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Fourth Congress of the Association of African Historians

Society, State & Identity in African History” 

Addis Ababa, 22-25 May 2007 Conference Jointly organized by Department of History (Addis Ababa University) and Forum for Social Studies (Addis Ababa) in collaboration with the Executive Committee of the Association of African Historians and with the support of The African Union Commission         call for papers



Towards the Development of Differential Land Taxation System in Ethiopia


Daniel Kassahun, PhD[1]


Several studies had addressed the existing land degradations of Ethiopia. The immensity and soberness of land degradation is the sin qua non of those documents. To tackle the ongoing degradation problems in Ethiopia, peasants, governments, NGOs and researchers had attempted differently. Despite all those efforts, soil degradation along with its multifarious impacts is taking its tall. Lands are degrading more than ever before; its productivity is persistently declining, vulnerability of farmers to natural and manmade causes has become a norm than exception; land-induced tensions and conflicts are recurring more often than before.


Numerous researchers embodied plentiful of recommendations in their studies. The issue of land tenure has been an outstanding recommendation in a bid to arrest the massive land degradation in Ethiopia. However, as long as EPRDF and the existing constitution are in power, land tenure remains to be a “dead issue”. This circumstance poses a bitter paradigm shift on the response of academicians to the problem. Although the debate on land tenure will undoubtedly continue, researchers should expand the realm of remedies which is consenting to the policy framework of the statues quos.


The study introduces a new system called differential land taxation (DLT), where agricultural lands are liable to different taxation levels. DLT is to be determined by rating the level of accord or discord between the recommended and adopted land management options. Sample areas, from the Amhara and Oromia Regional States, characterized by range of land degradation magnitude, were chosen for in-depth study and appraisal of the proposed model.


Through focused group discussion with peasants, local/regional land and finance experts it was understood that DLT could sustainably regulate land management challenges. Results of this study has a grain of policy issues, where instead of spending huge resources in the ill-rewarding SWC schemes through obligatory campaigns and food-for-work (f-f-w) schemes, and instead of collecting land taxes on sheer land size parameter, it could be possible to encourage conservation-minded peasants through systematically targeted tax incentives, while discouraging those who are either cultivating fragile lands or mining the good ones with out adopting the recommended land management. Findings of this research throw a new light of policy strategy to implement sustainable land management practices in Ethiopia, where the current degradation problem could realistically be regulated.


1. The Problems


Numerous empirical studies have reported the immensity of environmental degradation in Ethiopia. Rate of deforestation is in the range of 80,000 to 200,000 hectares per annum. The soil conservation Research Projects had estimated an average soil loss of 42 t/ha/year on cultivated lands and a maximum of 300-400 t/ha/year in highly erodible and intensively cereal cultivated fields (EPA, 2003). Nearly three decades ago, the Ethiopian Highland Reclamation Study estimated that about half of arable lands in the highlands have been eroded from moderately to seriously levels (Constable, 1985). By now, this figure might have reached a much higher level, where human population (which is the underlying factor) has increased by more than 65% since then. The yield decline, food insecurity, increased susceptibility to drought, and household economic decline are partly emanated from the ongoing severe degradation level.


Soil and water conservation (SWC) measures (cultural and introduced ones) can thwart the current trend of soil loss. While most of the cultural ones are getting obsolete due to changing physical, demographic, and socio economic conditions, the adaptation level of introduced SWC measures have been negligible, if not none. Low levels of SWC adoption are attributed to several factors. Some studies attribute the low level of SWC technology adoption to poor economic status of farmers, labor shortage, land tenure uncertainty, problem of fitness of the technologies themselves (Woldeamlak and Sterk, 2002; Wogayehu, 2003; Menale and Holden, 2005). Other studies in the past advocated that farmers show very little or no interest in implementing the conservation measures (e.g., Kebede and Hurni, 1992). However, this assertion had often been criticized by the question, “had peasants been introduced with the appropriate conservation techniques which were supposed to be harmonized to their farmlands?” A recent study (Woldeamlak and Sterk, 2002), which assessed the level of farmers participation in SWC activities in Chemoga watershed (East Gojjam zone), revealed that most of their involuntary participation had emanated from dissatisfaction on the technology itself.


Gibbon et al, (1995) pointed out that there had been more instances for peasants to be unwilling or unable to carryout what are understood to be more sustainable actions. These are attributable to lack of adequate knowledge, resources, inadequate economic returns or insufficient information about the longer term or wider benefits. Hence, in many instances, peasants are forced to opt for short-term but unsustainable resolution, which induce not only further degradation on the existing farmland; but also an accelerated rate of soil loss from newly colonized fragile lands. For instance, Belay (2000) noted that crop cultivation in parts of Welo is carried out without any type of terracing, while 74% of the land requires application of contour plowing, broad based terracing or bench terracing. Recent studies in Ethiopia (e.g., Bekele and Holden, 1998; Belay, 1998; Dessalegn, 2001) reported that farmers, although aware of the effects of soil erosion, they are often incapable because of the socio economic circumstances, which calls for concerted effort to overcome those problems ahead of the introduction of conservation schemes.



As more lands are required to feed the rapidly growing population, there would be further expansion of crop cultivation onto ecologically fragile environments (like steep slopes, wetlands, and communal forest area). This further aggravates the “environment-poverty trap” (Pearce and Markandia, 1990). In short, the state of Ethiopian environment is very precarious, and calls for urgent involvement in combating land degradation problem through research and continued public dialogue.


2. Responses to the Problem


To tackle the problem of ongoing land degradation in Ethiopia, there has been several attempts and approaches emanated from different stakeholders. Peasants, government, NGO, and research community had reacted and responded from their own perceptions, understanding, and resources. Excerpts of their responses are outlined below.


2.1 Responses of Peasants


The prime sufferers of land degradation are peasants. Responses of peasants to land degradation are combined interplay of the biophysical, sociopolitical, economical and demographic attributes which in turn are varying across space and time. Amanor (1994) noted that farmer’s response to the environmental degradation reflect the growing consciousness and awareness of environmental processes. This idea is proved in Ethiopia where Tesfaye (2003) reported that soil degradation is better perceived among peasants of the highly degraded areas than their counterparts in less degraded areas.


