March 23, 2012

Private vs. Communal Land Ownership for Landscape Management

A story from the Blue Nile Basin, in the Ethiopian Highlands
By Catherine Pfeifer, Post-Doctoral Scientist
International Livestock Research Institute and International Water Management Institute, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Landscapes in the Ethiopian highlands are mainly shaped by rainfed agriculture. The mixed crop-livestock agricultural system is characterized by unevenly distributed rainfall, high soil erosion rates, and, therefore, low agricultural productivity. Managing water and soil seems to be a promising entry point to improving livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

One soil and water management practice to minimize erosion in gullies is to stabilize them with vegetation. When stabilizing grass is combined with multi-purpose trees and protein-rich grasses and bushes, the gully provides a higher quantity and quality of fodder. This helps farmers as fodder is often a limiting factor in the mixed-crop-livestock system, especially during the dry season. To make it happen, though, smallholders need to fence the newly treated gully to protect it from the free grazing livestock, and progressively move to a cut-and-carry system where livestock stay in a barn.

A community near Bahir Dar, in the Ethiopian Highlands has understood the concept very well, and rehabilitated two big gullies. Erosion has been significantly reduced, and smallholders have begun to introduce the cut-and-carry system with the additional fodder. However, the landscape is still shaped by many untreated gullies, and erosion threatens crop land. So, why do smallholders who do acknowledge the benefits of this practice not rehabilitate other gullies? Are the physical needs for building fences and carrying grass to livestock too much of a deterrent for smallholder farmers?

Talking to local smallholders uncovers a completely different story. The two treated gullies are located on communal land, and clear rules define the contribution of each member of the community: each member has to contribute an equal number of days of labor to maintain the gully and has equal rights to benefit from the fodder grown in the gully. The untreated gullies, however, are on the border of privately owned crop land. Thus, the share of land within the gully is different from farmer to farmer, and those with smaller amounts of land are not willing to invest time for rehabilitating the whole gully from which farmers with the biggest amount of land will benefit most. As no farmer has enough money to pay the other’s additional labor, the gullies simply remain untreated as a symbol of the incapacity to organize and share benefits.

So what’s next? One option is to have the government pay the smallholders for rehabilitating all the gullies, regardless on the ownership of land. But maybe managing the landscape in this community is about finding benefit-sharing mechanisms, where labor is rewarded with the benefits provided by the gullies.

For more stories from the Blue Nile Basin, click here.


  • Peter Ballantyne
    March 23, 2012 at 11:08am

    Thanks Catherine for this post

    The ‘official’ Nile Basin Develoment Challenge web site is at:

  • Pat Heslop-Harrison
    March 23, 2012 at 3:28am

    In my observations, the Ethiopian highland erosion problem is greatly exacerbated by the cutting of any bush for either fuel or to make some sort of boundary. Most ‘fences’ are not as pictured above but simply a row of piled up cut branches. Cooking is widely carried out on open fires with hearths only to support the pans not for efficient combustion and heat use – a practice not only encouraging environmental devastation, removal of deep rooted plants, but giving major health problems to the families breathing the smoke. It is a pity that the community wide benefits of the erosion control practices you discuss (or conversely, recognition that things are even worse than they were 20 years ago) are not being implemented more widely – I would certainly note that education and extension work by well-trained workers can also be part of the solution. How far is humanity from extinction? One answer is 20 cm, the average depth of the topsoil.