Lawmakers have been busy since Parliament reconvened in October. The list of bills tabled to MPs for review and approval is long, and touches on everything from education and information technology to transportation and defense.
Among the most prominent of these bills is the Rural Land Administration and Use Proclamation, which was recently the subject of a parliamentary review a couple of weeks ago.
Initially ratified eighteen years ago in 2005, the proclamation is slated to include a legal framework for a new lending scheme focused on farmers. Once ratified by the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR), the amended proclamation will enable farmers to use their property rights as collateral for bank loans.
Although not legalized through a federal proclamation, this sort of financing scheme has existed for years provided by small microfinance institutions in rural areas.
The amendment, put forward by officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, is hoped to increase access to finance for farmers.
Two weeks ago, Ministry officials presented the draft to Parliament for review, raising eyebrows and questions from MPs including Dina Mufti (Ambassador), former Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
He and a few other MPs voiced concerns over the lack of representation for farmers during the review process. They argued that the lack of inclusion can have disastrous consequences.
“The introduction to the proclamation explained that several concerned bodies took part in the preparation of the proclamation, but there is no mention of farmers or pastoralists,” said parliamentarian Awoke Amzaye (PhD). “They are the main stakeholders with regards to land.”
Ambassador Dina pointed out the sensitivity of the land issue.
“Consensus from all stakeholders in land use is crucial, otherwise it will invite violence,” he said.
The issue has also sparked controversy among agricultural experts. Among them is Belay Kassa (Prof.), a professor of Agricultural Economics and former president of Haramaya University.
The Professor took the issue to his social media accounts, openly calling for a country-wide alliance for farmers.
“Why is it that we do not have an all-Ethiopian farmers’ association?” asked Belay.
Officials behind the proposed amendment at the Ministry of Agriculture say they did the best they could to include farmers’ inputs despite the lack of an all-encompassing representative.
Abebaw Abebe is an officer of property law at the Ministry’s rural land administration and use department. He observes there are deep-rooted challenges that prevent the formation of a countrywide farmers’ association, and that the lack of one was an issue during the preparation of the amendment.
“There was no all-inclusive association we could consult with during the preparation,” he said. “Which entity represents the tens of millions of farmers that we were supposed to discuss with?”
He told The Reporter the Ministry used a different technique to compromise for the lack of farmer representation. Judicial institutions, land administration offices, and experts from universities such as Haramaya, Hawassa, Bahir Dar, and Mekele (prior to the war), were part of the process.
Farmers were also consulted, according to Abebaw.
“We took the assumption that the farmers selected systematically by these institutions fairly represent the general community in agriculture,” he said.
The Ethiopian Cooperative Commission is virtually the only institution that can claim to represent a large number of farmers from all corners of the country. The Commission was set up to safeguard economic interests for farmers and consumers primarily through farmer cooperatives.
It comprises 28 million individual members under 110,000 farmer and consumer associations, as well as 406 unions. These unions and associations have a combined capital of close to 50 billion birr.
The Commission reports directly to the Agriculture Ministry.
Abebaw argues the Commission is not a legitimate body to handle land policy issues. He points out that the Commission’s responsibility to consumers dominates the alliance, with its priority being the scaling of economic benefits for consumers.
Farmers’ associations and unions account for a quarter of the total under the Commission.
Calls for a nationwide farmer’s alliance are nothing new. A countrywide association was formed during the Dergue regime, with its headquarters situated on the premises of the present-day Office of the President of Oromia Regional State in the capital.
Experts point out the association failed because it was used as an instrument of government influence, rather than a voice for farmers. Its short-lived existence was filled with political turmoil before it was disbanded.
Many experts also agree that the country has not witnessed significant land reform policies since the ‘Land to the Tiller’ slogan marked the end of feudalism in the early 1970s. As it stands, Ethiopian farmers are far from united despite hundreds of thousands of farmers’ associations, each limited to 50 members, operating the country. The associations are mostly limited to providing a space for discussions on agricultural inputs and market linkages.
Dessalegn Rahmato is a prominent sociologist and a senior research fellow at the Forum for Social Studies (FSS), where he has conducted land and farming research for a decade.
The lack of input from farmers during the preparation of the proclamation worries Dessalegn. He argues the Ministry of Agriculture should have also included civil societies active in the agriculture arena, such as FSS, in the preparations as well.
The expert believes the lack of a nationwide farmers’ association is not a valid reason to exclude smaller organizations such as cooperatives in the process.
“I mean, farmers are the subject of the issue,” he said.
Dessalegn points out the previous attempt to establish a countrywide farmers’ association failed because it “was echoing only government voices.”
“It’s better to discuss how farmers can be represented fairly from now on than to dwell on that experience,” he said.
Farmers who spoke to The Reporter, however, argue that “experience” is still very much alive.
Girmaye Getachew, a Farmers’ Union representative in North Shewa, believes the federal government has a vested interest in preserving its own influence in the sphere of agricultural policy and markets.
“I don’t think the government wants cooperative associations to grow,” he said.
These associations hold their own declaration and organizational offices, but are governed by an Agency despite agriculture’s classification as a federal sector. Girmaye revealed that attempts to re-establish the Federal Cooperative Agency as a Ministry have been rejected in the past.
He argues that well-organized and strengthened farmers’ associations could ease burdens on farmers by directly supplying inputs such as fertilizers – a process currently under complete government control.
“Farmers must be represented in decisions made by the government, both as farmers’ associations and as cooperatives,” said Desalegn Ayansa, the manager of Liben Farmers’ Union in Woliso, Oromia.
Desalegn observes that the government often introduces policy changes without consulting farmers and their associations. He calls for a restructuring that would mandate the involvement of representatives from both associations and cooperatives, as well as a separate entity advocating solely for farmers’ interests, in agricultural policy making.
Desalegn would like to see associations and cooperatives granted the right to vote on government policy proposals, including pricing for inputs and products. He points out that when the government set a 3,200 birr price for a quintal of wheat last year, it was done without sufficient consultation and the price tag was disproportionate to farmers’ expenses. Consequently, farmers refused to sell.
The situation, according to Desalegn, opened the door to contraband trade and other ills. It could have all been avoided if the government had involved farmers in the decision making, he argues.
Dessalegn of FSS also highlighted that political parties in some countries encourage this sort of alliance of farmers by establishing a farmers’ wing in their political structure, which could be a viable option for Ethiopia.
India, for example, has two national farmer’s associations – the All India Farmers Alliance as well as the Federation of All Indian Farmer Associations. In Africa, neighboring Kenya has the Kenya National Farmers’ Federation while the All Farmers Association of Nigeria represents agriculturalists in the continent’s most populous country.
These federations and associations guard farmers’ interests when bargaining on prices of inputs, working with researchers in agriculture development, and influencing governments with regards to policy changes.
Professor Belay and other experts urge that Ethiopian farmers should look for ways to cooperate and form an alliance despite political challenges and setbacks such as the ‘bitter experience’ from the Dergue regime.
“It is high time that we reflect on how Ethiopian farmers could have better representation in decision making on issues of strategic importance to them and ensure that they could collectively make their voices heard,” he said.
Daniel Nigussie has contributed to this article.