Farmers had long been managing their lands through traditional methods shifting of cultivation and land rotation techniques. Upon continued population increase, such practices withered due to continued shrinkage of land sizes. They were compelled to infringe towards vulnerable lands which are fragile, steep and stony. There were also various indigenous techniques to arrest soil erosion problems. Kruger et al. (1997) had attempted to catalog indigenous SWC measures available in different parts of the country. Traditional SWC have been widely used for more than a century in regions like Tigray, North Shewa, Gamo Gofa, North Welo, and Harargie. For instance in Konso, stone bench terraces and multiple cropping practices have been existed for over five hundred years. However, those techniques could not sustain the ever rising demographic stress exerted on the land. Upon reaching the ‘finiteness’ of lands, peasants abandoned the use of fallow. This has brought exhaustion of lands and led to declining of land productivities. In response, about 20,000 to 30,000 ha of lands are abandoned annually. These abandoned areas are the highly erodible lands of Ethiopia (Hurni, 1990).


The rapid growth of rural population and absence of economic diversification, coupled with abandonment of unproductive lands, the existing lands have gone through persistent fragmentation as it passed through generations. As lands are further fragmented they become uneconomical in size and left with little room for implementing SWC measures. Besides, the growing scarcity of lands had caused the vulnerability of farmers to impoverishment and scarcity-induced conflicts (Tesfaye Teklu, 2004).


Out-migration is another response of farmers due to the deterioration of land qualities. It has been a common coping mechanism through easing land scarcity problems due to mounting population pressures and food insecurity problems. However, such responses were not safe heavens to migrants. While some of them benefited from the process, many others had faced even more hostile circumstances. For instance, Tesfaye Teklu (2004) and Tesfaye Tafesse (2004) have accounted the nature and extent of resentments and grievances induced from endogenous (host) peoples and the consequences of violent conflict and displacement.


2.2 Responses of Government


The Imperial, Derge and the current governments had responded the problem of land degradation in various ways, viz., soil conservation and afforestation campaigns, resettlement campaigns, area enclosures etc. Various policies/ programs/ strategies, etc were formulated to implement those measures. Despite huge resources, capital and time spent on those activities, several research findings have proved that the degradation levels had rather been immensely augmented since then.


Of all the methods, the greatest strides were conservation and afforestation schemes. However, SWCs were heavily relied on mechanical methods. The great contributions from biological/agronomic measures were ignored. It was reported that about 998,000 ha of farmlands and 208,000 ha of hillsides were terraced, 15,500 km check dams were constructed on gullies, 296,000 ha of land were afforested on denuded areas, 310,000 ha closed for regeneration of vegetation, etc. However, after spending huge financial resource, the impact had been unsuccessful at the end (Dessalegn, 2001; Eyassu, 2002; Yeraswork 1995) as most of the structures were demolished or have fallen into disuse during disturbances following collapse of the Derge. Major limitations of those activities were lack of the consent of peasants. Besides, most of the activities were coupled with the highly criticized f-f-w schemes, which is unsustainable due to the probable projects terminations. Authorities[2] attribute this failure to “lack of ownership of the programs by the community and the top-down approach”.


In order to implement modern SWC technologies and other agricultural activities, large number of trained Development Agents (DA) had been trained However, recent study (Pausewang, 2002) witnessed that while peasants see the ongoing land degradation in their farm and grazing lands, most of them do not ask DA’s for help. There is a distrust which might have emanated from past experience records that most DA’s were central in most of unfavorable government decisions like land redistribution, villegization and resettlement, tax and contribution collection, forced sell of grains on quota basis, etc. Hence, the current massive training of DA might do little to arrest the alarming rate of degradation problems unless a paradigm shift is made in the term of reference in the task of DA’s. A study made in Kenya also witnessed that one of the reasons why peasants are not listening to DA’s is that in most instances, peasants are more knowledgeable to their environment and its processes than DA’s.


Resettlement had been another activity by successive governments to promote food security, relieve the population pressure of the vulnerable areas, and rehabilitate the already degraded lands. Despite the resettlement of close to 600,000 peasants during the Derge, the objectives set were not able to meet the intended hopes (Dessalegn, 2003). Various researches showed that the process had inflicted a massive forest and soil degradation (Solomon, 1994) in the settlement areas which are the “green belt” and “lung” of the country. Even at present, about 400,000 people are already resettled and it would climb to a total of 2.2 million people at the course of three years, where its impact is yet to be seen.


Around 1980, an increased concern about the worsening condition of land degradation has led to the draft legislation for land use planning and regulation. However, this draft legislation has never been enacted into law. In the last two decades, in a bid to combat land degradation problems, several policies, strategies, programs and laws had been enacted. The Environmental Policy of Ethiopia was approved in April 1997, and several environment-related ones were approved before and after it. Gedion (2003) had outlined and reviewed the sectoral and cross-sectoral policies, strategies and laws that relate to environment. He commented that they were seldom examined for their internal consistency and harmony and are of little known by the majority of Ethiopians. However, the policy hasn’t been reviewed since its approval. Besides, those policies are often criticized for lacking enforceable mechanism.


Recently, the Natural Resources Sector within the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development (MoARD) has tried to fill the policy and strategy gaps that directly and indirectly influence natural resource conservation. A new land administration and use proclamation has been approved by the council of ministers and the parliament[3].


2.3 Responses of NGOs


Several NGOs had also upheld SWC technologies in various parts of the country. They rather, followed a “bottom-up” and “participatory” approach. Besides, the SWC activities in many areas were fine-tuned with local conditions. Even at times of political turmoil, like in the case of government change, those conserved areas had remained intact (Dessalegn, 2001). However, compared to the extent of the degradation problem in the country, the proportion of NGO-assisted SWC impacts are quite small. Besides, their efforts, as it is heavily relied on f-f-w, are critically challenged to have induced “dependency syndrome”.


