By Tim Johnson
As the contest began about three years ago, it was a huge mismatch.
On one side was Hurd, a soft-spoken, unassuming 1995 Burlington High School graduate. He trimmed trees to support himself. He did two years at the University of Vermont. He never studied anthropology but developed a keen interest in the ways of indigenous peoples, starting with American Indians and deepening with a trip to Ethiopia in 2001.
On the other side was the African Parks Foundation (now called African Parks Network), a private, Netherlands-based organization in the business of managing conservation reserves. It was overseer of seven "protected areas" covering about 9,600 square miles in five countries. It has financial supporters including the late Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, a Dutch executive (whose contributions to African Parks exceeded $25 million), Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands ($1 million), and from the United States, Rob Walton and the Walton Family Foundation ($5 million).
At issue was the fate of the Omo National Park in southwest Ethiopia, about 1,560 square miles of savanna seasonally used for grazing, farming and hunting by about 40,000 people comprising seven ethnic groups, including the Mursi. When African Parks signed an agreement with Ethiopian government officials to manage Omo several years ago, Hurd feared this could lead to the Mursis' eviction. He knew that dislocation had been the experience of two other ethnic groups in Nech Sar, another park in southwestern Ethiopia that African Parks had taken over.
It was during Hurd's second visit to Mursi territory, in 2004-05, that he learned African Parks was coming to Omo. Hurd stayed on for five months, living in the Mursi villages, learning their language, traveling everywhere on foot. When he came back to Burlington, he knew he wanted to help them, but wasn't sure the best way to go about that.
He created an organization to advocate for "conservation refugees" -- people forced off their lands for the creation of nature preserves.
"I started going door to door," he said, "asking for donations."Immersion Perhaps the most widely known image of Mursi life is the lip plates that women wear on ceremonial occasions -- fired clay disks up to 6 inches across that distend the lower lip. The women do the cooking and build the huts, made of grass, sticks and mud; the men occasionally hunt wildlife, raise cattle, and defend their community when conflicts break out with neighboring ethnic groups
What fascinated Hurd, who learned of the Mursi in a travel guide, was that they had maintained their pre-modern way of living. He wanted to experience life like that, so he began immersing himself in their society. His first stay lasted about a month and disabused him of the warnings he'd been given that they'd be dangerous.
When he came back to Burlington, he read as much as he could find about the Mursi. The best-known scholar who'd studied them was an Oxford University anthropologist, David Turton, with whom Hurd began corresponding. Hurd obtained a draft of a Mursi-English dictionary compiled by Turton and started studying it
He saved money from tree-trimming and made his second visit three years later. This time he stayed five months -- again living in the villages, dressing as the Mursi men did (wearing just a loin cloth much of the time); he had his hair cut in Mursi style and got a Mursi tattoo on his back.
His latest visit lasted nine months and ended in June. He continued to learn the language (he describes himself as "half-fluent"), but his main project this time was to map their territory..
The result of all this immersion, Turton acknowledged in an e-mail, is that Hurd "has the most up to date knowledge of the Mursi of any outsider, including myself."
Hurd's mother, Susan, and his 13-year-old son, Asa, spent three weeks in Ethiopia in March. She described their four days among the Mursi an "exquisite cultural experience" -- a world "in which Will swam."
He was in his element there, and everyone seemed to know him.
"They call him Willy," she said.Surprise Back in Vermont, Hurd's efforts on behalf of Mursi land rights took various forms.
"People were really generous," he said of the response to his door-to-door campaign and a couple of fundraisers to support his new organization, Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees.
Worldwide, conservation refugees are widespread. Charles Geisler, a Cornell professor of development sociology, has estimated that as many as 14.4 million people in Africa alone have been either evicted or prevented from moving into conservation areas.
In some cases, the rights of indigenous people and the goals of conservationists are in conflict. According to African Parks' description of Omo, "ever-increasing human and livestock populations have resulted in more degraded pasture and need of land, thus increasing conflict between communities." Hurd's contention is that the Mursi and the other groups, left largely to their own devices for centuries, remain the best stewards of the land.
Hurd got in touch with nongovernmental organizations -- among them, Survival International and the Center for International Environmental Law. He contacted U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office and the U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous people. He talked to representatives of U.S. AID, which had funded African Parks, and the World Bank. His goal was both to raise questions about funding for the Africa Parks' Omo project, and to put pressure on African Parks to respect the Mursi's rights. When Hurd was in Ethiopia, he also talked with African Parks representatives there.
All this networking helped when Hurd started applying for grants. He got one to fund his mapping project, which he hoped would help the Mursi in their dealings with African Parks.
Then, in December, something unexpected happened. African Parks announced it was terminating its management of Omo and Nech Sar. In the case of Omo, the statement mentioned the difficulty of managing hostile ethnic groups and the critical opposition of unnamed "human rights organisations."
"Mursi celebrate withdrawal of conservation organisation from their land," read the headline in Survival International's newsletter.
"It was an emotional thing," Hurd said recently. "I never thought this would work. I knew Africa Parks had a lot of money. I was just one guy. I wasn't trying to get them out. I was just trying to get the people in a good position to bargain."
"There's no doubt that Will is principally responsible for African Parks' pullout from Ethiopia," wrote Anne Perreault of the Center for International Environmental Law, in an e-mail.
"He led the charge," said Kirk Talbott of First Voice International. "Will is exceptional -- a one-man army. One of the most remarkable men I've met in the field."
What now for the Mursi? Hurd, 31, wants to help them figure out a way to maintain their traditional lifestyle but manage their own conservation project at the same time. There are precedents for this, in Kenya, where Samburu and Maasai tribes manage their own lands and bring in tourist revenue to boot. Hurd facilitated a trip to Kenya, so Mursi could see for themselves. He's trying to set up a reciprocal visit by the Kenyans to give the Mursi advice.
"It just goes to show," said Susan Hurd, "what difference one person with a lot of passion and initiative can make."
Her son puts it more modestly.
"I just thought that if I didn't do anything, there was no hope at all," Hurd said. "I started from nowhere. I did what I could."Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or email@example.com BOX: Learn more
For more information about Will Hurd's work and the worldwide issues surrounding conservation refugees go to the Web site of his organization: Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees: http://conservationrefugees.orgE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The online version of this story at www.burlingtonfreepress.com, contains a link to a 2005 story about Will Hurd and the Mursi.
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