African Parks Network, founded by Dutch tycoon Paul Fentener
van Vlissingen in 2003 as African Parks Foundation, manages
several national parks in African countries such as Zambia,
Malawi, South Africa and Sudan.
It specializes in revitalizing parks that
have met with financial difficulties, by introducing a business
model. APN’s pulling out of Ethiopia after three years
is a remarkable step. It claims that sustainable management
of the Ethiopian parks is incompatible with ‘the irresponsible
way of living of some of the ethnic groups’. The organization
has trouble dealing with the indigenous population trying
to continue its traditional way of life within the park borders.
presence is a threat to wildlife conservation, according
to APN. It has a point. The wildlife depends on the same
resources as the indigenous people’s cattle. And replenishing
the wildlife population from other places is of little use
when the animals are subsequently hunted by the traditional
inhabitants. They on the other hand are not at all prepared
to make way for the wildlife, let alone for a few tourists
who want to enjoy their safari in peace. If APN wants to
do business in Ethiopia, it will have to deal with the people
living in the parks, such is the local opinion.
But does it really have to? APN found an ally in the Ethiopian
authorities, who have been trying to evict the inhabitants
ever since the parks were created in the 1960s and 70s. The
human rights of the people were about to fall victim to a
deal in which APN, being bound to international rules, would
leave the dirty work of eviction to the Ethiopian government,
which apparently does not feel under obligation to international
At the start of 2004 APN signed an agreement for the management
of Nech Sar National Park (514 km2, about the size of Addis
Abeba), inhabited at the time by Kore (agriculturalists)
and Guji (pastoralists). APN’s analysis concluded that
these 10,000 people together with their 7,000 head of livestock
were an excessive strain on the natural resources. Jean Marc
Froment, national coördinator for Ethiopia at APN, says
it is clearly visible on Google Earth. ‘A large area
of the park is totally degraded. The grass is gone, it is
barren and withered.’
The relocation by the government of both ethnic groups outside
the park borders was part of the agreement. In February of
2004, 1,020 Kore families were ‘voluntarily’ resettled
to an area 15 km to the south of the park. Getting the Guji
out proved more difficult. The authorities forced the Guji
leaders to look at a location outside the park. In their
absence, 463 houses of the Guji were set on fire by police
officers and park employees. Thus they were forced to move,
without compensation for the damages. About 9,000 villagers
were relocated that year, the Guji partly to remote areas
of the park.
The operation was met with indignation by the
local population, and was criticized by Human Rights Organizations.
APN did not respond. At that moment the contract had been
signed, but APN had not yet taken over the actual management
of the park. The organization denies any responsibility for
the relocation operations, and does not want to interfere
in what it sees as the internal policy of the Ethiopian authorities.
Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, president of APN at the time,
said in an interview with New Scientist magazine (August
2005): ‘We said [to the government] that we could work
with the people in the park, as we do in Zambia, but they
said no. We didn’t want to be involved in the resettlement,
so I put a clause in the contract that said we wouldn’t
take over the park until the resettlement was completed.’ APN’s
position can be called ambivalent, but it does have a point
where the Guji are concerned.
The wish for resettlement springs
from an ethnofederalist fixation harboured by the local authorities.
The Guji are an Oromo people, and according to the southern
regional government they belong in the adjoining Oromiya
province, not among the Gamo and Gofa peoples of the Southern
District, where the park is.
hotel under construction, overlooking the Nech Sar Park
APN had big plans for Nech Sar Park. It wanted to reintroduce
the rhino and the elephant, species that are also of interest
to the tourists. To keep the animals in and the people out,
it wanted to place an electric fence around the area. This
seems ambitious but is not unusual in Africa. In neighbouring
Kenya, white farmers who also engage in tourism place similar
electric fences around their often huge estates.
involvement actually benefited the local economy of the adjoining
local capital Arba Minch? According to dr. Ato
Solomon Tesfaye, of the Ministry of
Information and Culture, there have hardly been any investments in the park over
the years, apart from the salaries for employees. Nech Sar Park has 57 people
on the payroll, mainly park rangers, and employs some additional workers on an
irregular basis. Tesfaye describes APN’s taking over as ‘exploitation
of poverty in Africa’. In his view, APN is part of a bid for privatization
of African parks. The local population has little or no vote in this, and usually
has to clear out. Animals are put above people to sustain the European myth of ‘the
wild’. Our image of ‘unspoilt wilderness’ does not allow for
Omo National Park
September of 2005, almost two years after it acquired the
management of Nech Sar Park, APN signed a contract for control
over the Omo National Park (4,068 km2), established in 1966.
