State land-grab in Ethiopia

By Dessalegn Rahmato

Putting the rights of land holders — and in this country these are almost all small and impoverished farmers and herders — at the center of the discussion enables us to bring in the state and the question of governance since embedded in the concept of land rights are relations of power between the state on the one hand and individuals and communities on the other. The land transfers that have taken place on an unprecedented scale in the last ten to twelve years has brought to the surface several issues of public concern. First, it is the first time in this country that so much land — perhaps as much as a million hectares at present and expected to increase substantially in the coming years — has been put in the hands of foreign investors. Total transfers from the late 1990s to the end of 2008 to both domestic and foreign capital reaches almost 3.5 million hectares according to the database compiled by MOARD (2009a). The significance of this is that the state is now redefining the agrarian structure of the country as well as the future course of agricultural production in a manner that will increasingly marginalize the rural population. Secondly, since, by law, the state has juridical ownership of the land and in contrast peasant farmers and pastoralists have the right of use only, it is the state which in effect has been responsible for land grabbing: it has used its statutory right of ownership to alienate land from those who have customary rights and rights of longstanding usage, and transferring it, without consultation or consent, to investors from outside the communities concerned as well as from outside the country itself. The commercialization of land has served as a political advantage to the state since it enhances its power vis-à-vis rural communities, and leads to the greater concentration of authority in the hands of public agents and local administrators. The presence of large farm operations with their modern technologies in rural communities will be a constant reminder of the danger hanging over small farmers and pastoralists and their way of life… [read more]