Who actually owns the land?—Land tenure systems of Eritrea

‘The resources of the land are neither inexhaustible nor indestructible, as many men and countries have already found to their cost’ (Dale and McLaughlin 1990)

Most Eritreans depend on the land for their survival. How land is owned is of great interest to them, in addition to survival and economics, land ownership also carries special social and political meaning to Eritreans.

Over 60% of Eritrean land is under agricultural use and agriculture is said to employ some 70 to 80% of the population. That would qualify Eritrean society to be an agrarian society (although this “70 or 80%” is most likely an outdated figure—literatures have been quoting the same figure for the past half century without citing current and original source).


Land use categories in Eritrea (data from Kayouli, Tesfai et al. 2006)

Land is the primary resource of any community and without some security of tenure it is impossible to have economic or social development. For example, users of the land would have no interest in preserving fertility or developing the land other than what would benefit them in the short run.

Land tenure can be defined as “the legal or customary relationships between government, society groups and individuals, concerning rights and duties in the use of the land” (Abbott and Makeham 1990).

Land tenure

The customary land tenure system in Eritrea was/is dominated by the family or village systems of land ownership in the highlands, and tribal systems and government ownership in the lowlands (Ministry of Agriculture 2002). The customary land law is contained in a number of codes (some written) and presents a variety of legal devices to meet social needs. Detailed description and analysis can be found in Tikabo (2003), Abbay (2001), Castellani (2000) and Tesfay (1998).

Village ownership of land (diesa or shekh’na): Land is owned collectively by a village community and it is periodically distributed among the residents, that is, male heads of household of families belonging to the village, as well as permanent immigrants. Sometimes women are also entitled to land.

Redistribution of land (warieda) usually takes place every five to seven years. The village council (Baito-adi) classifies the village land and decides on land use classes. A panel of elders elected by the village council (ghelafo) decide on the eligibility of individuals as residents while another panel (aquaro) allots the plots through a lottery. Plots are equal in size and in quality.

Extended-family (enda) ownership of land (resti): The holders of the land (resteynatat) are considered to be the original occupant of the village. Each head of a nuclear family belonging to the enda has life time ownership of the plot when periodic allocation occurs.

Under special circumstances, risti land can be sold and it becomes meriet worki.

Land given by Ethiopian emperor (gulti): land given by the Ethiopian emperor to individuals distinguished for service rendered. The individual (shum gulti) is both a military chief and administrator. The owner is entitled to keep a share of the tribute and to oblige the peasants to cultivate his personal land. Gulti that was granted to the Church is called rim. The Gulti system has been abandoned ever since the emperor was overthrown and replaced by the communist military administration in 1974.

State land (Dominale): State property (Terra domaniale) in rural areas was created by the Italian statute of 1909. Land was simply expropriated by Italian colonizers. Much of the dominale land continues to be government owned land.

Besides these three main land regimes, a number of temporary titles to land exist, such as: lease contracts (grat ferkha, krai or Metayer); gratuities for benefit of a member of the family (grat messah); family lease for a nominal rent (tsedbi);  tenant farmer arrangements (halewa resti); first clearing of virgin or long uncultivated land within family risti land (kwah mahtse).

The Law

“All land is owned by the Government, and the Government will allocate land fairly and equitably, without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin.”(Government of Eritrea 1995)

In 1994, all land was brought under State ownership by the Land Proclamation of 1994. Under the new law, the Eritrean government provides a lifetime right of usufruct over currently held farmland, housing land in rural areas (tiesa), and leasehold. By definition, all rights are derived from state property and, therefore, are temporary. Nevertheless, the customary land tenure system continues to be in practice widely (notably in highland farmland), even though the State now really owns the land.

The benefits of adopting the new land law are cited by government as: to avoid disputes between villages and individuals, to ensure of social equity (especially of women and landlessness), and to encourage private investment (as the periodic redistribution of land under the diesa system has discouraged farmers from long-term investment) (Government of Eritrea 1995, Ministry of Agriculture 2002).

