A Social History of Land Reform in Ethiopia

Siegfried Pausewang (1937-2012) was one of the leading European scholars of Ethiopia, with contributions made over decades. His engagement in Ethiopia began in the late 1960s, as a professor at the then Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University). This post covers "Peasants, Land and Society: A Social History of Land Reform in Ethiopia" (1983), and also include Options for Rural Development (1990) and The Challenge of Democracy from Below (2002). Notes:

On research neutrality: "Critics may object that such an approach is wide open to subjectivity and renders the analysis both inexact and uncontrollable. This is correct, in a way. Realistically I can base my report only on my own experience, which includes, of course, my perception of the experience of others. In addition, my work is admittedly subjective in its perspective. For I deliberately tried to understand social developments from a particular point of view, i.e. to identify their significance for peasants and to analyze their influence on the well-being of those individuals and groups who bear the heaviest burden within a society. My research, let me be clear, is not intended to be neutral, but rather to be a tool in finding ways to improve life conditions for the under-privileged. Neutrality, to my mind, is unattainable. Research is always interference, whether intentional or not, if not on the side of the underprivileged, then in the interest of the status quo." (emphasis original, p. 3)

External dependence: "The upheaval of traditional Ethiopian societies by Menelik's conquests supports a thesis by a group of scholars that major historical changes in Ethiopia were caused, or at least catalyzed, by changes in trade routes and their control (Cooper et al, 1975; 10-20). While trade provided Menelik with the weapons for conquest, his policies of centralization following conquest in turn provided further scope for trade. In this climate of dependency, no longer could it be said, as in the past, that 'products and practices of long-distance trade were separate from the internal systems [of Ethiopia]'; the difference proved crucial." (p. 45)

Internal dependence: "as long as the nobility, with the emperor on top, depended on local support, their ability to exploit peasants was limited by this very dependence. Menelik's army, however, was quite self-sufficient and could therefore exploit peasants with impunity." (p. 45)

Agricultural systems: "By evicting tenant-peasants, a landlord could dispose of this entire property as he pleased. Modern machinery made it possible to engage in single-crop cultivation over vast areas, producing large quantities of export products. Cash wages paid to a few full-time skilled personnel and a batch of seasonal workers were negligible compared to the increase in production and profit. Thus, though machinery requires considerable capital investment, commercial mechanized agriculture could be highly profitable for the landlord prepared to do away entirely with peasant farming... The high profitability of mechanized farming could, under the given social conditions in Ethiopia, only be reaped by sacrificing the peasant majority." (p. 53-54)

On discrimination and colonization: "When my interpreter, who is Oromo, asked how they could distinguish a Galla from other visitors, they unanimously agreed that the Galla could be easily identified by their savage behaviour and wild appearance. Asked further what would happen if an urbanized and educated Oromo were to come, they replied that such a phenomenon was beyond the capacity of 'those savage people'." (p. 133)

Biases in development: "...the government continued to establish settlement projects in the region and to commission roads and other infrastructure necessary for commercial agriculture. Often, such infrastructure was built by foreign volunteers, who, not having sufficient understanding of the dynamics of power in rural Ethiopia communities, became unwitting tools for the promotion of the landlord class' definition of development." (p. 139)

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FDI in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa

In 2019 Atkeyelsh Persson published "Foreign Direct Investment in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa: Economic, Social and Environmental Sustainability in Ethiopia". The book (presumably) draws on doctoral work done at UCT (finished in 2016) and most of the data / findings presented come from 2014 or before. The book offers unique insight into environmental and sustainability impacts. The case studies are valuable references for readers and researchers. Unfortunately the book sells for US$155.00.

That said, the book is frustrating to read. For example, the author states that large-scale land acquisitions are/were concentrated in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regions, with one in SNNP that was excluded (and was listed as not operational in 2014). The reason this is confusing is that the author cites Rahmato's (2011) work (Land to the Investors), which lists 22 agricultural investments above 5,000 hectares outside of these regions, as well as many others in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz. There is no source listed for the data that is presented (e.g. in Figure 7.2, page 71), that are used to arrive at these conclusions. It can take years to publish a book, but what is stated was not the case in 2014 (when data collection seems to have stopped) nor in 2016 (when the dissertation was defended). In 2011, Rahmato had shown that Oromia was the region with the most foreign investment occurring, but Oromia does not appear anywhere in the study (raising questions about data and how the conclusions were drawn). The policy changes that took place in 2013 (well before the dissertation was submitted) are not included, which seems a critical omission given that foreign, large-scale, agricultural investment effectively stopped from that point forward. With many interviews conducted in 2014, it is unclear how this did not factor into the study. There is no mention that one of the case studies (Karuturi) was cancelled in 2015, by the Government of Ethiopia (nor all the legal proceedings that followed). Many questions.