2.4 Responses of Researchers


Several researchers had conducted land/soil/forest based studies in different agroecological regions of the country. They produced numerous qualitative and quantitative information on the extent and magnitudes of degradation. Most of these studies had generated area-specific land management options/ recommendations to arrest land degradation.


In Ethiopia, there is already a ‘wealth of literature’ on the impact of land tenure on land degradation. Though it appears to be a delicate political issue, several studies put land tenure as a primary issue to arrest soil and resource degradation (e.g., Birhanu et al., 2004; Dessalegn, 2004; Kifle, 1999; Yeraswork, 1995). It is widely believed as a means to encourage investment on land improvements and environmental rehabilitation, which is also a fundamental variable in agrarian and rural development. Land tenure insecurity is also considered as a key factor of land degradation (World Bank, Agenda 21). On the other hand, opponents of tenure individualization (e.g., mostly the government side) focus on its alleged negative impact as it might lead to concentration of land ownership, and increased marginalization of farmers.


On the contrary, as long as EPRDF and the current Constitution are in their power, land is a “dead issue”. Therefore, it would be a “sterile argument” (Dessalegn, 2004) to dwell on land ownership issue in a situation where there is deadlock on the issue. This standpoint could incite paradigm shift in the orientation of researchers. Apart from suggesting the same bred of recommendations for government’s change of mind, researchers in the mean time could seek alternative solutions which might be malleable to the current policy framework. One of the exciting challenges of research undertaking is to muddle through restraining factors and conditionality. Then, what kinds of alternative options could researchers to bid to the fore, which is to be up taken both by government and peasants?


Generally speaking, the attainable level of improved land management adoption by a farmer is set by physical (natural) factors like slope, soil depth, soil erodibility, etc., called “defining-factors” (Figure 2). As pointed out by several scholars, the land policy issue poses detrimental effect on improved land management adoption, due to land tenure insecurity, called “policy-limited” factors. However, the new land administration and use proclamation (which is approved by the parliament recently) has limited opportunities and provisions through land registration and certification, which allow ownership transfer through inheritance, gift or rent while restricting the upper limit for cultivation on sloppy lands and impose the need for conservation activities on such lands. However the limited provisions of the existing policy are not harnessed at the present time, which is constrained by various socioeconomic factors. Constraining factors like inadequate economic incentives, tax irregularities, inappropriateness of some introduced technologies, and their limited economic and financial return, are called “reducing factors”. This is the gap where researchers could fill it through production of alternative approaches and methods within the existing socioeconomic and political framework.



Ideal Potential

Policy Limited


Physical Attributes

Land Tenure/Policy

Awareness, Incentive

Defining factors

Limiting factors

Reducing factors

Level of Improved Land Management Adoptions

Figure 2. Schematic overview of land management situations and gaps for research intervention


Therefore, the general objective of this is to generate a new alternative approach which could systematically regulate the ongoing land degradation problem within the existing socioeconomic and political framework of Ethiopia. Specifically, the study will develop a prototype of sustainable mechanism which effectively enforces improved land management.


Section 3 below briefly describes the development of alternative land management approach followed by Section 4 which attempts to appraise the developed model on the context of selected sample areas. Finally, Section 5 presents the conclusion along with policy recommendations.


3 Towards New Land Management Enforcement


3.1 A Land Abuser Pay?


There are ample policies, strategies and programs pertaining to environmental issues in Ethiopia (Gedeon, 2003). However, most of them are still ‘paper tiger’. There is acute dearth of compelling legislation for natural resource protection and development. As Dessalegn (2001) put it, the enforceable laws do not back the provisions of the policy, and hence remain a mere declaration of intent.


From the land management perspective, peasants could be broadly categorized in two: those who are fervently caring their lands and those who are not. So far, there had not been any particular incentives for the environment-friendly peasants. Rather, they had been victims of faulty-government policy measures, which used to be imposed indiscriminately on the entire farming community.


There are some countries that employ cost-sharing system to promote SWC works. This, however, created heavy burden on developing countries. Through such measures, resources are susceptible to misuse and may develop a subsidy-dependent mentality toward whatsoever government initiates. The other option had been the provision of loans and credits to peasants. However, farmers would be reluctant to use their little borrowing capacity for soil erosion measures. Besides, the monetary returns from SWC range from very low to none on short-term basis. Even in USA, loans are not popular in soil conservation work (Kebede and Hurni, 1992). The limited environmental commitment or awareness to SWC efforts is also common in most parts of the world (Ghai, 1994). For instance, research in Tigray witnessed that the average rate of returns for investments in stone terraces are less than 25%. The willingness and ability of Tigray farmers to invest in SWC measures are mainly constrained by cash (Boetekees, 2003).


Especially after the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the principle of “polluter pays” had gained immense popularity. This conception has been employed to regulate environmental problems, like water and air pollutions, where polluters are liable to pay (in the form of tax) for the damage they caused.


Land tax is an annual tax based on land ownership and usage of land. Revenue from land tax is paid into the general revenue account of government, and assists in the provision of public services such as education, health and public safety. The canon of taxation is that every citizen should contribute to the state in proportion to his ability. Land taxes are an ideal revenue source for local governments. Taxations are used (as in the case of Ethiopia) as a means to raise revenue, redistribute income and wealth, discourage or encourage specific activities (Fentaw, 2002). Government commonly employs progressive cost/rate on most urban-based services like electricity and water supply. The attempt is not only to garner revenue from high consumers (so as to subsidize, for instance, rural electrification), but also to systematically discourage the abuse of such meager resources through enhanced rate/cost.


Tax is a powerful instrument for revenue collection (Deininger, 2003), and the following queries could, therefore, be raised: Can land taxes be tagged with new purpose? Can we make land tax as a catalyst in environmental management? Can we encourage proper management of lands through tax relief and tax exemptions? Can we discourage land mismanagement through pedantically enhanced taxes? In short, can we make the exiting land taxation system acquiescent to our crucial problem of land degradation?


This study presupposes that land taxes could be useful mechanisms to regulate land degradation problems. Corollary to “polluter pays” principle, this research project dwelt on the idea of “the more one abuses his land, the higher the land taxation is” and vise versa; which eventually yields to the principle of “the land abuser pays”.


