Ethiopia’s Struggle over Land Reform

Ethiopian women mill chickpeas
Ethiopian women mill chickpeas for use in flour, Feb. 25, 2004 (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP-Getty Images).

Twenty years after images of starving Ethiopian children shocked the world, famine and drought continue to stalk this African nation. Now, a new strategy to address poverty is prompting experts and farmers to ask whether it will substantially alleviate hunger.

Since 1984’s much-photographed famine, Ethiopia has experienced more than seven famines—with far less world attention. However, successive governments have quietly tried different ways to improve agricultural output in a bid to resolve the root problem. Still, the latest drought in 2003 left 13.2 million people in need of food aid.

Although regular rains are crucial to crops—as only 1 percent of the land is irrigated—drought is not the only cause of famine in Ethiopia. Other causes include the practice of intensive cultivation, deforestation, soil erosion, and a wood-fuel crisis, says a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published in November 2003.

Bercele Bayisa, a 30-year-old farmer from Telecho, a village in western Ethiopia, says his district was once thickly forested and full of wildlife. “Overpopulation caused people to come to this once-fertile land and clear it to plant crops. Now it is infertile; they resort to chopping wood to sell as firewood.”

Add to that the potentially divisive and contentious issue of land—and you have a complex range of reasons for hunger in Ethiopia. However, many experts say population is not the main problem—rather, it is the absence of coherent policies to tackle poverty, which currently affects 82 percent of the population, who live on less than a dollar a day.

Ethiopia’s latest strategy to reduce poverty, introduced in September 2002, aims at making life easier for the estimated 4 million people who need food assistance in any one year—drought or no drought. The Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP) is part of an international process to produce poverty-reduction strategy papers. Devised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, these strategies are meant to be developed by the governments of the poorest countries in consultation with their populations. Once approved by the World Bank and IMF, the countries can then qualify for debt relief and aid.

In practice, say critics, things rarely happen this way: Consultations are rarely wide-ranging, and donors dictate terms over national policies.

In Ethiopia, the strategy intends to reduce hunger mainly through environmental rehabilitation, increasing agricultural productivity by using more fertilizers, and food aid. But it makes no mention of land ownership, which some critics say is key to ending hunger. “We need a structure that looks after land like after a child,” says Mulat Demeke, dean of the faculty of business and economics at Addis Ababa University. “The major reason why most of the land in this country is degraded is the land-tenure system.”

Land, long governed by a feudal system, helped spark off the revolution that removed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and started a 17-year military dictatorship that introduced a controversial tenure system that is still followed by the succeeding civilian administration.

Under it, all property belongs to the state and is equally distributed to farmers who can neither sell it nor leave it unused. As the rural population has grown, the plots have had to be redistributed, leaving smaller and smaller areas in an increasing number of hands.

A group of Ethiopian economists says there is a direct link between famines and the land-tenure system. Lacking the security that comes with land ownership, farmers will not invest in improving fertility, or plant trees, or build terraces to stop soil erosion. The problem, the independent Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) adds, is that the current civilian government, by making land a constitutional subject, will not brook any discussion on state ownership of land.

An EEA study shows that 46 percent of farmers prefer the existing land- tenure system, while 32 percent want land to be privatized. Almost 85 percent of Ethiopia’s 69 million people live in rural areas.

Berhanu Nega, director of the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, which is part of the EEA, says the strategy “hopes to address productivity by technological means—by using more fertilizer and improved seeds. But those instruments are not enough without changing the underlying structures. Therefore many are afraid the agricultural part of SDPRP won’t succeed.”

Nega adds that with a national land-holding average of only one hectare, farmers struggle to grow enough to feed their families at the best of times. According to FAO, although productivity is increasing at a rate of 2.4 percent, it still falls short of the population growth rate of 2.8 percent.

Nega estimates that the number of people affected by famine is growing by a steady 3.4 percent every year, and if this continues for another 20 years, 50 million will be without food: “We have a Malthusian disaster in the making,” he says.

Following talks between the World Bank and the government, preparations are under way in some regions to issue tenure-security certificates to farmers. “We want the certificates to guarantee long-term security,” says Assaye Legesse, senior agricultural economist with the World Bank in Addis Ababa.

Nobody can say how long “long-term” will be, although the SDPRP says the government may give a guarantee that land will not be redivided for 20-30 years. Legesse says, “We could not go any further.... After ensuring the security of farmers’ holdings, the next thing would be to allow them to trade their plots. That would require changing the constitution.”

But this idea deeply worries some experts who say farmers are so poor that they could easily end up losing land—their only means of survival. Tewolde Egziabher of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), explains: “The economic conditions of rural people are so bad that people like me could buy up huge chunks of land and throw farmers off the land.” Until Ethiopia develops an industrial sector, he says, “market forces pushing farmers off the land—but not absorbing them as workers—will only add crime to poverty.”

Dessalegn Rahmato, general manager of the independent research institute Forum for Social Studies, says the government wants to hold on to the current system to keep control over rural populations, but warns against privatization, which, he says, donors are pushing as the only alternative to government ownership.

“We can’t just jump onto this privatization bandwagon,” he adds, citing Kenya, which tried privatization and which he says “is now in a mess,” and Latin America, where “the big boys own most of the land and there are many poor landless.”

Kenya’s most recent land privatization program was introduced in the 1990s under World Bank reforms. Since then land has become the most sought-after commodity in this agricultural country, which critics say has pushed the price beyond the reach of millions. Many now live in crowded shanty dwellings on the edge of cities.

Rahmato believes there is a third way—combining community ownership with private ownership, which would allow communities to manage the land and buy plots if farmers decide to sell. Farmers could still sell their plots freely and use their land as an asset for bank loans.

It’s a radical idea, but with little debate over land, the chances of farmers and other ordinary Ethiopians discussing it with government and donor representatives are slim at the moment.

Farmers know only too well what is going environmentally wrong in Ethiopia, but they are unable to prevent it, because environmental action cannot be taken by individuals alone and community action has been prevented in the past.

The government has begun to decentralize power. But it will take time to restore the traditional, community-based systems of land management that were systematically destroyed by past governments.

Egziabher says: “The only way to look after land like a child is through a joint community-wide consensus.” Security of tenure, empowerment of farming communities to introduce their own bylaws to protect the land, and improvements in irrigation “are the only hope for humanity to get the earth to produce more.”

The EPA tried this in northern Ethiopia, where farmers were allowed to make their own bylaws. After a few years the grass and trees grew back, crops improved, and even a spring appeared, which was used to irrigate the land. The regional government liked the idea so much it has applied it in other areas. “We expect a few years from now a lot more change of that nature,” says Egziabher.

Without such bottom-up and consultative approaches to its development, say experts, this ancient land is set to be visited by many more famines.

Ayenew Haileselassie is editor in chief of Fortune, an Ethiopian business weekly.