Article: Drought, Reforestation and Ethiopia’s Land-Tenure Problem

[Cross-posted at Future Challenges Organization’s blog]

[Macrotrends: Climate Change + Natural Resources & BioDiversity]

 Ethiopia is set to reforest 15 million hectares  as part of a plan to be energy-neutral by 2025. The reforestation initiative accompanies efforts to develop renewable resources in hydro (dams on the Nile, which the Egyptian government opposes), wind, geothermal and bio-gas. The Millenium Reforestation Project is projected to generate 338,000 tons of carbon credits, of which the World Bank‘s BioCarbonFund will purchase 165,000 Co2e. The reforestation project will earn Ethiopia carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol‘s Clean Development Mechanism.

The project falls under the umbrella of the United Nations‘ seventh Millenium Development Goal: environmental sustainability. However, the increased use of land for biofuels as an alternative to wood as fuel is problematic, because it diverts land away from food production, while Ethiopia is the African continent‘s biggest recipient of food aid. Some 85% of Ethiopia‘s rural population are subsistence farmers living on less than 1USD a day. Nearly 10 percent of Ethiopians rely on food aid. In February 2011, the Ethiopian government requested food aid for 2.8 million people, citing a drought in the Somali region.

Reforestation Amid Drought

East Africa‘s droughts have been more frequent and more severe in the last two decades. Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia have seen less rain in the recent years. Ethiopia, in particular, has had seven famines since the famine of 1984-5. Take into account the fact that only 1 percent of Ethiopia‘s land is irrigated and that Ethiopia‘s land tenure system disincentivizes long-term sustainable agricultural practices – such as planting trees and terracing to prevent soil erosion – then we understand more fully why these droughts are so severe.

Between 1990 and 2010, Ethiopia lost 18.6 percent of its forest cover – about 2,818,000 hectares. At present, Ethiopia has an annual deforesting rate of -1.1 percent, an average of 141,000 hectares lost yearly. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published in November 2003, deforestation in Ethiopia is primarily due to agricultural expansion, intensive cultivation, overgrazing and use of wood for fuel. The effects of the deforestation include severe erosion and flooding during the rain season. The root networks of the trees are central to the prevention of soil erosion. Additionally, the Blue Nile plays a role in this soil erosion as it carries the soil from Ethiopia to Egypt and Sudan.

The Bigger Picture

Land grabs threaten customary or traditional landownership- or in Ethiopia‘s case- a land tenure system. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2010, in five of Ethiopia‘s nine regions, a total area of 1.2 million hectares was transferred to domestic and foreign commercial entities. That was a total of 8.6 percent of Ethiopia‘s cultivated land sold or leased to commercial entities. Saudi Arabian companies use the land they acquired to produce vegetables, flowers and rice to export to the nations of the Middle East.

Ethiopia‘s land tenure system has undergone several political upheavals, most famously, the 1974 revolution that unseated Emperor Haile Selassie. The 17-year military dictatorship (under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam) that followed encouraged civil workers and veterans to claim ownership of Ethiopia‘s land, while mandating that rural farmland be distributed and redistributed evenly among farmers. However, as the rural population grew, the plots of land shrank. About 85 percent of Ethiopia‘s 88 million people live in rural areas. The land-holding average of each family is 1 hectare (or 2.471 acres) of land. A 2003 Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) study showed that 46 percent of farmers preferred the current land-tenure system, whereby most land is state-owned. Conversely, 32 percent preferred to privatize the land.  Overall, this land-tenure system has disincentivized long-term, sustainable agricultural practices like planting trees, or building terraces to prevent soil erosion.

Looking at these seemingly disparate, yet connected, issues together, it becomes clear that Ethiopia‘s growing population faces demographic and ecological pressures as the nation‘s food production increases 2.4 percent annually, while the projected population growth is 2.8%. The tension between reforesting land and expanding agricultural lands is one that should be resolved. Furthermore, land reform and lend tenure adds a layer of complexity. Time will tell whether we see constitutional land reform, government decentralization and a shift toward private land ownership.


  1. We’re pleased to say that we planted 2,362,550 trees in Ethiopia last year! That being said, we know there’s still incredible need there. We hope to exceed that number this year, but we need help too to make that happen.

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