The COVID-19 crisis has affected every sector of the economy but the effect on land governance has had significantly adverse consequences. Currently, the virus is increasingly spreading with no end in sight in flattening the curve. In countries like Ethiopia where around 80-85 percent of the population are engaged in agricultural activities, interruption of the land governance system due to the lockdown and social distancing is not only a public health concern but also food and nutrition security. While it is too early to offer an accurate account of how COVID-19 will affect land governance in the long term, initial observation and anecdotal evidence indicates that the COVID-19 crisis is threatening to undo the gains made in the last two decades.
In the past twenty years, Ethiopia has achieved great heights in improving land rights by way of documenting landholding rights and modernizing land transaction services. Most economists agree that improving land tenure security acts as an incentive for rural smallholders to invest in their land and help reduce conflict over land. Accordingly, between 1998 and 2004, the Ethiopian government carried out a programme of large-scale land certification, known as First-level Land Certification (FLLC) to register landholdings of rural smallholder farming households to improve tenure security. FLLC covered approximately 20 million plots belonging to over six million households in the highland regions of Ethiopia. FLLC gained the reputation of being one of the most successful and low-cost land registration schemes in the world.
A more technically superior registration intervention known as the Second-level Land Certification (SLLC) is underway, having started in 2005. According to data from Rural Land Administration and Use Directorate (RLAUD) of the Ministry of Agriculture, as of March 2019, 15.3 million certificates were issued to 4.9 million households under the SLLC process. The programme is supported by international development partners and by March 2020, the coverage was expected to reach registering close to 20 million parcels.
Most of the organisations that provide support to the SLLC process are committed to gender-equitable land governance principles. For example, a recently published study by the DFID supported LIFT Programme (2019) conducted a gender analysis of certification initiative which revealed the extent of women’s access and participation. Accordingly, out of 7.1 million certified parcels considered for review, 77% of the parcels were registered under the name of women either as joint (55%) or as individual (22%) holders. Furthermore, data suggested there was no statistically significant difference in mean parcel size or land area allocated for men and women for major regions. The results are noteworthy in contrast to the vision by the AU’s African Land Policy Centre (ALPC), which envisions to reach the target of having 30% of all registered land in the name of women by 2025. However, it must be pointed out that while Ethiopia has achieved remarkable results in legally recognizing women’s land rights, social recognition and legal enforcement leave much to be desired. Completeness of land rights demands that rights are legally and socially recognizable, and enforceable by the state. This implies that women’s access to, and control of land in Ethiopia is affected by traditional and social practices, norms, power structures and also weakness in the implementation of existing laws.
Enter COVID-19 and Ethiopia’s land governance institutions are under threat. How? Three of the land governance services have been affected by the crisis;
a) Land registration;
b) Land rights transfer (land transaction), and;
c) Dispute resolution mechanisms.
Since the proclamation of the State of Emergency in April 8, 2020, land registration activities have ceased across the country. This means the benefits expected from land registration such as improved security of land tenure, effective resolution of land-related disputes, access to credit facilities from financial institutions, and gender access and control over land has been effectively halted.
In addition, interruption in land transactions affects land markets. It is well known that landholding rights documentation needs to be accompanied by a strong and functioning land administration system. This is because updating the land registry is necessary for well-functioning land markets. Common land rights transfer transactions such as renting, inheritance, transferring rights through gift, exchange, reallocation, and so on have implications for land market development and increase productivity by improving the efficiency of land allocation. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, the land governance institutions at Districts (woreda) and sub-districts (kebele) are barely offering services. The effect of interruption at land governance institutions means farmers are forced to engage in extra-legal land rights transfer modalities. Informal land right transactions affect women and vulnerable members of society disproportionately. Similarly, reduced oversight by the land institutions increases the rate of illegal land acquisition. There are fears that the powerful and the well connected are capitalizing on the weakness in public supervision to strengthen their claims and engage in an unlawful acquisition.
In addition to the interruption of land registration and transaction, suspension of dispute resolution mechanism adds another crisis for land governance. Since the introduction of the State of Emergency Proclamation to counter and control the spread of the virus, no active mediation, and litigation services are taking place to address land conflicts. The elder’s council (shimglina), the Land Administration and Use Committee, and other grass root level justice institutions such as ‘Good Governance Task Force’, and local women's rights organizations are not operating actively in most regions.
Likewise, courts are closed during the epidemic and the legal process is interrupted. This means older land cases are not being addressed, fresh cases cannot go through litigation, and court decisions are on hold affecting enforcement. This has implications for women’s land rights. While there is wide media coverage regarding sexual and physical violence against women during the epidemic, violence against women’s landholding rights during the COVID-19 lock-down is widely ignored.
Though the level and status of land-based conflicts due to the epidemic needs to be established empirically, it is speculated that more people will move back to rural areas and competition over land is expected to be high. Common land rights violations that may take place at this time of the epidemic include border encroachment, irregular land acquisition, breach of rent and sharecropping contracts, informal land transactions, forced eviction, and so on. It is expected that border encroachment and unlawful acquisition could be the most popular violations that women may face as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak induced loose oversight.
Given the impending risks of land rights violations under the COVID-19 epidemic, land governance needs to be the focus of the policymakers and international partners. There are fears donor funds and attention could be channeled to emergency response in the place of strengthening land rights. Due to urban to rural migration dynamics and weakness in the quality of governance space, farmers without insecure land rights are at the most risk. This is the time to further strengthen land rights and support land institutions and promote the rule of law in justice sector. The state and donors need to support land rights defenders so that they map the problems and advocate against injustice to landholding rights, particularly for women and the vulnerable group. The COVID-19 crisis is more than simply a health crisis. It is also a crisis of food, nutrition, and peace.