the very motives of the villagization programme when he says the relocations take place, “… exactly in the same areas of Ethiopia where the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agriculture operations. … This raises suspicions about the motives of the programme”.21


Notes and references

1 As per the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights - See Chapter four of: aCHPR, 2005: Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities. Copenhagen: ACHPR & IWGIA. The report can be downloaded from http://www.iwgia.org/publications/search-pubs?publication_id=116

2 Central statistics agency, 2007: Official Census. Addis Ababa.

3 A programme of villagization was introduced by the military government that ruled the country from 1974 to 1991. The purpose of the villagization programme at the time was solely political: to deprive the guerrilla movements in Eritrea and Tigray of a mass base by moving the rural population to elsewhere in the country and into the areas of indigenous communities, in particular.

4    Human Rights Watch, 2012: Waiting Here for Death: Forced Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region, Human Rights Watch Report, January 17, 2012.

5    Luc Van Kemenade, 2012: Rights group: Ethiopia forcibly resettled 70,000. Associated Press, January 17, 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10045199

6    Human Rights Watch, 2012: Op. cit.

7    Luc Van Kemenade, 2012: Op. cit.

8    Human Rights Watch, 2012: Op. cit.

9    ibid.

10  Keffyalew Gebremedhin, 2012: New evidences & old denials clash over human rights violations in Gambella, as fortified evidences emerge. In Transforming Ethiopia, 12 January 2012: http:// transformingethiopia.wordpress.com/

11  Human Rights Watch, 2012: Op. cit.

12  This law states that resident NGOs that are eligible to raise foreign funds exceeding 10% of their annual income are not allowed to work on human rights – see The Indigenous World 2010.

13  Jerome Mwanda, 2011: Ethiopia’s World Heritage Site tribes threatened. International News, August 1, 2011.

14  ibid.

15  ibid.

16  ibid.

17  E.g. statement by the Solidarity Movement with the people of Southern Ethiopia: www.solidaritymovement.org.

18  Luc Van Kemenade, 2012: Op. cit.

19  Jan Egeland was United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2003-2006.

20  Luc Van Kemenade, 2012: Op. cit.

21  Ibid. 

Melakou Tegegn is an Ethiopian and one of the founders and the first chairperson of the Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, a national network of indigenous NGOs. He has for many years been engaged in advocacy work on pastoral rights in Ethiopia. He had to leave the country, however, after the violence related to the 2005 elections. He is now a development consultant and is active as a member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.


IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

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