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Rangers by Birth

Mursi, Suri, Nyangatom, Dizi and Me'en have managed the biodiversity in Ethiopia's Omo area for centuries. Is it wise to push them aside in the name of conservation?

The midday heat brings the men together under a small shade tree on the edge of a plateau overlooking the Omo River in Ethiopia. Long fighting sticks and cow skins for sitting have been stored in the branches, among dried grass that has been stuffed there to increase the shade. The tree is just outside the cluster of small grass huts that is Benna Orr (Stones Village). The men look out over a large island in the river where the tall Mursi sorghum grows. The island and surrounding banks are dotted with makeshift grain huts, where the women thresh grain or talk and eat, hiding from the brunt of the sun.

Hogo (Beans) is here under the tree, as are Uligidangdor (Greybull), Char Koro Ramai (Long Leopard Tail), Nebi Jare (Buffalo Legs), Ari Holi (White Ox) and many of the other men of Stones Village. They are making rope from the sword-like extensions of kashwi (Sansevieria, or bowstring hemp), which is found only near the river. As the Mursis’ ever-present, emphatic speech and raucous laughter ring out, Hogo grips the sharp stick with his toes, scraping off the outer fibers to get the long, weavable strands. His finished rope will be taken back to the cattle camps on the plains for leads on calves and bulls.

From atop the plateau, I can see the place where we ford the Omo River to Greybull’s garden. The water is fast here, and the crocodiles can’t navigate well in the current. Crocodiles are ever-present around the village, basking on the river’s shores or floating with their eyes just above water. Although the swift current at the ford makes for a somewhat safer crossing, it is still treacherous. The water is up over our waists, and I can only avoid being swept away by holding onto Greybull, a massive man whose hands and feet are at least one-and-a-half times larger than mine. One time, a friend of Greybull’s got drunk while weeding his garden, and we joked that if he tried to cross the river home he would end up in Bongos, a village three days downriver.

Many times I have tried to define the Mursi by their most dominant quality, but it is difficult to choose just one. Are they herdsman foremost, or botanists, orators, or rangers? The Mursi excel at all of these occupations. Like the Suri and Nyangatom—the other cattle herders in the area—the Mursi are so thoroughly entwined with cattle that it has been said they think in terms of cattle. All words for colors are described as colors of cattle coats. When shown a color they don’t have a name for, they say, “There is no such beast.” It is dizzying to listen to them rattling off plant names while walking through the bush. I never learned a measurable fraction of the plants most Mursi know, plants for building huts, carving milk containers, for veterinary and human medicine; plants to eat or to tie around the arms as rattles during initiation. They even have a water-clarifier, a root called kamogi, (Maerua subcordata). It is shaved and spun on a stick in brown, murky water, causing the dirt particles to drop to the bottom, leaving clear water. It is used when the rains come. The rain drags more dirt into the Omo, which the Mursi say makes them sick.

The Mursi also know animals. As trackers they know where animals are, what they eat, and how they behave. It is astonishing to watch them come across a riot of tracks and quickly decipher how many marchan (lesser kudu) crossed the path. Their localized, empirical knowledge of animals of the area—animals amongst which they and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years—greatly surpasses the knowledge of the highlanders who are employed as park rangers in Omo National Park, which surrounds the Mursi. At one point the warden of the national park asked if I had ever seen gusheny (blue monkeys) and wondered where they could be found. The Mursi had already shown me the monkeys—just one of the animals they know intimately. Unfortunately, the Mursi and other nearby indigenous groups are seen as a liability for the park rather than an asset. As a result, the Mursi live under the constant threat of relocation that would destroy their culture.

Omo National Park was established in 1966 on the territories of five tribes: the Suri, Dizi, Mursi, Me’en and Nyangatom. Virtually the entire park is the home of these five tribes or used by them for cultivation, cattle raising, bee-keeping, food gathering, and occasional hunting. The Suri, who have the largest territory, are closely related to the Mursi, their languages being mutually intelligible. The Mursi became Mursi 150 years ago, when they branched off from the larger Suri group by crossing to the east bank of the Omo River. The Mursi say they and the Suri “are one people.” The Suri and the Mursi still primarily follow an animist religion, and the Mursi practice a form of divination by reading cow entrails.

The Nyangatom cultivate sorghum and graze cattle in the southern regions of the park and are culturally and linguistically different from the rest of the groups. The Nyangatom men often have facial tattoos of raised bumps, and the women wear hundreds of beaded necklaces, which collectively resemble a small inner tube. The Dizi and Me’en are highland agriculturalists who live in the northern regions of the park.

The total combined population of all these tribes is around 140,000, but the number of people who use the land inside the park is difficult to estimate, especially as Mursi, Suri, and Nyangatom are seminomadic. They change residences several times throughout the year. Fifty thousand would be a reasonable approximation for the number of park inhabitants.

Although the creation of Omo Park forced the Mursi and other tribal people out of certain areas, the park mostly existed on paper, infringing little on the lives of the local people. This all stands to change, as the park now has a new manager, the African Parks Foundation of the Netherlands.

