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Revise tradition of inheritance to save the land

Addis Getachew and Fabien Niyonizigiye
In both Burundi and Ethiopia, the cultural practice of splitting up land amongst heirs, destroys the land, yields bad harvests and leaves people hungry.
Fragmented farmland in Burundi. (photo: The Niles | Fabien Niyonizigiye)
Fragmented farmland in Burundi. (photo: The Niles | Fabien Niyonizigiye)

Kabura Serges was born and raised in Kayanza, Burundi, and he is currently facing the challenge of dividing his half-hectare plot of land amongst his eight adult children. He claims that disputes among his children have caused serious feuds within his family, as his children suffer from insufficient harvests from the fragmented farmland they have inherited.

Burundians regard land as one of the greatest treasures a family can possess.

One child and his family might farm beans on his small portion of land, and another might cultivate sorghum. Regardless of what they plant, the meagre harvests bring chaos and unstable livelihoods to all families. These are common issues in most families living in Kayanza province and generally throughout the country.

Land fragmentation in Burundi consists of the process of taking inherited land from parents or grandparents and dividing it into several sections among brothers and sisters of a family.

Burundians regard land as one of the greatest treasures a family can possess, and land has historically been a sign of wealth and prestige in Burundian culture.

Burundi is a small landlocked and densely populated country, with 250-260 inhabitants per square kilometre. Over 90 percent of Burundians depend on agriculture to sustain their livelihoods.


The impact of land fragmentation

Dividing land amongst heirs comes with several negative impacts, notably the small harvests on tiny plots of land, contrasted with large Burundian families, which have an average of six births per woman.

There are considerable declines in [...] harvests due to land fragmentation.”

Niyitunga Marcien, the director of the provincial agriculture and livestock department, says: “Every year there are considerable declines in our agricultural harvests due to land fragmentation, which is frequent and common in our up-country provinces because they usually contain large families with high birthrates.”

He added that due to the lack of land space, farmers tend to exploit the land. This leads to poor quality and less fertile soil, exacerbating the poor harvests. Marcien blames the inheritance processes that perpetuate land fragmentation. What is the solution?

While the government says it is coming up with strategies to fight poverty, scarce farmland and productive land management, Evariste Ngayimpenda, a demographic expert says that as long as there are no political strategies organising public and private property nothing will stop the current land disputes occurring in most Burundian families.


An intercontinental issue

Thousands of miles to the northeast of Burundi sits the much bigger Horn of Africa nation, Ethiopia, with more than 100 million inhabitants. As in Burundi, most people rely on agriculture for their livelihood.

Begashaw Gemechu sits in the shade created by an acacia tree in the middle of a small patch of farmland in Melka Adama, close to the sprawling city of Adama. “Forty years ago this land was less inhabited, and there was plenty of land to farm,” he said pointing to fields in the distance – lands he apportioned among his eight children, all of whom are now married.

As his family swells with grandchildren, the patches of land will grow impossible to divide. Seventy-five percent of Ethiopia’s population is aged between of 18 and 35.

“And some of them sold parts of their land to buy a Bajaj (a tri wheeled motor car used as a taxi in the city), and they are struggling to make ends meet,” Gemechu saiOur sons and daughters will not have that privilege.”

Our sons and daughters will not have that privilege.”

One of Begashaw’s sons, Addisu, said: “We inherited the small plots of land from our father. Our sons and daughters will not have that privilege. It is a pity. According to Addisu, urban ways of life will be the future of the whole village and “[…] our children need to adapt to that and get a level of education to take them somewhere.”

In Ethiopia, with land fragmentation creating the same problems as in Burundi, young people have begun to migrate to urban centres in search of jobs, as they have not inherited land of their own.

This article is part of:
We are what we eat


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