2. The traditional rural situation in Ethiopia in the early 1970s

Up to the 1970s, Ethiopia was a very traditional country with over 90% of the population living in the rural areas. The Ethiopian population, estimated in 1970 at about 24 million, was mainly living in the Ethiopian Highlands at the altitude zones of between 1700 m to 2200 m above sea level.

Till the 1974 revolution Ethiopia was a feudal country, in which most of the agricultural lands were owned by absentee land lords, who maintained a harsh control over their land. After the 1974 revolution all landownership was abolished, and since then farm families can only obtain land use titles for a period of maximum 99 years, with a maximum holding size of 10 ha, which title can only be transferred to their direct heirs. Sales of these land titles are not allowed.

Up to 1974 90% of the Ethiopian population were traditional farmers, operating small mixed farms with an average farm size of 2 ha, growing traditional subsistence crops including teff, barley, hard wheat and sorghum as cereal crops; noug and sesame as oil crops and legumes such as red beans, while in some parts of the Southern provinces maize, millets and sorghum replaced teff and barley. Most farmers kept a pair of plough oxen. In addition they owned some sheep and goats. Milk of cattle, sheep and goats, forms an important part of the Ethiopian diet. Some of the well to do farmers also owned a horse. A majority of the farms were located on erosion prone steep slopes. The Sidamo, living in the highlands of Gamu Gofa, grow in addition Ensete- Ensete ventricosum, the false banana, of which the pseodo stam produces a nourishing flour.


2.1 The Northern Highlands: The Amharic and Tigray

The Amhara and the Tigray, who live in the highlands of the Northern provinces Shoa, Wollo, Gojam, Begemder and Tigray are Semitic speaking people, who arrived in Ethiopia at about 1000 BC from South Arabia, pushing out, or absorbing the original Hamitic population of these areas. They were the founders of the Aksumite kingdom.

All farmers in these provinces possessed a traditional title to the land known as rist, as members of their kinship group. The rist land title was hereditary, inalienable and inviolable and could not be lost through absence from the land. The higher local aristocracy and the senior members of the Ethiopian church clergy had received in their area the right of gult for all the rist lands from the emperor, mainly as compensation for their services in lieu of salaries. This gult entitlement included the right to collect the land tax on behalf of the emperor, whereby the gult holders were allowed to keep up to 50 % of the rist tax as compensation. Most of the aristocratic and clergy gult holders were absentee landlords. They were very strict in collecting the land rent through their agents even during famine periods. Before the 1974 revolution farmers were easily evicted if they could not pay their land tax and the rist title to the land was taken by the land lord, who always was also a member of the same kinship group. Due to this system many farmers lost their rist entitlement to the gult holder, the landlord. It is estimated that by early 1970s nearly fifty percent of the farmers in North Ethiopia were tenants. The population of the Wollo and Tigray highlands in 1970 was estimated at 4.2 million people. Images:210-238, 281-300, 320-325, 401-426



2.2 The Southern Highlands: The Oromo and Sidamo

The situation in the Southern provinces was very different. The Oromo and Sidamo and some related smaller ethnic groups, who are all speaking Cushitic languages, have occupied the Southwestern provinces of Ethiopia since the 16th century: Wollega, Illubabar, Kaffa, Arussi, Sidamo and Gema Gofu. Originally, these people came from North Kenya, in which country they were still pastoralists. Since then the Oromo and related groups have gradually adopted crop production and in the twentieth century farm similar traditional mixed farming systems as the Amharic and Tigray farmers in Northern Ethiopia with traditional subsistence crops such as: sorghum, barley, wheat, maize and millet, oils crops: noug and sesame and legumes: red beans, while the Sidamo in addition grow ensete, the false banana. The Oromo and Sidamo also own livestock: cattle, sheep and goats.

During the second half of the 19th century these Southern provinces were gradually conquered by the Amharic emperors. After having been conquered, two thirds of the lands were directly taken from the traditional farmers and given to civil servants and clergy from the Northern provinces as compensation for their services to the emperor. The Ethiopian economy was still traditional and in the absence of mining or industry, the only way the emperor was able to compensate his former senior civil servants, was to give them an entitlement in land, mainly in the southern Ethiopian provinces, which land was regarded by the Amharic as new land recently conquered. All land in the Southern Ethiopia provinces was considered Government owned land by the Amharic. In this view, the Oromo, Sidamo and other traditional cultural groups, living in the Southern provinces, were assumed to possess only temporarily customary land entitlements, in spite of the fact that many Oromo and Sidamo farmer groups had farmed these lands for at least the last few hundred years, since arriving in Ethiopia after the 16th century from Kenya.

Haile Selassie, since becoming emperor, actually increased handing out land to his loyal former senior civil servants. Initially, these land lords did not disturb the traditional farmers from the Southern provinces, as long as farmers paid their land tax.

However, since the early 1960s many Northern landowners in South Ethiopia had received an education abroad, they wished to develop their lands and establish modern mechanized farming after their return to Ethiopia. It was found that many of these landlords, especially those who had received a foreign education, could easily receive individual assistance from foreign aid agencies. To establish their mechanized farms, there was no place any more for the traditional farmers who were occupying these lands. Many of these landlords were local governors and instructed the police to evict the traditional farmers from their lands.

As a result of the above development by 1974, there were tens of thousands of evicted traditional farmers in the Southern Ethiopian provinces. In 1974 many of these desperate landless rural people, eagerly joined the Revolution started by the students, in an attempt to get their lands back from the landlords backed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Oromo form about 35% of the Ethiopian population and about 50% of them are Christians and 50 % Muslim. The Sidamo form 9% of the Ethiopian population. They are mainly animist. In the 1970s the population of the Southern highlands was estimated at 10 million inhabitants. Images: 079-086, 141-165


2.3 The lowlands of Eastern Ethiopia: The Afar

The Afar live in the Eastern lowlands of Ethiopia, mainly in Wollo and Tigre provinces, they are semi nomadic pastoralists who speak a Cushitic language. The Afar own large herds of camels, cows and goats and subsist mainly on blood and milk of their animals. They occasionally barter wool and skins with highland people mainly, to obtain cotton for their clothing. The Afar form about 2 % of the Ethiopian population.

In 1962 the Government established the Awash Valley Authority to promote large scale commercial cotton growing in the flood planes of the Awash River and granted the Mitchell Cotts Group from Great Britain, permission to set up the Tendaho Cotton Plantation Share Company, which company by 1974 occupied the most fertile one third part of the Awash valley for their cotton plantations. This considerably reduced the grazing grounds available to the Afar, causing serious malnutrition among the Afar.
Images: 093-105,111-132,304-318


2.4 The lowlands of South East Ethiopia: The Somali

The Somali live in the South East lowlands of Ethiopia, mainly in Bale province: The Somali, similar to the Afar, are semi nomadic Cushitic speaking people, who also own large herds of camels, cattle, sheep, goats and horses and consume the milk and blood of their livestock for subsistence, occasionally bartering some animals, hides or skins for cotton for their clothing.
Gode Kelafo Project for Somali settlers: Images: 051-070,448-461.

During the long history of Ethiopia local tribal wars and severe drought periods of several years, occasionally disturbed the above described situation. However after these droughts and wars were past, the situation in Ethiopia returned to peace. The above account describes the situation in Ethiopian before the 1970-1974 drought period and the 1974 revolution.