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The Challenges of Drought

Ethiopia and its people struggle with food insecurity and recurring drought. What are the pathways to overcome these challenges? Access to land, the establishment of justice, the creation of cooperatives, agricultural input distribution, farmer training, environmental rehabilitation, irrigation infrastructure, building institutional capacity, creating effective governmental structures. These are components of the narrative we hear in 2019. One might think that over the decades we have used evidence to arrive at the right decisions. Interestingly, this list of actions for the pathway forward were penned in 1985 by the military government, as outlined in "The Challenges of Drought: Ethiopia's Decade of Struggle in Relief and Rehabilitation" (1985) published by the Relief & Rehabilitation Commission (a governmental agency). In addition to raising many questions about the potential impact of implementing the same policies and initiatives more than three decades later, the book also is a unique source of information on the 1972-74 famine and the responses the military government (largely known as the Derg) took from 1975 to 1985.

Some interesting reflections:

Little seems to have changed in some regards, in what could be the preamble to an NGO proposal today, the RRC states: "Having done so much to rescue so many people from starvation and death, the international community would be taking a logical step forward if it now helped to provide those inputs that are needed to bring an end to dependence on foreign assistance. There is at present a very good opportunity to enable people in the drought-prone areas to break out of their cycle of dependence and to start leading self-sufficient productive lives." (p. 13-14)

Similarly, the heavy-handed state action, often imposing on its people: "In February 1985 a law was enacted whereby all nationals will contribute one month's wages out of their annual earnings to help the victims of famine." (p. 14). So-called "voluntary" contributions were also done in recent years to help pay for the cost of building what could be Africa's largest hydroelectric dam.

A similar situation would result in the downfall of the government that made this claim: "Historians of the future may well see the drought of 1972-74 as the sorrowful setting from which a new society began to emerge. That drought was the catalyst that crystalized a nationwide anger, a defiant feeling that enough was enough, that henceforth the people's own needs would decide the framework for economic development. This anger also revealed that the subjective conditions were at last present for a modern society. By welcoming the overthrow of the self-seeking monarchy, the people at large had given their consent for the restructuring of social relations along more liberal and productive lines." (p. 106)

Yet another recurring theme: "There is no pleasure to be derived from pointing out that, despite the rigours of the drought, Ethiopia's poverty has much to do with this negative attitude of Western governments. The economic pressures that bear down on our export earnings and thus reduce the agricultural inputs we can buy abroad; the deteriorating terms of trade that decrease the purchasing power of our commodities; the protectionism that makes it difficult to get our produce on to the markets; and the interest payments on our foreign debt that leave us less foreign exchange with which to modernize our agriculture – these are destructive forces beyond our control but which the international community certainly could alter in our interests if it so desired. In this sense, Ethiopia's predicament is in part the direct result of the unfair nature of relations between the industrialized world and the developing countries." (p. 228) 

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Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia

"Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia: State Policy and Smallholder Farming" (2018) edited by Atakilte Beyene is an excellent book on diverse components of the agricultural sector. Given the importance of agriculture in Ethiopia, this is an important addition as there are few books that cover the sector comprehensively (several are available that cover specific components). The introduction by Atakilte is an excellent overview, and is well worth reading as a stand-alone chapter.

Many of the chapters were authored by faculty at Bahir Dar University, are well written and well researched. Some edited volumes are a collection of only lightly unrelated chapters, but this is a cohesive volume and highly recommended as a resource for readers interested in the topic. The chapters cover: input supply and marketing systems (Ch. 1), investment in agricultural sector (Ch. 2), large scale irrigation (Ch. 3), climate resilient practices (Ch. 4), sociocultural perspective (Ch. 5), a history of malaria (Ch. 6), gender and rights (Ch. 7) and rural transformation through land rights (Ch. 8). Many chapters rely upon CSA data, and could have been more critical of that.

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