Feudal past still discourages Ethiopia’s farmers from planting trees

Farmers influenced by a lack of tenure security, a history of free grazing and abrupt and radical changes in rural development policies.
If Ethiopia is to meet next year’s wood demand, it will have to plant trees on 6 million hectares of land. Trees for the Future/Flickr

Related stories

BOGOR, Indonesia (24 September, 2013)_Despite recent measures to encourage Ethiopia’s farmers to plant trees on their land, the country’s complex feudal past still lingers to discourage tree planting in the country, says a study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Tree planting on farms is influenced by the sense of security farmers have about their land tenure. Since the expansion of the Ethiopian kingdom in the 13th century, when kings would degrade the landscapes wherever they went, many farmers have stopped planting trees,” said CIFOR scientist Habtemariam Kassa, lead author of Reading the landscape past: Explaining the lack of on-farm tree planting in Ethiopia.

Unless tree planting activities are intensified, Kassa said, Ethiopians not only risk further degradation of their land — they’re also missing out on an opportunity to tap into potentially lucrative commercial forestry business opportunities.

In 2010/11, Ethiopia’s central statistics agency reported the national poverty head count index — the share of the population whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – was at 29.6 percent. Total annual household income could be increased by at least 30 percent if farmers were planting trees on their lands not suitable for crop production, showed a 2003 study.

“In the same timeframe, Ethiopia’s import of timber and other wood products amounted to more than $120 million,” Kassa said.

“So there are huge domestic trade opportunities that farmers could tap into by growing timber trees and there’s also demand from neighboring countries and the Middle East,” Kassa said.

An ever-increasing demand for wood

Most of Ethiopia’s rural population depends on wood fuel for its primary energy source. Scientists have predicted that if Ethiopia is to meet next year’s wood demand (which is three times as high as supply), it will have to plant trees on 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of land. It has a long way to go: an assessment in 2000 estimated Ethiopia’s planted area at 216,000 hectares (534,000 acres).

“The demand for food and wood by the urban and rural population for construction and for energy is growing as Ethiopia’s population grows. And this demand must be met by bringing trees into the equation if we are to reduce huge wood import bills, and avoid soil erosion, wood and food shortage, drought and subsequent famine,” Kassa said.

In countries like Ethiopia where land degradation and drought frequency are undermining the production of annual crops, tree growing could constitute an opportunity for landscape rehabilitation, Kassa said.

“But despite this, tree planting has remained marginal.”

Since the expansion of the Ethiopian kingdom in the 13th century, when kings would degrade the landscapes wherever they went, many farmers have stopped planting trees.

To understand why farmers sometimes plant trees around their homes but rarely on their land, Kassa and his team interviewed farmers, examined legal documents and used maps and satellite images to examine past and current trends in the country’s Rift Valley.

What emerged was a complex feudal history that has, for hundreds of years, discouraged farmers from planting trees on their land.

Thy kingdom come

In the 13th century, Ethiopian kings would constantly move from place to place to evade their enemies, with tens of thousands of soldiers and followers in tow exhausting fuel wood sources and degrading the landscape in each region. As the Ethiopian kingdom expanded to the south, much of the land came under the ownership of the state, with large areas of agricultural land allocated to military officials and senior civil servants.

The peasants were turned into tenants who had to pay parts of their produce to the new owners of the land. Landlords also discouraged tree planting, as it competed with grain for space.

“This may have instilled a feeling of instability that influenced farmers, particularly in central and southern Ethiopia, not to plant trees,” Kassa said.

At the end of the 19th century, the government recognized the wood shortage and began taking measures to promote tree planting – lands planted with trees were exempted from land taxes and other rewards were given to farmers who planted trees.

However, the reluctance by farmers to plant continued, the study says.

Major policy failures were in part to blame, it says — from a lack of tenure security and a history of free grazing to abrupt and radical changes in rural development policies. The authors pointed as well to price control and lengthy permit requirements to sell wood produced on farms.

“Unless these issues are addressed,” Kassa said, “degradation of Ethiopia’s landscape will only worsen.”

Recognizing the importance of trees

The Ethiopian government has started to recognise the need for tenure security, and farmers are now getting use-right certificates for their agricultural plots.

“However, the ownership aspects of communal lands and forested areas remain still governmental and largely open access, meaning farmers may still be reluctant to invest on tree planting activities on such lands,” Kassa said.

During the past five years, there has been an increasing recognition by the Ethiopian government of the role of trees in mitigating and adapting to climate variability and change.

During the dry season, millions of farming households undertake soil and water conservation measures, and plant trees and protect these areas after rehabilitation. A recent report presented on Ethiopia’s national radio station quoted the Ministry of Agriculture as saying that the last few years 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land has been planted with trees, Kassa said.

In the coming few months, an assessment will be undertaken to compare the state-led tree planting initiatives with smallholder tree planting activities, Kassa said, with the view to identify factors that are undermining success of tree growing.

“But are the trees surviving, what species is being planted and where, who is responsible for taking care of them after planting and who will benefit from these plantations? These are challenges that still need to be addressed,” Kassa said.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program for Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Austrian Development Agency.

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting