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Land Management is Crisis Management in Africa

WASHINGTON, DC – Ethiopia is experiencing its most severe political turmoil in decades. After months of escalating protests and conflicts that have killed hundreds of people, on October 9 the Ethiopian government announced a state of emergency.

Ethiopia’s conflict is being driven partly by ethnic tensions and resentment against a small elite’s hold on the country’s wealth and power. But another crucial, if relatively overlooked, factor is Ethiopia’s land-management system. Indeed, the crisis began last year when a severe drought left ten million people hungry and triggered disputes over land ownership and protests against the government’s land-expropriation policies.

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Ethiopia is hardly the only recent example of how conflicts over land rights can set the stage for political and humanitarian crises. Competition for arable land contributed to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A historic drought may have created the conditions for Syria’s civil war. And food insecurity stemming from land mismanagement is an important factor driving migrants to Europe.

Land-related issues will continue to threaten global stability, especially if the effects of climate change exacerbate existing problems. Deforestation and unsustainable land use have degraded soils, altered rainfall patterns, and increased the incidence of extreme weather events, especially in Africa. Continent-wide, 65% of land has been degraded, and 3% of agricultural GDP is lost annually, owing to soil and nutrient loss on farmland.

In Ethiopia, agriculture accounts for 80% of employment, so even slight drops in agricultural productivity can negatively affect income levels. And across Sub-Saharan Africa, damaged land is not only an environmental burden, but can also spell economic disaster. When trees and vegetation are cleared, heavy rainfall washes away the soil and destroys economic opportunities for local populations.

I saw this firsthand in Kenya’s Tata Magadi gully, which extends for 104 miles (167 kilometers) and at first resembles the site of a meteor strike. Gullies are the ditches left after rainwater has washed away the topsoil. When they are large enough, they can sweep away entire homes and the productive farmland on which rural communities depend for their livelihoods.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse land degradation, while simultaneously augmenting crop yields and household incomes. Tree planting on degraded land, for example, can increase agricultural productivity by anchoring farmland, increasing soil fertility, and providing shade for crops and livestock.

After farmers in Malawi expanded their tree cover, crop yields increased by 50-100%. And, as a Kenyan maize farmer told me, “No trees, no rain.” Indeed, farmers have always intuitively known what scientists are now confirming: trees and other vegetation can stimulate more rainfall.

To accelerate restoration efforts in Africa, communities must be mobilized, and farmers must be empowered to restore their own land. This basic concept has gained traction in Kenya, where “community forest associations” have formed to protect and manage woodlands. In Ethiopia, every Abraha Atsbeha villager volunteers three days each month as part of a self-organized effort to rehabilitate the surrounding landscape; and other villages in the region have followed suit, giving rise to a growing local restoration movement.

Land restoration is not just a technique to improve subsistence farming; it can also deliver financial returns for businesses and investors, which explains why many small and medium-size restoration enterprises have emerged. These include distributed plantations and sustainable-beekeeping companies, as well as Green Pot Enterprises, a fast-growing East African firm that leases shares of restoration sites to individuals, who can then collect an annual return on their investment. But for restoration businesses to scale up, they will need more access to growth capital and better-functioning domestic markets.

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National governments also have an essential role to play, and 17 African countries have made commitments to restoration through the Bonn Challenge and the AFR100 initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres, or an area roughly the size of Ethiopia) in Africa by 2030. Africa’s proactive approach to restoration bodes well, because the effects of climate change are expected to hit the continent harder than any other world region.

Land restoration is not a choice; it is a necessity. If African countries’ land is not salvaged, they will fall into a vicious cycle of poverty and political turmoil, similar to what we are now witnessing in Ethiopia. More severely degraded land is tougher to restore, so every day restoration is delayed is a lost opportunity for the environment, the economy, and peace.