3.2 Modus Operandi of Land Taxes


Ott (1998) noted that taxation of lands is almost universal, but the method varies across countries. The commonest land taxation systems are based on land size and quality. In Australia, there is a terminology called “total site value” to calculate land tax for each year. It is determined by “valuer general” where there could be periodic reevaluation. Skinner (1991) noted that many countries that have been practicing land taxation system in the 50’s (like Egypt and India) have avoided it, and focused rather on income or export-based taxes. In the absence of understandable land use plan of a given locality, the land tax administration on qualitative criteria has been identified as a very difficult task to carry out. These difficulties are believed to have eroded the land tax system in the above mentioned countries. Skinner (1991) reported that some countries have systems similar to inputted income taxes, where market value of the land are considered, or based on the annualized net profit from land.


While the system of land taxation varies from country to country, actual revenues from land tax are generally below their potential (Deininger, 2003). The same is true in Ethiopia (1.1% of total government revenue). Prime reasons for this could be deficient incentive structures, weak assessment and administration of land, and also the political difficulty of having significant land taxes. According to Ott (1998), the objective of land tax should range from raising revenues to effectively backup social and economic goods.


In Ethiopia, the contribution of land tax to local economy has not been adequately analyzed. However, tax revenue constitutes the lion share of government revenue (CSA, 2004). About 70% of total domestic revenue is derived from tax, and makes > 13.7% of GNP. Recently, its contribution showed substantial increase, especially due to the recent introduction of urban land lease and rental taxes. The rural land use fee used to be 51.3 million birr in 1982/3 (Eshetu, 1990) and reached more than double in 2000/1 (CSA, 2004) which has become 116.2 million birr. However, this makes 1.1% of the total government revenue.


According to Eshetu (1990), taxes that fall directly on agriculture include: land use fee, tax on agricultural income, and tax on exports of agricultural products. Farmers pay Br 10.00 for the first hectare and Br 7.50 for each additional half hectare as land use tax. The land use fee for state farms is Br 15 per hectare. Eshetu criticized that the then land taxes were fixed irrespective of the soil fertility and slop factors. He justified that the agricultural sector is not an important source of tax revenue, especially considering its substantial contribution to output and employment. Eshetu further noted that agricultural income tax is exactly equal to land use fee, which is the minimum birr 10.00 for annual income less than birr 600.00 per annum. Based on these facts, Eshetu believes that the Ethiopian peasantry is not overburdened by taxes as used to be imagined by many people.


The Constitution of Ethiopia (Article 97.2-3) states “regional states shall fix and collect fees for land usufruct rights” and “states shall levy and collect taxes on the incomes of privet farmers”. According to Terrefe (1992), each regional state fixes the tax and delivers this task down to zones, then into district and peasant association (PA) levels. Once the total amount of taxes a peasant association (PA) is obliged to pay is known, the executive body of PA works out the amount each peasant pays. This looks different from reports of Eshetu (1990). Terrefe further pointed out that land taxation influences state-peasant relations. At times of instability, like in the period of government change, government deliberately exempts farmers from land taxes, and at times of political settlement, peasants are forced to pay back overdue taxes.


The land policies/regulations enacted by four Regional States, viz., Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and SNNP, shows that, land taxation system is flat, which is more or less based on size criteria. The exception is Tigray Region, where the weredas are partitioned to three land tax categories, which is most probably based on zonal agro-ecological quality. A land tax of birr 30.00 is allocated in weredas like Kefla Humera, Welkayit and Tsegedie; birr 35.00 in Tahitay Adiabo and Lae’lay Adiabo; and birr 40.00 in all other weredas of the region (Tigray Region Land Regulation, No 15/1994).


The objective of land taxation in Ethiopia seems defined by single criteria (as a revenue collection scheme) than multiple criteria. Such objective fails to capture the variability and diversity of biophysical environment. Skinner (1991) noted that targeting on land size criteria would worse off the environmental wellbeing.


With respect to land rent practices, the norm deviates from the land size criteria. In Tigray (Birhanu et al., 2004), the average rental price per hectare for land in 1998 was birr 450, 550, and 845 for the poor, medium, and quality lands, respectively. It is simple to note that a land rent based on quality parameter would induce its own repercussion on land management. Mostly, the poor farmers can afford to rent inferior (poor) lands and they have nothing to spare for land management. They rather opt for the quickest but unsustainable mode of land management, which might exacerbate land degradation processes. Hence designing efficient land taxation mechanism is a necessity to bring about any desired goals.


3.3 Marriage of Land Taxation to Land Management


If the present trend of farm extensification is allowed to continue, a great deal of fragile lands would further deteriorate. The problem is, are farmers willing to put aside “marginal lands” from cultivation? Could farmers uptake improved SWC products while the technology incurs additional labor, capital, time, and space? This is hardly possible in the face of acute land shortage. These and other questions could not be settled simply by enacting environmental laws. Most researchers, officials and land users agree that poverty plays deterring factor to investment on land management. This calls for acceptable and positively enforcing mechanisms which influence not only to invest on their lands but also influence the judgment of peasants either to farm or dispose those marginal lands from unsustainable farming system.


Taxation system could be integrated to various priority concerns. Right now, land degradation problem is the most pressing issue of Ethiopia. Commissioning land taxation to address the challenges of land degradation would, therefore, be a timely issue. If land taxation is to be synchronized with the management practices of land users, the system is believed to encourage conservationist farmers, who are adding worth to the land. In the mean time, it discourages land mismanagement by imposing heavy land taxes. Anchoring land taxes to land management issue leads to the principle of differential land taxation system (DLT).


3.4 The Differential Land Taxation (DLT)


DLT is proposed to arrest the problem of land degradation in a reasonable way through taxing lands at a variable rate based on the level of adopted land management packages. Farmers managing their land according to the recommended type of management options, through exerting extra efforts, land and capital would be rewarded not only by a reduced tax, but also by the long-term benefit of land productivity. As DLT distributes tax burdens among different land management types, it would voluntarily attract the conservation-minded peasants towards enhanced care. Hence, DLT would have two vital benefits: viz., assist the rehabilitation of degrading lands with sound land management system/practices, and systematically relieve the stress from those degraded and fragile lands.


