Published in Dutch in 'Ecologie & Ontwikkeling', a magazine of IUCN-NL


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.

Their 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 agreements.


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.

As 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.

Tourist 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.

Has APN’s 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 human inhabitants.

Omo National Park
In 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.

Fact is 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.

Because 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 area.

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 intends. ‘But 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 running out.’

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.

In 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 fund them.’

But 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.’

In the 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.<


Mursiwoman, 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.

Cooperation 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.<


Village chief pockets the entry fee

Translation: David van Eijndhoven

Me’en, Bodi, Kwegu, Mursi, Muguji, Suri (two clans: the Chai and the Tirma), Dizi, and Nyangatom.
** As 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.

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© Matthijs Blonk/September 2008

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