Longitudinal demographic surveillance systems (DSSs) in selected populations can provide important information in situations where routine health information is incomplete or absent, particularly in developing countries. The Butajira Rural Health Project is one such example, initiated in rural Ethiopia in 1987. DSSs rely on regular community-based surveillance as a means of vital event registration, among a sufficient population base to draw meaningful conclusions about rates and trends in relatively rare events such as maternal death. Enquiries into specific health problems can also then use this framework to quantify particular issues or evaluate interventions. Demographic characteristics and trends for a rural Ethiopian population over a 10-y period are presented as an illustration of the DSS approach, based on 336 000 person-years observed. Overall life expectancy at birth was 50 y. Demographic parameters generally showed modest trends towards improvement over the 10-y period. The DSS approach is useful in characterising populations at the community level over a period of time, providing important information for health planning and intervention. Methodological issues underlying this approach need further exploration and development.