In the development of DLT system, it is assumed that there would always be land taxes either to poor or rich. The owner (user) of the land is liable to pay the land tax, irrespective of the tenure system. It is assumed that this unavoidable tax could be addressed to the issue of land degradation problem. Hence, in this study land taxes are envisaged to regulate the exploitation/management activity.


4. Empirical Evidences from Case Studies


4.1 The Sample Environment


4.1.1 Location of selected villages


In order to substantiate and appraise the underlying assumptions of the DLT, it was necessary to undertake field based study. Three administrative zones were chosen (Table 1) from central Ethiopia, representing different status and magnitude of land degradation problems. The zones include North Showa (Amhara Regional State), North Showa and East Oromia (Oromia Regional State). Selection was based in consultation with natural resource experts at regional, zonal, and wereda bureaus. From the 3 zones, a total of 4 weredas (Map 1) were selected: Moja-na-wedera, Tarmaber, Girar Jarso, and Dugda-Bora wereda. From the 4 weredas, 7 villages were chosen in consultation with DA’s. Their altitude ranges from 1600m in Meki area to >3,172m in Sela Dingay area.


Focused group discussion (FGD) was employed to qualitatively explore the issue. Each focus group commonly composed of 6-10 members. The average time taken to discuss with FDG’s was a minimum of 2 hours and in each village 4 to 5 focal group were chosen. Information was also collected interviews conducted with local officials and DA’s. The selected themes have focused on land and its degradation pattern, SWC issues, and land taxation practices.


Map 1: Map of Ethiopia and the study sites (shaded part). Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 refers to Moja-na-wodera, Tarma Ber, Girar Jarso and Dugda Bora Woredas.



Table 1. Summary of the study area





Wereda Capital




Rain[4] (mm)

Wereda pop




Girar Jarso












East Showa


Dugda Bora



Tuji Sumeya









Tubbie Suti

Dalota Mati




North Showa

Moja-na Wedera

Sela Dingay

Begoch Gat

Meskele Geda




~ 980







Tarma Ber

Debre Sina


Tornos Amba



Selection of sample areas for case study was based on accessibility to conduct field work, prevalence of land degradation problems at different level of magnitudes; and presence of government and NGO’s initiated SWC activities in the areas.


4.1.2 Gradient of physical environment


The study villages are found in different agro-climatic regions (Table 2). They vary in geology, elevation, rainfall, temperature, soil, topography, farming systems, etc. North Showa Zones of the Amhara and Oromia region are found in the central plateau of western physiographic region, which is overlain by trappean volcanic rocks, belonging to Magdala group. Most of these rocks are acidic (Mohr, 1967) inheriting fertile black soils. East Oromia zone is found in the rift valley physiographic region, where the geology belongs to tertiary pyroclastics and quaternary basalts covered by various lacustrine deposits.


Topographically, the two sample weredas of Amhara Region are very steep, where there are chains of mountains. These areas are drained by tributaries of Abay and Awash rivers. The Girar Jarso wereda of North Showa (Oromia) belongs to gently undulating topography, where sheet erosion is the most dominant type of soil loss, which is taking place insidiously. The area drains to the tributaries of river Abay. Dugda Bora wereda of the rift valley belongs to dominantly of rolling plain. It is adjacent to eastern escarpment, which drains to Ziway and Koka lakes. In this area, numerous gullies have developed recently. The gully is becoming a very series problem in the last twenty five years with a remarkable depletion of cultivated area (CTA, 1999).


Soils do vary not only across weredas and villages but also within different positions of a particular toposequence in a village. In most villages there is identifiable trend of soil in their distribution. The most classifying criteria employed by peasants are texture, followed by fertility level, degradation and color. On Table 3, a corresponding standardized soil group is suggested for each locally identified soil type, based on a rapid assessment technique employed by the author through convergence of evidences. It is possible to deduce that, while depletion of soil nutrients and acidity are common problems in soils of North Showa villages, problems emanated from salinity and sodicity are believed to be higher in the Dugda Bora wereda.


Table 2. Types, qualitative classification, and fertility status of soils in the study areas




Fertility level

Depth category

Inclination of land facet

Degradation Level

FAO equivalent




Shallow (<30cm)

Steep (> 200)


Lithosol / Regosol


Dark brown


Medium (30-50cm)

Gentle (8-200)


Nitisol/Cambisol Phaezem/




Deep (> 50cm)

Plain (0-80)





5.1.3 Gradient of Land Management Practices


Major crops grown in North Showa of Amhara and Oromia Region include barley, horse bean, lentil and wheat in the higher elevated areas. Teff and sorghum grows in the relatively lower elevations. In Gira Jarso, barley, wheat, horse bean, teff, and lentil are widely grown. In Dugda Bora, maize, teff, and sorghum are grown.


Land rent is common practice in the studied villages. It is undertaken either in monetary form or through share cropping. Mostly, the time frame set for land rent is a year or two. Peasants who rent-out lands include old, week, poor (who lack oxen), and women headed families. Those who rent-in are mainly of youngsters whom most of them are landless.


Farmers showed varied reflections on the impact of land renting system on SWC practices. Most peasants asserted that, since there is a binding rule in the contractual agreement, the one who rent-in is accountable to care the land. On the possibility of renting out lands for longer periods, most respondents fear that the land renter might claim for ownership. This short period of rent is believed to have a negative repercussion on the wellbeing of the soil, because SWC effort gives economic and financial return after several years.


Land fragmentation is one of a deterring factor of SWC implementation. It is a common phenomenon in all the surveyed areas. CSA (2003) shows that the Amhara and Oromia regions have higher number of farm plots per person than other regions. However, respondents put this problem as “insignificant” and a “tolerable” factor. Land parcels found in different locations do vary in their characteristics, merits, demerits, and risks. It also helps as risk aversion strategy and help crop diversity.


