Humera Repatriation Report II

Humera Repatriation Report II (Part 1)

                       UNITED NATIONS

                     Returnees in Humera

                           PART ONE:
                       Situation report

Executive summary

This report is the second in a series submitted by Laura Hammond, a social anthropologist currently doing research on the integration of Tigrayan returnees into the Humera area of Tigray (Region 1). The larger study from which this information is drawn is concerned with the economic and political aspects of integration over a two year period (June 1993-June 1995). The first report, circulated in March 1994, provided an overview of the returnee situation in Humera. A summary of this information is provided in the introduction to this report.

The present report includes a brief situation update as well as an in-depth analysis of land tenure issues that concern the returnees. Findings show that the living conditions of the returnees have deteriorated dramatically in recent months. Widespread food insecurity is being reported in all three settlements. Breakdown in the main source of water for the largest settlement, Ada Bai, resulted in a water shortage emergency that persisted for one month. While steps are being taken to correct these problems, there is still a problem of coordination and communication among the various actors involved. This can be said to be the underlying cause of most of the problems. Immediate steps need to be taken to improve the situation.


Repatriation to the Humera area began in June 1993, with the arrival of an estimated 12,000 refugees from the Saffawa camp in eastern Sudan. The returnees were settled in three settlement areas outside the northwestern town of Humera. The largest settlement, Ada Bai, has a returnee population of 7,200; 2,200 returnees joined a local population of 720 in Mai Kadra; Rawayan was the smallest settlement with 2,600 returnees and only a small local population. In February 1994, 2,255 refugees were repatriated from Umrakoba camp and settled in Rawayan. (1) A separate section is included in this situation report on the status of the new Rawayan returnees.

When the repatriation operation was started, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was the chief implementing organization for the entire returnee population. The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) provided medical supplies and monitoring services. Since January, assistance implementation and monitoring responsibilities have been split between the regional bureau of the RRC (the RRB) and REST. The RRB has responsibility for assistance to the original group of 12,000 returnees from Saffawa, and REST provides assistance to the new repatriants from Umrakoba. UNHCR, which has provided funding to both organizations for reintegration services, has opened a field office in Humera for monitoring and coordination purposes.

The first report in this series identified a problem of food scarcity as a result of widespread crop failure last year. Problems were also identified in the health sector related to inadequate facilities and lack of transport for referrals to Humera hospital. Since that time, studies have been conducted on the nutrition situation by UNICEF and the Ethiopian Nutritional Institute (ENI). Preliminary results of this study support the returnees' claim that there is widespread lack of food. (See section on Food Insecurity.)

Food insecurity

The most serious problem facing the returnees today is food shortage. In the last situation report, it was indicated that the returnees were eating their last quintal (100kgs) of sorghum that had been provided to them as part of a nine month package of food assistance. Due to widespread crop failure, most returnees had little or no grain from their harvest to supplement their stock. At the end of March, reports were received in Ada Bai of two people who died from lack of food. Both were adults in their twenties. Local leaders and neighbours say these individuals had not been ill previously. One man was said to have mixed the last of his sorghum with soil in order to make it last longer. He died after two days of this diet. During April at least two more adults were reported to have died in Ada Bai from lack of food. No deaths were reported in the other settlements, but returnees claim that people are cutting back on their work and are using methods of food preparation which require less grain (frying, roasting and soaking grains and pulses) in order to preserve what little food they have. They predict that unless food is delivered to the most needy soon, deaths will begin within a few weeks.

Returnee leaders in all three settlements say that they made a request for additional food to the RRB at the end of January. The RRB staff, which was in the process of closing down its operations in Humera (under the belief that self sufficiency had been reached), promised to communicate the request to the regional headquarters, but it appears that this was never done. No response was received.

In response to the deaths, the RRB arranged for the distribution of one month rations of 10 kg to 1,445 Ada Bai residents. Baitos (local councils) in each of the settlements were requested to assess the food situation and submit figures for those in immediate need, those who would be in need by June, and those who would have enough food to last them until the harvest. The baitos responded with a request for assistance for 10,372 beneficiaries (6,067 for Ada Bai, 2,229 for Rawayan, and 2,076 for Mai Kadra). Of this number, immediate need was assigned to 8,588 people (4,968 in Ada Bai, 1,660 in Rawayan, and 1,960 in Mai Kadra). This request was rejected by RRB in Mekelle who claimed that these figures were unrealistic based on previous (pre-harvest) information which suggested that self-sufficiency had been reached. Instead of the amount requested, a shipment of 600 quintals of grain was sent to provide one month's rations for 4,000 people (2,386 in Ada Bai, 732 in Rawayan and 882 in Mai Kadra). Local officials complained that they were being forced to deny food to people who were just as needy as those who did receive relief food. Appeals were made to the RRB to reconsider its commitment to providing food to the returnees, but no decision had been reached as of April 21, when the research for this report was finished.

