Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is ecologically and culturally highly diverse and the most populous landlocked country worldwide. Its economy largely depends on agriculture and agricultural commodity exports. Farming and herding are key livelihoods to more than 80% of the population. Drought is a major issue in many areas of Ethiopia which is part of the initiative Building Resilience in Africa’s Dry Lands.
Land has been a core theme during Ethiopia’s history; from feudal practices under Emperor Haile Selassie I to the overthrow of the subsequent socialist Derg regime to more recent land-related protests revolving around the expansion of the capital Addis Ababa. Regardless of political and socio-economic upheavals, the State has always maintained strong control over land use and allocation. True to its federal character, regions have considerable autonomy over land use policies and administration in line with federal laws since 1991. Accordingly, proclamations, policies, and land-related programs vary regionally, leading to overlapping or competing institutional responsibilities.
Despite comprehensive land certification schemes, land tenure security is relatively low especially in the (pastoral) lowlands. Access to land has been limited for peasants, pastoralists, women, and the urban poor. Despite various proclamations, in practice, land may be expropriated for public use without compensation at any time. Demarcation between the 10 regional states and the illegal annexation of fertile land remains contested, as seen most recently in the violent conflict in Tigray .
According to the country’s second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II, 2016-20), the agricultural sector shall promote growth and food security. In this vein, the government has successfully promoted large-scale agricultural investments and attracted domestic and international ventures. However, long-term agribusiness leases are problematic as they lead to the displacement of local populations, deforestation, ecological damages, and restrict access to pastures, forest and water resources.
Land legislation and regulations
Historically, political changes in Ethiopia have either been triggered by land-related issues or land legislation was used by the governing elite to promote certain political agendas . After the end of the imperial rule, the Socialist Derg regime (1974-1991) focused on reforming land ownership responding to the revolutionaries’ “land to the tiller” demand. When the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991, multinational federalism was introduced and, thus, ethnicity linked to land.
The federal government is responsible for enacting laws for the utilization and conservation of land and natural resources . Since the early 1990s, the government has undertaken various institutional reforms. The Federal Rural Land Administration Proclamation No 89/1997, amended in 2019, replaced the Proclamation to Provide for Public Ownership of Rural Lands of 1975 under which all land was nationalized. The current Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation has been in place since 2005. It aims at strengthening tenure security by abolishing the practice of forced redistribution of land, and establishing efficient land administration and certification, and acknowledges the autonomy of the Regional States in administering land matters in accordance with federal laws . In recent years, some Regional States have revised their land laws with different effects on tenure security. While Amhara and Oromia strengthened landholder rights, in Tigray, for instance, residency remains tied to land holding rights.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoRAD) coordinates the implementation of the proclamations at federal and regional levels. In 2010, the Land Administration and Use Directorate (LAUD) was established under the ministry. LAUD provides technical and financial support to the regions and directly cooperates with the Land Administration Committees at kebele level. City councils have authority over land and building permits in urban areas. All regions were requested to establish Environmental Protection Land Administration and Use Agencies, but names vary. Despite these positive developments, lack of institutional capacity at federal and regional level remains a major issue.
Land tenure classifications
Before the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution there were mainly two land tenure systems. The communal rist-system based on customary law and claims in the northern highlands and gult, some kind of private tenure, in the southern lowlands. In the north, land was owned by communities along lineages with individual use rights. On the contrary, the ethnically diverse south was characterized by concentrated land holdings that were granted by Emperor Haile Selassie I mostly to political supporters. Tenants who worked these farms faced mandatory labor, arbitrary eviction, high taxes, and other restrictions . In addition, many (agro-) pastoralists in southern Ethiopia share a communal understanding of living with the land that cannot be owned by individuals.
Following the socialist Derg regime, Ethiopia’s constitutionally entrenched system of land tenure vests all land and natural resources in the State with usufructuary rights for peasants and pastoralists today. Land is an inalienable common property of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia and only the government can transfer and expropriate land . The government argues that only state ownership vis-à-vis private land ownership can ensure the equal distribution of land. In fact, the top-down distributive nature of the land tenure system has led to parcel fragmentation and small, unproductive plot sizes .