In the Amhara region, the landholding redistribution of 1997 has enabled the provision of at least two land parcels which comprises “good” and “bad” quality. Such mix is locally known as lem-ke-tef which allows to fully exploits the local ecological niche. In the surveyed villages, farm plots are not significantly apart from one another. Therefore, differences of agro-climatic impacts are very unlikely as it used to be common during the Imperial Regime. In the past, farmers were traveling very long distances to cultivate lands, called mofer zemet. This system was practiced through share-cropping on distinctly different land quality vis-à-vis own locality. The 1975 Land Reform has drawn the wider apart farm plots closer towards homesteads. Furthermore, the 1997 landholding redistribution had further shrunk to an insignificant distance from each other.


Hence, the only characteristic differentiation among farm plots in the studied villages is attributable to variations in local topographic positions. The slope angle of land facets differs appreciably within a toposequence, which results in variation of soil texture, soil color, soil hydrologic property, rooting depth, growing period, suitable type of SWC, etc.


Despite long history of keeping livestock, its management is still traditional in the studied villages. Domestic animals are mostly feeding crop residues during post cultivation period. During cropping season, animals are restricted either to abandoned plots of land, sent to very steep lands, or kept in the barn to be fed through cut and curry. In some instances, small plots of lands are apportioned from each farmer so that they can simply stand on. However, livestock is seldom considered a “problem” by respondents as an agent of soil degradation. Their main concern is rather the diminishing space available for livestock, which correspondingly affect the feed potential of the area. In their response, the number of livestock per household has declined through time. Some respondents fear that in the future, such trend would result in absence of oxen for farming.


In all studied villages, cattle dung is used as important sources of household energy. Many house compounds have a stockpiled pan cake of cow dung, which is to be consumed during rainy season. Twigs of eucalyptus are also used. Other trees like bissana, agam, and woira are also used in Armania area. The exception is Dugda Bora wereda, where acacia trees are widely used for household energy. Nowadays, remnants of sparse acacia trees are found in the homesteads and farmlands. Instead of cutting these trees, farmers often prune the branches. The twigs are initially used as a thorny fence, and as it decays through time, it will then be used as fuelwood. Besides, limited charcoal is used in the locality.


Eucalyptus trees are labeled “aggressive” due to its competition for water and soil resources. Most crops fail to grow near them. It is common to see an estimated buffer zone of ten to fifteen meters being left unutilized. Thus, the tree is mostly planted on the backyards and homestead boundaries. It is planted mostly in washed away soils (called bikika in the Amhara Region), which are ‘unsuitable’ soils for crop growth. Currently, government is encouraging farmers to plant as many trees as possible. For instance, each farmer is ordered to plant a quota of 500 trees in North Showa of Amhara Region. In Dugda Bora wereda, apart from eucalyptus, other trees like true-man-tree, acacia salgina, and wanza are planted at a small scale.


Despite acute dearth of proper soil fertility study reports in the studied areas, chemical fertilizers are applied by most farmers following a uniform application rate set in a blanket approach. Farmers do not apply fertilizers over all their soils/plots. In Moja-na-wedera, farmers are applying fertilizer on soils which are good enough to respond positively. On the contrary, farmers of Girar Jarso wereda are applying fertilizer on degraded soils. Respondents in Girar Jarso commented that “fertilizer can rejuvenate a totally degraded land”.


The outstanding worry voiced by most of discussants was the ever-increasing cost of fertilizer. Besides, repayment is very difficult due to the frequent failure of crops due to meteorological cataclysm. Especially during frosty months in high elevated areas of Amhara region, many crops collapse; in lowland parts, the fertilizer response is stalled by water stress and diseases. In all the areas, fertilizers are applied only once in the cropping season, while the maximum benefit could have been obtained through split application at different stages of a crop.


4.1.4 Gradient of land degradation


In the North Showa of Amhara and Oromia, agriculture has been practiced for a long period. Studies (e.g., Hurni, 1983) reported that agriculture in North Showa (of Amhara) has been practiced for the last 530 to 1140 years. Long period of cultivation had made the environment to undergo extensive degradation. On the contrary, crop production is a recent phenomenon in Dugda Bora wereda. Until 1960’s, the area had mainly been under natural woodlots. Very few pastoralists were residing in the localities. Since the 1975 Agrarian Reform, cultivated areas increased at the expense of decreasing wood covered areas (CTA, 1999), and hence eroding areas had intensified in those areas.


Land degradation is prominent in all the surveyed areas (Table 3). However, the intensity and magnitude varies from site to site. The degradation is highly correlated with the topographic factor, management response and the type of land utilization, and the awareness level of farmers. The severe land degradation in the villages of North Showa (of Amhara) has presumably prompted the introduction of government and NGO supported SWC for over 2-3 decades ago.


Table 3. Land degradation and management levels in the sample zones




Degradation level

Management level


North Showa (Amhara)

Intense due to broken topography and cultivation which took place for long time.

Credible effort since 80’s


North Showa (Oromia)

Overlooked degradation; its effect is looming large at present

Almost negligible effort so far


East Showa (Oromia)

Degradation is recent phenomena, but intensifying at alarming rate

Almost negligible effort so far


Concerning the opinion of farmer’s knowledge on the degradation problem, various responses were observed. Respondents of Girar Jarso wereda feel that there are “no degradations” in their locality. This might be due to the dominance of sheet erosion on the dominantly gentle slopes, which is hard to detect their processes in a short span of time. The fact that teff dominates farming system, which requires shallow soil depth; it might have concealed the appreciation of the threat. However, in other surveyed areas, soil degradation is a well known and considered as a challenging problem. This understanding might be due to their exposure to the conspicuous environmental change, and partly from the lesson obtained from DA’s. However, their level of information pertaining to the causes, processes, and impacts do vary across locations.


In response to the extent of land degradation and degree of environmental susceptibility to degradation, responses of farmers also varied. In North Showa (of Amhara), the environment has been subjected to intense degradation due to predominance of steep slopes and long history of cultivation, and hence farmers in those areas have rated the problem at great magnitude. According to them, “one can not survive with out SMC”. The next conscious groups were farmers of the rift valley. Though the area has plain surface, which undergone a short period of man’s intervention, the soil is characterized by high level of erodibility and fragility. Since the rate of degradation is very fast, it can easily steal the attention of peasants. Farmers of Girar Jarso wereda have showed little awareness and correspondingly their responses are insignificant.


