Land deals in Ethiopia are socially unfair and cause environmental injustice

Through forced relocations and the loss of livelihoods, local residents lose in land deals.

Gutu Wayessa, Doctor of Social Sciences, investigates land governance and local livelihoods in Oromia, Ethiopia, from a political-ecological and environmental justice perspectives. According to Wayessa, land deals are justified, for example, by promises of livelihood improvement and economic growth. 

“It takes place at the expense of nature and the environment, and local residents are often on the losing side in the deals, relinquishing their livelihoods.” Wayessa points out that the government of Ethiopia and investment companies have caused marginalisation as they dispossessed people of their livelihoods and homes. 

Forced resettlement of local residents

Land transactions result in the repurposing of land, with the local residents who previously utilised the land forced to relocate in large numbers. 

According to Wayessa, the historical context must be taken into consideration when investigating land deals. In 1974, an imperial regime was replaced by the Derg regime, which nationalised land property in Ethiopia. And yet, the state can still intervene in citizens’ rights by resettling them and establishing villages and producer cooperatives by decree and coercive means. While local residents may not receive any money for their land, or only receive a meagre compensation when they do, the land market and land governance are rife with corruption, especially in urban areas. 

In rural areas, land is not sold but leased for periods as long as 99 years. Locals are not permitted to use the land they previously utilised for cultivating crops and livestock grazing. 

Dissatisfaction with land deals is spreading

While it may have been subdued by the ongoing crises of civil war and multidimensional insecurities in Ethiopia, dissatisfaction with large-scale land investments is high. 

“Neoliberal large-scale land deals has changed relations to land in Ethiopia, symbolically and materially,” Wayessa says. “Ethiopia is one of the countries known for major land deals for commercial purposes, including investment in agriculture.” 

“Ethiopia’s land policy is often described as an ideological battlefield where there is conflict over efficiency and fairness,” Wayessa notes.

On the state level, the government invokes the intensification of agriculture to justify large-scale land transactions. 

Wayessa’s research indicates that local people earn a living through small-scale crop cultivation and livestock husbandry. Once the land has been leased, they can no longer use it for cultivation or grazing. 

Intense biodiversity loss

There is little discussion on the ecological effects of large-scale land deals, which often involve the destruction of forests. This is particularly true when forest land is procured for the purpose of agricultural investment, resulting in the clearing of forests. This leads to diminishing biodiversity.

Many of the residents interviewed by Wayessa for his research talked about the destruction of indigenous trees with a deep sense of loss. The Odaa (Ficus sycamore)  and many other types of trees were cleared from the lands leased out. Odaa is a sacred and highly valued tree in the culture of the Omoro people. The tree has a close connection to the socio-political system of governance called the Gadaa (or Gada) system of the Oromo, which UNESCO has also recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

When trees and shrubs disappear, so do bees and their keeping as a livelihood. After the concluding of land lease agreements, 32% of households had stopped beekeeping entirely and others downscaled it to a great extent. Eucalyptus trees are cut down to make way for business properties and staff apartments.

In light of the investment policy, each investor should have planted trees on at least 2% of the land they are leasing,” Wayessa says. “Environmental impact assessment, a procedure required by the investment law, was not conducted. The state and investors ignored people’s traditional way of life.” 

Concept of environmental justice extended to the sustainable treatment of the environment

The concept of environmental justice has been extended to the fair and sustainable treatment of the environment. Treating the environment fairly is vital not only for its sustainability but also for socio-economic sustainability and justice, since poor treatment of the environment also impairs human survival and social justice.

According to Wayessa, a political solution that is sustainable for residents and the environment requires the correct diagnosis and solution of the problem from a historical perspective. This pertains particularly to countries where political and socio-economic injustices and inequalities continue to prevail. Without taking these problems into account and solving them, natural resources are exploited in the same way as humans are.

Wayessa believes there is no denying that global deforestation is an alarming phenomenon. In addition, certain parts of Ethiopia suffer from droughts and (human-induced) famine. All of these are overshadowed by the ongoing civil war and simmering conflicts, the root causes of which are far from being recognized by people in power. 

“If we wish to compensate for the losses incurred by locals, we must take into consideration power relations among various stakeholders. The prevention of environmental injustice requires thorough consideration of questions pertaining to property, power and production, all of which are entangled with the notions of recognition, representation, redistribution, and recovery.” 


Gutu Wayessa
Twin Talks March 23, 2022

The Twin Talks of the Africa Research Forum for Social Sciences and Humanities (AfriStadi) network bring together researchers from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences around an overarching theme. Combining different perspectives allows us to develop synergies and shared research agendas, through which we amplify and enhance individual research to enable new interdisciplinary and collaborative outlooks.

Land is the topic of the first Twin Talk, to be held on 23 March at 16.00–18.00.. It will take place in faculty room 524 of the Faculty of Theology at Fabianinkatu 24.

Gutu Wayessa

Gutu Wayessa investigates land governance and the environment from the perspectives of socio-economics and justice in the discipline of Global Development Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. His current research focuses on land deals and local communities (‘Large-scale Land Deals and Local Livelihoods in Ethiopia: A Political Ecology of a Contested Scheme’), with funding provided by the Kone Foundation. 

Wayessa defended his doctoral thesis entitled ‘Displacement and resettlement: The livelihoods of settlers and hosts in Western Oromia, Ethiopia’ in 2013 at the University of Helsinki.