The Rural Land Administration Proclamation provides peasants with indefinite use rights for agricultural purposes along with rights to succession and land renting. Land cannot be sold, mortgaged, or exchanged, however . Tenants may access land through sharecropping contracts or subleases that vary from usually 3 up to 25 years in Amhara Region. Pastoralists have the rights to free land for grazing and cultivation. The regional States determine and collect land use fees and their Land and Administration Committees are responsible for the certification process . Tenure security has been increasing since the implementation of land registration programs around 2010. Yet today, one quarter of the adult population still feels insecure in their land and rights to their home . Land certification has also facilitated a shift towards soil conservation, planting of perennial crops, and a drop in land disputes. In cases of contested land plots, the village land committee or respectively the district court step in to resolve the conflict.
Ethiopia worst El Niño induced drought in 50 years, photo by EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie, CC BY-NC 2.0 license
Community land rights issues
Pastoral and agro-pastoral groups have been politically, culturally, and economically largely marginalized in Ethiopia although they are 10% of the population . Pastoral lands are managed by communities and customary authorities and customary tenure is based on clan and lineage membership as well as on community management. Ethnic groups (used to) live in and manage recognized territories suitable for rotational grazing often in combination with cultivation of staple crops. In addition, neighboring groups may have reciprocal secondary rights on each other’s territories . Although customary tenure was recognized in 1974, the State has asserted authority over customary land management and still portray transhumance as an unproductive and outdated livelihood.
Generally, legislation provides (agro-)pastoralists with usufruct rights for subsistence grazing and cultivation. Existing federal policies leave room for legal gaps, however. The loss of pastoral land for infrastructure projects, agricultural investments, hydropower dams, or town expansions – often without compensation – has weakened pastoral resilience to drought and contributed to inter-ethnic violent conflicts . (Agro)pastoral groups along river basins in particular have been affected by expropriation for irrigated (State) plantations, and forced relocation and sedentarization under villagization programs as early as the 1950s . Likewise, the establishment of the Awash National Park disrupted pastoral migration patterns. Certification programs for pastures, forests, and watersheds have been poorly implemented so far due to lack of capacities, guidelines, and willingness.
Land use trends
Ethiopia is one of the least urbanized countries in the world with 20.8% living in urban areas. Agriculture, forestry, and livestock contribute directly or indirectly to the livelihoods of more than 80% of the population. In 2018, about one third of Ethiopia’s land areas were used as agricultural land and 20% as permanent pastures . Agriculture and, mostly pastoral, livestock account each 35% and 12% to the GDP . The main livestock areas are Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Diredawa, Gambella, Oromia, SNNP, and Somali. Major exports include horticulture, coffee, oilseeds, and gold, followed by natural gums, vegetables, cotton and khat. On household level, most families grow wheat, barley, pulses, teff, maize, and sorghum. Land scarcity is a major issue in Ethiopia with an average smallholder farm size of 0.9 hectare . Moreover, land quality is poor in parts of the country resulting in low crop yields. Farming is further impeded by weak market linkages, lack of irrigation, and issues of land access.
Rainfall patterns vary temporally and spatially with many rivers only flowing seasonally. The lowlands are prone to recurrent droughts, which is aggravated by large-scale hydropower dams and plantations, as well as climate change. Ethiopia is rich in minerals, such as gold, silver, gemstones, tantalum, kaolin, and natural mineral water. More than 1 million Ethiopians are engaged in artisanal and small-scale mining .
Forests cover roughly 10% and woodlands and shrubs 43% of the country’s land area. Non-timber forest products are essential to rural livelihoods. Ethiopia’s humid primary forest decreased by 96% between 2001 and 2019, particularly in Oromia and SNNP . Deforestation is largely driven by the expansion of agribusinesses and settlements, fires, uncontrolled grazing, encroachment of protected areas, and illegal logging. Ethiopia is part of the Regreening Africa initiative .
