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Mekelle’s unjust and unsustainable urban expansion has to be tackled before it’s too late

By Haile Tessema


Land is one of the most valuable commodities as it’s a source for basic necessities of life: food, clothing and shelter. For that reason, it’s regarded highly by its human inhabitants. On the downside, land has been a source of conflict in various communities all over the world, and serves as an effective tool for citizen control in undemocratic societies. When it comes to Ethiopia – entrenched in its early Marxist-Leninist ideology yet not much different from previous military and monarchial rule – the TPLF-led EPRDF Government conveniently bestowed land ownership rights on the ‘people’, i.e. government. And currently nowhere is that policy more prevalently visible than in Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigrai.

The land policy infringes on property rights; is a symbol of injustice; endangers food security and could be a culprit of unsustainable development and environmental degradation.

1.    Property right violations

In the almighty name of investment and development, the Government of Tigrai (hereafter GOT or government) is depriving property-owners of not only the land they inherited from their forefathers or obtained it with their hard-earned money, but also providing them with way below market value compensation. In some areas of Mekelle and Enderta, the GOT is providing as low as three birr per sqm (square meter), while selling it to the highest bidder for as high as thirty thousand birr per sqm. Sure enough, this is a travesty of justice by any civilized standard and a stretch of imagination.

Not surprisingly, land appropriation has become a major source of revenue for the government to the detriment of socioeconomic ally disadvantaged farmers and their families.

2. Food security impact

Most of the land that is being arbitrarily seized by the GOT is fertile farmland which has been a source of food for farmers and their families living on subsistence farming. Yet, instead of empowering farmers to improve their farming method; invest on river, reservoir as well as land water irrigation projects thereby increase productivity and food security, the government’s biased and fixated view of development appears to be constrained to building and factory construction, which quite a few of them have yet to be functional.

Meanwhile, a good number of farmers living in rural Tigrai are recipients of a meager 15 kilograms of wheat monthly in food-aid from the U.S. under a safety-net program in return for their mandatory unpaid hard labor. Furthermore, as a landlocked country, Ethiopia has been a victim of rising world food prices; lack of port has exposed the country to unfair tariff increase and disputes which resulted in, for instance, a wheat shipment left to expire at Djibouti Port as recently reported in the media.

The situation is even worse for Tigrai, which has been threatened with food as a political weapon by hostile regional neighbors who already went as far as blocking food cereal and livestock passage through their borders. In such a political climate, a responsible and far-thinking public leader would do everything at their disposal to improve and modernize agriculture; enhance farm output and food security. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case in Tigrai in general and in its growing capital city, Mekelle, and Enderta area in particular.

3.    Social impact

Political leaders, party-faithful bureaucrats and politicized urban planners who are making policy decisions do not appear to consider the impact their rampant land-grabbing policy is having and will have on communities, families, parents and their offspring.

Not only is the government providing a very low amount of money in land compensation, but also job training is not offered either to those whose only skills has been farming, and do not know which way to turn once their family land and livelihood is taken away from them.

Subsequently, this is highly contributing to unemployment, underemployment, alcoholism, substance abuse and a rise in crime in overpopulated Mekelle and other cities in the region. Meanwhile, instead of tackling the issue before it escalates, the government continues to dwell on its shortsighted Band-Aid solution to critical long-lasting multifaceted problems.

4.    Population growth & inadequate municipal services

Although the current Mekelle population is unknown, a sharp increase in the number of its urban residents is quite visible. Yet, Mekelle is a city with poor infrastructure; suffers from chronic scarcity of water; has very poor waste management and sewage system; narrow roads and parking spaces, which make vehicle and pedestrian movement a challenge.

If allowed to continue, this trend would put the city and its residents in a very precarious position.

5.    Environmental degradation

There currently is a whole lot of information on the environmental impact of urbanization. Some countries have imposed environmental and pollution regulations; others have moved their capitals to another city to mitigate pollution impact on cities with largest populations. So, it’s inexcusable to think of urban expansion that doesn’t take the adverse environmental impacts into consideration. But that’s what’s exactly happening to Mekelle. Factories already built and planned to be built are concentrated in the regional capital. Cement, textile, metal, plastic, glass, soft drink, liquor, industrial park, etc. are situated in Mekelle and its environs.

 As though beer is an essential commodity or as if there is shortage of beer variety in the country, there is a plan to build another beer factory (in addition to Raya Beer, located in Raya, and Tigrai) in Quiha (which, at 10 kms. distance, is now part of Mekelle). What’s worse, the prospective beer factory is provided land by a river that flows to the ILala River in Mekelle. Add to that the motor vehicle emission from industrial activities which are responsible for releasing large amounts of pollutants that can be harmful to the environment and human health, the regional capital is destined to be unlivable city due to environmental degradation and adverse health problems including potentially cancer.

