Assessing the Attribute of Land Security to Agricultural Growth in Ethiopia

By Getachew Mequanent
Ottawa, Canada
December 16, 2012

Ethiopia is a country that has implemented successive land reforms to correct rural inequalities and stimulate growth in the agricultural sector. Historical and contemporary literature on the impact of these reforms makes different arguments. The most contested issue has been state ownership of land which causes land insecurity with negative implications for agricultural productivity and land use management. For instance, farmers’ perception of frequent land redistribution by the state discourages agricultural innovation, since land redistribution can result in the lose of a portion of landholdings and investments, such as cash crop trees, irrigation systems and even terraces that prevent soil erosion. There are evidences to support such arguments at theoretical and practical levels, but too much generalizations can also lead to misguided conclusions as there are cases, including Ethiopia, where agriculture sectors have achieved growth under state land ownership systems.

In 2005, Ethiopia enacted a new land law that allowed farmers to have indefinite land use rights including the right to transfer land to children and dependents, while still retaining state ownership of land. The law also required every farmer to possess a land certificate proving the size and location of his/her land holdings. According to one report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, by 2011 seven million out of 13 million farming households in four major agricultural regions (Amhara, Tigray, Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples) had obtained land certificates that would be further upgraded in the future by including more systematized administrative information (such as cadastral surveys). Recent studies suggest that the new land certification system has created land tenure security for farmers, resulting in increased crop production, better land use management and reduced land disputes.

Should agricultural growth in Ethiopia be solely attributed to farmers’ land tenure security (by means of land certification)? This does not question the role of land tenure security in pushing growth in the Ethiopian agriculture. It is meant to add (not necessarily contend) that, in fact, land security is one of the factors in stimulating agricultural production growth, the other factors being, among other things, overall macroeconomic growth and persistent government efforts to promote new agricultural methods. To support this argument, I consider the experience of Vietnam where land still remains under strict state ownership, so that farmers are allowed land use rights of only 15 to 20 years. Yet, today Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world. If state land ownership is a barrier for agricultural growth (by creating tenure insecurity for farmers, for example), what has helped Vietnamese farmers to increase agricultural production and turn their country into major rice exporter? The answer is simple: effective government policy support and favourable macroeconomic conditions that have enabled the country to emerge as one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. This would then suggest that the outcome of land policy (i.e., agricultural growth) is dependent on agricultural support systems and favourable market conditions, as much as on the type and appropriateness of land allocation mechanisms (by market or state). The late Meles Zenawi on many occupations had made similar arguments during policy discussions with international organizations (with neoliberals often furiously arguing against continued land ownership by Ethiopian state).

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