CASE STUDY: Land tenure issues in resettlement: Repatriation to Tigray region of Ethiopia
Case Study Land Tenure Issues in Resettlement:
Repatriation to Tigray Region of Ethiopia
Source: Hammond, Laura, "Returnees in Humera, Situation Report",
United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia, May 1994
Of Ethiopia's population of 50 million, more than 80% survive by
subsistence farming. Today, Tigray region of northern Ethiopia suffers from
shortages of tenable land. Many people left the country during the civil war
which besieged Tigray for 18 years, ending in May of 1991. Despite this
outmigration, the population continued to expand and abandoned land was
reallocated by the communities. Further, due to extensive deforestation and
erosion, traditionally farmed land has become less productive. Pressure on land
has now increased as those who left during the war are returning to their
homeland and wish to become self-sufficient.
In June of 1993,12,000 refugees returned from the Sudan and were
resettled in three settlement areas near the border town of Humera in Tigray.
Most of the returnees who had left Ethiopia 8-12 years before were originally
from the mountainous "highlands" in Tigray region, however, land shortages in
those areas precluded settlement there. The Humera area is a lowland fertile
farming center which has produced sesame, sorghum and cotton for export. In
April of 1994,2,200 additional returnees came to live near Humera.
In the absence of a formal land tenure policy, informal
unwritten policies now direct the allocation of land. Sources of land include
large tracts of idle land from state farms left over from the former regime and
large tracts of uncleared but arable land. The former refugees, however, were
not the only people demanding land. Some investors who had a stake in the land
near Humera but left during the war, had returned to lease land from the
government. Small farmers could borrow land from the investors and pay back
their loans with cash or harvest. The allocation system initially worked in
favor of the investors who, with their funds and mechanized systems, could
profit from the large plots of cleared land.
Many of the returnee farmers had learned how to farm lowland
crops in the Sudan. However, the land initially given to a large proportion of
the returnees was located 50 kilometers from their village. Although it was
already cleared, the great distance made it excessively time consuming for the
farmers to attend their fields. They were not able to adequately guard or work
the fields and many had to pay rent to store crops that could not be carried
home. Other plots of allocated land were closer to the villages but uncleared,
and then later claimed by the men who had worked to clear it, a labor intensive
process requiring up to three months.
Women heads of households who had never owned land were given
land, but most were unable to benefit as the system favored able bodied men who
were able to leave their households for a week at a time to tend the fields and
to clear the uncleared land. Women had never traditionally worked land but only
helped in the harvesting. The elderly and other vulnerable groups were also at a
disadvantage and many people remained dependent on relief assistance throughout
The local and regional governments faced difficult problems in
dealing with the inequities. They took positive steps toward a solution but
there was a risk that policies would be overridden by future national land
legislation. Efforts were directed at providing returnees with land closer to
their villages and allocating cleared land to women and vulnerable groups. The
tenure situation for the area's original residents was also in question and the
host community felt the pressure of the returnees on the natural resource base.
Nearly a half million building poles had been harvested from the local natural
forests. Due to a scarcity of land use information, the Tigray Development
Association conducted a comprehensive land use study which should provide
recommendations for improving land allocation and agricultural practices.