REVISITING THE LAND ISSUE: OPTIONS FOR CHANGE
General Manager, Forum for Social Studies
The debate on the land question (in Africa) cannot be conducted in a political vacuum. Land is not solely an economic
resource, and tenure cannot ignore social and political relationships. Land legislation has often been used to promote
a specific political agenda, or to benefit the dominant forces in society, many of which often reside outside the farming
world. The question of the state and issues of governance are therefore important elements in the debate. Is the goal
to encourage the rise of an assertive rural population? or a pliant, docile peasantry? How do we promote a dynamic
rural economy and improve rural livelihoods? Such questions are important aspects of the debate on the land
We should not approach tenure issues from what may be termed a "systems perspective". That is to say, we should
NOT first ask: what is the best tenure system to recommend, but rather, what has been the agrarian experience of the
country concerned? We should not get bogged down on the question: which is better, state, customary, private,
collective, etc. tenure systems? The systems approach goes something like this: property systems have historically
evolved from "inefficient" and backward forms to more dynamic and efficient forms, culminating in private ownership,
or the capitalist property system. The formula adopted by the World Bank/IMF (i.e. private property, land market etc.) is
taken as a universal panacea irrespective of economic, historical, demographic and political differences.
What can be done to improve rural livelihoods? What in the Ethiopian context are the elements pertinent to sustainable
livelihoods? This may be a better way to approach the land question than to ask what kind of tenure arrangement
should we adopt. I think we all agree that tenure security is primary, but the search for security can take many forms.
While equitable land distribution may go some way to ease the problem of rural poverty, it cannot by itself be a
sufficient solution. Ill-advised reforms may in fact be counter-productive, and as is the case in Ethiopia, exacerbate the
problem of rural poverty. Poverty reduction will have to go hand in hand with improving livelihoods, and it is here that
land policy can play an important role.
The Ethiopian experience at present is similar in some ways to the "post-socialist" experience of countries such as
Tanzania, Mozambique, and others. That is, the issue should have been how do we make the transition from a
command-based, collective form of rural economy to a more open economy? The transition in Ethiopia has been
partial: while the liberalization of grain prices and the market for rural products, which was initiated by the previous
government in its dying days, has been maintained, the land system has largely remained unchanged.
Sara Berry in a recent book makes the point that land tenure is fluid in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. People get
access to land through a variety of means: through their social networks, customary institutions, family relations,
through service and renting arrangements, and only occasionally through the law. In Ethiopia in contrast, rights to land
are defined by law, which abolished customary and other forms of tenure, replacing them with usufruct rights. The
movement of land from one user to another is now possible either through short-term renting arrangements or through
land redistribution. The Ethiopian land system is thus very inflexible. Changes to the tenure system are also precluded
because land has now become a constitutional issue.
The main weaknesses of the prevailing tenure system are the following: a) lack of tenure security; b) lack of legitimate
institutions to ensure the rights of landholders; c) discriminatory practices in land distribution; d) discouragement of the
mobility of the rural population. The system has given rise to diminishing family holdings and pasture, and to
environmental degradation. Because of the high sense of tenure insecurity, peasants cannot employ sound land
management practices and are reluctant to invest on the land. The system is also responsible for the recurrence of
food shortages and famine. With per capita farm plots less than a hectare and getting smaller in a majority of the rural
areas, peasants do not produce enough food to sustain themselves through the year even under normal
I have discussed the damaging consequences of the land system in more detail in an earlier issue of Economic Focus
(Issue 2, December 1997), and I shall not repeat the arguments here.
The land system has discouraged peasant mobility and trapped the population in the rural areas. More than 85 percent
of the country's population lives in the rural areas, and this has put enormous pressure on the land and environmental
Improvements in livelihoods are impossible unless a considerable proportion of this population is released from the
land and moves out of the rural areas. I am not here talking about resettlement which merely shifts populations from
one part of rural Ethiopia to another.
The greater mobility of peasants out of agriculture will stimulate the greater mobility of land. Land will be able to move
"freely" from those who cannot use it efficiently to those who can. This doe not necessarily mean that the urban
capitalist will have a field day and that the structure of holdings will immediately be transformed in which large-scale
capitalist farming will immediately dominate.
The destination of a mobile peasantry will be the urban areas, but many of the provincial towns in the country cannot
provide sufficient employment to absorb a large influx of migrants. There will thus have to be a concerted effort to
promote investment by Government and the private sector in such towns. Moreover, a revitalized urban economy
should provide the stimulus to expand the rural economy and add value to rural work.
