Land Tenure System in Ethiopia | Issues and Opportunities IG

Land Tenure System in Ethiopia | Issues, Challenges and Opportunities

Throughout the history of the land tenure system in Ethiopia and the rest of the world, land has been one of the most highly valued possession of human society. The rules according to which members of society share and use land have evolved over time in accordance with changing economic and social relations. It is these rules and regulations about holdings and use of land in a society that constitute the land tenure system (Zewde, 1998)

Land tenure can be defined as the manner in which a party holds or occupies an area of land. The rules governing land tenure are invented by societies to regulate land ownership behaviors. The land tenure rules help to define how property rights to land are allocated within societies (School mattazz, 2017). Different land tenure systems have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Historical Background of the land tenure system in Ethiopia

The term “land tenure” is derived from the Latin word tenure, meaning to hold. It refers to the possession rights associated with each parcel of land (ICRAF, 1985). Ethiopia had a complex Land Tenure system. The land there had been controlled by the elite (kings and their trusted group) in Ethiopia. Private ownership of land had never been known except for some historical incidents. The Ethiopian people had been struggling for centuries with the inequitable land holdings of the country and effectively removed the feudal system in 1975.

The following regime (Derg) that came to power in 1975 under the slogan “Land to The Tiller” was paradoxically dissatisfied with the slogan and ended up owning the land itself (state ownership?) rather than giving it to the people. The existing government, which controlled power in 1991, was expected to cure the age-old land rights ills, among others by giving land to the people in tenure. Rather, it maintained the Derg’s state ownership of land and controls all urban and rural land as well as natural resources.

Even though it is the state which controls land ownership, rural peasants and pastoralists are guaranteed lifetime “holding” right that gives all rights except sale and mortgage. Although it is not mentioned in the constitution, urban residents are also provided with the right to get land for residence on a 99-year lease-based agreement. The state ownership of land in contemporary Ethiopia is far from ideal since it restricts the different land rights of use, rent, lease, endowment, and inheritance for different reasons.

Land Tenure System in Ethiopia | Issues and Opportunities

Since the redistribution of land is highly restricted, access to rural land is also almost nonexistent. The constitution is commended for its protection of land holdings against arbitrary state eviction by inserting a provision that gives a “commensurate” amount of compensation during expropriation. However, successive implementing proclamations have violated this protection by denying market value (fair compensation) for loss of property. In short, the amount of compensation in the event of expropriation is insufficient. By creating more access to rural land, liberating the land-holding rights, and compensating fairly for the loss of properties during expropriation, the current government could give more secure land rights compared to its predecessors.

The land tenure system varied from region to region due to the diverse geographical and cultural settings and the different socio-political events that occurred in different parts of the country. The most common types of land-related institutions in pre-1975 Ethiopia were racist, gult, maderia (Yemengist) land, and Semon (Church) land (ILRI, 2002). Rist was a type of corporate ownership system that emphasize descent. Rist was hereditary, inalienable, and inviolable. No user of any piece of land could sell, mortgage, or bequeath his or her share outside the family (Beyene, 2003).

Ethiopia’s Surma people

Gult is a kind of institution which seems to have emerged in northern Ethiopia. Gult right, unlike rest, was not hereditary. It gave the holders the power to levy tributes from the local people. Gult rights over land were given to the members of the ruling elite as a reward for loyal service to their lord and to religious institutions as endowments (Dejene and Yigremew, 2002). Madaria or Yemngist lands were originally unoccupied lands that were declared state property, most of which were located in the south.

When the imperial government conquered the south, Southwest, and eastern parts of the country, all unsettled lands were declared state property and given to officials and loyalists of the crown. This constituted what was called the Gabar system, which is a form of freehold tenure. As most of the lands were granted to the powerful officials and loyalists of the crown, the local population in these areas became landless and entered into tenancy relationships with landlords (ILRI, 2002).

Samon (church) lands were associated with Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The amount of land under this tenure was never known with a reasonable degree of precision. A good example is that church lands were estimated to constitute a mere 5 percent of all lands (ILRI, 2002).

The landlord-tenant relationships and the rist system continued to be the dominant land tenure institutions in most parts of the country until the Derg regime took over power in 1974. The Derg launched a radical land reform program that covered all parts of the country (ILRI, 2002).On March 4, 1975, this socialist regime introduced the program which consisted of the following key elements:

  1. All rural land was nationalized with “any person willing personally to cultivate land allotted sufficient land for his maintenance and that of his family”, though not exceeding 10 hectares;
  2. No people may be allowed to use hired labor, except a woman with no other means of livelihood;
  3. No person shall sell, exchange, or transfer land acquired through the provision of proclamation; and
  4. Any tenant or laborer shall have possessor rights over the land he presently tills (Beyene, 2003).

