University of Nottingham

Landscape, people and parks: Environmental change in the Lower Omo Valley, Southwestern Ethiopia

Project outline

A UNESCO World Heritage Site of 'fundamental importance' to the study of human evolution, the Lower Omo Valley is one of the longest-inhabited landscapes in the world. Today it is home to nine different ethnic groups practicing a wide range of subsistence activities and speaking seven different languages. Despite this, conservationists have classified the area as a 'pristine wildernesses', from which human occupation should be excluded.

This interdiciplinary project was the first landscape-scale attempt to understand the interaction between people and the environment in the lower Omo.

View of the west bank of the Omo from Korcho in Kara territory View of the west bank of the Omo from Korcho in Kara territory


As the only source of academic research data on the history of human-environmental relations in the Lower Omo, the project has had a significant, if difficult to quantify, impact on two controversial policy debates concerning the future of river basin development in the lower Omo: the future of state-sponsored conservation and the investment in hydro-power and large-scale commercial irrigation schemes. Project members have contributed to these debates through conference papers and presentations, media interviews and frequent discussions with politicians, administrators, human rights activists and aid officials.

Palaeoecological research, based on the analysis of fossilised pollen from hyrax middens in the northern part of the study area resulted in a 2000-year record of vegetation change. This is the first time such evidence of long term vegetation change in the lower Omo Valley has been obtained and the first time this particular method of obtaining fossilised pollen has been attempted in East Africa. Both the palaeoecological research and the study of bush encroachment in the savanna over the shorter term helped to demonstrate the wider relevance and value of integrating ecological and local knowledge of landscape change.

Oral history interviews carried out amongst the peoples of the study area, combined with a thorough examination of secondary sources, resulted in the most comprehensive and detailed account yet given of the complex processes of identity formation in the lower Omo over the past two hundred years.

In September 2009 the project brought together scholars from various disciplines (history, anthropology, palaeoecology and archaeology) who have worked in the lower Omo over the past forty years, for an international workshop on 'Anthropology and History along the Omo.'


Ongoing influence

It is hoped that the project will have a lasting influence on the direction of academic research in this and similar African landscapes and, directly and indirectly, on policy decisions that will determine the future of the lower Omo and its people for years to come. The project has pioneered a range of new methods for the study of the interaction between people and their environment. These include: seeing the lower Omo landscape as an integrated system of relationships, geographically, historically, economically and culturally, rather than as a site for the study of separate 'peoples and cultures'; adopting an interdisciplinary approach, embracing history, anthropology, ecology/palaeoecology and (through 'spin-off' research) archaeology; combining ecological science with local knowledge and perceptions of the environment in order to reach a better understanding of landscape change; and establishing long-term trends in landscape change through the use of fossilised pollen obtained from hyrax middens.

The project's findings are relevant to national park management in the lower Omo and elsewhere. It is hoped that the emphasis placed on local knowledge, perceptions and constructions of the environment will contribute to a re-thinking of the deeply rooted 'preservationist' assumptions that have guided wildlife conservation in Ethiopia since the 1960s.

The project's most intense engagement with the world of policy and practice has been the Gibe III hydro-electric dam, the largest in Africa, which is now under construction in the middle Omo Basin. As the main source of academic research data on the recent history of human-environmental relations in the lower Omo, the project is in a unique position to contribute to the debate about how to ameliorate the negative downstream impacts of the dam. Project members have addressed meetings on this issue in London and the Hague and have discussed it with key Ethiopian government officials, including the Minister for Water and Energy, the head of the Electric Power Corporation and the head of the Environmental Protection Authority. The project was the subject of Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 in March 2009.

The project has also resulted in a 'spin-off' archaeological study which represents the first systematic attempt to explore the as yet little-understood prehistory of the lower Omo.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (36 months)

Principal Investigator:
Dr David Anderson

Higher Education Institution:
African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

Project team:
  • Graciela Gil-Romera, University of Oxford
  • Henry Lamb, University of Aberystwyth
  • Mohammed Umer, Addis Ababa University
  • David Turton, University of Oxford
  • Marco Bassi, University of Oxford

Selected publications

Publications include a number of peer review articles, as well as a contribution to an edited collection on water resources management:

Bassi, M. (2011). Primary Identities in the lower Omo Valley: Migration, Cataclysm, Conflict and Amalgamation, 1750-1910. Journal of Eastern African Studies. 5(1): 129-157.

Turton, D. (2011). Wilderness, wasteland or home? Three ways of imagining the lower Omo Valley. Journal of Eastern African Studies. 5(1):158-176.

Gil-Romera, G., Lamb, H., Turton, D., Sevilla-Callejo, M., and Umer, M. (2010). Long-term resilience, bush encroachment patterns and local knowledge in a Northeast African savanna. Global Environmental Change. 20: 612-626, 2010.

Turton, D., Kloos, H., Legesse, W., and McFeeters, S. (2010). Problems for pastoralists in the lowlands: river basin development in the Awash and Omo Valleys. In: Kloos, H., and Legesse, W. (eds.) (2010). Water Resources Management in Ethiopia: implications for the Nile Basin. (New York: Cambria Press).


Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

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University of Nottingham
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