Land Use and Land Reform
Of Ethiopia's total land area of l,22l,480 square
kilometers, the government estimated in the late 1980s that
l5 percent was under cultivation and 5l percent was
pastureland. It was also estimated that over 60 percent of
the cultivated area was cropland. Forestland, most of it in
the southwestern part of the country, accounted for 4
percent of the total land area, according to the government.
These figures varied from those provided by the World Bank,
which estimated that cropland, pastureland, and forestland
accounted for l3, 4l, and 25 percent, respectively, of the
total land area in l987.
Inaccessibility, water shortages, and infestations of
disease-causing insects, mainly mosquitoes, prevented the
use of large parcels of potentially productive land. In
Ethiopia's lowlands, for example, the presence of malaria
kept farmers from settling in many areas.
Most agricultural producers were subsistence farmers with
small holdings, often broken into several plots. Most of
these farmers lived on the highlands, mainly at elevations
of 1,500 to 3,000 meters. The population in the lowland
peripheries (below l,500 meters) was nomadic, engaged mainly
in livestock raising.
There are two predominant soil types in the highlands. The
first, found in areas with relatively good drainage,
consists of red-to-reddish-brown clayey loams that hold
moisture and are well endowed with needed minerals, with the
exception of phosphorus. These types of soils are found in
much of Ilubabor, Kefa, and Gamo Gofa. The second type
consists of brownish-to-gray and black soils with a high
clay content. These soils are found in both the northern and
the southern highlands in areas with poor drainage. They are
sticky when wet, hard when dry, and difficult to work. But
with proper drainage and conditioning, these soils have
excellent agricultural potential.
Sandy desert soils cover much of the arid lowlands in the
northeast and in the Ogaden area of southeastern Ethiopia.
Because of low rainfall, these soils have limited
agricultural potential, except in some areas where rainfall
is sufficient for the growth of natural forage at certain
times of the year. These areas are used by pastoralists who
move back and forth in the area following the availability
of pasture for their animals.
The plains and low foothills west of the highlands have
sandy and gray-to-black clay soils. Where the topography
permits, they are suitable for farming. The soils of the
Great Rift Valley often are conducive to agriculture if
water is available for irrigation. The Awash River basin
supports many large-scale commercial farms and several
irrigated small farms.
Soil erosion has been one of the country's major problems.
Over the centuries, deforestation, overgrazing, and
practices such as cultivation of slopes not suited to
agriculture have eroded the soil, a situation that worsened
considerably during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in
Eritrea, Tigray, and parts of Gonder and Welo. In addition,
the rugged topography of the highlands, the brief but
extremely heavy rainfalls that characterize many areas, and
centuries-old farming practices that do not include
conservation measures have accelerated soil erosion in much
of Ethiopia's highland areas. In the dry lowlands,
persistent winds also contribute to soil erosion.
During the imperial era, the government failed to implement
widespread conservation measures, largely because the
country's complex land tenure system stymied attempts to
halt soil erosion and improve the land. After 1975 the
revolutionary government used peasant associations to
accelerate conservation work throughout rural areas. The
1977 famine also provided an impetus to promote
conservation. The government mobilized farmers and organized
"food for work" projects to build terraces and plant trees.
During 1983-84 the Ministry of Agriculture used "food for
work" projects to raise 65 million tree seedlings, plant
18,000 hectares of land, and terrace 9,500 hectares of land.
Peasant associations used 361 nurseries to plant 11,000
hectares of land in community forest. Between 1976 and 1985,
the government constructed 600,000 kilometers of
agricultural embankments on cultivated land and 470,000
kilometers of hillside terraces, and it closed 80,000
hectares of steep slopes for regeneration. However, the
removal of arable land for conservation projects has
threatened the welfare of increasing numbers of rural poor.
For this reason, some environmental experts maintain that
large-scale conservation work in Ethiopia has been
Data as of 1991