In Tarma Ber wereda, farmers acknowledge that their locality was degraded in earlier days. Currently, they believe that their farms are ‘rehabilitating’ through their conservation measures. The nearby locality, Moja-na-wodera, respondents put it at a “moderate problem” which varies across the positions of topography. The younger respondents are mainly optimistic due to the knowledge and promises they obtained from DAs. In Dugda Bora wereda of rift valley, despite the dominance of plain surface, respondents are more anxious about the ongoing degradation, like the emergence and rapid expansion of gullies, and worried to the future wellbeing of their environment. The higher environmental consciousness of Dugda Bora could be associated with the fast rate of degradation process taking place in the area.


Concerning the impact of erosion on soil fertility, the most commonly cited indicator is a decline in crop production. Crop yield is often considered as a proxy indicator for land degradation by local officials and experts. Respondents explained that crops grown on degraded soil would get stunted, the soil structure degraded, the color get changed (get lighter) more rocky, yield declined, depth declined, etc. On the method of knowing land degradation on the farmer’s field, respondents explained that soils get coarser in texture, the yield decline, emergence and development of gullies, exposure of plant roots, etc.


4.2 Appraisal of the Proposed DLT


4.2.1 Judgment of past SWC efforts


In the surveyed villages, farmers have been practicing their own methods of land management. Farmyard manure was a common practices employed by all respondents. However, only soils of the backyard had benefited from such practice. The other method was opening of draining waterways, which protect croplands from inundation and over logging problem. However, this method might induce gully erosion and depletion of soil moisture, which might enhance the vulnerability of farmlands for crop failure. Land fallowing has been one of the methods that has been employed in old time.


Government’s involvement in the environmental management activities initiated since the Derge period and has been geared in two perspectives: through afforestation program mainly (eucalyptus tree), and promotion of physical-based SWC activities. In this regard, North Showa (of Amhara) has been the most widely treated area of all the surveyed areas. However, respondents expressed that the past SWC has not been successful. The explanation given by respondents includes:


  1. The conservation plans were made and implemented on watershed bases and implemented on a group (debo) basis. Recently, the approach is turned to farmers plot basis conducted by individual farmers;
  2. Conservation plans were designed and enforced by the government bodies, and there was no room for the participation of farmers;
  3. Before the implementation of the planed measures, little awareness creation was made towards the importance of SWC measures to farmers;
  4. There had been little room for modification by farmers as the introduced SWC designs were very rigid, and
  5. The problem emanate from the upstream downstream conservation aspects were not addressed.


Hence, farmers were erecting terraces compulsorily and very carelessly, which made them to be easily collapsible and short-lived. Especially during moments of government change (e.g. in 1991), some of the government initiated projects dismantled, and others were left collapsed. Official reports[5] of the Amhara Region show that more than 50 percent of the constructed structures failed within two years.


With respect to the contribution of NGO’s in managing the land, most respondents believe that it was a very useful approach when compared to the government’s effort. NGO’s like UNDP, EEC, Self-Help have been involved in the surveyed areas. They were undertaking those activities mainly through food-for-work. Apart from the environmental wellbeing, farmers were happy with the wheat or oil provision during the 1984 and 1992 projects. Besides, the participation approach and activities tuned to local variability were considered as an advantage.


However, NGO-initiated projects were also criticized for lack of sustainability and follow-up. Some of the NGO terraces also dismantled during government change. But this time, most farmers regret their destructive action when they start to notice how worse their environment has become since then.


4.2.2 Environmental wellbeing of the localities: optimist or pessimist?


The opinion of group discussants in Amhara Region on the future wellbeing of local environmental tended optimists. The predominance of steep slopes and the corresponding long tradition of SWC practices in the region might have brought consciousness (awareness) and develop optimistic view.


The Girar Jarso village respondents were more pessimists and they foresee a worst environmental predicament. The area is predominantly found in a gentle slope where erosion has been taking place insidiously. Hence, these farmers had been unaware of the ongoing degradation processes and therefore have very recent exposure to SWC practices. Presently, they experience the accumulated consequences of the past degradation processes and they are still doubtful of the SWC merits. In terms of age group, younger respondents are more optimists. This might probably be due to their attentiveness towards the education delivered by DA’s and other information sources.


During the discussion, almost all of the respondents believe that the present time is more challenging and found in complex situation than in the past. Intensity of land care also amplified in the recent time than before. In the previous generation, land was relatively abundant; there was even ‘forest land’. Older group remember that in the past ‘life was so easy and was going with out cautious plan’. This is because population was very few; inferior lands were left free for sheeps to browse; and surplus yield was obtainable from small plots of land. In response to the current environmental challenge, there is high level of land care.


Women commented that, in old time, there were no terrace, no fertilizer, no conference, and farms were situated at far away distances from homesteads. In the past, let alone the degraded lands (shallower soils); even fertile lands (deeper soils) were not cultivated exhaustively. Despite intense care of land in the present time, there is little obtainable yield. The issue of climate change is also raised: temperature is rising, rain is declining, and the timing of rain is varying. Old respondents remember that there was wide scale livestock rearing without bothering for grazing space.


Concerning the importance/contribution of the currently ratified land registration and certification, various groups have the opinion that it might encourage the farmers’ motivation for enhanced land management. So far, in none of the study areas the certificate is granted, and farmers are eagerly waiting for it, while knowing that the policy enforces the proper care of land.


4.2.3 Judgment of current land tax: homogenous or heterogeneous?


Information obtained from the study area witness that the current land taxation system is heterogeneous. In the Amhara Region, the system is based on “land size” criteria. In Oromia Region, the criteria vary among different weredas, where both “land size” and “wealth status” are used. In Dugda Bora wereda of Ormoia, “land size” criteria is widely adopted, which resembles the Amhara Region. On the contrary, the farmers of Girar Jarso wereda are broadly classified into 3 categories based on their wealth status. The categories (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) are based on the cumulative quality of residential unit, number of pack animals, livestock, and quality of land owned. This system had been practiced since the 1975 Land Reform. Since then, there had been various instances of moving up and down in the ladder of wealth, and the current status of farmers hardly match with the money they are paying for land taxes.