A more complex task, if only because of its remote location.
In the rainy season the area is hardly accessible, and it
is infested by the tse tse fly which transmits sleeping sickness.
About 40,000 people from eight different ethnic groups* use
the park for grazing their cattle, hunting, and small scale
agriculture along the banks of the Omo river.
Among the better
known peoples living there are the Mursi. They hunt buffalo
for meat, elephants for ivory to make jewels, and hyena to
protect their cattle. They are held responsible for eradicating
the zebra in the area. According to them, this is due to
the famines which Ethiopia suffers from time to time, leaving
them no alternative than to hunt game for survival.
that the decline of the wildlife population in Omo Park and
the adjacent Mago National Park is problematic. One of the
causes is the possession of firearms among the local population.
It is easy to obtain a modern firearm through smugglers from
Sudan and Somalia. Four cows, or 250 euros, buy an AK-47.
They are not just used to hunt, or to enhance the status
of the owner. Sometimes conflicts between different ethnic
groups are fought with firearms.
For this reason, APN sees these people as a threat to the
sustainable management of the area. That is why in Omo Park
too, attempts were made to evict the population. In preparation
for APN’s takeover, the park borders, being vague,
were redefined. In March of 2005, the demarcation was formally
concluded, and during the festivities attended by Paul Fentener
van Vlissingen, the Mursi and Nyanagatom present were requested
to put their thumb print under an agreement they could not
read. They found out afterwards that they had consented to
the new park borders, which from now on they might not be
allowed to cross. This was consistent with the Ethiopian
authorities’ striving to hand over the park empty of
people in 2006, when APN was due to take over.
But it did not turn out so easy. After the eviction of the
Kore from Nech Sar Park, the activities of APN in the Omo
valley were closely monitored. David Turton, a scholar at
Oxford University, has been doing anthropological research
among the Mursi since 1969. He is concerned about their situation,
and claims that APN has made the Mursi suspicious because
it failed to give written guarantees that the people in the
Omo region would not be affected.
Even before APN signed the
agreement with the Ethiopian government, Turton tried to
convince the organization to include a clause in the contract
which would guarantee the land rights of the indigenous population.
APN again responded that it considered this to be part of
the internal policy of the sovereign authorities in which
it did not wish to interfere. This attitude was alarming,
because this time there were no ethnofederalist motives to
relocate people. APN has clearly disregarded an opportunity
to ensure the rights of the indigenous population. The local
inhabitants are not even mentioned in the agreement.
of the international attention, APN realized that the eviction
of the indigenous population was unacceptable, and a violation
of international treaties such as the Convention on Biological
Diversity**. It now looked for
a compromise and wanted to sign binding agreements with all
the parties involved, including the government and human
rights organizations. Easier said than done, as in reality
it is not clear who is the true ‘representative’ of
a people, or if such a representative even exists. The Mursi
alone are divided into five groups, each with its own living
Jean Marc Froment says that every nation requires a
different approach. ‘They all say: the park is ours’.
Lack of education makes it difficult to explain what APN
we were beginning to understand each other, and a good relationship
evolved. We wanted to impress on them the importance of wildlife
conservation. But that takes a lot of time, and time was
After the events in Nech Sar Park, there
was much mistrust against APN amongst the indigenous people.
Or should we say, against the Ethiopian authorities as the ‘executors’ of
APN’s wishes? For the question remains who first suggested
eviction. Turton says: ‘The national parks policy of
all Ethiopian governments since the parks were set up (1960/70s)
has been that parks should be free of human occupation. What
will happen next in the Omo we cannot say, but the possibility
of local people being denied access to subsistence resources
- such as the use of flood land along the banks of the Omo
for cultivation - cannot be ruled out.’
Turton was not the only one who took the interests of the
Mursi to heart. U.S. tourist Will Hurd became fascinated
with their culture in 2001, stayed with them for months and
learned the language. When APN arrived on the scene, the
now 31-year-old Hurd quickly turned activist. He founded
an organization called Conservation Refugees, posed critical
questions to APN and helped the Mursi to demarcate their
land. On his return to the U.S. he started lobbying different
organizations, among them USAID, one of the sponsors of APN.
addition to the involvement of organizations such as Survival
International, Hurd’s tenacity also contributed to
the decision to leave Ethiopia. APN resents what it sees
as premature criticism by some human rights and wildlife
conservation organizations, and the accusations allegedly
made without knowledge of the local situation. But Turston’s
and Hurd’s analysis is quite different. They are convinced
that APN is pulling out for financial reasons. ‘APN
prides itself on its business approach to conservation’,
says Turton. ‘Indeed this is what it sees as its most
distinctive attribute, and the first objective of any business
must be to avoid investing money with no foreseeable prospect
of a return’.
