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Before Africa was colonized, Africans farmed or herded with little or no regard for land ownership. Land was shared by clans, communities, or ethnic groups, and was often shared between groups as well. One group may have farmed a piece of land for part of the year, while another group grazed livestock on the land while it lay fallow (unfarmed) the rest of the year.
The concept of exclusive land ownership was introduced by colonists, who, in many areas, seized the best farmland in order to grow export crops. Less fertile areas were left for indigenous Africans, who farmed them in small, fragmented plots. This process was fostered by many independent African governments, which seized further communal farmland for private, corporate, or governmental use. Eventually, smallholders’ plots became increasingly subdivided into smaller fragments in order to provide at least some land to each of the growing generation of village families. Fallow periods, essential to maintaining the fertility of the soil, have been steadily reduced because all the available land has been brought into cultivation. In addition, many smallholder farmers, unsure about the future of their farms in the light of land seizures, began to favor short-term crops. In doing so, they abandoned traditional practices of crop rotation and intercropping—planting soil-depleting cereal crops and soil-restoring legume crops on the same land, either one after another or at the same time. Many farms became infertile, further reducing the amount of land available to smallholders. Coupled with recurrent drought, these conditions have brought serious food shortages to much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Many African governments have consequently faced the need for land reform. In some countries, land reform measures and rural development schemes initiated soon after independence gave smallholder farmers ownership of or leasehold rights to the small parcels of land they were already working as tenant farmers. Many African governments have resorted to the nationalization of land assets with the presumed claim of better land distribution among the landless. In some countries, such as Ethiopia, land reform has been manipulated for political purposes, and mismanagement and corruption has harmed agricultural production. In other countries, such as Zimbabwe, the best lands initially remained in the hands of European settlers instead of being redistributed after independence.
Land Tenure in Ethiopia
The government retains ownership of all land in Ethiopia. Farmers (and others) lease land from regional authorities. Government officials argue that the lease mechanism is "tantamount to freehold" because land holders can sublet, sell, and extend their leases. However, strictly speaking, land cannot be bought and sold. In fact, Article 40 (3) of the Ethiopian constitution states clearly that "land is a common property of the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or other means of transfer." A 1993 proclamation gave regional governments the power to regulate the transfer and acquisition of land, but land tenure policy is still regulated by the central government.
As countries such as Ethiopia reconsider their land tenure policies, they are learning to that such policies need to incorporate three basic features:
Note: The following discussion relates specifically to lessons being learned in Ethiopia, but may also be relevant in other countries experiencing land degradation.
Security of tenure: security of tenure and ownership of land provides the right incentive to invest or make improvement in land and natural resources. A recent study has shown that the majority of smallholders in Ethiopia (76 percent) are not sure whether their current land will belong to them in five years' time (Ethiopian Economic Association, 2002). Some government officials grudgingly acknowledge that such insecurity of tenure exists in rural Ethiopia, but do not see it as being due to land policy. Guaranteeing land rights so that they are not arbitrarily overridden by the state is an important aspect of security of tenure. These rights should only be revocable under exceptional circumstances and then only through due process of law. Moreover, landholders should have the freedom to transfer land ownership to others.
The redistribution of land by Kebele, a local government, is another major source of land tenure insecurity among smallholders. Many farmers appear to believe that their holdings will shrink or be transferred to other households after a period. This has made farmers reluctant to invest in improving the land (e.g. planting trees, enriching the soil), resulting in lower productivity and food insecurity.
Another serious deficiency of the current land policy is that it links access and land rights to a farmer's residency, i.e., the rights of the landholder are usually revoked as soon as he leaves his residence area. This has constrained the free movement of people and the development of land markets.
Dynamic land system: Land is like any other asset except that it does not move. In a dynamic land system, ownership should move from those who do not use it efficiently to those who do. However, this does not happen under the current system because the land market is restrictive in Ethiopia. Instead, the transfer of ownership is for a limited period which is specified in a contract limiting the further transferability of land. Decisions regarding such transfers are made by the State, not by the owner.
The government sees this land policy as promoting equity in rural Ethiopia and restricting landlessness. Nevertheless, this concern seems to be exaggerated and misplaced, since it has proven to be a disincentive with respect to needed investment and improvement in land.
Population Pressure and Land Scarcity: Due to population pressure, very little land in Ethiopia is not cultivated. This means there is enormous pressure on land, which is overutilized and not allowed to lie fallow. An important way of reducing this pressure is to allow land users to move to other small towns and urban areas looking for employment without the fear of losing their property. This is not possible at present because of the current land policy whereby farmers lose their land rights if they move to urban areas, restricting optimal utilization of land and mobility of labour. Land policy should take population dynamics and the free movement of people into account.
Ethiopia is the least urbanized country in Africa. There is a strong link between lack of urban development and poverty. The government's policy of agriculture-led development industrialization plans to make agriculture an engine of growth and gives low priority to urban-based development and industrialization. However, the urban sector is very small and there may not be adequate domestic demand for agriculture-led growth.
Resettlement: People have been moving from one part of the region to the other for centuries, without calling it resettlement. Resettlement became a favorite government strategy for dealing with chronic food insecurity and drought during the previous military regime. More recently, the current Government has also resorted to such practices. The resettlement policy under the previous government involved moving families from drought-affected areas of the north to relatively fertile and virgin areas of the southwest region of Ethiopia. However, current government policies restrict free movement, so resettlement can only be implemented within the current ethnically-based administrative regions. There is ample evidence to suggest that resettlement has been a failure with respect to ensuring food self-sufficiency among smallholders. The Derge relocated approximately 600,000 people, 30,000 of whom were reported to have died. The current government plans to resettle two million people over a period of a few years, although experts believe such resettlement could cause still more hardship and accelerate the degradation of natural resources, since arable land is scarce in most areas of the famine-affected Northern regions and simply may not be able to accommodate such a large influx of settlers.
Land Certification: land user certification is being introduced in some regions in an attempt to address tenure security. It is not certain how certification can promote tenure security without simultaneously allowing the transfer of land and removing any conditions that restrict land markets. A free land market contributes to a more dynamic land resource management system and a government policy that encourages it could be just as effective as certification, which has proven costly and complicated to administer.
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