Justification for the adoption of Land Law no. 58/1994 and why the Government of Eritrea has opted that “land shall be exclusive right of the state” are given as follows:

“Because of the archaic land tenure system, soil erosion and deforestation have advanced… The tenure systems in operation during this century has not encouraged innovation, nor has it permitted new and modern ways of exploiting land to improve quality of life. Nor have incomes increased, or new modes of thinking been established. The old system of tenure did not encourage or guarantee security of tenure, nor did it foster equity in the allocation of productive rural land. Moreover, the system encouraged time-consuming litigation, leading to loss in labor productivity and poor care of the land. The necessity for formulating a new land law which encouraged better care of natural resources, was therefore considered a priority.”

It is a strange observation that all relevant land proclamations are published in Tigrinya language only, i.e., Proclamation no.58/1994 (August 24 1994), Proclamation no. 15/1997 (May 19 1997), and Legal Notice no. 31/1997 (May 19 1997).


Eritrea comprises nine main ethnic groups. Historically, Eritrean people can be classified into two crude groups: (1) the Christian highlanders, mostly sedentary agriculturists belonging to the Tigrinya ethnic group; and (2) the Muslim lowlanders, nomadic herders belonging to other ethnic groups. This distinction—lacking details on local variations and the smaller ethnic groups—is useful to have a general idea on the cultural areas of the country.

It is estimated that over 65% of the Eritrean population lives in the central highlands which cover about 16% of the total area (FAO 2003) Although no population census has been published since 1991, the population is projected to be over 6 million and growing at a rate of 2.9 % per year.

Demographics of Eritrea and estimated percent from population (Wikipedia)

Eritrea covers a total area of about of 125,000 km2 and a coastal line of about 1,200 km along the Red Sea. Based on physical and environmental factors, land is classified into six major “Agro-ecological Zones”. Most of Eritrean land is classified as either Semi-desert (39%) or Arid Lowlands (34%) agro-ecological Zone. The remaining land falls under the other four Agro-ecological Zones: Moist Lowlands (16%), Moist Highlands (7%), Arid Highlands (3%) and the Sub-humid Escarpment (1%) (Negassi, Bein et al. 2002).

Average precipitation of Eritrea is 384 mm per year (15 inches) with only 1% of the land receiving more than 650 mm per year (26 inches) (FAO 2005). Eritrea is also threatened by recurrent and devastating drought (Government of Eritrea 1995). The Setit River is the only perennial river and all other rivers dry shortly after rainy seasons.

Major Agro-ecological Zones of Eritrea (Negassi, Bein et al. 2002)


Abbay, Futsum T. (2001). The Eritrean Land Tenure System from Historical and Legal Perspectives. McGill University -Montreal, Institute of Comparative Law.

Abbott, J. C. and J. P. Makeham (1990). Agricultural economics and marketing in the tropics. Harlow, Longman Scientific & Technical.

Castellani, L. G. (2000). Recent Developmnets in Land Tenure Law in Eritrea, Horn of Africa, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dale, P. F. and J. D. McLaughlin (1990). Land Information Management: An Introduction with Special Reference to Cadastral Problems in Third World Countries, English Language Book Society/Oxford University Press.

FAO (2003). Forestry Outlook Study for Africa: Eritrea.

FAO (2005). Irrigation in Africa in figures — AQUASTAT Survey.

Government of Eritrea (1995). National Environmental Management Plan for Eritrea. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Druckerei Schwenk & Co.Gmbh.

Kayouli, C., et al. (2006). Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profile: Eritrea, FAO.

Ministry of Agriculture (2002). The National Action Programme for Eritrea to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effects of Drought. Asmara, Eritrea, Ministry of Agriculture.

Negassi, A., et al. (2002). Soil and Water Conservation Manual for Eritrea. Nairobi, Kenya, Regional Land Management Unit (RELMA).

Tesfay, Abraham. (1998). The Diesa Tenure System and the Land Proclamation No,. 58/1994 in the Kebesa Rural Area. Asmara, Eritrea, University of Asmara, School of Law.

Tikabo, Mahari O. (2003). Land Tenure in the Highlands of Eritrea: Economic Theory and Empirical Evidence . Agricultural University of Norway, Department of Economics and Social Sciences.

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