Ethiopia: Land Reform

Posted: March 11, 2008 in History
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Land Reform

Until the l974 revolution, Ethiopia had a complex land tenure system. In Welo Province, for example, there were an estimated 111 types of land tenure. The existence of so many land tenure systems, coupled with the lack of reliable data, has made it difficult to give a comprehensive assessment of landownership in Ethiopia. However, the tenure system can be understood in a rudimentary way if one examines it in the context of the basic distinction between landownership patterns in the north and those in the south.

Historically, Ethiopia was divided into the northern highlands, which constituted the core of the old Christian kingdom, and the southern highlands, most of which were brought under imperial rule by conquest. This north-south distinction was reflected in land tenure differences. In the northern provinces–particularly Gojam, Begemdir and Simen (called Gonder after 1974), Tigray, highland Eritrea, parts of Welo, and northern Shewa–the major form of ownership was a type of communal system known as rist (see Glossary). According to this system, all descendants (both male and female) of an individual founder were entitled to a share, and individuals had the right to use (a usufruct right) a plot of family land. Rist was hereditary, inalienable, and inviolable. No user of any piece of land could sell his or her share outside the family or mortgage or bequeath his or her share as a gift, as the land belonged not to the individual but to the descent group (see Glossary). Most peasants in the northern highlands held at least some rist land, but there were some members belonging to minority ethnic groups who were tenant farmers.

The other major form of tenure was gult (see Glossary), an ownership right acquired from the monarch or from provincial rulers who were empowered to make land grants. Gult owners collected tribute from the peasantry and, until l966 (when gult rights were abolished in principle), exacted labor service as payment in kind from the peasants. Until the government instituted salaries in the twentieth century, gult rights were the typical form of compensation for an official.

Other forms of tenure included samon, mengist, and maderia land. Samon was land the government had granted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in perpetuity. Traditionally, the church had claimed about one-third of Ethiopia’s land; however, actual ownership probably never reached this figure. Estimates of church holdings range from l0 to 20 percent of the country’s cultivated land. Peasants who worked on church land paid tribute to the church (or monastery) rather than to the emperor. The church lost all its land after the 1974 revolution. The state owned large tracts of agricultural land known as mengist and maderia. Mengist was land registered as government property, and maderia was land granted mainly to government officials, war veterans, and other patriots in lieu of a pension or salary. Although it granted maderia land for life, the state possessed a reversionary right over all land grants. Government land comprised about 12 percent of the country’s agricultural land.

In general, absentee landlordism in the north was rare, and landless tenants were few. For instance, tenancy in Begemdir and Simen and in Gojam was estimated at about 2 percent of holdings. In the southern provinces, however, few farmers owned the land on which they worked. Southern landownership patterns developed as a result of land measurement and land grants following the Ethiopian conquest of the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After conquest, officials divided southern land equally among the state, the church, and the indigenous population. Warlords who administered the occupied regions received the state’s share. They, in turn, redistributed part of their share to their officers and soldiers. The government distributed the church’s share among the church hierarchy in the same manner. Officials divided the rest between the traditional leaders ( balabats –see Glossary) and the indigenous people. Thus, the loss of two-thirds of the land to the new landlords and the church made many local people tenants (gebbars). Tenancy in the southern provinces ranged between 65 and 80 percent of the holdings, and tenant payments to landowners averaged as high as 50 percent of the produce.

In the lowland periphery and the Great Rift Valley, the traditional practice of transhumance and the allocation of pastoral land according to tribal custom remained undisturbed until after World War II. These two areas are inhabited by pastoralists, including the Afar and Isa in eastern Eritrea, Welo, and Harerge; the Somali in the Ogaden; the Borana in Sidamo and Bale; and the Kereyu in the Great Rift Valley area of Shewa. The pastoral social structure is based on a kinship system with strong interclan connections; grazing and water rights are regulated by custom. Until the l950s, this pastoral life remained largely undisturbed by the highlanders, who intensely disliked the hot and humid lowland climate and feared malaria. Beginning in the l950s, however, the malaria eradication programs made irrigation agriculture in these areas possible. The government’s desire to promote such agriculture, combined with its policy of creating new tax revenues, created pressure on many pastoralists, especially the Afar and the Arsi (a division of the Oromo). Major concessionaires, such as the Tendaho Cotton Plantation (managed until the 1974 revolution by the British firm Mitchell Cotts) and the Wonji Sugar Plantation (managed by HVA, a Dutch company), acquired large tracts of traditional Afar and Arsi grazing land and converted it into large-scale commercial farms. The loss of grazing land to these concessions significantly affected traditional migration patterns for grazing and water.

