In Ethiopia, Keeping Land Rights on the Agenda Through the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 health crisis, land might not appear to be an urgent issue. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic is more than a health emergency—it’s an economic and social emergency too, which threatens to worsen the economic outlook for many people who are already extremely vulnerable. We know those most at risk, in Ethiopia and worldwide, are those without equity—and by improving land rights for these people, we can help to empower them and reduce their risk.

In this article, we examine the impact COVID-19 is already having on land rights and by extension on empowerment, economic growth, and food security objectives in Ethiopia. In the longer term, it is imperative to support regional and municipal authorities to deal with the practicalities of land administration as part of the broader COVID-19 response.

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Handwashing stations are now available and Kebele health extension workers are helping manage COVID-associated risks during some activities. Photo courtesy LIFT.

Evidence from the Field

DAI has been implementing the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID)-funded Land Investment for Transformation (LIFT) programme in Ethiopia since 2013. The programme focuses primarily on securing the land rights of smallholder farmers across four highland regions, with 14 million parcels approved to date. LIFT also works closely with the Government of Ethiopia to increase the capacity of land administration systems and services to record these land rights and provide additional services to claimants. Beyond building the capacity of the systems and services to deliver and protect land rights, LIFT also works with banks, microfinance institutions (MFIs), and agricultural input suppliers to help farmers with land titles access finance, formalise rental agreements, and improve productivity.

LIFT is already experiencing direct and indirect effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Predictably, the introduction of social distancing and other measures has slowed down the operation of the programme, but beyond this effect, we are also seeing reduced land administration services, changing farmer behaviour, and a potential reduction in land productivity.

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Kebele health extension workers are on site, helping manage COVID-associated risks during certificate distribution. Photo courtesy LIFT.

Reduced Capacity of Land Administration Means Less Tenure Security

LIFT’s registration efforts are highly participatory. They include raising awareness around land issues, public displays of maps and boundaries, and certificate distribution events that draw large numbers of people. Most of these activities have been paused for public health reasons since April 8. Furthermore, when demarcating land parcels, field teams work closely with farmers and their neighbours to identify plots accurately. Pausing most registration activities indefinitely means farmers will not have their land rights recorded and recognised, which may lead to reduced tenure security for individuals at a time when tenure security risks may be heightened. Early evidence suggests a fall in land authorities’ capacity to respond to claims and queries, leading to gaps in service.

Tenure insecurity will manifest itself in various ways, but initial evidence from across the LIFT regions suggests that as restrictions continue, the trends will likely include:

  • Encroachment on communal land and land used by vulnerable groups by landholders who take advantage of reduced oversight from field teams and woreda (district) officials
  • Increased disputes, conflict, or land grabbing relating to rural land close to urban and peri-urban areas, where rural landholders are at an increasing disadvantage without support from functioning courts
  • More unresolved boundary and ownership disputes where courts are inactive for long periods
  • Less renting out of land by farmers fearful of local elites grabbing land or not returning land, and concerned that land rental contracts will not be enforceable without sufficient support from authorities

These and other effects of the pandemic risk undermining trust in the land administration system, which is critical for it to function for the benefit of citizens and for its sustainability over the long term.

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Kebele health extension workers are on site, helping manage COVID-associated risks during certificate distribution. Photo courtesy LIFT.

Saving Withdrawals Up, New Loans Down

One of LIFT’s important innovations is its work enabling farmers to access finance using their land rights. LIFT has trained lending institutions, assisted in financial product development, and facilitated relationships between landholders and market actors. This successful feature of the programme, which has resulted in more than 16,000 loans issued, has seen a downturn in activity in the wake of COVID-19. In April, LIFT’s main loan partner reported zero disbursements of the land certificate-linked loan, compared to 423 loans in April 2019.

