The other argument is that some tribes have now become tourism-dependent, with payment from tourists being their only reliable source of income. Withdrawing from the region could be disastrous for the communities who depend on this money to feed their families and to purchase seeds and cattle.
With so much tribal and community tourism in Africa and beyond, why have we highlighted the Omo Valley as an area of particular concern? Why are these issues more pressing here than with the tribes of Ethiopia's highlands, or the Maasai of Kenya, for example?
The difference is ownership of the tourism. Unlike in other areas, there seems to be little collaboration with the Omo Valley tribes, and little debate. While the Maasai were once victims of look-and-point tours, they are now landowners, who rent out their land to tour companies. Any safaris must be accompanied by Maasai guides, and the Maasai give concessions for lodges and camps to be built on their land. They don’t need to hold their hands out every time a photo is taken, as they are earning money in more sustainable ways, as guides, and as landlords. Even in Ethiopia’s highlands, community tourism initiatives provide accommodation, food and guides for visitors, the opportunity for tourists to spend time interacting with and getting to know the locals, rather than simply sticking cameras in their faces.
In the Omo Valley that hasn’t happened, and the tribes have no control over the flow of visitors and vehicles. That’s not to say they don’t want tourism, but that even those who do have little say over how it is conducted and at what price. The only control they have is over the cost of a photograph – and this control is exercised rigorously.
The local tourism bureau has introduced a charge payable to the village at the start of every tour, rather than to each individual, which allows tourists to take as many photographs as they wish, However, this is not to say that all Omo villagers welcome the change, and asking if it’s OK to take a photo of someone is still a basic sign of respect.
To further complicate issues, a huge dam on the Omo River has displaced tribes and changed livelihoods beyond recognition. The Gibe III Dam has caused disruption since construction work began in 2008. Since its opening in October 2016, the dam has put an end to the biannual floods
that the herding and agricultural communities depend upon, and has worsened the effects of drought. Though the authorities claim the local people were consulted, many communities deny this, and as many tribespeople are illiterate, they were unable to fully understand what was being proposed. As Survival International
explains, tribal land close to the dam is being leased out to foreign companies so to be used for crops. More concerning, reports carried out by the US and UK into human rights abuses have never been released. Sadly, the dam is just one in a long line of invasions into tribal land which began with the gazetting of national parks (the tribes were evicted and lost access to natural resources) as well as land grabs and resettlements, to make way for foreign-owned cash crops such as palm oil and maize.
Arguably, their status as a powerful tourism draw could make the tribes’ case stronger, their opposing voices louder, and could discourage the creation of the dam, but the chances of this are decreasing by the day.