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Africa Rising: Economic progress vs. cultural preservation in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's state project to make it into one of the world's top sugar producers requires the resettling of semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages. Which priority wins out: cultural preservation or economic progress?

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Female members of Ethiopia's Mursi peole insert a baked clay disk into their lips. The Ethiopian government hopes to resettle these semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages, where they can work on sugar plantations.

Meigneux/SIPA/Newscom

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Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, a United Nations World Heritage Site along the border with Kenya, is renowned for its numerous tribes, among them the lip plate-inserting Mursi and bull-running Hamer.

Sixteen ethnic groups occupy the scorching, low-lying region, raising cattle, and growing crops, often along the fertile banks of the Omo River that wriggles its way through the bush.

Western tourists, archaeologists, and anthropologists are regular visitors to observe the unique cultures and pre-human fossils.

But the Ethiopian government has begun a project to build sugar farms in the area in an effort to take the nation into the top ten of global sugar exporters. The plan, which would require resettling semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages, puts the effort to modernize Ethiopia's archaic agricultural system at loggerheads with the desire to preserve the cultural identities of local ethnic groups.

A push for economic development

The state-run project launched this year – combined with other large-scale farming investments irrigated by the outflow from an under-construction hydropower dam – look likely to alter the area forever, initially for some Bodi and Mursi communities who will be resettled to make way for the sugar fields.

"They will still be pastoralists, but agro-pastoralists. They will not roam around in search of water and grazing land," Abay Tsehaye, head of the state-owned Sugar Corporation, says. "They will have enough grazing land because we will supply them with irrigation."

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