Even though [the Lower Omo] is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.

So said Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi last year. He was giving a speech in Jinka, a southwestern town by the banks of the Omo River. The surrounding valley is home to about 200,000 people who use the river's waters to irrigate their land for farming and feed their livestock.

Zenawi's 2011 proclamation -- an odd mix of insult and promise -- presaged the conundrum that now faces Ethiopia's Omo Valley. A report released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that the Ethiopian government, caught up in an ambitious nationwide agricultural overhaul, is facilitating the mistreatment and forced relocation of small-scale farmers in Omo Valley.

Not My Dam Problem

Upstream on the Omo River, a major dam called Gibe III has been under construction since 2006. The dam will facilitate the irrigation of large-scale farms, mostly for sugar cane production. This will benefit the Ethiopian economy, but not without displacing thousands of families that have inhabited the Omo Valley for generations.

The push has already begun. HRW conducted interviews and found that government forces regularly use illegal tactics to assure the compliance of the Omo Valley people. Ethiopia's government is forcing indigenous residents of the Lower Omo from their ancestral lands, using harassment, violence and arbitrary arrests, to make way for large-scale irrigation schemes linked to Gibe III, said the report.

Ethiopia's land was nationalized under the communist regime of the late 1970s. Technically, there is still no private ownership; all small-scale farms are leased rather than owned. This makes it easy for the government to assert control; today, foreign investment is giving Ethiopia the tools to make greater use of its resources. This could be good for the country as a whole, but marginalized people are getting the raw end of the deal.

While government sources indicate that the sugar plantations will create more than 150,000 full-time and part-time jobs, existing residents will be resettled and will need to find alternative [occupations]. There is a real risk that the livelihoods of 500,000 people [in the valley and surrounding the nearby Lake Turkana] may be endangered, tens of thousands will be forcibly displaced, and that the region will witness increased inter-ethnic conflict as communities compete for scarce resources, says the report.

The area's inhabitants are already witnessing the change. As one agro-pastoralist explained to HRW researchers, They are cutting down our bush and forest, and bulldozing our gardens then they want us to sell off all our cows. No one is going to sell their cattle. They should go away. They should leave our forest alone and leave it to us to cultivate with our hands.

The Big Picture

The story of indigenous farmers in Omo Valley has a larger context.

On the whole, Ethiopia is in the middle of a transformational shift from sustenance farming to commercial agriculture. This industrialization is meant to make more efficient use of arable land, which could address chronic food shortages in the region and attract much-needed foreign investments.

Although the sugar cane fields of Omo Valley are to be government-run, similar projects across the country have been carried out by leasing land to foreign companies. This land-lease program offers large plots of government-owned land to investors at dirt-cheap prices, and global investors have flocked to take advantage of the deal.

The practice picked up considerably in 2008, when rising fuel and food prices resulted in increased global demand for arable land. Rapidly developing, densely populated countries like China and India have become Ethiopia's biggest customers.

Today, Ethiopian exports are growing at a breakneck pace -- up to 50 percent each year, according to The Economist. A devaluation of Ethiopia's currency has contributed to this growth. Meanwhile, foreign loans are on the upswing; they're being used not only for agricultural development, but also for infrastructural improvements.

For Ethiopian citizens, this agro-industrialization is life-changing in many ways. Ox-drawn ploughs are being replaced by tractors. New irrigation systems make proximity to wells and rivers less important. As infrastructure projects unfold, more villages are getting equipped with electricity, clean water, schools and health clinics.

That's good news.

On the whole, economic growth and political stability make Ethiopia an encouraging role model to its neighbors in the volatile Horn of Africa. It has lately become an energy exporter, thanks to smart investments in hydroelectric power. Its capital city, Addis Ababa, is a popular meeting spot for dignitaries of neighboring countries. The country's poverty rate has fallen consistently over the past several years.

Ethiopia has flexed its military muscle, too -- it has one of the biggest armies in the continent, and has been a major player in the fight to remove the terrorist group Al Shabab from neighboring Somalia.

There is no question that foreign investments in agriculture have contributed to Ethiopia's economic growth, and the government hopes to make more direct profits of its own in the Omo Valley. But many residents -- not just in South Omo -- already feel that their rights have been encroached upon due to agro-industrialization. And despite economic growth that foreign investment has brought, many Ethiopians still live in poverty.

The million-hectare question: Why should foreign investors be given vast tracts of arable land at cut-rate prices when millions of Ethiopians are chronically under-nourished and depend on small plots of land for their livelihood?

With Great Power

Ethiopia's development is positive -- even impressive -- but as the continued suffering of so many of its citizens shows, the rising tide has not lifted all boats.

In fact, there are many ways in which progress can be downright detrimental to some. Massive irrigation and hydroelectric generation projects, for instance, can change the course and volume of rivers that have been valuable water sources for generations of farmers. The currency devaluation that made foreign exports boom has also raised the cost of living domestically. And, as the case of the Omo Valley shows, the blind pursuit of profit can facilitate human rights violations.

In defending and promoting agricultural change, government officials argued that the benefits would extend to the vast majority of Ethiopians. Most of the country's land, they pointed out, was not yet being cultivated. Agriculture Ministry officials told The Guardian in 2010 that foreign investment could break the vicious cycle of the lack of capital and technology that was holding so many small farmers back, that small landowners would not be summarily disenfranchised, and that the new program would result in better agricultural productivity and more jobs for Ethiopian workers.

But that labor is cheap; many Ethiopian employees on foreign-owned farms earn less than $30 every month. The Indian company Karturi Global, for instance, had leased 300,000 hectares of land by 2010 and paid each worker just over $0.50 each day, plus two meals, according to The Guardian.

For those who have been forced to give up the family farm, these wages may not seem like much of an improvement -- and there are a lot of family farms. A full 85 percent of Ethiopians work in the agricultural sector, so commercialization will have a direct effect on most of the country's inhabitants.

Great Responsibility

GDP growth is encouraging, but there is a long way to go.

Ethiopia still has a poverty rate of about 29 percent, an illiteracy rate above 50 percent, high infant mortality, and skyrocketing fertility rates that could become unsustainable for what is already Africa's second most populous country.

Matters are not helped by the country's steadily decreasing rainfall levels, a problem recently exacerbated by the massive 2010-2011 drought in the Horn of Africa that left millions of Ethiopians in need of emergency food assistance.

Progress, then, is welcome. But in order to make sure that prosperity is never pursued at the expense of the voiceless, argues the HRW report, better oversight and comprehensive assessments are absolutely necessary. Agricultural commercialization need not be scrapped as long as moral considerations do not fall by the wayside.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Ethiopian government to suspend the clearing of land and construction of roads associated with irrigated commercial agriculture and the sugar plantations until these developments can be carried out in a manner that is consistent with national laws and international human rights standards, said the report.

Any displacement or relocation should comply with international and Ethiopian law. Expropriation (with appropriate compensation) is a last resort and should only occur as outlined in the appropriate legislation.

As it stands at the forefront of development in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia has a precedent to set. The people of Omo Valley must have a voice in, and a share of, their country's advancement.  The same goes for any minority group whose livelihoods are endangered by greater changes, no matter how generally positive those changes might be.