The State can expropriate land and property for public purposes subject to compensation . Under the Federal Expropriation of Lands for Public Purposes and Payment of Compensation Proclamation No. 455/2005 and the Valuation of Property and Payment of Compensation Regulation No. 135/2007, Regional States can issue their own directives. In spite of the constitutional right of Ethiopian peasants and pastoralists not to be displaced from their own land, large tracts of land were expropriated throughout the country to make way for urban development and expansion, infrastructure projects and large-scale (agricultural) investments . Legally, landholders have no right to challenge State expropriation but may take legal action related to the amount of compensation. Most landholders do not know their rights, however. In practice, government agencies often do not pay compensation claiming tight budgets or because compensation in addition to the public benefits are not deemed necessary.
The government uses an interventionist approach to land allocation. Similar to the procedure under the Socialist Derg regime, land is still distributed to families based on household and workforce size and the quality of land. Likewise, current practices of forced relocation resemble “voluntary resettlement” and earlier “villagization” programs. First implemented in 1958 and gaining momentum in the 1980s, these programs uprooted millions of Ethiopians and contributed to food insecurity and famine . According to the government, the in 2010 relaunched “villagization” program aims to group peasant and pastoral communities into small village clusters in order to improve efficient land and resource use and provide access to basic infrastructure. In practice, however, coercive villagization programs have been connected to displacement in the context of agricultural investments, supporting the State’s expropriation efforts, and fostering pastoral sedentarization .
Ever since early malaria eradication programs in the 1950s, agricultural investments, such as irrigated cotton and sugar cane plantations, were encouraged in the fertile lowlands . Today, both federal and regional land use proclamations support land investments and the government has been successful in attracting domestic and international agribusiness deals since the early 2000s . Improving agricultural production and commercialization have been key objectives of the Growth and Transformation Plans I and II (2010-15 and 2016-2020) . In this vein, the government started seeking capital for the establishment of several large-scale hydropower dams that also serve irrigation purposes .
In 2009, the Agricultural Investment Support Directorate was established under MoARD in order to facilitate the process of land allocation for long-term leases of 25 to 99 years between “development investors” and the government. In the two following years alone, the regions – notably Oromia, Gambela, Benishangul-Gumuz, Amhara, Afar, and SNNP - transferred 3.6 million hectares to the federal land bank . Investors leasing less than 5,000 ha may apply directly at the Regional States’ investment bureaus. On a much smaller scale, land holders may lease parts of their land directly to investors for 10 to 25 years.
According to the Land Matrix, 916,446 ha, or 71 deals respectively, were allocated to mostly domestic investors primarily in the regions Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, SNNP, and Gambela . However, many projects covering more than half of the allocated land were abandoned including the two extremely large foreign investments of Karuturi and Saudi Star. Investors must provide a completed business plan, proof of financial viability and technical feasibility, but the lease terms remain untransparent, consultations with local communities are limited, and compensations often not paid. Despite the promises of job creation, knowledge transfer, and food security, most investments lead to the loss of livelihoods and cultural identity, as well as to severe environmental damages . In addition to increasing population growth, scarcity of fertile land, and the impacts of climate change, these pose extreme challenges to peasants and (agro)pastoralists. That said, violent confrontations between the government, affected communities, and migrant workers are on the rise as are ethnic (cross-border) conflicts .
Construction of a greenhouse. The Golden Rose plantation, photo by ILO, CC BY-NC-ND 2 license
Women’s land rights
The Constitution and both federal and regional laws prohibit gender discrimination . The Revised Family Code recognizes communal property in marriages and the Rural Land Proclamation provides for equal rights for women in land transactions . However, a traditional gender bias against female land ownership, lack of awareness, and the ignorance of existing laws restrict women’s rights to land . In some communities in the Orthodox and Semitic north, the Sunni Muslim west and the culturally diverse south, customary and religious norms do not allow women to own or respectively work the land .