Jean Marc Froment confirms this. Although
he is disappointed at having to leave prematurely, ‘it
has proven impossible to make the parks profitable in the
middle long term.’ Hurd
claims that APN had trouble getting the required funding. ‘So
many people had heard of the problems in Nech Sar and potential
problems in the Omo. The World Bank wouldn’t fund them,
USAID wouldn’t fund them, the European Union wouldn’t
why exactly is APN leaving Ethiopia?
Froment says the obstacles were plentiful. Apart from dealing
with eight different peoples, there were complicated political
issues. ‘Negotiating with the Ethiopian goverment is
not an easy task, for one thing. But then there is the search
for oil going on in the Omo region, and two roads being constructed,
one directly through the park.’
Froment calls the situation
frustrating. He invested a lot of time and energy in the
parks. But management costs have proven too high. ‘APN
does not work like the WWF or other NGOs. It wants the parks
to be self-financing through tourist income.’
press release announcing its departure, APN once more stresses
its good intentions, and even claims to have reached an understanding
with the Guji about the use of Nech Sar Park. According to
APN, the Ethiopian authorities were the ones not wishing
for a compromise with the Guji. Pulling out was the only
option left. The obstinate attitude of the Ethiopians may
have served as the excuse APN needed to cancel the contracts.
In all probability APN underestimated the situation in Omo
Park and wanted to prevent further damage to its image through
negative press. After all, a tarnished reputation could have
unpleasant consequences for its work in other African countries.<
without lip plate
Mursi, tourism and indigenous peoples
Not just the APN, but also some inhabitants of the Omo region
frown at some of the habits of the indigenous population.
Ephrem Gezahegn, owner of Tribal Touch, a local tour operator,
says the Mursi hunt game to spare their own cattle. They
shoot a buffalo or zebra, but just use part of their prey.
Park rangers arrest Mursi carrying large pieces of meat
and imprison them.
Gezahegn sees a great future for his
tourist activities. The number of visitors has seen a steep
increase over the past few years. They all come to see
the traditional peoples in the Omo valley,who look highly
exotic to western eyes. The Mursi especially, with their
lip plates are very popular. Gezahegn offers day trips
to a Mursi village in the Mago National Park. As soon as
a four wheel drive with tourists approaches, Mursi women
start donning their makeup like professional models. They
dress up in outlandish ways just to attract attention.
The tourists pay them to take pictures for half an hour,
then they are driven back to their hotel.
Gezahegn was negotiating
with APN about the development of some kind of camp or lodge
in Omo Park. He says APN planned to allow tourists to hunt,
naturally charging them a large fee first. The Tribal Touch
office is situated in Jinka, a village that used to be hard
to reach until recently. Weather permitting, a plane landed
twice a week on a small air strip in the middle of town.
But the government wants to open up the southwest of Ethiopia.
The East African Highway is going to be extended across the
Omo river to Sudan. And Gezahegn claims a new airport is
going to be built for commercial airlines. He wants to be
ahead of the future, and is adding a new wing to his hotel.
with APN certainly offers the indigenous population
a chance to develop tourism. The profits should then
benefit the whole community. As it is, the village
chief pockets the entry fee to the town, a large
amount which is mainly used to purchase firearms
and liquor. It is not uncommon for Mursi in ‘tourist
villages’ to be plastered in the afternoon
from the intake of arake, a locally brewed spirit.<
chief pockets the entry fee
David van Eijndhoven
Bodi, Kwegu, Mursi, Muguji, Suri (two clans: the Chai and
the Tirma), Dizi, and Nyangatom.
a Dutch organization APN is bound to ILO Convention 169
on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries
(1989). Article 14.1: The rights of ownership and possession
of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally
occupy shall be recognised. In addition, measures shall be
taken in appropriate cases to safeguard the right of the
peoples concerned to use lands not exclusively occupied by
them, but to which they have traditionally had access for
their subsistence and traditional activities. Particular
attention shall be paid to the situation of nomadic peoples
and shifting cultivators in this respect.
Matthijs Blonk/September 2008