Rise of sustainable smallholder forestry in Ethiopia

”As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property” (John Locke 1690, Sect 32.)

Forestry in Ethiopia has been unsustainable for hundreds, even thousands of years. Unsustainable forestry has been the main reason for erosion, which on the other hand has been the source of fertile silt for riverine agriculture along the lower course of Nile.

From the total Nile sediments that reach Egypt, 96 per has come from decimating Ethiopian highland forests. From the total water, 90 per cent has rained there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Nile).

Even if the rainfall conditions are good (1200-1500 mm/yr in the highlands) indigenous forests do no more grow there. According to Clapham (1988) Ethiopian highlands have been largely devoid of forests since at least year 1600. Even in the distant past, her forest cover was never more than 15% (McCann, 1995). At the end of 1900s the indigenous forest cover was estimated at one per cent (Girma 1992, Davies 2008).

In imperial times the land ownership and the forestry were a combination of feudal rights and usufructs. In the South large tracts of land were feudal, owned by warlords. Usufructs, without any titles, prevailed in Northern Ethiopia.

The combination of feudalism and usufructs kept the forest decimation going since ancient times until 1974. Then a new, socialistic “Derg” (= committee) regime took the power.

The Derg had its main slogan (reminding of John Locke, 1690), as “Land to the tiller”. For the first time it raised hope for sustainable smallholder forestry in the country. Derg’s land reform 1975, was a move to that direction. It abolished tenancy and put peasants in charge of enforcing the scheme.

The Derg’s initial aim did not come true. Instead, all Ethiopian rural land was nationalized. No kind of titling or any other element of land as a property was allowed (Mitiku Haile et al 2005).

The Derg was replaced in 1991 by another, initially socialistic regime, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). From the beginning it has been headed by Mr. Meles Zenawi. Ideologically he shares the Derg’s opposition to large landowners.

Meles believes that the commercializing of land will inexorably concentrate the ownership in the hands of a minority. In his end-of-year report to Ethiopian Parliament in June 2004, he announced that the privatization of land in Ethiopia would take place only “over EPRDF’s dead body” (Devereux et al. 2005).

During the new regime Ethiopia has, however, allowed a gradual development in land titling for smallholders, under the name of land registration or land certification. Already in 1997 the Federal House of People’s Representatives delegated its legislative land tenure authority to the states (Mitiku Haile et al 2005). Pilot land certification projects were started especially in the states of Tigray and Amhara.

Another land administration and certification project was launched in 2004. It arguably represented a landmark compromise on land reform between donors, such as Swedish SIDA and USAID, some Ethiopian economists and the previously intransigent Federal Government.

Since 2004 the land titling (certification) has been the fastest that World Bank has ever recorded. By 2008 more than 20 million parcels of rural land, belonging to some 6 million smallholders (about half of all Ethiopian smallholders), were certified (Deininger et al 2008).

Final blessing to the land certification was given by Meles Zenawi himself in 2006. He invited Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to Ethiopia to brief him on the issue of property rights and land titling. The four hours discussion between Meles and de Soto stabilized the limited land titling (Van der Waag 2007, Standing … 2011).

In Ethiopian titling, a land certification booklet with a description of his property (area, map, neighbors), is given to every smallholder farmer. The booklet guarantees that the land remains within the family from generation to generation. If confiscation by state of the land happens (e.g. for road construction), the booklet guarantees that the farmer will be compensated.

The land can be rented, but it cannot be sold. The land, in practice, cannot be collateral for long-term, soft loans. If the land is left unused for over two years, it can be confiscated.

The limited land titling has been sufficient for boosting the private smallholder forestry. For the first time the farmer has sufficient security that the trees he plants are still his property, when he wants to harvest and sell them after a few years.

The boost in tree growing, especially in the state of Amhara, can be seen in three ways. First, since 2004 seedling production by smallholder farmers has considerably increased.

Secondly, smallholders have taken the leading role in tree planting. In 2009 the whole Ethiopia had 0.972 million hectares of planted forests (by government, communities and farmers). Amhara smallholder farms alone, covered 0.639 million hectares or 65 per cent of them (Million Bekele 2011).

Thirdly, smallholder farmers’ tree planting is seen in the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign (since 2006). In 2011Ethiopia was globally number three with 1.6 billion trees planted (after China 2.8 and India 2.1 billion trees) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Billion_Tree_Campaign).

With the land titling Ethiopia started around 2005 to move towards private forestry. The move follows the original philosophy of John Locke (1690).

The second element for private forestry: steady demand and free market price for the wood that the farmer produces, has also become reality. The major species that the smallholder farmers plant is Eucalyptus sp. (E. camaldulensis below 2000 meters above sea level, E. globulus above 2000 meters).

In Amhara state the eucalypts produce wood material for three purposes: poles for export to Sudan, poles for domestic construction, and fuel wood for domestic sales and home use. The demand is so high that there is an everyday, established road side price for the main article: atana-poles (diameter at stump 10-12 cm, pole length 5-6 m).

The 2012 roadside price for farmers, for one atana-pole, has been about one euro. The export price at Sudanese border in 2012 has been 2-3 euros per pole.

The prices are true free market prices of private forestry; they are not controlled by the government.


Asaye Asnake 2012. Yield and economics of growing Eucalyptus camaldulensis by smallholder farmers of Amhara region, Ethiopia. ETFRN NEWS 47/48: Forests and the Millennium Development Goals. Downloaded on 13.6.2012) in

Clapham, Christopher. 1988. Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia. Cambridge University Press. 320 p.

Davies, Steven. 2008. The political land economy in Ethiopia. A Thesis submitted for the Degree of PhD at the University of St. Andrews. United Kingdom. 289 p.

Deininger, K., Daniel Ayalew Ali & Tekie Alemu. 2008. Impacts of Land Certification on Tenure Security, Investment, and Land Markets. Evidence from Ethiopia. The World Bank Development Research Group. Policy Research Working Paper 4764. 30 p.

Devereux, S., Amdissa, T. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. 2005. Too Much Inequality or Too Little? Inequality and Stagnation in Ethiopian Agriculture. Institute of Development Studies Bulletin 36 (2): 13-32.

Girma, K. 1992. The State and Development in Ethiopia. Humanity Books. London. 185 p.

Locke, John. 1690. Second treatise of government. Edited, with an introduction by C.B. McPherson. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1980. eBook available at http://www.gutenberg.org.

McCann, J. 1995. People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800 – 1990. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 304 p.

Million Bekele 2011. Forest plantation and woodlots in Ethiopia. African Forest Forum Working Paper Series. Vol 1. Issue 12. Nairobi. 56 p.

Mitiku Haile, Wray Witten, Kinfe Abraha, Sintayo Fissha, Adane Kebede, Getahun Kassa and Getachew Reda 2005. Land registration in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. Securing land rights in Africa. Research report 2. IIED. London. 46 p.

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development 2011. Canada. Number 012. 1st Session. 41st Parliament. Evidence. Tuesday, November 22, 2011. http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=5262669&Language=E&Mode=1. Downloaded on 12.6.2012.

UNEP 2006. United Nation Billion Tree Campaign. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Billion_Tree_Campaign. Downloaded on 16.6.2012.

Van der Waag, Robert W. 2007. A model for humane economic development: Hernando de Soto, property rights and the preferential option for the poor. A dissertation presented to Faculty of Theology, McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts. Duquesne University. 293 p.


Veli Pohjonen

Manuscript for the planned book: Matti Palo (editor): Private or socialistic forestry? Globalization of forest cluster and transition to postindustrial forestry.




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