Syed Mohammad Ali
Attempts to provide more poor people with access to land have been sporadic and have met with limited success in South Asia. This is despite the fact that in almost every country in the region, the largest category of rural poor consists of marginal and tenant farmers
The need for equitable access to agricultural land seems a prerequisite for socio-economic and political empowerment across the developing world. Yet reforms to address highly unequal patterns of land holding are not easy to achieve.
While land reform attempts have to be situated in different circumstances, it is interesting to see what has recently been happening around the world in this regard, and to note what has worked, or has not, especially for those who realise the need to alter the highly uneven distribution of land in our own country, despite prior failures to rectify ground realities.
The agrarian sector remains predominant in the developing world, providing not only a significant portion of national incomes, but also absorbing a bulk of the labour force, so the need for access to land for cultivation purposes remains a major issue. Yet, the phenomenon of globalisation has been increasing the number of displaced farmers, as more land is being used for the large-scale, commercial and export-led production of cash crops. In order to survive, poor farmers often feel compelled to encroach on forestland and other fragile environmental areas where the climate and soil do not permit sustainable agriculture, which is hardly a positive sign.
Despite the compulsions, altering land tenure arrangements to provide poor people in a developing country, like our own, is a complex and politically difficult proposition. This is so because it is not uncommon to find a convergence of elite (feudal, bureaucratic, military and political) interests with regards to land use. Since land reforms are such a charged topic, even international development agencies are reluctant to take up this issue head-on.
Nonetheless, access to land is legitimately considered a basic human right, and it intrinsically has a bearing on several other rights as well, such as the right to feed oneself, the right to adequate shelter and the right to gainful employment.
While land reforms remain a major hurdle in reducing poverty and disempowerment, there can also be very high costs attached to land redistribution. The violence unleashed by agrarian revolts in Communist inspired peasant revolts, as in China, provides ample evidence to this effect.
Many other developing countries have tried to implement different types of land reforms. The more radical attempts aimed to confer ownership on poor farmers by implementing ceilings (and floors) on land holdings and appropriating surplus land for redistribution among the landless. More moderate attempts were initiated for the express purposes of abolishing intermediaries or providing security of tenure to sharecroppers.
The resulting re-distributive land reforms have played a very positive role in the rapid growth that South Korea, Taiwan and even Malaysia have witnessed over the past few decades. Even the rise of Japan was evidently founded on the land reforms after World War II, something that mainstream economists often do not acknowledge any more. The experience of land reforms in other Asian countries, and those of Africa and South America, has been less optimistic however.
A number of African countries have experimented with land reforms, including Zimbabwe’s recent controversial attempts. Zimbabwe’s colonial legal of white farmer settlements had led to racially skewed land distribution. The main justification for land reform in Zimbabwe was repossession and redistribution of the farmland to redress past colonial injustices. Despite these political statements, the Zimbabwean government has tried to encourage the emergence of a black rural bourgeoisie, but even this attempt has been haphazard and politicised. The poorest of the poor, including rural women, largely failed to benefit from the fast track reform process, which has instead led to much political unrest, violence and even undermined ongoing food production.
South American land reforms have ranged from trying to provide communal ownership to promoting collective production and forced redistribution of agricultural lands. Generally, however, though to different degrees, these reform attempts placed a direct emphasis on redistribution of land while neglecting a range of supplemental policies required in order for land redistribution to be economically productive. For instance, important reforms accompanying the Southeast Asian land reforms, such as family ownership and provision of secure land titles for the redistributed lands were absent in South America. Thus, in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, large land reforms did not have the desired productivity impact. Agricultural production and standards of living initially increased among peasants in some cases, but then the lack of a rural credit market and ineffective agricultural extension services, followed by other problems like inflation, eventually eroded any gains.
Still, all hope for land reform is not lost in South America at least. The reason for renewed emphasis on land reform is instigated by a populist resurgence that has put re-distributive policies such as land reform back on political agendas throughout the region. But the new leadership in South America must now learn from the Southeast Asian experience, as well as from its own past failures, and realise that often it is not the actual distribution that matters most, but rather that distribution be accompanied by other reforms such as the provision of agricultural extension services, or else poor farmers will not be able to become productive and cultivate the lands allocated to them on a sustainable basis.
Conversely, attempts to provide more poor people with access to land have been sporadic and have met with limited success in South Asia. This is despite the fact that in almost every country in the region, the largest category of rural poor consists of marginal and tenant farmers, or the landless poor who work on the fields of others for a daily wage. A handful of successful examples to help improve the lives of the poor rural masses in our part of the world include the legalisation of tribal land settlements in the hilly areas of Orissa and the much-studied 1970s land reforms of Kerala and West Bengal. But, overall, land ownership remains skewed, particularly in countries where feudal landlords continue to exert immense political power, as in Pakistan.
This broad overview of land reform experiences from around the developing world shows the very limited success in addressing a major cause of poverty. Moreover, even some of the more radical attempts to redress imbalances in land ownership and access have not proven enough. Recreating sustainable livelihoods on the land seems to be an infinitely more difficult task, an issue that following articles in this series will draw further attention to.
Tags: bureaucratic, Economists, feudal, International land reform experience, military and political, optimistic however, Rural Poor Consists, soil do not permit sustainable agriculture, South Asian, Tenant Farmers, Zimbabwean government