Water supply

Water scarcity is a major issue in all of the settlements, but is most severe in Ada Bai. On 23 March the pump at the only borehole in to the community broke down. Repair service was not available, reportedly because when the RRB closed down its relief operation in Humera in January it did not assign responsibility for service and maintenance of the boreholes to a suitable agent. Instead, it gave these tasks to the communities themselves, who have neither the expertise nor the resources to cope with mechanical maintenance and repairs. While a procedure for fixing the pump was being worked out in the regional capital, UNHCR assigned a tanker to deliver 20,000 liters of water a day to Ada Bai. The tanker developed technical problems during the operation and on several days no clean water was available to the community at all. Even when service was running smoothly, each returnee received less than 3 litres of water a day. To supplement the supply, people collected contaminated water and added it to the same containers as the clean water. All water was thus rendered unsafe for drinking. The pump was repaired and put back into service in mid April, but it is not clear whether a procedure has been established to handle future mechanical breakdowns.

In the absence of pumped or tankered water, Ada Bai residents took water from several contaminated and nearly dry wells. Women slept in queues next to the nearest wells in order to get water in the morning. Many people paid boys with donkeys to fetch water by digging in the sand in a dry river bed three hours' walk away. A UNHCR assessment team visiting the settlement declared the water people were using to be unpotable. The people themselves stopped using one of the wells when worms were found at the bottom of it.

During this period, the incidence of diarrhoea increased significantly, particularly among children. Health statistics from the clinic have not yet been consulted, but many cases of children under 5 who were dying of diarrhoeal disease and malnutrition were observed during April.

In Rawayan and Mai Kadra, water supplies are said to be insufficient. In Rawayan there is sufficient water supply but not enough taps for distribution. Women wait in the queue for up to six hours each day to get water. Mai Kadra women reported that the water is unpredictable, and that if they get water one day the well may be dry the next day. Women report that rather than waiting for water from the boreholes, they go to the contaminated wells.


Several studies have been launched recently to investigate the health and nutritional status of the returnee population. A team consisting of staff from UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and ENI conducted a short multi-sectoral assessment. UNHCR reported cases of Vitamin A deficiency (night blindness and Bitot spot) and anaemia. It was recommended that ENI undertake a comprehensive assessment of nutrition, to be used in line with the National Nutrition Study. ENI conducted this assessment in late April. It consisted of anthropometric measurements, biochemical analysis of blood samples for evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, as well as consideration of clinic and hospital health records and socio- economic information. UNICEF also conducted a rapid anthropometric study (weight for height), which found high rates of acute protein energy malnutrition. The full results of both of these studies are expected to be released soon.

In addition to the health threats posed by impure water and food shortage, there is a serious problem with coordination of health services between the settlement clinics and the Humera hospital. Clinics do not pass their reporting of medical supplies and drug consumptions to the hospital. Drug supplies were found by the UNHCR assessment team to be adequate but their management was lacking, making detection of drug misuse and wastage difficult.


Sanitation facilities are lacking in all three settlements. In Ada Bai, roughly one half of the population were obliged to move their houses approximately two kilometres out of a mosquito-breeding area. No private or communal latrines have been built in the new residential area. UNICEF has tried to launch a latrine-building campaign by training the CHAs and TBAs, but its success appears to be limited.


Land was distributed to all returnees at the end of April. There had been a problem last year with land allocated to returnees being too far from the communities for effective farming to be practiced (in some cases land was located up to 50 km away). Problems persist in that the land that has been allocated this year is all uncleared, and the returnees say that if the rains begin on time, they will not have enough time to clear the land. (For more information about land see the accompanying report on land tenure.)


Baitos in all of the communities have elected officials to be in charge of education. UNHCR has committed funds to the construction of schools in each of the settlements (presently only Mai Kadra has a school), but as yet construction has not started and it seems unlikely that any educational facilities will be made available this year.

Market and wage labour

Humera has traditionally served as a source of off-season employment for men from the highlands. It was thought that many of the returnees would be able to support themselves with wages from the large sesame, cotton and sorghum farms. This has turned out not to be the case. Returnees say they would rather work on their own land during the agricultural season than work for wages in Humera. If they need access to cash, they go to Sudan to work on the irrigated fields, where they say they can get work year-round. This is a source of consternation for some agencies involved in the repatriation operation, who interpret reports of people returning to Sudan as cases of permanent desertion of the repatriation settlements. Interviews with returnees indicate that those who return to Sudan do so for employment only, leaving their families in the settlements in Ethiopia, and planning to return after a few months. I have received no reports of people moving back into the refugee camps in Sudan or migrating for the purposes of collecting food aid. Migration to Sudan for employment and trade is merely a survival strategy employed by this emerging border culture.

