History of agriculture in Ethiopia

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LIFE, especially pastoral life, in Ethiopia remained largely undisturbed, until the 1950s when malaria eradication programmes made irrigation agriculture in the Highlands areas possible.
In the northern and southern parts of Ethiopia, peasant farmers lacked the means to improve production due to the fragmentation of land holdings, lack of credit and the absence of modern facilities.
In the south, the insecurity of tenure and high rents adversely affected the peasants’ incentive to improve production.
The government’s desire to promote agriculture, combined with its policy of creating new tax revenues, major concessions were granted to British and Dutch companies.
They were granted large tracts of traditional grazing land which they converted into large-scale cotton and sugar commercial farms. The loss of grazing land to these concessions put pressure on many pastoralists and significantly affected traditional migration patterns.
By the mid-1960s, it was clear the archaic land tenure system was one of the major factors responsible for the backward condition of Ethiopia’s agriculture.
University students had begun to lead the land reform movement that campaigned against the government’s reluctance to introduce land reform programmes and the lack of commitment to integrated rural development.
By then, many sectors of Ethiopian society also favoured land reform.
However, attempts by the Imperial Government to improve the peasant’s title to their land were often met with suspicion.
The 1968 Gojjam Revolt saw the peasants successfully resist the government’s efforts to survey their lands, believing it would increase the taxes levied by local corrupt officials.
In the middle of the following decade, 1974 witnessed the onset of the land revolution in Ethiopia.
Tenant farmers in southern Ethiopia, where the average tenancy was as high as 55 percent and rural elites exploited by farmers, welcomed the land reform.
But in the northern highlands, where rist tenure dominated and large holdings and tenancy were the exceptions, the land reform held no promise of gain for them; rather, many northern farmers perceived land reform as an attack on their rights to rist land, thus many people resisted land reform.
Government’s attempts to implement land reform also created problems related to land fragmentation, insecurity of tenure and former tenants as well as shortages of farm inputs and tools.
On March 4 1975, under the Land Reform Programme, the government nationalised rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, forbade the hiring of wage labour on private farms, ordered all commercial farms to remain under state control, and granted each peasant family so-called ‘possessing rights’ to a plot of land not to exceed 10ha.
However, northerner farmers remained suspicious of the new government’s intentions despite the special provision for communal areas under Article 19 of the proclamation that gave peasants in the communal areas ‘possessing rights’ to the land they were tilling at the time of the proclamation.
Efforts to reassure these farmers that land reform would not affect them negatively, was not heeded.
The Ethiopian Church also lost all its vast landholdings while its clergy and lay people had to rely on remunerations from the government for their livelihood.
Land reform had the least impact on the lowland peripheries, where nomads traditionally maintained their claims over grazing lands.
The new proclamation gave them rights of possession to land they used for grazing. Therefore, the nomads did not perceive the new programme as a threat.
However, in the area of the lower Awash Valley, where large-scale commercial estates had thrived, land reform was opposed, mainly by tribal leaders.
The 1974 land reform in Ethiopia that destroyed the feudal order changed land ownership patterns, particularly in the south, in favour of peasants and small landowners.
Although this provided peasants the opportunity to participate in local matters by permitting them to form associations, problems associated with declining agricultural productivity and poor farming techniques were, however, still prevalent.
Articles 8 and 10 of the 1975 Land Reform Proclamation required that peasants be organised into a hierarchy of associations that would facilitate the implementation of rural development programmes and policies. Accordingly, after the land reform announcement, the government mobilised more than 60 000 students to organise peasants into associations. By the end of 1987, there were 20 367 Peasant Associations (PAs) with a membership of 5,7 million farmers.
Each association covered an area of 800 hectares, and members included tenants, landless labourers and landowners holding fewer than 10ha. Former landowners who had held more than 10ha of land could join an association only after the completion of land redistribution.
Periodically, Peasant Associations were often compelled to redistribute land to accommodate young families or new households moving into their area.
The process meant not only smaller farms but also the fragmentation of holdings, which were often scattered into small plots to give families land of comparable quality.
Consequently, individual holdings were frequently far smaller than the permitted maximum of 10ha allotments.
Under the umbrella organisation, the All-Ethiopia Peasants’ Association, the Peasant Associations assumed a wide range of responsibilities, including implementation of government land use directives, adjudication of land disputes, encouragement of development programmes such as water and land conservation; construction of schools, clinics, and co-operatives; organisation of defense squads; and; tax collection.
The Peasant Associations also became involved in organising forestry programmes, local service and production co-operatives, road construction and data collection projects.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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