The power of administering land was vested in the then Ministry of Land Reform and Administration (MLRA) through Peasant Associations at grass root levels. The law provides 10 hectares of land as the maximum size a family can possess. However, in practice, it was often less than 3 hectares (Institute of Development Research, 1994).

The only ‘formal’ way of obtaining access to land was through membership in peasant associations and land was subjected to periodic redistribution among households based on family size and land quality (ILRI, 2002).In the north, where the rist institution dominated, the initial distribution was already egalitarian before the revolution because differences in landholding and levels of tenancy were very low. In the southern part, where landlordism dominated, the reform had tremendous outcomes. Thus, the purpose of the reform was more relevant for the southern than the northern region (Beyene, 2003).

Land Tenure System in Ethiopia, Issues, Challenges, & Opportunities

Issues in the Land Tenure System in Ethiopia

The problem due to land policy in Ethiopia has created a barrier to the economic development of Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Emperors like Haile Selassie and under Marxist regimes like the Derg tried to give land ownership to the peasants who till the soil, or to large-scale farming programs. The present Constitution of Ethiopia, which was put into force in January 1995, vests land ownership exclusively “in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia.”

The relevant section continues, “Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.” Despite these different approaches to land reform, Ethiopia still faces issues of sustainable food self-sufficiency. The issues in the land tenure system in Ethiopia are:

  • Promotes insecurity of tenure because it allows, among other things, periodic redistribution;
  • This land policy is insufficient because it constraints land transactions and has inhibited the emergence of a dynamic land market,
  • It promotes fragmentation of land and growing pressure on land resources because it discourages rural people from leaving their farms for other employment opportunities;
  • It gives the state immense power over the farming population because the land is state property.
  • There has not been hard evidence that supports the government’s claim of peasants’ land scale during periods of hardship. On the other hand, there is neither hard evidence that shows state ownership of land causes tenure insecurity or less productivity.

Challenges Faced By Ethiopians

  1. Most fertile lands are enclosed in the reserves.
  2. Conservation policies, laws, and practices impacting negatively the livelihoods of the communities:
  3. Loss of pastoral resources.
  4. Loss of mobility; the very basis of a sustainable system of resource utilization
  5. Threat to the critical role of livestock mobility in maximizing productivity and protecting the environment.

Challenges in the agricultural sectors due to the land system practiced

  1. Land Tenure System: Land is fragmented and more often in the hands of title owners who aren’t interested in agriculture. This, therefore, inhibits the large-scale production of agricultural products. Land reforms are necessary to ensure large fertile agric lands are cultivated on a commercial basis.
  2. Low investments or lack of financial support for agriculture: Farmers who are interested in agriculture sometimes face credit constraints as banks find it more profitable or less risky to lend to such businesses. This affects the level of production since agric inputs are expensive. It is expensive to acquire an attractor just as it is to purchase an outboard motor for fishing. Government intervention to support farmers if not with cash then inputs or new technology or subsidies.
  • Less access to and less control over land and other productive resources to rural women and female-headed households  in general
  • With insecure land tenure and transaction, farm households may have less incentive to invest in land management
  • Privatization before the finalization of land registration may create chaos and widespread conflict.


  • Application of sustainable land management practices like rotation, agro-forestry, and inter-cropping.
  • Prevention of fragmentation of land.
  • Increase the productivity of agricultural land.
  • Proper utilization of land resources.

The land here is mainly owned communally along ethnic-tribal and family lines, with designated traditional authorities responsible for its management in their capacity as trustees. Therefore, planning proposals are prepared with the expectation of implementing them on largely communal land, which is private in nature. A recent qualitative study in Ethiopia established that chiefs and other custodians of customary lands are continuously altering existing land-use plans by leasing land for uses that are often inconsistent with the proposals of the prevailing planning policy.


Land adminstrators prepare makeshift ‘plans’ for fast urbanizing areas without the knowledge or endorsement of the designated planning authorities. These practices are endemic across the country, despite being unlawful. Further analysis of this state of affairs highlighted that the institutional arrangement for planning delivery is weak, and it is often characterized by human resource shortages, funding inadequacies, and logistical constraints, as well as ineffective legal frameworks for planning delivery. Click Here to get insights into the role of GIS in land re-adjustment in Asian countries like Nepal.


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