Rawayan returnees

Two months have passed since the new group of 2,200 returnees were repatriated to Rawayan. Problems with medical supplies appear to have been solved. Food distribution has taken place so that people now have enough food to get them through the rainy season. Construction of houses is taking place slowly, as many people do not have money to buy the necessary materials for construction. In Rawayan many people are building houses out of mud, as the soil is more conducive to brick making than in the other two settlements. People reported selling their gold jewelry and such items as tape recorders (bought in the Sudan) to finance the building of their houses.

There are still approximately 20 families living under the shelter that was made to receive the returnees. They are for the most part female-headed households, elderly people, or the infirm. They claim that they are unable to build their houses without assistance and that as everyone is busy building their own houses they cannot find anyone to help them. Building poles were given to the vulnerable groups, but they say that they cannot afford to buy the other materials necessary to build the house and are too weak to do the actual building. The communal shelter is falling down around them. No arrangements have been made to provide building services for them.

The division of responsibilities between REST and the RRB for assistance to new and old Rawayan returnees (respectively) has been duplicated in the social relations between the two groups. The new returnees report that they have very little if any contact with the returnees who were already in Rawayan. They say that as they had been living in the Sudan in different refugee camps, they have little in common with each other. Those who came last year harbour some degree of resentment towards the new returnees because large amounts of food aid are being given to the latter while the former are experiencing extreme food shortage.

       Demographic breakdown of new returnees to Rawayan

Age group    0-5     6-16    17-50    > 50     Total

Male       10.39%   13.14%   28.23%    4.47%   56.23%
Female      9.80%   12.20%   19.24%    2.53%   43.77%

(Compiled from UNHCR Voluntary Repatriation Forms, March 1994)


Returnees, local farmers and big business: The politics of land allocation in Humera, Ethiopia

Despite the Transitional Government of Ethiopia's decision to postpone formulation of a policy on land tenure until after the election of a popularly supported government, all land transfer has not been brought to a complete standstill. In Humera, the absence of a formal land tenure policy has resulted in the development of an informal, unwritten policy which this year will direct the allocations of land to at least 35 new medium- and large-scale investors as well as to approximately 14,000 former refugees who were repatriated to the Humera area in 1993 and 1994.

This case study illustrates first, how allocations made in the absence of a formal policy can set precedents which in effect form the foundation of any policy that is to follow. Second, it shows how land distribution priorities have contributed to a situation in which investors are sending cash crops of sorghum and sesame out of the area while aid officials are sending relief grain into the area to respond to the widespread food insecurity that threatens the lives of an estimated 10,000 returnees. Before a single seed has been sown, the conditions have been set to insure that self- sufficiency will not be attainable in the next year. Food aid will have to be requested yet again, while grain surpluses will continue to be sent by truck out of the area for distant domestic and foreign markets.


Humera wereda is located in the far north-western corner of Ethiopia. It is bordered to the north by the Tekezze River and Eritrea, and to the west by the Sudan. It is a lowland area 640 metres above sea level, with temperatures ranging from 40-45 degrees centigrade. It has one rainy season, from June to September. For a good part of the year it is inaccessible by road except through Asmara: the bridge over the Tekezze River on the road to Mekelle was destroyed during the war making travel between the months of June and December impossible. The road to Gondar is similarly impassable during the rainy season.

Humera has been a farming centre for many years. Before the Dergue took over, most of the land was owned by large landholders. Workers from Tigray, Gondar and the Sudan came to work for wages in the fertile sesame, sorghum and cotton fields. Indeed, labour migration from the highlands has long been an important survival strategy in times of food insecurity. When the Dergue overthrew the imperial regime of Haile Selassie, it placed all land under state ownership. The large landowners left the area and the Dergue set up its own state farms. These farms were never very successful, largely due to heavy fighting in the area, inefficient management and lack of popular support for collectivized farming. Large stretches of land therefore sat idle for two decades.

The population of the wereda is a fairly even mix of Amharic and Tigrinya speakers. Until 1991, Humera was part of the administrative region of Gondar. With the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) takeover, however, the western border of Tigray (or Region One) was extended to the Sudan and it now incorporates Humera. One result of annexing this woreda, which has a relatively small permanent resident population of approximately 30,000, as part of Region One was that it had become possible to resettle returned Tigrayan refugees. It was also envisioned that population pressure in the eastern and central highlands of the region could be reduced by inducing people to relocate to the lowlands.

