Sunday, February 28, 2021

Land: Significance and Ownership



General concept
The scope of right to land
Different Forms Ownership of Land
   Private Ownership
  Communal Ownership
 State/Public Ownership
   Joint Ownership
   Common Ownership

Land is a surface of the earth that includes the fixtures on it such as buildings, fence, tree plants, and improvement to the land etc. Land provides the foundation for the social and economic activities of people. It is both a tangible physical commodity and a source of wealth. Because land is essential to life and society, it is important to many disciplines, including law, economics, sociology, and geography. Each of these disciplines may employ some what different concept of real property.


Within the vast domain of law, issues such as the ownership and the use of land are considered. In economics, land is regarded as one of the four agents of production, along with labour, capital, and entrepreneurial coordination. Land provides many of the natural elements that contribute to a nation’s wealth. Sociology focuses in the dual nature of land as resource to be shared by all people; and as a commodity that can be owned, traded, and used by individuals. Geography focuses on describing the physical elements of land and the activities of the people who use it.


Lawyers, economists, sociologists, and geographers have a common understanding of the attributes of land:

      Each parcel of land is unique in its location and composition

      Land is physically immobile

      Land is durable

      The supply of land is finite

      Land is useful to people


Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum

He who is proprietor of land is proprietor also of every thing on it. All buildings, all natural fruits, and everything above as well as below the surface, belong to the owner of the land. This Latin maxim was also reaffirmed by the English judge Lord Coke when he said cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum ad inferno, the owner of the surface of the real estate has property rights in the air above the surface and in soil below. Hence using this medieval time concept of land some writers give definitions such as the following:


 Land…includes not only the ground, or soil, but everything that is attached to the earth, whether by course of nature, as are trees and herbage, or by the hands of man, as are houses and other buildings. It includes not only the surface of the earth but every thing under it and over it. Thus in legal theory, the surface of the earth is just a part of an inverted pyramid having its tip, at the center of the earth, extending outward through the surface at the boundary lines of the tract, and continuing on upward to the heavens.


The ancient dictum of Lord Coke, which gave the owner of the surface the rights ad coelum (literally, to heavens), was utterly long before the development of air travel. Change in technology and travel have raised a number of legal questions concerning the scope of real estate ownership, rendering the ancient concept of unrestricted ownership to the heavens depths unduly simplistic. Modern society limited this right for different reasons that not only in relation to aviations but also for the reason that the state wants to control natural resources below the ground.


Conventionally speaking, the ownership of land may be classified generally in to three major and two minor categories: private, communal and public on the one hand, and joint and community ownership on the other. In the following a brief discussion is made about the nature of such ownership rights.


This is the kind of land totally owned by private individuals. It belongs absolutely to an individual and as such the law provides an absolute protection against any intervention on such right by any other party. In principle individuals have an absolute right of use, exclusion, and disposition of their property. However, in reality private ownership right is not an absolute one for the state and the public using the law may limit such right. Private ownership of land is well known and developed concept and system in most countries. The Ethiopian Civil Code under article 1205 describes private ownership as the widest right man can exercise over his property. Today only few countries, most of which were part of the former USSR socialist republic and other former socialist and communist countries, including Ethiopia, prohibited private ownership of land. The present Ethiopian constitution basically prohibits the private ownership of land. According to the FDRE constitution Article 40(3) the right to ownership of rural and urban land as well as of all natural resources is exclusively vested in the state and the people.


Communal ownership of land refers to such property of land commonly owned by a community of a certain village or locality. In most cases common grazing lands, water wells, irrigation lands or river systems, common use forestry and mountains, fishing lakes etc are categorized under this system. There are many such kinds of arrangements in many part of the world. The village or the community need to have some regulation to control the use of the common property. In some systems the state intervenes to make laws and regulations for the community. In Ethiopia, although such kind of system is envisaged in more general way in the constitution, Federal and regional land laws provide specific rules for the protection of community land such as grazing and irrigation lands. In reality there are many cases of irrigation and grazing lands commonly owned by villagers or particular people of the village.


Proclamation 456/2006, a proclamation that is provided for the Rural Land Administration and Land Use, defines “communal holding” under article 2(12) as "communal holding" means rural land which is given by the government to local residents for common grazing, forestry and other social services.


This type of property constitutes all lands which are not owned by individual person/s or the community. In most countries, mountains, public highways, public halls, parks, transboundary Rivers and forest lands, lakes etc are owned and administered by the state. It must be noted that in western countries lakes, mountains and forestland can be owned by private people. The common similarity all countries show on the other hand is that public highways and trans-boundary Rivers are owned by the state. In Ethiopia, as stated above the state and the people together own these properties, and it seems the public in general or the state itself are also prohibited the absolute power of disposition of land in Ethiopia, sale.


The Federal Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation identifies under article 2(13) “forestlands, wild life protected areas, state farms, mining lands, lakes, rivers and other rural lands,” as state holding lands.


The civil code under articles 1444 and following tries to identity the kinds of real properties classified as state or public domain or properties. Although it is no more relevant for the current system of law, it may help students to understand the kind of real properties which can be owned by the state elsewhere. 


Art. 1445. - Public domain. - 1. Principle.

Property belonging to the State or other administrative bodies shall be deemed to form part of the public domain where:

(a)  it is directly placed or left at the disposal of the public; or

(b)  it is destined to a public service and is, by its nature or by reason of adjustments, principally or exclusively adapted to the particular purpose of the public service concerned.

Art. 1446. - 2. Immovables.

The following property, if owned by the State or other administrative bodies, shall be deemed to form part of the public domain:

(a)   roads and streets, canals and railways; and

(b)  seashores, port installations and lighthouse; and

(c)   buildings specially adapted for public services such as fortifications and churches.



In some systems it is a type of ownership of land by two or more persons in which each owns undivided interest in the whole. This kind of system, based on the kind of rules adopted by each and every country, may include starting from simple joint ownership of plot of land by two people up to ownership rights of hundreds of people in condominiums. In Ethiopia, the principle of joint ownership right is governed by the civil code or other land related recent laws as the case may be. Under the civil code (articles 1257 ff.) it is stated that joint ownership right may be determined by agreement of the parties. In the absence of such agreement the law presumes equal right to the thing. The right can also be freely exchanged, subject to the limitation of pre-emption, however. As a special case, a joint wall of two real properties is considered as a joint property in the code. In condominium or other such related buildings, common walls, roofs, parking lots, stairs and corridors are jointly owned and administered by the users of the building or their association.


Property owned in common by husband and wife each having an undivided one-half interest by reason of their marital status. Common property in the FDRE Family law is the category of property within the marriage other than private property of one of the spouses. The nature of common property is that it can not be divisible and each of the spouses has equal right to the whole property. Hence the law demands joint consent and agreement for the sale, exchange, mortgage or donation of common property. In today’s Ethiopia husband and wife commonly possesses urban and rural land. Especially in rural areas, during divorce the farm land is being equally divided between the man and the woman. 


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