Ethiopia’s Approach to Develop Agriculture an Injustice to Smallholder Farmers

If there is anyone that has a high level expertise over land related issues, Desalegn Rahmato, in his mid 80s, is definitely one. He spent much of his life undertaking researches regarding the agriculture sector, landholding system, and other land related issues. In fact, he is the most cited scholar on land policy, agriculture, and food security in Ethiopia. His presentations and intensive and authoritative researches are published on numerous international journals, earning him international awards. Born in Nazreth, 99km away from Addis Ababa, Desalegn has a number of books that has opened the eyes of policy makers, students, and foreign actors. “Land Grabbing in Ethiopia” is one of his notable books, in which Desalgen firmly criticizes the way Ethiopia tried to handle commercial farming whilst pointing out the potential of transforming Ethiopia’s agriculture by capitalizing on small-scale farmers. For many in academia, Desalegn is a walking reference of Ethiopia’s land and agriculture history.

Although he was a noted lecturer for long, he left Addis Ababa University (AAU) few years after EPRDF took power to establish an independent research institute. Desalegn is one of the eight founders of Forum for Social Studies (FSS), established 23 years ago. The pack of founders includes notable academic gurus like Bahru Zewde and Gebru Tareke. Desalegn was also an executive director of FSS, before committing himself to research and editing of books and researches, as well as forwarding policy recommendations for government.

Desalegn argues landlessness, unemployment, and weak agricultural productivity have reached an unbearable point in Ethiopia due to the reluctance to improve land policy, a major bone of contention for the past half-century. The long-term solution for such problems, according to Desalegn, should be intensively supporting and incentivizing the domestic farmer. “The bottom-line in Ethiopia’s land policy quagmire should be tenure security for the farmer rather than land ownership,” underlies Desalegn.

EBR’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with him to learn about the flaws of Ethiopia’s landholding system as well as problems causing landlessness throughout the country.

How do you evaluate the existing land tenure system?
Ethiopia’s land policy has undergone various changes over the past 60 years. The current land tenure and administration policy was ratified in the 1990s while the Federal Land Tenure and Administration Proclamation was ratified in 2005. Regional governments have also introduced their own land laws that synchronize with the federal legal framework.

But now, this land tenure system is at a critical point since it is failing to address major problems like landlessness. Even worse, we currently do not see any concrete steps being taken. But I heard informally that a new proposal that can modernize the land tenure and administration system has recently been submitted to the Council of Ministers.

There are experts who argue that there should be a private land holding system to address the problems emanating from the current land system. What is your thought on such a line of argument?
Introducing a private land holding system in Ethiopia is a difficult task because the land ownership issue has already become part of ethnic politics, particularly in the past two decades. Land ownership is now strongly linked to identity politics and ethnicity. What the elites and activists say is heard more than what experts say. That is why the government is afraid to touch the issue.

In your recent book, you concluded that landlessness is the major reason behind the huge number of Ethiopian youth migrating to South Africa, especially from the saturated southern parts of the country. What are the fundamental factors and the implications of landlessness?
Landlessness is really a critical problem now. The main factor is the rapidly growing population that is surpassing the size of the cultivated farm land. It is surprising how such a huge population is living on such limited cultivated land. Our history also speaks volumes. Almost all of Ethiopia’s small-scale farmers have settled on 20Pct to 25Pct of the total land area. The vast and remaining portion of the nation’s land is either occupied by pastoralists or is unsuitable for farming.

The second reason for the growing landlessness problem is land fragmentation. A plot of farmland fragments over generations. This also has big implications on food insecurity.

Thirdly, the highly increasing demand for land, both from private and public actors, is putting pressure on the existing cultivated land and farmers. This exacerbates the landlessness problem further. When it comes to the public sector, infrastructures like roads, bridges, airports, and dams, among others, are taking significant land area. They are necessary but they should not take the fertile and cultivated farmland. Private investments are also taking significant land. For instance, in Debre Berhan and Bishoftu, farmlands are used to install factories. Large scale commercial farms that displace small-scale farmers are also contributing to the problem of landlessness. The other factor is urbanization.

