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.
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.