Despite the unjust rating of the current land taxation, many farmers are still ‘comfortable’ with the statuesque than opt for readjustment in the tax system. Farmers are afraid of inconveniences that had been impacted due to the 1997 land redistribution in the Amhara region. This implies that there are two types of land taxation system in the study area. When this information coupled with the land taxation system in Tigray region, which classifies the weredas in different taxation categories, Ethiopian land taxation system is typified by absolute heterogeneity. The alternative land taxation parameter proposed by old focal group is ‘land quality’ coupled with ‘land size’.


Almost all focal groups have commented the unfairness of the existing land taxation system. At the commencement of this study, it was hypothesized that farmers would have affirmative response if the rate of existing land taxes are reduced or exempted in response to their exerted effort on SWC activities. While acknowledging the weakness of existing taxation system, their response differed from the prior expectation. They unequivocally rejected the idea of “tax exemption”. They rather opted for the possibility of easing the unbearably higher contributions other than land taxes. This is because peasants are over burdened by various request to contribution request to pay in the form of cash and labor for the construction of schools, farmer training center, toilet, road, SWC, etc.


All responding farmers confirmed that paying land tax is unquestionable. The annual payment implicitly grants a land security where their name as land owner is updated on the government’s master document. Hence, they consider the shortcomings of the land tax rating as a bearable amount while knowing the over- and under-valuation which stem from lack of accurate and timely assessment of land sizes. Because of this, there are instances where a farmer could pay land tax for a land which might deviate up to 2 hectares than the actual holding.


The existing land tax has remained constant since the Derge period. The landholding has remained unchanged since the 1997 redistribution of landholding. Compared to the benefit they get in the form of tax exemption, they prefer to keep their land’s security through paying even unjustifiable land taxes. Some preferred rather a material incentive than prying on the agricultural tax. This is because they are afraid that it would complicate their life.


4.2.4 The role of incentives and responses to DLT


Peasants in all localities witness that there had been no incentives given to farmers who employ good care of his/her land. They agree with the positive impact of incentives towards motivating farmers for such purpose. Let alone a big thing, even an incentive as small as a gift of shorts “tibiko” could make a difference on the farmers’ moral.


Most farmers are informed the revised land use law by government officials. When asked to comment on the enforcing mechanisms which include land confiscation due to mismanagement, they are ready to take good care of their land. However, they are doubtful of the implementation of “land confiscation”, which might be subjective to judge. Some says, such subjective measures might lead to bloodsheds.


When farmers were proposed with the idea of over-taxation of land to those failed to keep their lands in accordance with the recommended management, older farmers reacted that, “the idea, at it is new to the society, might initially upset the farmer who failed to care his land, but through time, the practice would become well-known through time, and the result would be very positive at the end”. Since most farmers are hard workers, most farmers could benefit from the advantage of tax exemptions. Some farmers of Moja-na-wodera proposed an alternative measure, which is punishment than meddling with land taxes.


Implementation of DLT encompasses three essential stages: 1) appraisal of lands, 2) determination of management options, and 3) tagging land parcels with DLT. All farmers agree with the necessity of evaluating lands for determination of compatible land management type. An appraised land has to be recommended for land management option. Farmers in the study villages were asked by whom the farm land shall be evaluated. Most of them responded that a group, which is a mix of farmers and experts, shall do the business.


Concerning the criteria for the determination of DLT, most discussants indicated ‘land slope’ to be considered as a key criteria. ‘Level of land degradation’ was chosen as the next key factor. With respect to the question of “who shall decide the type of land management to be adopted?” most respondents preferred to focus both on the land conservation type and the determination of crop types in each land parcel.


5. Conclusion and Policy Implications


There had been numerous policies, programs, proclamations, etc to rehabilitate the degraded environment in Ethiopia. Attempts to rationalize with those efforts have not been successful because of the majority of the farmers do not have financial resources required for better management techniques.


As Tegegn (1999) observed, farmers are less willing to pay for the environmental protection in cash. Majority of farmers gave a monetary value of ‘none’ for environmental protection. But, of course, they are willing to contribute in terms of labor. This implies that farmers in the first instance are poor; and even if they are having the money, their priority is not to invest for the long term benefit like in the case of the land protection. Therefore a policy which aims at enforcing farmers with appropriate land taxation mechanism would bring substantial impact on the desired expectation.


In Ethiopia there is severe and threatening land degradation problem which is undermining the any development endeavor of the country while contributing to the poverty trap. Paradoxically, there are ample literatures on SWC technologies amenable to different agro-ecological regions. However, those technologies are barely taken up by peasants due to various limiting factors. This depicts the uncompromising gap which needs to be filled without delay. In this respect, DLT can make a modest contribution. DLT makes use of the available literature, policy and land taxation to bring about sustainable land management by promoting technology uptake through systematic incentives and/or disincentives.


Instead of spending huge resources in the little yielding SWCs through unpopular campaigns and financing the highly criticized f-f-w schemes, systematic dispensation of land taxation system would bear fruit. Besides, instead of collecting taxes based indiscriminately on sheer land size parameter, it could be possible to systematically encourage and support the conservation-minded peasants to be actively engaged in the SWC, while discouraging those who are mismanaging their lands.




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[1] Environmental Researcher, Forum For Social Studies (FSS), Email:, Tel: 572990

[2] Speech by HE Prof. Tekalign Mamo, State Minister, MoARD at Project Planning Stakeholder Workshop on “Poverty and Land Degradation in Ethiopia”, at UNECA Conference Center, A.A, May 31, 2005.

[3] HE Tekaligh Mamo, State Minister, MoARD,

[4] Data for precipitation was taken from the nearest meteorological station.

[5] Report by Dr. Gete Zeleke, General Manager of the Amhara Regional State EARO, at a conference on 30 May, 2005

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