Due to these factors, farmlands are shrinking over time. On the other hand, the bulging youth population in rural areas remains without farmland. Sometimes, families and local administrators give them mountainous areas and terrains that were designated as forest and grazing areas. This cannot be the solution. Due to this, forests and grazing lands have shrunk significantly over the past decade.

A significant portion of the youth segment is currently sitting idly, without a job or income. This is creating a favorable atmosphere for smugglers and human trafficking agents to exploit this idle and poor segment of the population who are eager to make a living. The youth is willing to migrate or die trying. They are preferring death over poverty. For instance, recently close to 3,000 Ethiopians were found in the prisons of war-ravaged Yemen. Youth from the northern part of the country are crossing the Red and Mediterranean seas, while the same demographic in the southern part of Ethiopia are migrating to South Africa.

Between 1990 and 2010, the size of cultivated farmland in Ethiopia grew by 3.8 million hectares. But afterwards, no significant expansion was observed. Do you think expanding farmland in highland areas is no longer possible?
The expansion of farmland over the past decades was achieved by destroying the small forest areas left in the country. But even that has reached its limit. In highland areas, there is no more space to expand farmlands.

So, what is the option left for Ethiopia? Maybe going to lowland areas to look for cultivable land?
Expanding farmlands into the lowland areas will not be a simple task. Lowlands are already occupied by different pastoralist communities that roam the country. It is difficult to push out the pastoralists and cultivate the land. On the other hand, it requires a considerable amount of investment and skill to cultivate the dry land found in the lowlands. Irrigation and mechanization are also needed. However, there are attempts to exploit the lowlands and cultivate crops like wheat by the current administration.

The government seems to go with the strategy that emphasizes increasing production and productivity in the highland areas by using improved technologies and inputs on small-scale farms. Is this strategy still viable?
Ethiopia’s agricultural policy since the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie talks about modernizing the agricultural sector. Back then, the main drive was to expand large farms that gradually employ modern technologies. That was how large farms were started in the Awash valley.

Then Dergue came and undertook fundamentally radical land reforms. Over two-thirds of Ethiopia’s land became state-owned and was distributed amongst farmers. The size of the land given at the time ranged from half a hectare to two hectares per household. Dergue also introduced agricultural socialization based on the rationale of modernizing the small-scale farming system. The military government believed small-scale farming cannot be modernized because it is subsistence-based, backward, rain fed, and fragmented. Then it started clustering small plots together to cultivate it under cooperatives. But no significant achievements were registered in this regard. State farms were also started at that time by using machineries on large plain lands. This endeavor did not materialize.

When EPRDF took power, it tried to focus on commercial farming, leaving the small-scale farmer as it is. The government gave huge farmlands, including to foreign investors. The commercial farming investments tried in the states of Gambella, Benishangul, Oromia, and Somali failed, even after the country provided expansive incentives and financing options. Most of the commercial investors, like Karuturi, fled the country after causing various damages and not repaying their loans. After conducting assessments, the EPRDF-led government finally concluded that the commercial farming effort had failed. Yet, it is not clear whether the current administration will go on with commercial farming even though there is some current activity in that regard.

What is your recommendation?
My recommendation is Ethiopia must seriously focus on smallholding farming, but also without totally ignoring commercial farming. It is better to modernize the existing small-scale farmer rather than to expect new farmers to come up with modern farming systems. If all the support and incentives given to foreign commercial farmers were availed to domestic farmers, the agricultural sector could have modernized. I do not know whether the government will consider this recommendation or not, but I have presented it to them. Some people say this is controversial but I do not see their rationale.

How can small-scale farming be supported, since the land is fragmented?
If the land policy is improved, flexible, and suitable, the farmer can find the way out of landlessness. Farmers know each other better as well as everything about land use and agriculture. So, they can come up with the solutions. If the restrictions on land renting are lifted, it can be a good solution for the landlessness problem. It is only commercial lands that can be leased in Ethiopia; it does not support private land ownership. But if rural land leasing is allowed under a better legal framework, many farmers can access land.

