APAD international conference on development, liberalism and modernity location:Tervuren & Louvain la Neuve date:13-15 November 2007
Land tenure in Ethiopia is much-discussed in literature. Most recent studies on rural land deal with legal land use rights and formal tenure security. They usually touch upon a number of formal and informal entitlement exchange mechanisms superimposed on the legal distribution of arable land, but do not go into detail on these superimpositions as practiced and experienced by smallholder farmers nor on the complexity of outcomes they generate in terms of access to land. In-depth qualitative research in one sub-district of the Degua Temben district in Tigray (Northern Ethiopia) reveals the latter to be very relevant as local farmers' conceptions of success and failure are based on access to the benefits of own as well as other people's land. In other words, for farmers in the study area year-to-year materialisation of access to land for cultivation is as much an issue as having legal land use rights, having them secured and having them registered.
First, we unravel the current distribution of legal land use rights in the sub-district under study, being the intersection of a number of policy measures on different administrative levels from 1990 until now. Indeed recent land policy decisions in the study area on the one hand are characterised by high levels of decentralisation (i.e. land is divided and administered at the local level), but on the other hand are restricted by strong boundary conditions stated at both the national and the regional level.
Secondly, farmers' responses to this "legal" outcome, resulting in "real" access to farm land and its products, are explored. Farmers' initiatives transforming land use rights (or their lack, as land poverty is substantial) are shown to be extremely diverse and to give rise to an alternative distribution of land. Farming households in the research area on average use and enjoy (part of) the benefits of more plots than they have formal user rights on, and their land exchange mechanisms can either have a mitigating or an amplifying influence on land inequality.