Cradle of Mankind in Danger of Losing Ancient Cultures and Lands to Foreign Corporations
The Omo Valley of Ethiopia is known as a beautiful, biologically and culturally diverse land, distinctive and vital for many reasons. The Omo River empties into the unique Lake Turkana in Kenya - the world’s largest alkaline lake, as well as the world’s largest permanent desert lake. This archaeologically significant area has offered up fossils of major importance in the study of human origins and evolution. But now, the area regarded as the cradle of humankind is in danger of losing ancient cultures and lands due to modernization and land development.
Satellite image of Lake Turkana: Note the jade color. The Omo River enters at the top. The river visible on the lower left is the Turkwel, which has been dammed for hydroelectric power. Public Domain
The Ecologist reports the valley and its inhabitants are now in jeopardy, as a land grab of “twice the size of France” is swallowing up indigenous areas and developing them into sugar, cotton and biofuel plantations. Further, dams are being installed on major water sources, in what is said to be a violation of Ethiopian law, and in “total disregard for the rights of Ethiopia's Indigenous Peoples” by The Ecologist.
This industrialization may not only endanger the current cultural and ecological environment of Ethiopia, but also may impact an area which is significant to our understanding of human origins.
Lower Valley of the Omo River, UNESCO World Heritage Site. AnnaMaria Donnoli/Wikimedia Commons
Lake Turkana is known as the ‘cradle of mankind’, existing as a pre-historic center for early hominids. Some 20,000 fossil specimens have been collected from the Turkana Basin. Anthropological digs have led to the discovery of important fossilized remains, most notably, the skeleton of the Turkana Boy, (or Nariokotome Boy).
Finding Turkana Boy is one of the most spectacular discoveries in palaeoanthropology. His reconstruction comes from the almost perfectly preserved skeleton found in 1984 at Nariokotome near Lake Turkana. It is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. Turkana Boy is believed to have been somewhere between 7 and 15 years of age and lived 1.6 million years ago. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments.
“Turkana Boy” - Homo ergaster. Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute
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Responsible investment in land is an important part in fighting poverty, writes Oxfam. However, modernization at the expense of the indigenous communities is what may instead be happening in the Omo River Valley.
The dam Gibe III is nearing completion, and, as backed by an Italian construction company, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the World Bank, is slated to primarily export the produced hydropower. Indigenous communities may need to relocate, and tribes dependent upon herding and nomadic lifestyles will no longer have access to seasonally flooded lands.
The feared danger to Lake Turkana is the cessation of water from the dammed rivers. The Ecologist notes that “90% of its inflow comes from the Omo.” Damming this inflow may have an effect on the unique biology of the lake, and the fish, birds, reptiles and mammals which depend upon it. In addition, large-scale agriculture and irrigation projects connected with the dam may alter the water’s chemical composition, if it is exposed to chemical run-off.
Lake Turkana seen from the South Island. Doron/Wikimedia Commons
The Ecologist reports on the potential damage to the indigenous people: “For many tribes in the Omo Valley, the loss of their land means the loss of their culture. Cattle herding is not just a source of income, it defines people's lives. There is great cultural value placed on the animals. The Bodi are known to sing poems to their favourite cattle; and there are many rituals involving the livestock, such as the Hamer tribe's coming of age ceremony whereby young men must jump across a line of 10 to 30 bulls.
Losing their land also means losing the ability to sustain themselves. As Ulijarholi, a member of the Mursi tribe, said, "If our land is taken, it is like taking our lives.”
People of the Tesemay Tribe, of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Rod Waddington /Wikimedia Commons
The large-scale land purchases by foreign investment is worrying observers who suggest that the diminishing space available to Omo Valley indigenous may cause conflict in the attempt to move to new land and find resources. Instead, it is recommended that small land holders and nomadic herders should be supported so they can improve their efficiency and gain access to local markets. This may create a sustainable system which benefits indigenous populations and preserves the lands so rich in cultural, environmental, and historical importance.
Featured Image: Child from the Karo tribe with the Valley of the Omo River behind. Credit: Veleknez / Dreamstime
By Liz Leafloor