Mongabay Series: Indigenous Peoples and Conservation, Land rights and extractives
ADDIS ABABA — Indigenous communities in the Lower Omo River Valley of southwestern Ethiopia have taken ownership and management responsibilities of what is now Ethiopia’s largest community conservation area, the Tama Community Conservation Area (TCCA).
Located in a woody savanna, the development follows the regional government of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) signing the conservation area into law earlier this year.
This legislation aims to ensure the sustainable use and preservation of Tama’s ecological and cultural heritage by entrusting this duty to the Indigenous communities. The region has seen the construction of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam and the establishment of sugar cane plantations that brought about significant environmental and social impacts, including loss of traditional livelihoods and starvation, according to a report by the think tank Oakland Institute.
The conservation area spans 197,000 hectares (486,000 acres) of vital corridor land between two national parks in Ethiopia and serves as a habitat for a rich variety of wildlife from Somali giraffes (Giraffa reticulata), African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) and lions (Panthera leo) to De Brazza’s monkeys (Cercopithecus neglectus), Lelwel hartebeests (Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel) and the endemic black-winged lovebird (Agapornis taranta).
The area is inhabited by the Mursi, Bodi, Northern Kwegu and Ari communities who are largely agriculturalists and pastoralists with rich heritage and culture. The groups have resided there for centuries, but some people have come to the region after being displaced by the dam.
According to Barkede Kulumedere, a member of the Mursi community, Tama, which was previously a wildlife reserve, has not yielded any tangible benefits for them, and inadequate protection measures have failed to preserve the area. The reserve was supposed to bar human activities, but enforcements were never implemented.
“I was 12 years old when the advocacy for turning Tama into a community conservation area began,” said Barkede, now 26-years-old. “The granting of land within the conservation area to investors, establishing settlements and the negative impacts of the Kuraz Sugar Development Project in neighboring areas were issues that inspired the call for action.”
The new conservation area will be managed by a community council comprising members from the Indigenous communities.
The illegal hunting of animals, deforestation and use of the land for farming and grazing without approval from the community council are among the activities banned in the TCCA.
“The communities will be permitted to engage in agricultural and pastoral activities within the area. However, these activities will also be managed by the communities themselves,” said Frehiwot Dubale, deputy head of the Bureau of Culture and Tourism of SNNPR. “Detailed directives and guidelines, addressing farming practices and measures to prevent human-wildlife conflict in the area, will be passed [in the future].”
Mirroring a corporate structure, TCCA’s administration incorporates a board and an office. Furthermore, these administrative bodies will be assisted by a technical committee that includes representatives from government bodies, academia and NGOs.
Cool Ground, a nonprofit that has been advocating on behalf of the Omo Valley’s Indigenous communities, hails the development as a precedent.
“The TCAA allows the Indigenous communities to manage and drive benefits from the area, which makes it different from a national park,” Will Hurd, Cool Ground executive director, told Monagbay.
Will also acknowledges that the TCCA aims to unite these four communities, which have long histories of conflict.
“Once the TCCA starts to generate revenue, conflicts will directly affect the communities’ revenue stream. We hope the TCCA will be like the European Union, where, having tied their economies together, the communities no longer fight,” Will added.
The TCCA plans to generate income through tourism, private sector investment, regulated hunting and financial aid from both the government and NGOs.
“The council will determine the allocation of these funds,” Frehiowt, who is involved in the formation of TCAA, added.
Barkede said he believes Tama possesses immense potential for tourism. “The financial sustainability and success of the TCCA now rest in the hands of the community itself,” he stated.
The TCCA is also being supported by the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) $8.5 million Biodiversity and Community Resilience in the Omo Valley project.
While USAID did not respond to email inquiries from Mongabay, a press release posted on the US Embassy in Ethiopia’s website stated that the project will see beneficiaries trained in political advocacy and 400 households assisted in finding employment within conservation programs and administration. This includes work in ecotourism lodges, local craft production, sales and tourism experiences.
The statement added that the project is also establishing a benefit-sharing system for the 13,500 residents of the area who are not directly involved in ecotourism.
Banner image: Farmers in the Lower Omo Valley. Image courtesy of the Ethiopian Sugar Industry Group.
Dams and plantations upend livelihoods in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo River Valley
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan to talk about the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in protecting the world’s biodiversity and examples of TEK from Indigenous communities he’s visited. Listen here:
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