Other partner MFIs have indicated that they will struggle to control repayments and issue new loans, for both operational and economic reasons. From an operational perspective, MFIs use a highly participatory approach to engage landholders—as LIFT does—including large events to disburse loans and collect repayments. Obviously, owing to the moratorium on large gatherings, this approach is not feasible. Compounding the issue is the economic distress farmers are likely to experience, which may either discourage borrowing or hinder repayments. LIFT’s MFI partners are already seeing increased withdrawals from saving accounts. Evidence of defaults will take longer to emerge, as we track the effect of the pandemic on farmers’ ability to maintain current levels of production and sales.

Fewer Agricultural Supplies = Reduced Productivity and Income

The productivity of land is already suffering as a result of COVID-19. Transport tariffs in Ethiopia have doubled in price since restrictions on travel were imposed in April with the State of Emergency, for example, making it less affordable for farmers to purchase agricultural inputs in cities and at marketplaces. Due to social distancing measures, market events have been reduced or cancelled.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that there is a shortage of improved seeds in most of the regions, but the availability of fertiliser does not seem to be an issue because it is already imported. However, in-country distribution of fertilisers and other inputs to users is an issue, owing to local transport restrictions between regions and the closure of many regional borders.

Furthermore, due to restrictions on assembly, it is becoming increasingly difficult for agricultural experts and development agents to gather farmers for events, provide training on input applications, and distribute inputs. All of these issues will have an adverse effect on production in the coming planting season.

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Workshop in Wuhale, with new safety measures. Photo courtesy LIFT.

Responding to COVID-19

To address the impacts of the coronavirus, LIFT will be working to mitigate short-term risks to our beneficiaries; help landholders, farmers, and businesses adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19; and improve the resilience of farmers and businesses so they can build back better and be prepared for similar events in the future.

1. Mitigating Short-Term Risks

Although most field activities relating to registration are paused, LIFT is preparing a guideline for operations under COVID-19 to ensure that field and office activities are compliant with federal and regional regulations under the State of Emergency, including social distancing, shift schedules, and a re-organisation of office layouts to make distancing easier. To improve hygiene practices, handwashing facilities have been installed, hand sanitisers distributed, and thorough cleaning is conducted daily. LIFT will provide awareness training to field and office staff on health and safety best practice, in line with Health Ministry guidance, and also distribute health and safety materials in collaboration with federal and regional health offices.

LIFT will also use its network of 500 Land Rental Service Providers to ensure beneficiaries receive updated information about COVID-19 and the required precautions. Using existing programme data collected by project Social Development Officers, our teams can map vulnerable groups in programme woredas to ensure messaging is reaching those who need it. LIFT is developing a strategy for how to work with Kebele Land Administration Committees and Officers and Woreda Land Administration officials to raise awareness among farmers.

2. Help Landholders, Farmers, and Businesses Adapt

LIFT is working with MFIs to determine how COVID-19 is affecting their clients and how to adapt existing products—perhaps by extending loan terms, introducing payment holidays or restrictions on interest, or, where needed, developing new products. We are looking at best practices from other countries, including our U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Tanzania Land Tenure Assistance (LTA) programme, and will organise online platforms for MFIs to share experiences and challenges, which may inform our strategies moving forward.

3. Building Resilience in the Longer Term

While short-term solutions are helpful, LIFT wants to support small agricultural businesses and loan beneficiaries in rural households to be more resilient to future shocks—pandemic or otherwise. For example, COVID-19 has brought the need for cashless “low touch” transactions into sharp focus, with MFIs reporting issues with distributing and receiving payments. LIFT will conduct an assessment to understand how we can accelerate the digitalisation of banking and lending facilities.

Keeping Land on the Agenda

As our programme continues to monitor and report on COVID-19 impacts, we expect to see the emergence of more issues relating to disputes, encroachment, inheritance, and potentially changes in land use, particularly as we enter the next harvest season and learn more about the knock-on effects of COVID-19. We will continue to monitor, report, and share LIFT’s findings with the land community, to keep this important conversation going at this critical time.