Landlessness Hits the Fan

The value of land has risen significantly in rural Ethiopia over the past few years. With the youth population rising alarmingly alongside a very sluggish rural transformation, landlessness has become a chronic problem. According to the central bank, youth aged 18 to 25 years account for more than 40% of the working age population of Ethiopia, and constitute the majority of landless people. On top of being landless, a considerable portion of them are currently unemployed. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with farmers, researchers, policymakers, and government officials to shed light on the matter.

A farmer near Gore town of Western Oromia state, 42 year old Weinitu Melaku has been in a court battle for the past 12 years over two hectares of rural farmland taken from her by five landless people who overtook and divided her land at different times. “I went to all the relevant bodies up to the regional Supreme Court, but they could not serve justice. It is not just the invaders but also the local officials who want the land,” she told EBR. “Government has also not renewed its old land registration system, which would have solved my problem.”

Weinitu is single. Getting married and starting her own family has become even harder with her frequent travels to pursue her court case. The surprising fact is that farmland in the zone where Weinitu lives has more than doubled over the past two decades. The main reason behind the surge in farmland is that the youth and landless people of other demographic groups have cleared forest land for agriculture, going beyond government demarcation. “Actually, all the forest land has become farm land; therefore, no further expansion is taking place now,” she says.

In most rural parts of Ethiopia, it has become common to see many landless farmers and households. As a result, many have been grabbing any vacant space found, whether it be on mountains or valleys. “Land is more valuable than gold now, unlike before,” says Weinitu, noting that clashes over land are common.

In Ethiopia, farmland is becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. In fact, it has become a matter of life and death. Half of Ethiopia’s 114 million hectares of land is arable. According to the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), however, only 13.7 million hectares is covered by crop, up from 9.9 million hectares in 1997. Total cultivated land stood at 9.9 million hectares between 1990 and 2000, but increased to 12.7 million hectares between 2000 and 2012.

While cropland has expanded by one million hectares since 2012, the number of smallholder households has increased by almost three million to reach close to 15 million households during the same period. All in all, while new cropland increased by 3.8 million hectares over the past two decades, Ethiopia’s total population soared by at least 35 million. Consequently, population density rose from 61.6 people per square kilometer in 2000/1 to 97.6 in 2018/19.

Over 36Pct of smallholder peasant farmers have less than 0.5 hectares, while over 60Pct have less than one hectare, and only about 14,000 farmers have over 10 hectares, according to the latest Land Use Survey Report published by the Central Statistical Agency (CSA). “Landlessness has reached a critical stage in Ethiopia. Average land per farmer has fallen to less than half a hectare, down from one hectare a few years ago and three hectares two decades ago,” explains Fana Gebresenbet, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University (AAU), who has undertaken intensive research on the issue.

To be exact, the total cultivated area was expanding by four percent annually until 2013/14, but has been rising by less than two percent thereafter. For instance, data from the Ministry of Agriculture indicates that total cropland area expanded by only 0.7Pct in the past fiscal year. Land fragmentation and the further partitioning of existing farmlands among landless siblings has become the only way out for land dependent families.

Some experts argue the problem arises from the existing land policy and administration system. Ethiopia has not undertaken any official mass land distribution to farmers after the radical land redistributions of 1974—an outcome of the fundamental shift from Feudalism to socialism. Since then, new landholdings have only been registered through inheritance by siblings or gift.

According to the book “Land, Landlessness and Poverty in Ethiopia,” a compilation of four separate research papers published in 2018 and entirely edited by Desalegn Rahmato (PhD), prominent land researcher at AAU and the Forum for Social Studies (FSS), landlessness is an overlooked ticking bomb. The studies, conducted by different teams in four regions and covering four to six woredas in each region, found that 48.8Pct of the youth population in Tigray, 38.3Pct in Oromia, 25Pct in SNNPR, and 15Pct in Amhara is registered as landless. The study conducted in SNNPR further reveals that 91,000 youth from Kembatta and Hadiya zones alone, the majority of whom were landless, migrated to South Africa between 2000 and 2015. Although exact figures are unknown, migration of landless youth is very common in many parts of Ethiopia.

