Land Privatization will inevitably induce desperation sales and migration to towns

By Jan Nyssen ( Mekele)

It is these days a stereotype, especially among Western-oriented  intellectuals in this country, to criticise the actual rural land tenure  system. Hence, I would like to give a different point of view. As a  physical geographer, I am currently carrying out a research on soil  erosion processes and about soil conservation.

The huge involvement of farmers in soil and water conservation work could  not be possible if the land was not equally shared. Which farmer would  accept communal work for soil conservation, if the benefits of it would go  only to part of the farmers (the owners of land)? I must say that during my discussions with the farmers, I heard complaints  about the small size of their land, but the principles of equal shares and redistribution were generally not questioned.

In fact, before land reform, there was already very little investment in  plots away from the homestead; it is an old problem, related to stubble grazing and to cropsharing, and land reform can not be blamed on that.

It is noteworthy that before land reform, besides the Risti tenure, there existed another land tenure called chigurafgwoses in some regions of  Tigray and shehena in part of the Eritrean Highlands, which was a precursor of the present-day leasehold system. Under chigurafgwoses, land  was redistributed regularly to all members of the community. This tenure system was already submitted to the same critiques as the present rural land policy. In a remarkable paper, published in the journal Africa (vol.  XVI/1) in 1946, S.F. Nadel considered, however, that an important incitement to good management of the farms in this tenure was the fact that "one loses his land if it is neglected, to the contrary of what happens in the case of risti property where rights are not lost in case of  land abandonment or neglect". Nowadays, priority in land allocation is given to those farmers who invest in their plots (manuring, soil and water  conservation, ...).

In case of land privatisation, the ancient cropsharing system (which presently mainly subsists as a social security net, allowing e.g. widows to have an income from their field by renting it out) would quickly be extended. Again, there will be the problem of absentee landowners who are not caring for the land, of crop-sharers who are not investing as only part of the fruits of their work is of benefit to them, and of numerous people who will sell their land and move to the towns where no jobs are available for them. The creation of a class of landless people and the subsequent rural depopulation might even lead to the neglect of griculture.

Comparable access to land, as it exists now, maximises the community's motivation for conservation work, since everybody will have a comparable advantage from it. The actual approach to leasehold and land reallocation, taking into account improvements made by the farmers, allows combining the social and environmental advantages of the periodical redistributions while avoiding the disheartening of the most active farmers. It is also encouraging to note that Ethiopia could resist foreign pressure and fix collective property and the impossibility of alienating land in its constitution (1994).

Who will be surprised that foreign farmer investors do not like the present rural land policy, since it prevents them from taking over the land of the Ethiopian farmers? No doubt, the International Monetary Fund -*and the World Bank favour land privatisation. But does an independent country like Ethiopia have to take its orders from these bodies? How many third world countries face huge social problems and unrest after following policies dictated by these organisms? Land privatisation will inevitably induce desperation sales and migration to the towns, Addis Ababa in particular. The farmers in southern Ethiopia will observe after some years of privatisation that large properties are again established, like during feudality, and they will rightly reject it.Rather than pleading a return to the old society, intellectuals should have the honesty to admit that agricultural output is now higher than ever. (Don't look to one Belg season but take an average of the last five years!).

As a conclusion, with regard to the present food shortages, it might be more useful to lambaste speculating merchants who bought huge parts of the yield and are now even buying from the farmers the food aid that they receive, provoking artificial price increases!