6. The need to settle the landless in the lowlands

The above short overview of the rural situation in Ethiopia described how by the end of 1974 there were millions of destitute and hungry rural landless in Ethiopia, who were fed by national and international Government and NGO organizations, a situation which could only be acceptable on the short term. A more permanent solution was desperately needed, in which rural landless could at least take care of their subsistence requirements.

Up till the 1970s 90 % of the Ethiopian rural population, were living mainly in altitude zones of 1700 meters and above, apart from small groups of nomads who lived in the hot semi desert lowlands in the south eastern provinces. In the early 1970s’ the actual farm land of Ethiopia in the highlands was estimated at between 5 to 7 million ha or less than 7% of the Ethiopian territory, but population densities in the highlands were high and ranged between 200 to 400 persons per square km. In 1974 possibilities to improve the situation of the rural population in these eroded over crowded highlands were completely exhausted. The situation had been further deteriorated by several years of severe droughts particularly in the highlands of North Ethiopia, which had resulted in total crop failures and the death of most livestock and an estimated 200 000 famine deaths and hunger for the surviving local population, while in southern Ethiopia the situation had further deteriorated, due to the emperors’ policy to compensate his senior civil servants with deeded land in these highlands. These former civil servants had developed mechanized farming and evicted thousands of traditional subsistence farmers from their land which had created a large number of destitute rural landless. The solutions therefore had to be found outside the highlands.

In 1974 there were no employment opportunities in other sectors of the economy, as at that time, industry, commercial enterprises and mining enterprises were hardly developed and absorption of large numbers of destitute rural landless was not feasible in these sections of the Ethiopian economy.

The only option available was thus to settle the rural landless in the lowlands on suitable farm land, allowing them to produce their own food and other subsistence needs and if possible, to create some opportunities for further improvement of their lot. Before the 1970s most of the Ethiopian lands below the 1500 meter zone were uninhabited and undeveloped, because of the following disadvantages:

  • Infestations of malaria effecting human and trypanosomes-sleeping sickness affecting livestock.
  • Sub-marginal rainfall patterns, requiring expansive irrigation systems for crop production
  • Low accessibility- no roads, nor other physical and social infrastructure.

Preliminary surveys conducted during the 1960s and early 1970s in the Ethiopian lowlands, however, indicated that large stretches of uninhabited land were available which contained well drained fertile soils and suitable rivers for irrigated agriculture. Estimates indicated that from 9 million to 16.7 million ha of suitable farmland was available below the 1500 m zone, mainly in the Southeastern provinces of Wollega, Illubabor, Kaffa and Gamu Kofa. Opening up these lands could easily double the actually cultivated land of Ethiopia provided the above disadvantages could be overcome.

However, to develop these lands for smallholder foodcrop farming a systematic effort would be necessary to build up an adequate infrastructure for crop and livestock production, including the establishment of access roads, land development, establishing irrigation and drainage systems and other economic and social infra structure. Development of these lands for settlement could therefore only be implemented by formal development agencies, such as Government and Non Government Organizations, which had access to sufficient finances, technical resources and development expertise, in order to overcome the physical and financial disadvantages of these low lands. There was little scope for spontaneous settlement by individual farm families.

7. Government and Non-Government settlement organizations:
Their tasks and responsibilities

The introduction of a settlement agency to develop these lowlands is therefore a basic requirement for rural settlement in the lowlands of Ethiopia, regardless if the settlement agency would be an NGO, a Government Agency and locally or internationally supported with funds and expertise.
Implementation of settlement schemes involves infrastructure; agricultural production; credit, marketing and supply systems; social services and settler and staff training.

In detail the following issues are required by a settlement agency to successful
operate settlement schemes:

  • Establishment of objectives of the settlement projects including reasonable minimum settler family income levels.
  • A physical survey to evaluate the potential land available for the project
  • Preparation of project plans and designs
  • Identification, selection and training of settlement agency staff
  • Identification, selection and training of settler families
  • Implementation of land clearing, land development and the establishment of basic infrastructure: roads, irrigation and drainage systems and service centers for supplies of agricultural inputs and the marketing of agricultural produce, including credit schemes for financing agricultural inputs; schools, clinics and other infra-structural services.
  • Preparation of farm plans including the calculation of optimal farm size, farming and livestock systems.
  • Establishment of services for settlers including training and farm credit
  • Establishment of the legal obligations for settlers viz a viz the settlement agency.
  • Soil conservation measures
  • Control of malaria and trypanosomes
  • Other relevant social services
  • Obtaining finances for the implementation of the above.


8. The National Ethiopian Settlement Agency

In late 1973 a joint effort from Ethiopian NGOs and progressive elements in the Ethiopian Government established the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, a semi government agency. Some of the senior RRC staff anticipated that after the emergency period of giving food aid to the millions of landless farmers, a follow-up had to be organized to help these destitute landless rebuilding their lives and help them with farmland to enable them to produce their own subsistence needs. It was anticipated that many refugees would not be able to return to their former homes, as they had lost their land or their land was completely degraded. There was, therefore, a need to settle these landless somewhere else in Ethiopia.

To support these ideas a Settlement Commission was established within RRC, with the task to coordinate existing and future agencies, who intended to settle landless people.

Rapidly, further developing the RRC Settlement Commission, in early 1974 technical assistance was requested from the United Nations Development Program, UNDP. Subsequently this UN agency asked FAO to organize a project to assist the RRC Settlement Commission. In late 1974, I was assigned to this project as its agricultural economist, with the task to develop socio economic guidelines for settlement agencies.

After my arrival in Ethiopia in early 1975, I was informed of the existence of a number of existing settlement schemes, some of which already had been established since the 1960s, to settle landless farmers and ex lepers in different locations of Ethiopia, by a number of government and NGO organizations.
We therefore conducted a preliminary survey among aid agencies present in Addis Ababa. This survey indicated that in early 1975 there were already at least 50 settlement schemes existing in Ethiopia, of which the oldest was established in 1958 for for destitute highland farmers in Abella-Wolaita in South Ethiopia. The initial survey showed, however, that little substantial information was available in the headquarters of the various agencies in Addis Ababa, as most of the headquarters staff were mainly involved in food aid to the destitute Wollo, Shoa and Tigray populations.

Based on my tentative findings the RRC Settlement Commission decided to conduct a National Ethiopian Settlement Study, using available Government research staff supported by FAO staff and I was appointed as director of the study for this national Ethiopian settlement study.