African Parks Foundation is the brainchild of billionaire Paul van Vlissingen, whose family business is based on liquid petroleum gas distribution and a global retail business. The foundation is partially funded by Rob Walton, the chairman of Wal-Mart, who is also on the board of African Parks Foundation of America. In November 2005 the foundation signed a contract to lease the park for 25 years, a change of management that could have a huge impact on the five local groups, restricting their access to vital resources and even physically displacing them.

Government park officials have been collecting signatures from local people, on documents they cannot read, by which they give their “consent” to the park boundaries. These documents will then be used to gazette, or legally establish, the park’s boundaries, a process that will make the local people illegal squatters on their own land. There was no meaningful consultation with local residents about where the boundaries should be drawn, and those who signed these documents (of which they were not given copies) either did so unwillingly or did not appreciate the full implications of what they were doing.

This development comes on the heels of forced resettlement from the other park in Ethiopia that African Parks Foundation has taken over, Nech Sar National Park, near Arba Minch. In 2004, the government moved 3,800 Kore who traditionally cultivated within the park. They claim to have allo-cated land outside of the Park to 1,800 of the Kore. The whereabouts of the remaining 2,000 Kore people is still unknown. No compensation was paid for lost property or crops. Approximately 5,500 Guji-Oromo, a seminomadic pastoral people who traditionally reside within the park, have been harassed and a number chased from the park. According to a report by the Guji themselves, which neither the government nor APF have denied, 463 of their houses were burned down by Ethiopian park officials and police in November 2004—ten months after APF signed a contract in which the government stipulated that all residents of the park would be removed. Despite this, the Guji-Oromo remain, pushed to two small corners of the park. This does not bode well for the Mursi under the tree or the other tribal peoples of the Omo Park area.

There is no extra space for a park to be created in the Omo area. The resources are fully used by indigenous peoples’ different strategies for deriving a living throughout the year. In the case of the Mursi, they plant along the riverbank in the renewed silt after the rainy season and inland during the rains. They also graze cattle on the surrounding plains. If large sections of land are taken, they could not survive without becoming permanently dependant on food aid.

African Parks Foundation has been asked many times to add a “no evictions” clause to its contracts with the government. They have been asked to make the contract available to tribal people so they can seek independent legal advice. They have also been asked to sign written agreements with the local groups, safeguarding their rights to secure livelihoods and co-manage the park. On all these counts the foundation has refused. And the Ethiopian government, no doubt anticipating large tourist revenues, has abdicated it’s responsibility to help the Mursi.

But will the park plan succeed if local groups are marginalized? In the end, would this be good for biodiverstiy? Mark Dowie writes in his recent article in Orion magazine, “Many conservationists are beginning to realize that most of the areas they have sought to protect are rich in biodiversity precisely because the people who were living there had come to understand the value and mechanisms of biological diversity. Some will even admit that wrecking the lives of 10 million or more poor, powerless people has been an enormous mistake—not only a moral . . . and economic mistake, but an ecological one as well.”

The fact that Omo National Park can be mistaken for a wilderness by Westerners is a tribute to the benign environmental impact of the livelihood strategies of local people. This is a landscape created in part by millennia of human use; there is evidence of similar agricultural practices in the area dating back 5,000 years. Pastoralists open grasslands by burning the dense brush, promoting the growth of new grass, which is good for both cattle and wildlife. The Mursi know that they live well with the biodiversity: “In the Elma valley,” said one Mursi bari (elder), “We have zebras, hartebeest and buffalo. In your land you have destroyed all your animals, so, after you have come here to see things, we can go together to your land so that I can see what kind of animals you have.”

The local groups in the area do not derive much of their economy from hunting—1 or 2 percent at the most and usually when they are hungry. The guns they have are 30-year-old AK-47s, with barrels that have widened from use, making an already-inaccurate gun more inaccurate. Hunting is close range, and in the case of one of the most often-hunted animals, cape buffalo, extremely dangerous. What would be of more interest to the Mursi is having real decision-making power in the use of their land and getting a fair share of the tourism revenue from the park. What is certain is that having hungry, angry, displaced people at the outer edges of the park is a recipe for park failure. A large proportion of the park budget would be needed for policing activities.

A better approach would be for African Parks Foundation to truly partner with the local groups, not just hire some as game guards. The collective knowledge of people who have lived among the animals in this area for thousands of years should be seen as an asset for the park. One has to ask if African Parks Foundation, with a corporate manager at the helm, is really in a better position to manage the biodiversity than the local people. If the Suri, Dizi, Mursi, Me’en and Nyangatom are given real decision-making power in Omo National Park, it could be the most exciting conservation project in Africa.

Will Hurd lived with the Mursi for four months. He founded Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees in response to a Mursi request to help them stay on their land. For more information on the Mursi, Suri, Dizi, Me’en and Nyangatom and their possible displacement visit

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