The land proclamation that the government had issued in 1994 puts land under government ownership and introduces a shift of land ownership from the “desa” tenure system to permanent private ownership to promote sustainable land use and conservation and protection of land, as it is believed that long time or permanent land ownership encourages individuals to make long term investment on the land including conservation. But this land proclamation has never been implemented, only provided the cover the government wanted to expropriate land from the people. Land expropriation by the government has been in practice ever since the PFDJ came in power. The government selectively uses the article that stipulates that land is under government ownership to expropriate land for raising government income, especially for the very much needed hard currency through the sale of land to residential and investment purpose to Eritreans living abroad and through its export-oriented farms, and for agricultural and residential purposes to benefit its loyal military officers and other officials while denying the local populations their right for land and associated economic benefits.

The problems of land and housing started immediately after the independence at the time when Sebhat Erem was the mayor of Asmara in which he responded to the peoples’ demand for the solution of the housing problems in Asmara by saying, “Every household or individual who has housing problem should go to his/her own village of origin.” Similarly, in Massawa and in Keren people were told to go to their villages of origin when the problem arose during the demolishing of residential houses: in Keren, during the demolishing of residential houses that had not been built in line with the town planning, while in Massawa (some districts), during the demolishing of houses built according to town planning and having proper property rights by its occupants to give way for the construction of government projects. This shows the government’s mind set about land and the people.

The land expropriations can be viewed from urban and rural perspectives.

Urban land expropriation

In urban areas, the lands on which the towns are located previously belonged or currently belong to villages nearby. In the towns, only limited or no land distribution was allowed for the past 18 years except for business purposes or to individuals living abroad and who pay the 2% tax of their income and are supporters of the government or to government officials and army officers. Those who are inside the country are the ones who are denied the right to land ownership while they are the ones who are forced to sacrifice their lives in blood and sweat.

In the past 18 years many villages have lost their fertile agricultural land and land of other use because the government took them by force, particularly those located near the urban centres. Asmara is a typical example that can illustrate the destructive policies and actions of the government. Land is expropriated from the villages around Asmara such as Adi-Sogdo, Weki-Deba, Adi-Abeito, Adi-Nefas, Tsolot, Merhano, Adi-Guadad, Godaif and Kushet and then sold or distributed to the military officers or government officials and to the supporters of the PFDJ living abroad. Most of the land is sold to Eritreans living abroad in hard currency while Eritreans living inside the country are denied to buy land because they do not have hard currency; and even if they manage to come up with the needed amount of hard currency, they are criminalized because they are not allowed to have hard currency as they would be competing with the government for the same hard currency available in the market. The expropriation of land had been faced with resistance by the villagers but it was silenced using all forms of brutality such as imprisonment and torture. For example, many people from the village of Embaderho were imprisoned in Naqura for their resistance to land expropriation in 1996. Similarly, many people were detained and tortured in Halhal subzone for their opposition to the land expropriation plan in 2008. In many of the towns the military and other government officials have been privileged to own land for residential and other purposes, and the buildings are being constructed by the blood and sweat of the national service youth and the embezzlement of public funds. The towns of Debarwa and Mendefera provide good example of such large scale land ownership by these officers. Many of the national service recruits have lost their lives working for the military officers. Box 1 below gives an account of one of many tragic accidents that happen on the national service recruits while working for military officers.

Box 1 : the tragic accident of Shiketi

One day (I am not sure about the exact year but I believe it was in the period between 2003 and 2004) a truck carrying steel, cement and other construction materials belonging to one of the military officers for the purpose of house construction in Mendefera overturned in Shiketi while on route to Mendefera. On the truck certain numbers of the national service recruits were on board accompanying the construction materials to Mendefera to do construction work for a military officer for free. Unfortunately ten of them died on the spot and many were wounded. When the people of Shiketi rushed to the scene of the accident and witnessed the event, they were saddened and shocked. They were rudely told to go away and warned not to spread the news of the accident, for fear that the families of the victims may know about the tragedy. The victims were unceremoniously buried secretly in the Shiketi martyrs’ cemetery.

According to the land tenure system that has been in practice for generations and recognized by the 1994 land proclamation every household is entitled land in its village both for residence and agriculture intents. This right to land is known as “Tiesa’. But in those villages where their territories overlap within the towns’ boundary, the “tiesa” distribution started late; and even then, only to those men and women who are in national service. And for women, participation in the national service alone does not qualify them to equal land rights with men. The practice applies only to those women who have been recruited in the national service but are not married or have been divorced or widowed and living in their own villages. However, women who were fighters are privileged and exempted from these conditions, i.e. even if they are married and living in other area, they are entitled to land in their village.

Although the land policy provides equal right for both men and women in their own villages, in practice it is men that are favoured. This has resulted in a lot of ambiguities and conflicts in the villages in relation to land distributions and has further led to corruption which involves the land department officials in the ministry of land, water and environment. As a result, some people who are not entitled to get land have received land.