Until today, women usually gain access to land through marriage. In practice, men are perceived as household heads and land parcels are often registered in their name only. In polygamous marriages, the first wife may also be allowed to register, such as in Oromia and SNNPR. Also, patrilineal customary inheritance practices tend to privilege men. In some communities, widows are either forced to return to their natal home or to marry a brother-in-law to secure their rights to land. However, it needs to be pointed out that in some agro-pastoralists communities, elderly women receive preferred access to the most fertile land, and women (including widows and unmarried women) have access to communal land for cultivation . Studies show that joint titling, introduced in 2003, and land certification programs have had a small but positive impact on women’s land rights and contributed to changing public expectations on the equal division of land upon the dissolution of marriage . Generally, women’s plots tend to be smaller, less cropped, and fertile.
Urban tenure issues
Ethiopia is rapidly urbanizing although rural-to-urban migration is still constrained by the loss of rights to land left behind and an inefficient urban land market. In contrast to rural land, individuals, private entities, or communities may acquire urban leaseholds from the State . However, the government and the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction cannot meet the growing demand for land nor provide sufficient infrastructure and protection of urban property. The bottom 40% cannot afford the formal urban land market .
Especially in adjutant peri-urban areas of Oromia Region, landholders and small-scale farmers are threatened by state expropriation for urban expansion and development . Most acquired land is designated for government uses and programs, such as the Integrated Housing Development Program. Former residents who had to make way for the now condominium sites are often not prioritized or even find themselves excluded from housing unit lotteries, such as in the case of the Surrounding Oromia Towns Integrated Masterplan. Only after continuing protest and violent clashes between Oromia residents and State forces in 2016 did the City Administration of Addis Ababa give in. Having said that, Ethiopia shows one of the highest levels of people living in urban informal settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa and faces growing numbers of landless citizens .
Summit Condominiums in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, photo by Lars Plougmann, CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
Ethiopia’s government endorsed the VGGT in 2012 and since then worked together with the German Development Cooperation GIZ on mainstreaming the VGGT in the area of responsible agricultural investment. This includes capacity building for governmental officials and local communities, as well as securing community tenure rights .
1974 – Ethiopian Revolution
Marks the end of Imperial rule, the beginning of the Socialist Derg regime (until 1991), and the nationalization of all land.
2001 – 2019 Ethiopia’s humid primary forest almost diminishes
The country’s humid primary forest decreased by 96%, particularly in Oromia Region and SNNPR.
2005 – Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation (456/2005)
The proclamation aims at strengthening tenure security by abolishing the practice of forced land redistribution and establishing efficient land administration and certification. It also acknowledges the autonomy of the Regional States in administering land matters in accordance with federal laws.
2005 – Federal Expropriation of Lands for Public Purposes and Payment of Compensation Proclamation (455/2005)
Provides the legal basis for State expropriation of land and property for public purposes.
2009 - Establishment of the Agricultural Investment Support Directorate (AISD)
Established under MoARD, AISD facilitates land allocation for long-term leases between investors and the government and manages respective land transfers from the regions to federal land bank.
2010 – Establishment of the Land Administration and Use Directorate (LAUD)
LAUD provides technical and financial support to the regions and directly cooperates with the Land Administration Committees at kebele level.
2010 – Relaunch of the villagization program
By grouping peasant and pastoral communities into small village clusters the government seeks to improve efficient land and resource use and provide access to basic infrastructure. These forced relocations foster pastoral sedentarization and have been connected to displacement in cases of land deals.
2016-2020 Growth and Transformation Plans II
The GTP II objectives aim at increasing agricultural production and commercialization in order to promote economic growth and food security.
Where to go next?
The author’s suggestion for further reading
Gabbert et al. together with the Lands for Future Initiative provide an exceptional and critical anthropological analysis of pastoralism, land investments, and questions of future making in Ethiopia and Eastern Africa.
The paper “Resettling the Discourse on “Resettlement Schemes” sheds light on the history of forced resettlement in the country.