Landlessness and unemployment are also major reasons behind youth migration to Ethiopian urban areas and to cities abroad, usually under horrific circumstances. “Landlessness is an overarching problem with implications for poverty, social stability, and the environment. It is a product of demographic pressure, land scarcity, and the insufficiency of nonfarm jobs in rural areas,” states the book. The studies show that farmers living in the major regions including Oromia, Amhara, and SNNPR have farmland areas sized less than the national and regional average. The problem is worse in SNNP where almost all households operate on micro-holdings less than 0.5 hectares and are unable to sufficiently support the consumption of their own household.

The landlessness pressure is also alarming in Oromia, even though it is the largest region in Ethiopia. It is well felt in the highland parts of the region where migration of youth is also high. “This is because there is a large segment of youth in need of new farmland. For long, a very small section of the youth have been getting land via family inheritance or by clearing forests. Now this has reached the extreme limit. Unemployment is beyond the containable point in our region,” says Miressa Fitte, Deputy Head of Oromia Land Administration and Use Bureau. “There is no capital as well as entrepreneurship. Even university graduates are not business minded.”

Although Ethiopia’s constitution states that anybody above 18 years of age has the right to access land, only a small fraction of the bulging youth population gets land and that is from family plots.

According to Tigistu Gebremeskel, Director of Land Administration and Use Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture, only 15 million of the 20 million registered farmers in Ethiopia have rural farmland certifications under the spatial documentation system.

The Ministry is currently preparing to launch the digital web-based software for the National Rural Land Administration Information System (NRLAIS). This new system excludes large portions of rural unemployed youth currently without farmland. The majority of the rural working manpower—40Pct of the rural population—is currently landless, except for a fraction of land attained via inheritance and gift. “Landlessness is increasing significantly. Unfortunately, we have no land to give the landless. We can only certify those who have it,” stresses Kaba Urgessa (PhD), State Minister for Natural Resources and Food Security at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Some estimates reveal close to two thirds of the rural population is landless. Miressa remarked that at least two siblings of a sample rural household comprising of five family members are landless, since the small plots of land cannot be divided further. This is mainly because regional governments have introduced their own law determining 0.25 hectares as the lower threshold of division. “It seriously affects agriculture, if the plot is divided to less than 0.25 hectares. So we register plots above a quarter of a hectare,” explained Miressa. Nonetheless, regions with chronic arable land shortages and over-populated areas like Tigray and SNNP, compromise this minimum threshold. As a result, the size of a piece of farmland per smallholder farmer is falling below 0.25 hectares.

There are a number of reasons for the fast dropping farmland area per capita, apart from the land policy that prohibits the redistribution or acquisition of land. The fact that Ethiopia’s smallholder agriculture is disproportionately reliant on limited highland areas is the second most notable factor. Ethiopia’s agriculture, on which over 80Pct of the population and 34Pct of the gross domestic product (GDP) is dependent upon, rests on just 20Pct of the arable land. This is mainly because small-scale farming is concentrated in the central and southern parts of the country where rainfall is adequate.

Farmers in the highlands have long started digging and planting crops on steep mountainsides and valleys, since the plateaus are already over populated. The vast lowlands, however, are bare. Only pastoralists are adapted to the arid lowland weather. “Structurally, it is a crisis trying to hold such a large population on the comparatively small highland areas. Farmland is shrinking fast in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is only using around 20Pct of its arable land for agriculture; the rest is used by pastoralists in lowlands. Even cultivated land is highly fragmented and partitioned. While the population is shooting up, there is no new land being availed,” says Desalegn.

Another reason for rural landlessness is the increasing demand for land by the private and public sectors, aggravated by growing new investment endeavors including agricultural and industrial projects of all sizes as well as public infrastructural projects, among others. Expansion of cities and towns into their surrounding countryside as well as demographic and climate changes further contribute to the problem.

“Most fertile plots end up under urban areas and cities on top of being used for industry and other purposes. This is because we have no land use policy. Land should only be used for the function that brings maximum return,” argues Tigistu, whose Directorate is responsible for commanding Ethiopia’s rural land use.