In the northern and southern parts of Ethiopia, peasant farmers lacked the means to improve production because of the fragmentation of holdings, a lack of credit, and the absence of modern facilities. Particularly in the south, the insecurity of tenure and high rents killed the peasants’ incentive to improve production.

By the mid-l960s, many sectors of Ethiopian society favored land reform. University students led the land reform movement and campaigned against the government’s reluctance to introduce land reform programs and the lack of commitment to integrated rural development. By l974 it was clear that the archaic land tenure system was one of the major factors responsible for the backward condition of Ethiopia’s agriculture and the onset of the revolution. On March 4, l975, the Derg announced its land reform program. The government nationalized rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, forbade the hiring of wage labor on private farms, ordered all commercial farms to remain under state control, and granted each peasant family so-called “possessing rights” to a plot of land not to exceed ten hectares.

Tenant farmers in southern Ethiopia, where the average tenancy was as high as 55 percent and rural elites exploited farmers, welcomed the land reform. But in the northern highlands, where communal ownership (rist) dominated and large holdings and tenancy were exceptions, many people resisted land reform. Despite the special provision for communal areas (Article l9 of the proclamation gave peasants in the communal areas “possessing rights” to the land they were tilling at the time of the proclamation) and the PMAC’s efforts to reassure farmers that land reform would not affect them negatively, northerners remained suspicious of the new government’s intentions. The reform held no promise of gain for most northerners; rather, many northern farmers perceived land reform as an attack on their rights to rist land. Resistance intensified when zemecha (see Glossary) members campaigned for collectivization of land and oxen.

Land reform had the least impact on the lowland peripheries, where nomads traditionally maintained their claims over grazing lands. The new proclamation gave them rights of possession to land they used for grazing. Therefore, the nomads did not perceive the new program as a threat. However, in the Afar area of the lower Awash Valley, where large-scale commercial estates had thrived, there was opposition to land reform, led mainly by tribal leaders (and large landowners), such as Ali Mirah, the sultan of Aussa.

The land reform destroyed the feudal order; changed landowning patterns, particularly in the south, in favor of peasants and small landowners; and provided the opportunity for peasants to participate in local matters by permitting them to form associations. However, problems associated with declining agricultural productivity and poor farming techniques still were prevalent.

Government attempts to implement land reform also created problems related to land fragmentation, insecurity of tenure, and shortages of farm inputs and tools. Peasant associations often were periodically compelled to redistribute land to accommodate young families or new households moving into their area. The process meant not only smaller farms but also the fragmentation of holdings, which were often scattered into small plots to give families land of comparable quality. Consequently, individual holdings were frequently far smaller than the permitted maximum allotment of ten hectares. A l979 study showed that around Addis Ababa individual holdings ranged from l.0 to l.6 hectares and that about 48 percent of the parcels were less than one-fourth of a hectare in size. Another study, of Dejen awraja (subregion) in Gojam, found that land fragmentation had been exacerbated since the revolution. For example, during the pre-reform period, sixty-one out of 200 farmer respondents owned three or four parcels of land; after the reform, the corresponding number was 135 farmers.

The second problem related to security of tenure, which was threatened by increasing pressure to redistribute land and to collectivize farms. Many peasants were reluctant to improve their land because they were afraid that they would not receive adequate compensation for upgrades. The third problem developed as a result of the military government’s failure to provide farmers with basic items like seeds, oxen, and fertilizer. For instance, one study of four communities in different parts of Ethiopia found that up to 50 percent of the peasants in some areas lacked oxen and about 40 percent did not have plows.


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