As the construction of houses costs hundreds of thousands of Nakfa, they are not affordable by the people who are national service recruits or even those salaried people inside the country. Thus they have to sell half of the lot to raise fund for construction of the remaining the other half. The government views this practice as dangerous and a threat to its land expropriation and selling business because the villagers and the government compete for the same market, those customers being the people living abroad having financial capacity to buy houses or land. For this reason the government has banned and outlawed the sale of “tiesa” land.

As the expropriation of land belonging to these villages is extensively pursued, these villages have lost most of their farming and grazing lands which used to provide for their livelihoods. These villages therefore have to find a new way of making a living that is different than what they had relied upon in the past for generations. Some villages such as Merhano, Wekideba, Adi-Guadad, which have had some small farm lands until recently, the government has expropriated them this year for crop production.

The situation is not different in the other towns/urban areas and their vicinities except that the scale and intensity differs depending on the demand for land or houses that the government puts on offer because the Diaspora communities prefer to buy houses or land or do business in Asmara and its vicinity, and hence there is less demand for land and houses by the Diaspora in other towns.

In Massawa many residential houses were demolished in 2006 by the government to be used for other projects. The households that used to reside the demolished houses have had the proper land and property ownership licence as they were given the land and they had built the houses based on the town planning criteria including paying their duties. The demolishing of the residential houses in Massawa left the people without shelter and when they asked for resettlement and compensation, the response from the government was go to your own villages. What makes this response so ridiculous is that almost all the residents that were victimized were from Massawa and its vicinity and had nowhere else to go. This action caused great social and economic hardships to the extent that students were forced to suspend their education that academic year and the households were left in the hot burning sun without shelter. And there is no information yet whether the students were able to resume their education in subsequent years and what has happened to those households.

The government raises income and hard currency in two ways: directly selling land or selling houses that are built on expropriated land to the Diaspora communities. So far the government has to date constructed many houses for sale and there are many buildings under construction (though delayed their completion because of shortages of raw materials and ineffective, inefficient and corrupt management) by the Warsai-Yikealo program where labour and other expertise is provided by the national service recruits for free.

There are similar expropriation and constructions in other urban areas such as Decamhare, Mendefera and Keren. However, most of those buildings that have been completed, let alone those under construction, are not sold because of lack of demand and it has been almost more than five years since some of these housing projects have been completed. In the western lowland there are instances of land distribution in the urban centres to the early returnees from the Sudan. Otherwise distribution of land to local residents is almost non existent.

Land expropriation in the rural areas

Other categories of land expropriation which have been in practice in the past years are land for agriculture and other investments such as tourism and mining. Most of the designated or actual mining sites are lands that communities depend upon for livelihoods in terms of water sources for domestic consumptions and livestock, agricultural production, pasture for timber, fire wood and other services such as materials for house construction, wild food and other means of income such as making baskets and mats for sale and domestic use. The land expropriation includes:

  • Land for large scale rain-fed and irrigated agricultural projectes/activities: in Gash Barka there are many areas under rain-fed agriculture which have been going on for almost a decade now such as Katchero around Omhajer, Goluj, Adi Omer and Fanco around Tesseney. In addition to these, there are lands under irrigated agriculture such as Afhimbol, Mogaraib, AdiOmer and Sawa. These are run directly either by the army or PFDJ.
  • In other areas such as the highly populated regions of Debub and Maekel, fertile lands were expropriated for irrigated agriculture. Examples include Mai Serwa which belongs to Embaderho, Adi Nefas in Maekel Region and Korbarya in Debub.
  • Land for mining: land has been expropriated for mining such as the case in Bisha, Adi Nefas and Augaro where the farmers can not cultivate their land and use it for other purposes that is useful for their livelihood. Further more, such investment has environmental and social impact which the communities are not compensated for.
  • Land for tourism: some areas are designated and protected as tourist attraction areas and they are large and the impact on the communities that are dependent upon them for their livelihoods are so great that it drives them to poverty and even to migration. Villages such as Weki, Zager and others in the Karneshim and Dembezan areas that depend for their livelihood on “Semenawi Bahri” (Green Belt) were driven out from their agricultural and grazing areas as the government declared it a tourism area and to be conserved and protected. When the people resisted, their crops were destroyed by the army (the government even denied the communities to harvest the crops already grown), the dogs that were guarding the farms and the animals from predators such as monkeys and others were shot dead in front of their owners, and farmers who tried to resist these actions were tortured.

