Law, Social Justice & Global Development

Significance of the commons

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1.2 Significance of the commons

One finds pockets of communal lands in densely populated sedentary rural parts of Ethiopia. One also finds communal holdings among those who practice shifting cultivation in the western portion of Ethiopia as well as vast expanses of common lands in the pastoral parts of the country. These lands and land related resources located in the highlands and lowlands of Ethiopia are being used by peasants, pastoralists and those who practice shifting cultivation to augment and/or sustain their livelihoods. Members of the relevant communities access such resources both individually and in common. As to who shall have access to these lands and under what conditions are determined pursuant to customary tenure rules and principles.

In the highland areas of Ethiopia the commons are essential because the private landholdings are not big enough to sustain the peasant`s life. Land degradation and population increase with lack of off farm opportunities have made these private holdings minuscule. For example, the average cultivable land holdings in the densely populated parts of the country, which are inhabited by two third of the total population, is less than one hectare. Yet, it is asserted that two hectares of good quality land is needed to sustain a household with an average of five members.25 In this situation, rural people use the commons to undertake a variety of life sustaining economic activities such as animal grazing, gleaning, and firewood and honey collection, on top of the commons being used as places of burial and of cultural and religious rites and festivities.

The commons are inextricably linked to the livelihood of the rural poor. Thus there appears to be an intrinsic-principal relationship between a peasant`s private land holdings and the commons the peasants access. In some cases, because of the minuteness, the low quality of the private farm holdings and rainfall variability, the benefits the poor obtain from common lands might by far exceed those obtained from private land possessions. In fact, under these circumstances, continued access to commons might turn out to be main livelihood assets while the private holdings might be appendage thereof. In pastoral areas that house about 10 to 20 percent of the population and constitute about 60 percent of the total land mass of Ethiopia, land is used principally for pasturing and thus people`s survival in these areas primarily depends on access to pasture lands and water points. Hence, it is fitting to join with Tesfaye who rightly asserts, ``The rural households at large benefit from these environmental goods and services [common resources], but the poor are disproportionately more dependent.``26

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