In attempting to serve these objectives, as well as to facilitate the return of mechanized cash crop farming in the area, the wereda and region are presented with an unenviable task. They have no policy to guide them and no assurance that the steps they take this year will not be annulled by the national land tenure policy when it is finally formulated. In addition, there is a lack of up to date information on land holdings and use. The last comprehensive land use study was done in 1974 and many of the records on investments prior to and during the Dergue's regime were destroyed during the war. (2) In March 1994, a survey of current numbers and sizes of investment holdings was completed. The Tigray Development Association is presently conducting a comprehensive land use study which should provide recommendations for improving land allocation and agricultural practices. The findings of this study have not been released and may not be circulated outside the regional government, which commissioned the study.

A 1974 land use study for Humera reported that the wereda had 780,000 hectares in total. 304,120 hectares of that was cultivated land, and 117,000 hectares was not cultivated but was considered arable. (3) Redistricting has decreased the size of the wereda since then, but the amount is not known. The March 1994 land use survey tries to determine how much land is held by investors and local people, but does not tackle the larger questions of the total availability of land for distribution in the wereda and the supply of such resources as building wood and water for potential settlers. It has generally been believed that land in Humera wereda is abundant, almost inexhaustible. This has created a sense of false security that officials are only now beginning to realize and regret.

Allocation to investors

Many of the investors who lost their land to the Dergue went to Sudan to farm and came back to Ethiopia when the EPRDF came to power. Last year, 165 investors cultivated a total of approximately 50,000 hectares. The size of each holding ranged from 80 to 1,600 hectares, with the exception of the largest landholder, the Hiwot company, which holds approximately 10,000 hectares. The local Ministry of Agriculture reports that most investors are individuals or companies who owned land in the Humera area during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.

In place of a land policy, officials are using an investment policy to guide their decisions about allocation of land. (4) This policy allows for the allocation of land to investors on a lease basis for a period of twenty years. Land is being leased to investors this year at a rate of Birr 20 per hectare per year, a 100% increase over last year's rate. The investment policy requires investors to have at least Birr 1,200 in capital for each hectare that they apply for. The wereda can approve applications with up to Birr 101,000 in capital, or approximately 80 hectares. The administration in Mekelle approves applications for Birr 101,000 to 250,000 in capital, or approximately 160 hectares.

Investors who have capital of more than Birr 250,000 must apply for an Investment Certificate from the Investment Office in Addis Ababa. This certificate qualifies them for tax free import and export privileges, access to hard currency and foreign currency accounts, a three year exemption from income taxes, and possibilities for claiming tax deductions for research and training. (4) Because the Investment Office acts as a guarantor for their investments, their claim on the land they lease from the region is also made more secure, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. This year, thirty new investors have applied for holdings for up to 160 hectares, and three have gone to Addis Ababa to apply for investment certificates. All of these applications have been accepted, though the wereda and region are waiting to make the actual distributions until land has been given to the returnees.

At this point, it appears that the main source of land is government owned. Land rental and sharecropping are common on a small scale, but the large size of the landholding sought by investors and the small size of land being offered by small farmers prevents the development of a significant private land market.

Those investors who do not have the capital available to invest in the land must borrow. According to the local bank manager most of the farmers, with the exception of the very wealthy, must take out loans. The local Farmers' Association lends money to shareholders for up to ten times the value of the investor's shares. Most farmers "borrow" privately from either the Hiwot or Guna companies. Guna is a purchasing company which produces none of its own sesame or sorghum, but buys from smaller farmers. Investors agree to repay their loans in kind, at the prices set by the companies. Investors complain that if they use the products of their harvest to repay their loans they are effectively selling their grain for a lower price. Some investors report that they refused to sell at Hiwot's low prices and sold to others, paying back their loans in cash instead. Many others, however, complain that there is not enough competition in the Humera market, so if they want to sell their sesame they have to sell at the prices set by the monopoly.

As medium-scale farmers must pay their debts before they begin preparations for the next season, most sell all of their harvest by November or December. During 1993, the price of sesame during the last two months was Birr 130-140 per quintal (100kgs). By April 1994 the price had risen to Birr 220 per quintal. Similarly, sorghum was selling for Birr 30-40 per quintal in November and December but rose to 90 birr by April. Those investors who can afford to keep their sesame or sorghum in storage can make a big profit, but of course it is only the wealthiest farmers who are able to benefit.

This year is considered to be a poor year because of a decrease in the market. Investors report that the 1992 harvest sold for Birr 210 per quintal in November and December, and for Birr 250 in April.

There is a rumour circulating among investors that the reason for the drop in market demand is that the United States, which was the biggest customer of sesame from Ethiopia, is now buying from Brazil. The local Farmers' Association is planning to collect bids this year from Addis Ababa on behalf of the farmers in an effort to stimulate the market for the next harvest.