On that note, while the value of factories in creating jobs; producing goods that help reduce imports and saving hard currency; producing export materials thereby earning hard currency is undeniable, it’s not being done in a way that minimizes adverse environmental impacts.

6.    Twisted sense of entitlement to land

There is a twisted sense of entitlement witnessed in urbanites’ – including social media participants – not just to housing, but also to land ownership to build their houses on. It doesn’t matter to them where the land has to come from; who has to be pushed or be made homeless and or landless for them to be accommodated, city dwellers want their home, and they want it now! That’s the reason why – when the GOT reportedly announced the end of the 70 sqm land distribution policy recently – the social media erupted with dismay and uproar.

On the contrary, farmers have no access to that kind of medium to voice their grievances or someone to speak and stand up for them, thus the government caved in to continue with its policy of “robbing Paul to pay Peter” by announcing another round of 70 sqm of land bonanza for thousands more would-be homeowners.

7.    Discontent and resentment

When descendants of farmers are deprived of their livelihood; are financially unable to even obtain a 70 sq. piece of land at a farmland that used to belong to their parents, which ended up being seized to make way for urbanites – who some of them have resided in the city for as low as a couple of years and others who may have a house in another part of the region – discontent and resentment against the government and society at large is to be expected. And this is a recipe for potential political and social conflict.

8.    A source of corruption

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” goes the old English saying. And the corruption gets worse when that power has control over land. Land actually tends to corrupt not only those in a position of power or in a decision making capacity – politicians, bureaucrats, professionals involved such as engineers and architects – but also ordinary people. To that end, paying bribes; a dishonest approach to owning land by misrepresenting one’s status, falsifying documents, making shady land deals between new landowners who turned out to be sellers and third party illegal buyers have become common in the current lucrative land market.

   9. Recommendations for mitigating the adverse impacts of urbanization

The best solution is for the government to abandon its quasi-communist land policy; return land to its rightful owner, and let landowners manage their land in a way they see fit.

Such an argument was initially dismissed by EPRDF leaders with their publicly confessed concern that it would compel farmers to sell their land, and eventually make them become landless and poor. That kind of argument no longer has a leg to stand on as the government has proven itself to be like the proverbial sailor who spends his money recklessly. In all fairness to the sailor, at least he is known for spending money he saved while living and working at sea for a long period of time, and where he has no access to spend his money. The GOT, on the other hand, is dispensing land that doesn’t belong to it by inconsiderately and unjustifiably making farmers landless and poor.

It would be appropriate to concede here that even in capitalist democracies governments have the rights to utilize land for development by providing market value compensation to landowners. So, development is not going to be hindered by privatizing land. Rather, what will come to an end is government full control of land and unfair practices that have undeservedly benefited others at the expense of poor farmers.

hat said, let’s be practical to acknowledge that the EPRDF Government or what’s left of it is not going to give up on its land policy, which has become a cash cow, anytime soon. So, in the meantime:

1.    The obsession with urban expansion has to be thoroughly examined, and agriculture focused rural development has to be given serious thought and due attention.

2.    When land is truly required for factory and housing purposes, every effort has to be made   to do it in a barren land as supposed to a fertile farmland.

3.    When, for a very compelling reason, a farmland has to be seized, market value compensation has to be provided.

4.    Policy and decision makers have to come to the realization that there simply is no enough land to give away to people piece by piece. So, there is a need to shift gears to apartment and condominium housing projects.

5.    Factories, governmental and private learning institutions have to be spread all over the region to reduce the push and pull factor (unemployment in several areas of the region and employment opportunities in the regional capital respectively). Incentives such as land for low price and tax reduction should be given to investors willing to build their businesses in areas with low development activities. It’s worth noting here that spreading factories and institutions all over the region could also help reduce the need for housing as people would be able to learn and work while living in their homes or where rent is lower as supposed to having to travel to the regional capital where they would need new housing with expensive rent.

6.    It’s a well-known fact that huge land has been given in several Mekelle area locations to businesses that submitted proposals for various projects over the years, yet quite a few properties are sitting idly surrounded by fence. Others have utilized the land for other purposes than what was proposed and approved for – a warehouse as supposed to a given factory, for instance.

7.    In that case, a thorough land audit has to be conducted and the ones found to be in breach of agreement have to be seized. As many of such lands are in the middle of or not far from the city, they could be utilized to meet the housing needs (as further factories are not advisable as discussed in the environmental section).

Failing that, it’s morally and ethically irresponsible and practically unsustainable to go after farmlands while previously seized land is sitting idly as a goldmine for the ‘investor’ to sell in the future, and make a killing by killing farmers' future.

8.    Although an environmental impact assessment is said to be carried out before projects are approved, it evidently has not been effective. A new approach – with a new training to environmental practitioners with professional accountability for suggestions or decisions they make – has to be introduced. Investment bureaus have to be led by career politicians, bureaucrats and professionals with rich knowledge on resource management, social and environmental impacts.

9.     

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