Daniel Behailu adds a different take on the transfer of land rights in Ethiopia.
 AFP. 2020. Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict revives bitter disputes over land. The Guardian, 30 December. URL: https://landportal.org/news/2021/04/ethiopia%E2%80%99s-tigray-conflict-revives-bitter-disputes-over-land
 Dessalegn Rahmato. 1999. Revisiting the Land Issue: Options for Change. Economic Focus 2 (4): 9-11. Markakis, John. 2021. Land and the State in Ethiopia. In: Gabbert et al.: Lands of the Future: Anthropological Perspectives on Pastoralism, Land Deals and Tropes of Modernity in Eastern Africa. London: Berghahn, 123-143.
 GOE. 1995. Constitution, Art 51 (5).
 GOE. 2005. Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation (No. 456/2005). And Tigistu G. Abza. 2011. Experience and Future Direction in Ethiopian Rural Land Administration. Paper presented to the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. Washington D.C: The World Bank.
 Pausewang, Siegfried. 1983. Peasants, Land and Society: A Social History of Land Reform in Ethiopia. Munich.
 GOE. 1995. Constitution. Art 40(3).
 Crewett, Wibke; Korf, Benedikt. 2008. Ethiopia: Reforming Land Tenure. Review of African Political Economy 116: 203-220.
 GIOE. 1995. Constitution. Art 40.
 Negatu, Workneh et al. 2009. Impact of Land Certification in Gerado Area, Amhara Region, Ethiopia. ELAP project report prepared for the Ethiopia Strengthening Land Tenure and Administration Program. Addis Ababa.
 Abbink, Jon. 1997. The shrinking cultural and political space of East African pastoral societies. Nor-dic Journal of African Studies 6(3): 1-15.
 PFE/IIRR/DF. 2010. Pastoralism and Land: Land Tenure, Administration and Use in Pastoral Areas of Ethiopia. Nairobi. and Pavanello, Sarah. 2009. Pastoralists‘ vulnerability in the Horn of Africa. Overseas Development Institute: London.
 Wedekind, Jonah. 2021. Anatomy of a White Elephant: Investment Failure and Land Confl icts on Ethiopia’s Oromia–Somali Frontier. In: Gabbert et al., 167-188. Hagmann, Tobias; Alemmayu Mulugeta. 2008. Pastoral conflicts and state-building in the Ethiopian lowlands. Afrika Spectrum 43(1): 19-37.
 Gebresenbet, Fana. 2021. Villagization in Ethiopia’s Lowlands: Development vs. Facilitating Control and Dispossession. In: Gabbert et al., 210-230. And Maknun Ashami; Lydall, Jean. 2021. Persistent Expropriation of Pastoral Lands: The Afar Case. In: Gabbert et al., 144-166.
 FAO. 2019. Th Future of Livestock in Ethiopia. Opportunities and challenges in the face of uncertainty. URL: http://https://landportal.org/library/resources/future-livestock-ethiopia
[17 ] Rapsomanikis, George. 2015. The economic lives of smallholder farmers An analysis based on household data from nine countries. FAO. Rome. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/economic-lives-smallholder-farmers
 EEITI. 2016. Artisanal Mining Operation and Its Economic Values, Ethiopia. A final draft report. Addis Ababa. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/artisanal-mining-operations-and-its-economic-values-ethiopia
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 Piguet, Francois; Pankhurst, Alula. 2009. Migration, Resettlement & Displacement in Ethiopia. A Historical and Spatial Overview. In: Pankhurst, Alula/ Piguet, Francois. ed. Moving People in Ethiopia. Development, Displacement & the State. Eastern Africa Series. Suffolk: 1-22.
 Asebe Regassa et al. 2019. ‘Civilizing’ the pastoral frontier: land grabbing, dispossession and coercive agrarian development in Ethiopia. The Journal of Peasant Studies 46(5): 935-955.
