Title: Land grabbing as a human rights violation; Both government and TNC are accountable
Author: Garoma B. Wakessa
Published: Human Rights Due Diligence, April 2013
Keywords: land grabbing, human rights, land, Transnational Corporations, annexation
Prior to the annexation of the southern part of today’s Ethiopia (Oromo, Kambata, Sidama and others) into the Abyssinian heartland, the Abyssinians developed a communal system of landownership known as “rist.” The communal system “rist” applied to all Abyssinian lands. The “rist” system guaranteed an entitlement share to all the Abyssinian descendants (both male and female), and individuals had the right to use a plot of family land known as “rist” (Land). “Rist” was hereditary, inalienable, and inviolable. In all Abyssinian heartlands, such as the provinces of Gojjam, Begemdir, and Semien (Gonder), Tigray and in the highlands of Eritrea, the major form of land ownership was the “rist” system.
When the Abyssinian King Menelik II declared war against the neighboring people of southern nations and nationalities in the early 1880s to control the areas of the southern highlands of Oromo, Kambata, Sidama and Walaita and others, he had two major motives. The first motive was to establish ethno/national/racial hierarchy of Abyssinians over the people who were conquered. The second was to exploit human and natural resources in the conquered regions. After several years of bloody war in which more than five million Oromos and others were killed, Abyssinian forces gained the upper hand in 1889 and then controlled most of the southern highland regions.
With the help of firearms he had received from the European colonial powers, by 1900 Menelik II had succeeded in gaining full control over much of the area of present day Ethiopia. Since then the Abyssinians – the old Christian kingdom – have maintained control over their empire, Ethiopia. After they conquered the southern peoples, Abyssinians introduced a land ownership system which was different from the one they had in their Abyssinian homeland. It was based on the Abyssinian old legal system “Fitehanegest” (Ge’ez word, Law of the Kings) which is derived from an Old Testament land ownership system. One third of the conquered lands were given to the Orthodox/Coptic Church, and one third to the state. As a result, the colonial conquest introduced a private land ownership and tenure system in the southern highlands. In the southern highlands, the Ethiopian government became the only body that granted land to their loyalists in the form of “gult” (grant land) fertile lands to state, church, political authorities, soldiers and collaborators. The introduction of a private land ownership system in the southern highlands made most of the indigenous people’s serfs. According to Lata (1999), in Oromia, seventy percent of lands were owned by Abyssinian institutions and private individuals.
After the death of King Menelik (1913} the landlord-tenant relationship and the “rist” (communal land) system continued in the Abyssinian homelands under Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) until a group of military (Derg) took over power in 1974. The Derg abolished the landlord-tenant relationship and launched a radical land reform program that covered the desolated parts of the country. The March 1975 decree ended both the “rist” and “gult” system. All the rural farm lands were declared to be state property and redistributed to the tillers, primarily based on the size of the family and quality of the land. The distribution of land attempted to create equity and fairness in land acquisition. The same decree also banned all kinds of land transactions and hiring wage laborers in rural areas to ensure that the tillers remained the beneficiaries of the land. The decree prohibited farmers from selling, mortgaging, leasing, and transferring the land allocated to them. The practical effect of this decree was to kill land rental and farm labor markets.
After the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the EPRDF government reaffirmed what the previous regime had established by constitutionalizing the land ownership. For example, Article 40(3) of the Constitution states,
“The right of ownership of rural land and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the state and the peoples of Ethiopia. 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.”
In the constitution adopted in 1995, some changes were made; these allowed temporary leases. The constitution guarantees the rights of peasants and pastoralists to free access to land, and the right of individuals to claim compensation for improvements they make on land, including the right to bequeath, transfer or remove such improvements when the right to use the land expires.
Through the constitution, farmers have the right to use the land indefinitely, lease it out temporarily to other farmers, and transfer it to their children. However, they cannot sell it permanently or mortgage it. Although the constitution has resolved some issues, it seems to have created other ambiguities and does not address some important matters. For example, given the scarcity of land, it is not clear how peasants’ rights of free access to land can be assured in practice, and how much land peasants are entitled to have. Those issues have been left to the regional governments to resolve and there have been, therefore, significant differences across the regions with respect to development of a regional land policy.