Allocations to returnees

In June 1993, approximately 12,000 Tigrayan refugees were repatriated to the Humera area. Most of the returnees had left their homes in 1984-85, during the worst years of war and famine. Encouraged by the peace that had come to the region, they were eager to return to Ethiopia before the rain started in order to plant crops. When a breakdown in communications between the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees threatened to postpone their return until after the rains, the refugees insisted that if they were not given assistance they would return home on their own. In response, three resettlement areas were quickly chosen and basic food, shelter and health services provided. In addition to these items, the returnees were given land ranging from 0.9 to 1.2 hectares depending on household size. Land was given to both male and female heads of household. The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, who with the Relief Society of Tigray implemented all assistance projects for the returnees, arranged for the ploughing and sowing of the land for the people.

This was the first time the returnees had held land since leaving Ethiopia in the 1980s. It was the first time the women had ever owned land. Many men had worked on the sorghum, sesame and cotton farms in the Sudan and had learned how to cultivate these crops. It was thought that after the first harvest the returnees would be able to become self-sufficient in terms of food. That this did not happen illustrates the problem with assuming that merely giving land to the landless will enable them to grow enough food to feed themselves.

The first harvest was almost a total failure. Farmers reported that when the crops were planted, the seeds were eaten by insects (possibly locusts). The RRC replanted them, and predicted that the harvest was going to be good. Just before the plants were fully mature, however, a period of extremely heavy rains wiped out many of the crops. The result was that 75% of the returnee landholders lost all or almost all their harvest; the 25% who did reasonably well brought in 6-9 quintals. If this had been the sole reason for the failure, it would stand to reason that the investors would have suffered similarly. Investors reported, however, that their harvests were not particularly bad, and insisted that their losses came from a drop in market demand.

One might wonder why the returnees suffered such serious crop failures and the investors did not. The answer lies largely in the way that land was allocated and managed both by the wereda and by the returnees themselves.

Most of the information presented here comes from Ada Bai, which with a population of 7,000 is the largest of the returnee settlements (5). The largest plot of farmland allocated to Ada Bai farmers in 1993 was located 50 km from the returnees' residences. The wereda council's decision to give land there was based on the fact that it was already cleared; allocation to returnees also served a subsidiary objective in giving local authorities reason to expel Sudanese farmers who had come across the border to illegally cultivate land. Located a full day's walk and a three hour tractor ride from Ada Bai, this great distance made it expensive and excessively time-consuming for men to tend their fields. For women with young children, the elderly, and the infirm, travel to the fields was impossible.

Tigrayan women traditionally participate in weeding and harvesting, but do not usually take part in the ploughing or sowing of the fields (unless to clear stones out of the way of the plough). It might seem, therefore, that with ploughing and sowing provided for them, women landholders would have had the same chance of having reasonable harvests as men. They did not have an equal chance because they were the victims of a land allocation process that favored able-bodied men.

Another smaller plot of land was allocated to the Ada Bai returnees that was only six kilometres from their houses. This land was uncleared, so the men in the returnee community worked together to clear it. The local leaders tried to allocate this newly cleared land to those who were unable to travel to the fields that were further away, particularly women and the elderly. They were blocked, however, by the men who had cleared the land who claimed that they should be given equal opportunity to farm it.

In some cases, returnees turned the distance to their advantage at the expense of others. Women reported being told by men that there was nothing growing on their fields and advised that they should not bother going to bring in their harvest. These women later found out that the men had taken the harvest.

The excessive distance of the land from the residences made it difficult for people to adequately tend their crops. Men had to leave their homes for a week or more to do the weeding and harvesting. They were unable to guard the fields or give them regular attention. The expense of money and energy needed to get to the fields was a great strain, and took them away from their families and the community. When the harvest came in, if they could not carry all of their harvest home, they had to pay rent for storage space.

Last year's experience showed that the arrangement that had been worked out to provide land to returnees without having to take from the investors was not working. Wereda officials say that under the circumstances, with very little time before the rains began, they did the best they could to find cleared land for the returnees. For the 1994 agricultural season, however, they pledged to find land that was nearer.

From January to April 1994, wereda officials tried to devise a scheme for allocation that would accommodate both the investors and the returnees (who were joined in February by a new group of 2,200 people). In so doing, they have had to prioritize the order in which they allocate land. This has proved difficult for political and economic reasons. In order to stimulate development, the government must do everything it can to encourage investment in the region. The investment code stipulates that provisions made or assistance given to investors should not infringe on the rights of the local people. A delicate balance must therefore be struck in accommodating the needs of both groups.

