I’ve ultimately made the hard decision not to guide more tours to the Omo worried that the balance is on the wrong side of the precipice. But I remain personally invested in the area as a whole, and definitely in several people who have become friends over the years. It is the reason I’ve decided to show these photographs properly for the first time.
Education, I believe, is key. For both those who don’t live there and for those who do - which is why part of the money is being sent back to the school I’ve used as a backdrop there before. Knowledge plays a key part in making sure that the flimsy balance is kept on the healthy side.
The valley is caught in a nasty Catch-22 situation. While tourism is running the risk of undermining the area’s traditional cultures and the perspective that they have of their own position in the world. It’s also a catalyst for a host of other consequences.
But it has helped trigger local industry and support a healthier cash economy. (There is no doubt that much can still be done to improve this scenario, of course.) Although wealth is still traditionally stored ‘on the hoof’, so there is little use for bank accounts and savings, the clean, crisp five or 10 birr note has become the most recognizable currency in trade between tourists and local villagers. As traditional lifestyles fade, dependency on cash increases.
Traditionally tribes along the 475-mile Omo River relied on flood plain agriculture for subsistence but the Ethiopian government has recently completed a series of dams upriver. The river is no longer moody, its levels stable. It doesn’t flood. Huge commercial agricultural plantations have been established in the area. Local labour is used, traditions swept away in pay checks and, often, bottles of alcohol.
More importantly the Ethiopian federal government hasn’t put its support behind the growth in ethnic tourism in the region. Pastoralism is viewed as backward, uneconomical, and in need of modern development. From their perspective, abandoning traditional livelihoods based on pastoralism in favor of modern agriculture will help spur regional development. Support for community based tourism sorely lacks.