In the western lowland, particularly in the south western area where land availability is relatively better and fertile, in addition to the direct land expropriation for government projects, land is also is expropriated and distributed to commercial farmers under the concession arrangement. Under this arrangement, the land expropriated can be categorized under the rain-fed and irrigated farming systems:

Under the commercial rain-fed agriculture : large areas of land (ranging hundreds to thousands of hectares per individual investor) are allocated to private farmers for crop production which is seasonal and this diminishes the land available for grazing and other uses to the local communities. This type of land distribution has resulted in conflicts between the local communities and the investors because it is not done in consultation with, and safeguarding, the interest of the local communities; that is, favouring crop production and large scale farming while ignoring animal production and the livelihoods of the local communities. For example, large scale commercial farming areas are found around Tesseney (such as the Wedi-Leges farm) and Goluj and Omhajer areas.

Under the irrigated commercial farming system : As water is scarce, the potential for irrigated agriculture is limited to areas along the stream banks drawing water from the ground. The riverine ecosystem is fertile because of its alluvial soils as well as its organic matter contents that result from the decomposition of the litters. The ecosystem along the stream banks are also rich in trees and biological diversity and provide rich natural resources base for the livelihoods of the local communities.

In general the combined effect of the land expropriation is so great on the livelihoods of the local communities resulting in less grazing lands, reduced natural resource bases, degraded ecology, declining water availability and restricted access to water as the demand and retrieval of water increases using boreholes enabling the army and commercial farms to drill deep, pushing the water table deeper and deeper. As the local communities have no resources and expertise to dig deep and employ motorized water pumps, they are the one who fare the worst.

As if the above mentioned measures are not enough to affect the livelihoods of the people and to cause social problems, the government in 2008 has gone further to compound the misery of the people by expropriating most of the fertile land in Debub and Maekel regions leaving the population in these two regions almost landless. According to the existing tenure system land for agriculture is classified on the basis of the soil types and fertility. Land is therefore classified into 3: fertile, medium and poor lands. Distribution of agricultural land within a village is therefore carried out in a fair manner in which every household in a village receives plots from the fertile, medium and poor in equitable way. The government’s main target is the fertile land. As already the land holding in these regions are very small due to population increases, these new measures have left the people with little or no arable land to cultivate. Usually the plots of each farmer are clearly demarcated and known because they have clear signs to mark the borders between one farmer’s plot and another farmer’s. However, the government cultivates the land it expropriates indiscriminately without respecting these borders, demolishing the borders between plots, making it impossible to identify each farmer’s plot in the future even if the governments decides to return the land to its owners. This indicates the government is determined to keep the land for itself permanently.

More saddening, as if the national service labour force employed to work on these fields are not enough, the peasants (students, children, the elders and the women) are made to work in these expropriated fields during weeding and harvest times.

In implementing the above measures, the needs and concerns of the people have never been taken into account; the people have never been consulted nor compensated for the loss of their livelihood and land. The impact is so great that almost the whole population of Eritrea is driven into poverty. In Gash Barka, particularly the agro-pastoralists have been impacted by these policies and actions because they have lost most of their water sources and grazing land. Animals have no grazing land and they can not access water points either as a result of depletion of the water resources for irrigated agriculture or the area around the water points have become farmlands which puts farmers and herders into conflict. This also means there is less area available for grazing as the grazing land and water sources are found too far apart of each other. With most of the repatriated refugees from Sudan resettled and concentrated around Goluj and Tesseney, this area is destined to face not only social and economic catastrophe but an environmental and ecological catastrophe. Already this area has been exploited beyond its capacity and it will be difficult to restore it in the future. The needs of the pastoralists and local communities in these areas has been ignored and neglected.

Usually the government does not apply the accepted practices and norms of social and environmental impact assessment for most of its projects. Most of the projects are undertaken by military and lead by the military officers that have no basic knowledge of economics or the environmental and social impacts of these projects. With regard to the mining projects, those mining projects that are contracted to foreign companies apply the social and environmental impact assessment but as the government is also the main partner, or shareholder, in these companies, it influences the companies to pursue its own approach to development. This means that even if the social and environmental impact assessments are being conducted, the decisions and actions are imposed on the local communities without their consents; the communities are forced to do what the government tells them to do.

Taking the Bisha mining project as an example, a large part of the grazing land has been taken away from the local communities; some households were forced to demolish their houses as they fell within the project’s catchment area and resettled or relocated; and as the graveyard also fell within the mining catchment area, about 700 bodies were moved and reburied in other location. The mining company financed the resettlement of the affected households and reburial of the bodies but there are no other programs designed to provide for the livelihoods losses and the social and environmental impacts that the local communities would be exposed to.

There are also traditional mining sites such as Himbol and Augaro where the local communities used to extract gold using traditional methods. These traditional mining activities are sources of income to the local communities of these areas. The government has banned the local communities from the mining business and took over and controlled the traditional gold extraction itself. Moreover, it restricted and limited the sale of the gold extracted by the local communities to the government at very cheap prices.