The complexity of attempting to reach this balance is illustrated in the consideration of the possibility of displacing investors. The three settlement sites are surrounded by cleared farmland which has been allocated to investors. It has been argued that this land should be given to returnees and investors should be moved to land that is further from the settlements. The wereda argues that it can not take cleared land from investors and give them uncleared land without offering compensation. Some of the investors occupy former state farm land which was already cleared when it was allocated. The wereda argues that if it were to displace the investors from this land and put them on uncleared land, it would have to compensate them for the cost of clearing the new land. Legally, however, there is no stipulation that investors should be entitled to land that they have not cleared themselves.

It is unclear who bears the responsibility for providing compensation money. Under normal circumstances the responsibility would probably rest with the wereda. Given that the returnees were brought to the area by a project that was coordinated by the Regional Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the wereda has said that the RRC or the region should provide compensation. There have even been suggestions that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should provide the funding as part of its reintegration package. The compensation question is still unresolved.

In February, one of the Ada Bai baito members reported that they intended to allocate already cleared land to women and vulnerable groups this year. This would be possible by allocating the land before it is cleared. Able-bodied men would be given uncleared land. The only obstacle that would have prevented this plan from working would a situation in which none of the land allocated by the wereda to the returnees was cleared.

At the beginning of April the wereda announced the location of the land it has allocated for the returnees for 1994. The plots that have been identified are much closer: between two and three hours' walk, from the settlements. All of the land, however, is covered with trees and thick brush. One Ada Bai farmer gave his impression of the new farmland. "It is a forest. We are afraid to go there even during the day," a reference to the fact that shifta, or bandits, are known to hide in the forests in that area. The plan to allocate cleared land to women and vulnerable groups seems unworkable now. The "good" news is that no investor has been displaced by this arrangement, so no one will have to be compensated.

Both the returnees and the investors are upset now. While the wereda was finalizing the allocation of land, the new investors were made to wait before they could start to clear their land. Now they say that they will have to hire more workers for a higher wage to clear the land because they are starting so late. One man who has 160 hectares to clear says that whereas he could have spent Birr 25,000 with 20 to 30 workers, now he will have to hire as many as fifty workers and may spend Birr 50,000 to clear it. He lamented his loss of capital, saying, "we could have made back the money we spent on clearing by making charcoal and selling it. Now it is too late to make charcoal".

The rains are due to begin in a month and a half. For the returnees, the implications have nothing to do with profit and everything to do with survival. They predict that it will take them two months to clear the trees out of the fields, but that it would take three months to clear the roots as well. This is assuming that there is enough food and water for them to be able to work hard daily to clear the fields.

Unfortunately, these basic conditions are not being met. The returnees are presently faced with severe food shortage due to last year's crop failure and the cessation of food aid. Last month, when several deaths were reported in the settlements and attributed to lack of food, local officials requested immediate food relief for 10,375 people. The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission responded by sending 600 quintals of grain to meet the needs of roughly half that number for one month (at 15 kg/person/month). This amount of food is woefully insufficient, and the rationale for sending grain into a surplus-producing area, rather than purchasing sorghum locally, seems questionable.

From February to April, residents of Ada Bai were to have rebuilt their houses in preparation for the rainy season. By the end of March, many people stopped working on their houses though they were unfinished in order to conserve their energy. In addition, the only borehole in Ada Bai was broken for three weeks; people were taking water from several polluted and nearly dry wells and from infrequent deliveries of water from UNHCR's 10,000 litre tanker. The pump was fixed at the end of April, but the technician went back to Mekelle and there is still no contract for maintenance and service in place. Ada Bai residents are hoping that the water pump will not break again (though in its short four month lifespan it has been broken almost more than it has been working). They say that without adequate supplies of food and water, they will not have the energy to start to clear the fields, let alone finish the work before the rains start.

One of the tactics of returnee landholders who are unable to do the agricultural work themselves is to rent the land in exchange for a portion of the harvest. This informal leasing of land is commonly practiced by women, the elderly, and the infirm. In a survey of 50 female sewa and tea sellers, 20% reported that they would rent their farmland to someone else if they were not able to farm it themselves. Another 24% said that they would definitely rent out their land rather than work on it themselves. Rents are generally paid in grain for 1/4 or 1/2 of the harvest. For most who rent their land, this payment is their main, rather than a supplementary, source of foodstock for the year.

Those who are unable to clear their own land say that if they do not receive cleared land or find someone to clear it for them, they will not be able to find anyone to rent it. Women who intended to rent out land say that because there is so little time left before the rains start, it is unlikely that they will be able to find anyone to clear for them, even if they pay them cash.