The fact that only Bahir Dar University is researching land use and providing relevant training also indicates that modernization of land use and administration in Ethiopia is at its infancy. “We need to assess the manpower needed to modernize the land system and start new programs in different universities, within the next five to ten years. Land should be politically led, but not by politicians,” stresses Kaba.

The impact of landlessness ranges from smallholder farmers failing to feed themselves to youth migration, social disorder, and structural crises in the economy. Landlessness shocks can also extend into the political arena.

The fundamental cause emanates from wrong policies, according to Fana, who stresses that both the factors and impacts of landlessness are many. “There are a number of recommendations for the critical landlessness problem. The first is the redistribution of land. But the Ethiopian government preferred allocating land to foreign investors, rather than to domestic farmers. The policy further endangered indigenous communities when the government took their land in the name of ‘villagization’,” says Fana. “If land is given to a new investor, the indigenous community must have shares in the investment, whether they are smallholder farmers, pastoralists, or hunters.”

Within the past ten years, the federal government has taken 3.3 million hectares of land plus 200,000 hectares for sugarcane plantations from regional governments, to add to the central land bank and offer to foreign investors. Out of the total land, 1.7 million hectares was taken from the state of Oromia. “This was an effort to benefit quickly by bringing foreign investor-farmers to produce export commodities for the international market which was in need of import from peripheries following the 2008 economic crisis.

But the move was a shortsighted way of accommodating globalization, because it does not solve any domestic problems in terms of employment, technology transfer, capital gain, as well as food security, since the entire production goes abroad,” says Fana. “The land the federal government took from regions for foreign investors could have helped much, had domestic farmers accessed it with capital and technological support.”

Fana adds that given the extent of landlessness in Ethiopia, launching resettlement programs is bound to be difficult. “Only allowing land rental can work in the highland areas with the appropriate legal framework. But this needs to be coupled with collateral financing,” he says.

Tigistu also agrees that land rental is the only option at hand. “We are presently digitizing all our data, making the land administration system efficient and real-time. We have also finalized preparations to introduce post-registration services like collateral financing, to be starting soon.”

This new system, according to Tigistu, will lead experts of commercial banks to first assess and evaluate a plot’s value based on its fertility, type of crops, weather, and market forecasts. The bank can then correspondingly lend to the owner. If the farmer, however, fails to repay the loan within three years, the bank has the right to confiscate and rent out the plot until it recovers its loan within three years, after which the land will be returned to the owner. Tigistu noted that the government has prepared ETB400 million loan for the land collateral scheme this year.

To support this framework, a land use policy is also in the making. Additionally, regional states, including Oromia, are also preparing their own strategy to increase agricultural productivity and avert landlessness. “Our agricultural strategy underlies that it is possible to produce surplus on half a hectare of land in the highlands, if the farmer farms three times a year. Another option considered by the state of Oromia, is introducing a legal framework to govern land rental. This is in addition to land collateral financing that we are piloting in 22 woredas in cooperation with two microfinance institutions,” says Miressa.

However, Desalegn argues high productivity cannot be achieved in the highlands because the soil in the area has become less-productive following over-ploughing for centuries, without soil treatment.

“I do not believe the land issue will be solved in the short-term, because it is complicated. We have forwarded solutions to the current government. In terms of finding shortcuts to improve food security, what the current administration started this year—directing state investment towards lowland areas—could be a good solution,” states Desalegn. “But resettling farmers from the highlands to lowland areas is difficult at this time due to the political situation in the country.”

The long term solution, for 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.

According to Miressa, landlessness is aggravated particularly because the economy could not structurally transform and industry has failed to overtake agriculture. “Now it will take a minimum of 15 years to make industry the largest employer and reduce the pressure on farm employment. Until then, clustering fragmented farms and collateral financing could also help. Meanwhile, if the country adopts a land policy that is good, open, flexible, legally binding, and supportive, the farmers themselves could find a way out of the landlessness predicament,” concludes Desalegn.EBR


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

Ashenafi Endale


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