Nearby farmers who have fragmented plots can rent machineries and cultivate their lands together, which reduce the land fragmentation issue and improve food security. Most Ethiopian farmers are creative and they can work things out, if good policy environments are introduced to encourage them.

The major bottleneck towards agricultural modernization in Ethiopia, however, is that the farmer has no way of accessing financing from banks. Ethiopian farmers have had no chance of getting loans. However, in some areas of Amhara state, loans given with farmland as collateral have recently begun. This can contribute to agricultural modernization as it helps the farmer buy improved inputs and agricultural technologies. But I am not sure to what legal extent the banks can accept the land as collateral. Micro-finance institutions can support the smallholder farmer but they cannot satisfy the huge demand for finance.

In Ethiopia, foreign investors can access finance easily. But both small-scale and commercial domestic farmers, who are right here in front of the officials, cannot get loans because they are not trusted. Yet, domestic farmers have immense knowledge that is lacking in foreign investors. Foreign investors also enjoy many incentives including tax holidays, priority in accessing foreign currencies, and the duty-free import of capital goods like machineries. All these privileges are not given to domestic farmers who want to expand their operations. This is injustice.

The most viable agricultural strategy for Ethiopia is incentivizing and supporting domestic farmers. Only by doing this can we modernize the agricultural sector. Only commercial farming that needs specialization should be given to foreign investors.

Is there a direct and strong link between landlessness and unemployment, both of which are widely observed in Ethiopia?
Unemployment is directly linked to landlessness in a country like Ethiopia where livelihoods are directly linked to agriculture. Landlessness has been increasing at a very high rate in Ethiopia, even though the government hasn’t conducted a survey. But according to the rare available research, landlessness ranges between 20 and 40Pct of the youth population in regional states. When youth become landless, they migrate to urban areas. But there is not enough job opportunities. So, most of the Ethiopian youth are both landless and unemployed.

What kind of land use policy does Ethiopia need to address these problems?
First of all, Ethiopia has no land use policy thus far, which is critically necessary. Different types of land must be categorized first. Currently, we have not identified lands according to agricultural, industrial, urban, forest, and water use. This must be done as soon as possible, based on research. I heard the preparation of a land use policy has been started using finance secured from Germany. The initiative was started by the current administration but I do not know its present status. Preparing this policy is a complicated task and it needs at least five years.

Landlessness is not a problem limited to Ethiopia. It is also visible in other African countries and other parts of the world. What practices can Ethiopia learn from countries that have mitigated this problem effectively?
The problem is visible in many African countries but their contexts are different from Ethiopia’s. For instance, Kenya has a better approach to the problem but it is difficult to take it as a model because the land tenure system is different from ours.

In West Africa too, they are looking for various solutions to solve landlessness. There is no perfect model in Africa in terms of successful land policy. What can be said, however, is that in providing finance and incentives to farmers, most African countries are better than Ethiopia. So, Ethiopia can learn from this.

Some experts and politicians argue private land holding can improve agricultural financing and also productivity.
The critical problem in Ethiopia is not about owning land or not. The major problem emanates from land rights and security. Investment in land improves only when the holder is ensured that the land is not going to be taken from him. It does not matter whether the land is owned by the government, individuals, or by a communal system. If the holder is legally assured, he can cultivate the land as long as he wants. He can invest in it and take care of the soil and plants on it.

The land holder can make a long-term investment on the land only when s/he is assured. S/he can also rent it out to a third party. Therefore, land security is more critical than ownership. That is why I recommend a focus on tenure security. The land problem cannot be solved in the short-term because the problem is vast. There is no shortcut for such a complicated challenge, even in advanced nations and not only in a developing country like Ethiopia. So, ensuring land security can be the first answer for the wider problem. EBR

9th Year • Feb.16 – Mar.15 2020 • No. 83

Ashenafi Endale

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