Review: 'Last Days in Naked Valley'

Scenes from the legendary Omo Valley. [Courtesy]

Once shunned and exploited by powerful economic interests, Indigenous peoples worldwide are gaining attention and strength to protect their lands and resources.

This is emerging not only deep in the rainforests of Asia and South America, but also in Kenya and its neighborhood – and is the subject of my recently-published book, Last Days in Naked Valley (Afrologi Media via Amazon).

In June, for instance, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that the Government of Kenya should pay Sh157.8 million in reparations to the Ogiek people, an Indigenous community in the Rift Valley.

The United Nations called the decision historic and said it marked “another important step in the struggle of the Ogiek for recognition and protection of their rights to ancestral land in the Mau Forest.”

Unknown to many, one of the world’s most important struggles for Indigenous rights in development has played out in southern Ethiopia’s legendary Lower Omo Valley, along the border with Kenya. I know this well, because I was the United States’ point man in this difficult yet fascinating human rights drama, which is the basis of my book.

The Omo Valley is home to ancient and much-studied pastoralists including the Hamar, Bodi and Mursi communities. With their fantastic body art, exotic rituals and startling adornments such as the lip-plates of Mursi women, they have become Instagram stars and pop-culture inspirations. Yet social media is clueless about their existential struggle.

The Omo peoples depend on communal grazing lands for their cattle and the Omo River, which tumbles from the Ethiopian highlands – interrupted by Africa’s tallest hydropower dam - and flows into Lake Turkana.

Into their midst the Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his successors planted the country’s biggest ever agricultural project, and probably one of Africa’s largest, sprawling across 100,000 hectares and drawing on the waters of the Omo.

That posed a huge dilemma for Ethiopia’s biggest international development funders, led by the United States, which invests around $1 billion each year in the strategic, fast-growing nation. The question was, and remains, how to balance the quest to slash extreme poverty across Ethiopian society with the survival of the Omo Valley’s iconic inhabitants.

In a report this month, California-based Oakland Institute said attention on the war in northern Ethiopia has obscured a “severe humanitarian crisis” in the Omo Valley triggered by the massive project and causing deaths by disease and starvation.

As the USAid's governance adviser when the project began, I became America’s eyes and ears in the Omo Valley, tangling with the Ethiopian Government’s wily supremo in the region.

The human rights concept in play was “free, prior and informed consent” – enshrined in the landmark United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples issued a few years earlier.

Expect this concept to become far more important as the hunt for the world’s remaining oil, gas, minerals and choice farmland increasingly turns to native lands.

In the on-going quest for carbon-free energy, even renewable power projects are encroaching on Indigenous territory. Construction of the Olkaria geothermal power plants led to the involuntary relocation of Maasai villages, according to a 2019 report on Kenya by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

In the United States, the powerful American Bar Association, representing the nation’s lawyers, has recognised the UN declaration as beginning to gain the same legal force as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948.

In the quest to dig up “green” minerals such as lithium to feed electric-vehicle assembly lines, President Joe Biden’s administration says it is taking the concerns of America’s Indigenous peoples seriously.

“The US is committed to ensuring that prior, robust, and meaningful tribal consultation  is part of all responsible development standards for mining of which it is a part,” Biden’s economic advisers said in December.

Human rights pressure from international donor governments compelled Ethiopia to open the Lower Omo Valley to scrutiny, including numerous consultations I had with Indigenous communities alongside European colleagues. The lessons of the Omo drama shaped the US policy on Indigenous rights in global development, issued by USAid in 2020.

In hindsight, our engagement in this Omo Valley affair, while keeping international attention on the plight of its peoples and dialogue open with Ethiopian officials, began to resemble a sideshow. 

For Meles’s men, the nakedness of the Omo Valley’s earthy residents was a symbol of backwardness they were determined to uproot once and for all.

As I detail in Naked Valley, there was much more entangled in this tale, including famed anthropologists portrayed as foes of progress, tourists gawking at a “human zoo,” and conservationists intent on limiting pastoralists from roaming across ancestral lands.

The bargain offered to the pastoralists by the Ethiopian change agents began to look bleak as this transformation loomed into view.

In a gathering of Mursi women, one woman voiced what was on everyone’s mind: “Is this peace development or war development?”