One additional glitch has to do with the size of the plots allocated to returnees this year. Households will receive between one and three hectares of land, an increase over last year's allotments. Despite the fact that they do not think they will be able to clear the land they have been allocated, some returnee farmers say the plots are too small. They say that it will be impossible for them to produce enough sorghum to feed their families on such small pieces of land. Their experience is based on last year's harvest, in which the best yield was between six and nine quintals. Local officials say that in a good year a farmer should expect to get 15 quintals, based on the 1992 harvest of investors. It seems reasonable to assume that returnees will not have as successful a harvest as investors with their mechanization and heavy labour inputs, but the question of which figure to use for planning plot sizes is still not resolved.

The returnees' complaints of not getting enough land may seem ill- founded in light of the fact that the average landholding size in the rest of Tigray is less than one hectare. In Humera, however, local people were entitled to up to ten hectares of land while allocations were still being made. Returnees say that if they are to be considered permanent residents of the Humera area with respect to political representation, the provision of health care and development of infrastructural services, they should be treated as such when it comes to land allocation. This issue is not major now, but it undoubtedly will become more heated when the transitional period is over and land allocation to local residents is resumed.

Land to local people

In addition to the returnees and big businessmen, there are of course the local residents of Humera and those from the highlands whom it had been expected it would be possible to resettle there. In the shuffle of land this year, these groups have lost out completely.

In 1993 an enterprise programme for small scale farmers was started. Farmers from the highlands who brought a letter from their home communities certifying that they were landless could receive up to ten hectares in Humera. This announcement was made late, and there was not much response to it. Those who did come to apply for land were, according to the Humera wereda council, former refugees who had come home on their own to find that the land they had left in the highlands had been given to another farmer. This year, according to a Ministry of Agriculture official, more than one hundred people came to Humera from the highlands to ask for land but were turned away. The programme had been terminated.

Meanwhile, local Humera residents face the same situation as others throughout the country. Allocations are being postponed until an elected government issues a land tenure policy. Previously, they were given up to 10 hectares if they could farm it. Some of the local people in Ada Bai told me that they had not applied for farmland from the wereda before because the area was too insecure. Shifta from Wolkait would come to their houses and demand animals, food and gold. They said that they were constantly afraid of being raided. They believed that if they had farmland, it would be stolen by the shifta and that they would have invested a great deal of work for nothing. The area became more secure when the returnees came, partly because they now had such a large community, and also because the EPRDF sent soldiers to guard the area. They say now that there is increased security they would like to farm land, but they do not want to apply to the wereda for it, for fear that they will be given land that is isolated from other small farmers. Instead, they have asked the baito if they can be given the same amount of land as the returnees (which is less than what they are entitled to). They believe that even if they have to accept a smaller plot of land, there will be less of a chance of being raided if they have a place with the returnees.

According to the Economic Policy of the Transitional Government, land allocations and other concessions made to investors should not restrict rights of individual farmers. The wereda's official stance is that it must give priority to the "local people" (in this case returnees) but that it must do everything it can to assist investors. This position, even in its noncommittal tone, seems impossible to live up to. Indeed, it seems inevitable that one side will lose out over the other. Whether intended or not, the wereda's actions amount to a prioritization of investors over returnees, while the local people whose residence predates the returnees are being completely left out of the picture. Investors whose land was already cleared when they received it have given up nothing. Investors who are allocated uncleared land may have to spend more money clearing their land but will be able to finish in time for planting. The returnees, however, will probably not be able to properly clear their land for cultivation before the rains start. Commercial investment farming is restricting local residents' and returnees' present and future access to land that is suitable to their needs. The extent to which this restriction will be felt in the post- transition period remains to be seen.

As Bruce, Hoben and Dessalegn point out, commercial farming has many faces. They say "it has often been credited with opening up 'unutilized land' for cultivation, providing off-season employment to peasants, and making some contributions to the country's export drive; it has also been faulted for land grabbing and for large-scale eviction of peasants from the land." (6) In this case, it is the returnees who are opening up the unutilized land (if we define unutilized as uncultivated). The employment the farms offer is not off-season; workers are hired at precisely the times when the returnees are working in their own fields. Returnees who need supplementary cash income go to the Sudan during the off- season to work on the irrigated farms. While commercial farms may bring in revenues from export, the returnees will clearly never benefit from any of that money. Though it is true that peasants are not being blatantly evicted, their productivity is being seriously compromised by having to travel long distances to their fields, while big business holdings surround their houses on all sides.

The only way this situation could have been avoided is if a clear procedure for compensation of investors had been worked out early enough to facilitate clearing of new land before the rainy season. The returnees could then have been given cleared land near to their homes. The investors, whose ability to clear land quickly is greater by far than that of the returnees, could have provided the service of opening up so-called "unutilized land."

