Landscape, people and parks: environmental change in the Lower Omo Valley (2007-2010)

The Lower Omo Valley is one of the biologically and culturally most diverse regions of Africa. It is home to nine different peoples, practicing a wide range of subsistence activities (pastoralism, flood-retreat and shifting cultivation, hunting and fishing) and speaking seven different languages belonging to two of the four major African language families. Over the last 100 years it has undergone large-scale physical changes due to reduced rainfall over the Omo catchment. Since the 1960s, two national parks have been established and a nascent tourist industry has developed centered, however, more on the local cultures than on wildlife. Much more dramatic changes for the environment and people of the lower Omo will result from the completion of the Gibe III hydro-electric dam, now under construction in the middle basin of the Omo. By regulating the flow of the river, this will make possible large-scale irrigation development in the lower basin. According to plans now being implemented by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation and others, the lower Omo will become, over the next few years, by far the largest commercial irrigation complex in Ethiopia. 

This is a good location then in which to study the interaction between people and the environment and the culturally specific ways in which landscape is described, imagined and constructed. The project aimed to reach a detailed understanding of the sequence of environmental changes and vegetation history over the past 200 years; the way these changes have influenced, and been influenced by, the land-use practices, migratory and seasonal movements, social institutions and cultural values of the human population; and the impact of incorporation into wider political and economic processes on local understandings of landscape, locality and belonging. The results should therefore be of interest to historians, anthropologists and geographers working on African environmental history; conservation scientists, environmentalists and policy-makers concerned with the role of human activity in environmental degradation and biodiversity loss; and academics from a range of disciplines interested in the social construction of landscape, locality and belonging.

For more information about the project and selected publications arising from it, visit the project web page on the AHRC's 'Landscape and Environment Programme' website. For more information about the Lower Omo and its peoples, go to www.mursi.org, a website dealing with one of the better known peoples of the area.