I am strongly convinced that the present land system must be reformed, though under the present circumstances
reforming the system will entail reforming the constitution, which will be a difficult task. Despite that the debate on the
land issue and alternative options should continue. The first step in the reform process is to hold a series of public
debates on the issue involving the main stakeholders and a wide spectrum of public opinion. An important policy such
as this one cannot be formulated without public participation and the input of the farming population.
What is offered below as options for change are points for discussion and should not be taken as a blue print for a
new land system. The elements of a new land policy should include the following;
The first principle that should be recognized is that land is the fundamental basis of the livelihood of the farming
population. As an old Japanese saying puts it, a farmer without land is like a man without a soul. Land thus belongs,
directly and without ifs and buts, to the people who use it. The state or any other authority has no right to a natural
resource that it does not directly utilize. Public ownership of land merely perpetuates the paternalist "ideology" of the
state, and extends its hegemony over the peasantry.
As noted above, a sound land policy should provide secure tenure to all landholders at all times. Access to secure
rights is an indispensable element if we wish to invigorate the rural economy and induce the land user to invest on the
land and to improve production.
Secure rights means that landholders have the right to dispose of their land in any way they choose. The argument of
the state is that if the peasant is given absolute rights over the land he will immediately sell, or will be quickly deprived
of it by unscrupulous urban-based capitalists, and the result will be large-scale landlessness.
This argument is not only foolish but assumes the peasant to be either irresponsible or child-like who will quickly throw
away the most valuable asset in his possession. The peasant values the land very highly and is strongly attached to it;
he or she will not give it away under any circumstances unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Moreover, selling
the land is not a mortal sin.
Given the agrarian experience of the last two to three decades in this country, tenure security cannot be accomplished
overnight. It will take a long time before the peasant will be assured that he or she has secure rights to the land he/she
is farming. The first step in reaching that goal is to convince peasants that there will be no more redistribution of land.
Land tenure issues must not be politicized as it is done at present. There must be a recognized institution (a court of
law or a special land tribunal, for example) which is responsible for ensuring rights of land and adjudicating conflicts
over land when they arise. Such an institution must be politically independent and must have a strong presence in the
At present, land redistribution, consolidation and similar measures have become political issues and are taken by the
political agents of the state. There will be no secure ownership until the politicization of land is brought to an end.
A new land policy must enable the rural population to move out of agriculture and seek alternative employment (see
The points noted here do not necessarily mean that private ownership of land in the capitalist sense of the term is the
ultimate solution. I have argued instead that what I call associative ownership, which combines private rights with
community responsibilities, is a viable option. Under this system, the peasants have secure and individual rights to
their holdings but the community, in the form of the peasant association, for example, protects this right if it is
threatened by outsiders. The community acts as the guarantor of rights of individual ownership.
We cannot assume that private ownership will ensure security of holdings under all circumstances and in all social
contexts. It is, for instance, the institution of private property that is in part responsible for peasant insecurity and
agrarian conflict in Latin America. Similarly, the privatization of land in Kenya has had mixed results. It has not
succeeded in institutionalizing private control over land, and has instead given rise to conflicts and litigation among
farm households and social groups. Indeed, it has undermined the very security of tenure that the reform was
supposed to protect.
A new land system must promote the autonomy of the landholder and the empowerment of farming communities. It is
important to remember that rights to land have to be defended from encroachments and violations in order to be or
remain secure. An autonomous peasantry is the best guarantee that such rights will be vigorously defended when the
occasion calls for it. Autonomy involves independence from the influence or control of the state and other external
forces, and the ability to pursue one's interests through one's own economic, social and political institutions.
The emphasis of the agricultural development strategy of the government, which is based on a widespread
dissemination of modern inputs (mainly agro-chemicals) is increased food production achieved through improvements
in land productivity. But, what is equally needed is improvements in labour productivity which cannot however be
achieved with micro-holdings that are today the basic feature of peasant agriculture. The enlargement of farm sizes is
necessary, but this will mean some significant changes in the social profile of the rural society.
Today, rural society is by and large socially undifferentiated, thanks mainly to the prevailing land system which has
been in force now for well over two decades. But I believe rural differentiation should be welcomed, and we should
encourage the better-off elements of the population to improve their status.
The change from "peasant" to "farmer" is I believe essential, and the pioneers in this change will be the richer
peasantry. So, let there be "kulaks"! I am not convinced that we will have to wait for the urban bourgeoisie to rescue
the rural economy. The real force behind sustained improvements in livelihoods will come from those who were
peasants once but managed to change themselves into farmers.