The right use of land has been at the core of international debate for the last decades. Land tenure, ownership, grabbing, degradation are words often heard by policy makers and media outlets and the African continent is at the centre of the debate on the issue. Ensuring the right use of the land requires strong commitment, willingness and policies. Yet, local populations continue to suffer due to interventions or wrongdoings affecting their livelihood, often resulting in migration, conflicts and environmental disasters.
Clearly, land, especially for rural communities, is means of survival. “Land and natural resources lie at the heart of social, political, and economic life in much of rural Africa. They represent fundamental assets— primary sources of livelihood, nutrition, income, wealth, and employment for African communities—and are a basis for security, status, social identity, and political relations. For many rural people, land and resources such as water, trees, and wildlife have significant historical, cultural, and spiritual significance”, wrote Steven Lawry (2016) in The Impact of Land Property Rights Interventions.
In Eritrea, also, the question of land is a sensitive matter as past exploitation impacted its fertile areas as well as wildlife. However, gradually, wildlife is returning thanks to the government’s and its partners’ great focus on land preservation as a development priority. Access to land had longstanding customary laws in rural areas, known as the risti and enda in land distribution. Eritrea has kept its traditional customs today by ensuring distribution according to the level of fertility of the land while ensuring equal share of the quality of the land. In doing so, a pilot project has been put in place in the Serejeqa sub-zone in the outskirts of Asmara. Since 2009, a project known as Sustainable Land Management (SLM), has been implemented in 5 villages of the subzone.
Guritat, Hayelo, Emba Dorho, Weki, Deqseb are the five villages chosen from 28, with a total population of about 55,000, to run the pilot project. Land overuse, overgrazing and lack of commitment by villagers affected the area as the legislation required villagers to rotate land. They had to move from one land to another every seven years, causing lack of feeling of ownership. As a result, the land was not taken care of, for example, by planting trees. The hills and valleys were deserted with very few trees standing; the land wasn’t sustainable for agriculture and grazing with livestock often wandering to find green pasture without any control.
The SLM is a comprehensive approach which includes soil, water and animals, said Eng. Abraham Daniel, who has been working ardently as project coordinator from the Ministry of Agriculture – Central region branch. According to the World Soil Report of the FAO (1993), the Framework of Sustainable Land Management advocates a system of land use by dividing the land for farming, plantation, grazing, irrigation etc. to ensure its sustainability. Accordingly, the UN Development Program (UNDP) gave the Government of Eritrea technical support, quality assurance and follow-up, said Mr. Solomon Ghebreyohanes– UNDP project coordinator.
To be able to implement the land rehabilitation program, local communities were put at the centre as the main implementers. Consequently, training and awareness programs were organized prior to the implementation of the program. Including village elders, community leaders, women and the youth were key in addition to the implementation of land ownership. The latter included the right to use one parcel of land for a lifetime rather than shifting ownership every seven years. “At the beginning, it was difficult to convince local communities of its advantage”, said Eng. Abraham. In fact, the land available is divided by its quality from marginal, low fertility, medium and high. Accordingly, the less fertile the land is the bigger the size of the parcel given. In 2010, the land was segmented into farming, grazing and forested lands (UNDP 2016). The forested and grazing lands are communal and the inhabitants are able to cut the grass for their animals from the forested lands; however, grazing is forbidden in that area.
The question of sustainable land management is a holistic approach to achieve productive and healthy ecosystems by including economic, social and biological values and needs while contributing to rural development (FAO 2017). Local communities were given basic incentives, especially for those with less fertile land, such as grains and other materials. Surprisingly, those with less fertile piece of land are those doing better, said Eng. Abraham.
In regards to tree planting, specific areas have been allocated in the region. So far about 2.3 million trees have been planted since 2010. Students from the greening summer campaign, known as maetot, communities, ministries have all contributed in this greening campaign. Eucalyptus, olive and fruits trees are among the planted trees. The hills are now covered in green. With 86% of tree survival, Eritrea is higher than the international average of 75%, said Eng. Abraham. Tree planting continued all the way to the border with the Anseba region, covering an enlargement on the border of 35- 40km, the Engineer added.
Managing the land according to its use has shown success by ensuring diversity where some areas are covered in trees with a farming plot and a grazing land on the sides. Besides, water dams, such as the one in Shimanegus, were also built for irrigation. This project attempts to shift the current trend of land degradation, soil erosion and desertification which threaten food security and livelihoods. The Government, through this pilot project, took this aspect seriously as the country is 53,000 ha or 0.44% of total land area is covered by forests, woodlands 670,395 ha or 5.5% by woodlands and 5,984,799 ha or 49.2% by grazing and browsing land (UNDP 2016).
Through the SLM approach, the government aims to boost productivity and combat land degradation. Serejeqa subzone has shown promising results and even allowed inhabitants to sell woods and pay for the installation of electricity in their village. The comprehensive approach also included 100% coverage of mogogo adhanet, traditional smokeless cooking stove using less wood.
Local communities have understood the aim of SLM and are already enjoying the result. Farmers are keener to invest on their piece of land, manage to sell products at local markets while ensuring the right use of the land. The investment of about 8-9 million USD by the Government of Eritrea on this pilot project is clearly evidence of the country’s commitment towards sustainable development, added Mr. Solomon of UNDP. The UN agency supported the program with 1 million USD while GEF donated 1.8 million USD and Norway 1 million USD.
This innovative approach shows its success in this pilot project and the Government is planning to scale it up nationwide by continuing to engage local communities. The sense of ownership by the government all the way down to the local population is the key to the successful implementation of the program. SLM ensured the right use of land resources in terms of soil, water, animals, trees combined with the production of vegetables and cereals, which meet people’s needs sustainably.