The myth that there is more than enough land in Humera wereda to accommodate all who want to settle or start a commercial farm is finally being questioned. As recently as January 1994, the wereda council president said that he was not worried about running out of land in the wereda. In March he reported in a meeting with United Nations representatives that he did not think that the wereda could accommodate any more returnees. He said that the 14,000 returnees already in the area had taken 480,000 building poles from the area's natural forests. More returnees would place an unbearable strain on the wereda's resources. What had once been considered an "inexhaustible" area seems to have reached its capacity to accommodate settlers already.

One of the questions posed by the situation is the suitability of Humera wereda for settlement. It could be argued that the best way to solve the conflicts between residents and investors would be to give the land over to commercial investment entirely. Notwithstanding the problems that would arise over residents' claims to hereditary rights to the land, this solution would require a radical rethinking of the repatriation policy and for development plans for the whole of Region 1. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that at present the basic requirements for sustainable habitation of the area are not being met.

Regional and central government have not said whether they accept the wereda's claim that it cannot absorb any more returnees. There are still an estimated 30,000 refugees living in camps in the Sudan who are slated to be repatriated after the 1994 rainy season. It is not clear whether these returnees will come to Humera or will be settled in their highland homes. (7)

In the longer term, several questions remain to be answered. What will happen when the returnees demand, as they undoubtedly will, to be given ten hectares of land just as the local people are? It is not clear how the wereda will respond, but it is inevitable that the returnees will have to be given new land yet again, and most likely that it will be uncleared. The chances are, too, that it will be located very far from their homes. And what will happen to the local people who seek allocations of land once the transitional period is over? It seems likely that local people's and returnees' access to land will be increasingly restricted and that commercial farming will be given more and more priority.

The author does not wish to imply by this rather critical paper that the wereda, regional or central government has deliberately tried to privilege commercial farmers at the expense of returnees and local people. The lack of policy has frustrated wereda officials, and they realize that the arrangement they have reached will need to be revised in the long term. The fact that the Investment Policy is the only written document they have to guide their decisions is one of the main reasons for the disparity that has resulted. The lack of a mechanism for compensation is another. Some officials say privately that they think the government should help all the returnees to go home to the highlands. That would undoubtedly make their job in the post-transition, post-land policy period easier. Unfortunately, it seems that land issues in Humera wereda are only going to get more sticky. The actions the wereda has taken in the past three years will serve as a precedent for the coming period. It will undoubtedly become even more difficult to reconcile the different needs and interests of investors and smallholders alike.


1. These numbers are all approximate.

2 . Resource and Development Planning, January 25, 1974.

3. ibid.

4. Temporary Policy on Investment for Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, Ministry of Agriculture, Yekatit 1986 (January 1994), Mekelle (Tigrinya). (See also Proclamation No. 15/1992: A proclamation to provide for the Encouragement Expansion and Coordination of Investment, Negarit Gazeta, 25 May 1992 as well as Council of Ministers Regulations to provide for the Issuance of License for Agricultural Investment Activities, No. 120/1993, Negarit Gazeta, 10 July 1993.)

5. ibid. See also Sarah Gavian and Gemechu Degefa, "Commercial Investors and Access to Land", paper presented to the Workshop on Land Tenure and Land Policy in Ethiopia after the Derg, sponsored by the Institute of Development Research, Addis Ababa University, 5-6 May 1994.

6. This research, which is part of a larger project on the integration of returnees into Tigrayan society, began in November 1993 and is expected to be completed in June 1995.

7. John Bruce, Allan Hoben, and Dessalegn Rahmato, "After the Derg: An Assessment of Rural Land Tenure Issues in Ethiopia." Draft report submitted for discussion at the Workshop on Rural Land Tenure Issues in Ethiopia, 27-29 August, 1992, Addis Ababa, p. 28.

8. Repatriants are given the option of either returning to the highlands or to Humera. In light of the Dergue's forced resettlement operation, "resettlement" has come to have negative connotations. In using the term I do not wish to imply that anyone is being moved against their will or to areas that they have not expressed a desire to move to. The voluntary nature of repatriation appears to be respected.

The ideas expressed in this paper are those of the author only and do not represent the opinion of the United Nations. An earlier version of part two of this paper was presented to the Workshop on Land Tenure and Land Policy in Ethiopia After the Derg, sponsored by the Institute of Development Research, Addis Ababa University, 5-6 May 1994. Information is drawn from a larger project being undertaken by the author as part of a doctoral dissertation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Funding for this project is provided by a Fulbright Dissertation Research Grant.

Laura Hammond UN-EUE 11 May 1994

UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia c/o UNDP PO Box 5580 Addis Ababa Ethiopia

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