Land Registration in Ethiopia: Myths and Realities

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Rural land registration has frequently been recommended as a step forward for developing countries. Registration is conceived not only as a means of clarifying property rights and promoting land markets, but also as a way to protect the rights of women and other vulnerable groups and prevent environmental degradation. This package of advantages was once associated with the land rights of individuals. However, more recently, customary interests have been recognized as important for social peace and as serving local conceptions of justice. In recognition of these objectives, Ethiopia and some other countries of sub-Saharan Africa have formally recognized what are often called “customary land rights.” Ethiopia is cited as a model of this approach in a multicultural setting. This paper shows, however, that serious problems associated with rural land registration have not disappeared. Fieldwork evidence from parts of Ethiopia suggests that customary property interests often go unrecognized. It also shows that the bargaining power of smallholder farmers who rent land to commercial farmers is being reduced. Simultaneously, there is an evident shift in decision-making power from households and communities to the state and officials. The complexity of these matters in practice raises questions about the interpretation of Ethiopian land policy.

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Law & Society Review

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