 Mousseau, Frederic; Martin-Prével, Alice. 2016. Miracle or Mirage? Manufacturing Hunger and Poverty in Ethiopia. Oakland: Oakland Institute. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/miracle-or-mirage
 Re-enactment of the Investment Proclamation 280/2002 and its amendments 375/2003.
 Lavers, Tom. 2012. Land grab’ as development strategy? The political economy of agricultural in-vestment in Ethiopia. The Journal of Peasant Studies 39(1): 105-132.
 Avory, Sean. 2012. Lake Turkana & the Lower Omo: Hydrological Impacts of Major Dam & Irrigation Developments. University of Oxford; Turton, David. 2021. ‘Breaking Every Rule in the Book’: The Story of River Basin Development in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. In: Gabbert et al., 231-248. and Stevenson, Edward G.J.; Kamski, Benedikt. 2021. Ethiopia’s ‘Blue Oil’? Hydropower, Irrigation and Development in the Omo-Turkana Basin. In: Gabbert et al., 292-308.
 Rahmato, Dessalegn. 2011. Land to Investors: Large-Scale Land Transfers in Ethiopia. Forum for Social Studies Policy Debate Series No. 1. Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies.
 Keeley, James et al. 2014. Large-scale land deals in Ethiopia: Scale, trends, features and outcomes to date. London: IIED. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/mokoro6015/large-scale-land-deals-ethiopia-scale-trends-features-and-outcomes-date, Human Rights Watch. 2012. What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?” Abuses against the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. New York.; Oakland Institute. 2017. “How they Tricked us” Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia. Oakland. URL:https://landportal.org/library/resources/%E2%80%9Chow-they-tricked-us%E2%80%9D-living-gibe-iii-dam-and-sugarcane-plantations-southwest
 ECC Platform. 2021. Drought and Conflict across the Kenyan-Ethiopian Border. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/drought-and-conflict-across-kenyan-ethiopian-border and Oakland Institute. 2014. Engineering Ethnic Conflict: The Toll of Ethiopia’s Plantation Development on the Suri People. Oakland. URL: https://landportal.org/node/93739
 GOE. 1995. Constitution, Art. 35 .
 GOE. 2005. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation (No. 456/2005) and GOE. 2000. Revised Family Code, Articles 58, 63 and 68 (12).
 Girma Hirut; Giovarelli, Renée. 2013. Ethiopia: Gender Implications of Joint Land Titling in Ethiopia. Landesa.
 FAO. 2007. Gender Mainstreaming in Forestry in Africa: Ethiopia. Rome.
 Gabbert forthcoming Lydall and Strecker 2019
 Kumar, Neha; Quisumbing, Agnes R. 2012. Policy Reform toward Gender Equality in Ethiopia: Little by Little the Egg Begins to Walk. IFPRI Discussion Paper; and Hirut Girma; Giovarelli, Renée 2013. Gender Implications of Joint Land Titles in Ethiopia. Focus on Land in Africa Brief.
 GOE. 2002. The Re-Enactment of Urban Lands Lease Holding Proclamation No. 272/2002, Art. 3.1.
 World Bank. 2019. Unlocking Ethiopia's Urban Land and Housing Markets. Urban Land Supply and Affordable Housing Study. Synthesis Report. Addis Ababa. URL:https://landportal.org/library/resources/unlocking-ethiopias-urban-land-and-housing-markets
 Achamyeleh G. Adam 2014. Land Tenure in the Changing Peri‐Urban Areas of Ethiopia: The Case of Bahir Dar City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38:6, 1970-84. and Sayeh K. Agegnehu et al. 2016. Spatial Urban Expansion and Land Tenure Security in Ethiopia: Case Studies from Bahir Dar and Debre Markos Peri-Urban Areas. Society and Natural Resources 29:3, 311-328.
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 CFS. 2016. Compilation of experiences and good practices in the use and application of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Rome. URL: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/cfs/Docs1516/OEWG_Monitoring/3rd_Meeting/Compilation_of_VGGT_Submissions_30_June__2016.pdf