Tides Shift on Agrarian Reform: New Movements
Show the Way
From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams?
by Peter Rosset
Food First Backgrounder, Winter 2001
Only rarely are we privileged to bear personal witness at
historical turning points that symbolize and crystallize a changing
of the tides. For decades the very phrase 'Central America' conjured
up images of poverty, destitution, and the most hideous military
repression; of dirty wars, the CIA, genocide, torture, and growing
landlessness in dirt poor rural areas. The end of the armed struggles
of the 1980s meant an end to war, but also, ironically, to short-term
prospects of installing radical pro-poor governments-the end of
a certain kind of hope.
Yet in Central America at the dawn of the new millennium,
and indeed across most of the Third World, we are seeing the emergence
of a new source of hope, of new dreams-those of the largely non-violent
poor people's movements who sidestep government inaction and take
matters firmly into their own hands. In Honduras, home to many
dynamic organizations of landless peasants struggling for land,
I witnessed a moment that signifies a turning of the tides of
On July 26, 2000, I was one of fifty visitors from 24 countries
in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas to visit the 5000 hectare
site of the former Regional Center for Military Training (CREM)
in Colon, Honduras. During the 1980s the notorious CREM was used
by the US military to train the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran
militaries in counter-insurgency, and the Nicaraguan contras in
counter-revolution. Here was where some of the world's worst violators
of human rights learned their craft on the US taxpayers' tab.
The CREM was reportedly the site of a secret prison for 'disappeared'
activists from Central America, and contains a recently discovered
clandestine mass grave where some of those political prisoners
presumably ended up-and for which five former military officers,
including former Honduran vice president General Walter Lopez,
were charged in 1998.
With the end of the Cold War, this killing field was vacated
by the US and Honduran armies, and in 1991 the Honduran Congress
voted to make it available for distribution to landless peasants,
whose numbers swelled over years of economic crisis and land grabs
by the wealthy. The property transfer never happened, as titles
to the land mysteriously appeared in the hands of military officers,
politicians, and landlords-titles the government refused to annul
despite multiple protests and legal challenges by peasant organizations.
In early 2000 the landless members of the Peasant Movement
of Aguan decided to take matters into their own hands. Some 900
families-more than 4000 men, women, and children- occupied the
land and immediately planted crops, built ramshackle homes of
cardboard, tin, palm leaves, and scavenged wood, and erected a
modest schoolhouse, community center, and communal kitchen. They
came into immediate conflict with the hired thugs of the landlords:
one of their leaders was killed, and they had to organize nightly
self-defense patrols to ward off snipers who would fire pot shots
into the makeshift community under the cover of darkness. The
peasants declared they would never be dragged off the land alive.
When you have no land, you have nothing. With land, you have something
to live for, and, paradoxically, something to die for.
I had been invited to Honduras by La Via Campesina, the worldwide
alliance of organizations of small farmer farmers and the landless,
to address the First Global Congress of Landless Peasants' Movements-an
historic coming together of the new generation of rural poor people's
movements making their mark from Brazil to Thailand to South Africa.
On that sweltering hot July day, all of us paid a visit to the
former CREM to express our moral support for the new community's
struggle to have the Honduran government recognize their right
to the land.
When we arrived at the huge encampment, some 700 primary school
children in homemade uniforms, arranged in parade formation, greeted
us by singing the Honduran national anthem. There was not one
dry eye in the house. We visited the clandestine cemetery and
the humble homes of several families, and met with leaders in
the new community center, where we heard how hard times were.
Since their first crop hadn't reached harvest yet, they were living
off meager food donations from churches in nearby communities
composed of peasants nearly as poor as they. But the spirit of
the children and the solid determination of their parents made
believers of all of us.
These fields, fertilized with the blood of countless other
Central American peasants, were now truly transmogrified into
fields of dreams, where the lives and aspirations of the children
before us might prosper through the daily hard work of farm families.
As an American citizen I felt moved and honored to be with these
peasants as they took the worst kind of US-sponsored killing fields
as the starting point for the life-giving cycle of planting, harvesting,
and the raising of children.
The participants of the Landless Congress took advantage of
the opportunity to unfurl | the banner of a new Global Campaign
for Agrarian | Reform. The campaign is | coordinated by La Via
Campesina and the FoodFirst Information Action Network (FIAN)-the
international human rights group focused on the right to food,
of which Food First is a member. The purpose of the campaign is
to build cooperation among landless movements and those who support
them, to bring effective pressure to bear in favor of land redistribution
and agrarian reform around the world, and to rapidly mobilize
international pressure when emergency situations arise where the
right to land is threatened.
Land Reform: The Time Has Come (Again)
At Food First we have argued for twenty-five years that access
to farm land is a fundamental human right for rural peoples (see
BOX), and that grossly inequitable distribution of land is one
the most common underlying causes of poverty and destitution in
much of the world. The re-distribution of land through comprehensive
agrarian reform is a basic prerequisite for the kind of inclusive,
broadbased development that would allow nations to provide all
of their citizens with a decent standard of living, and make possible
more ecologically-sustainable management of natural resources.
What is at stake is a model of development that is inclusive,
rather than exclusive. Yet for many years it felt as though Food
First was one of only a few voices crying in the wilderness. That
is now changing, as landless movements across the Third World,
and highly visible land conflicts in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Colombia,
Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere, force
land reform back to the center stage.
In the immediate post-World War II period, there was a flurry
of land reform efforts across the Third World, some more successful
than others. But by the 1970s and 1980s, as entrenched landholding
elites allied with transnational corporations resisted further
re-distribution, land reform became taboo in official development
circles-one would be labeled a 'communist' or' stuck-in-the-past'
if they raised land reform as a serious option.
The 1990s saw the coming of age of the new generation of well-organized
movements of landless peasants and rural workers. While the landless
have always engaged in takeover of idle lands, there has been
a qualitative change in the organization and political savvy of
contemporary groups. An undisputed leader of this struggle is
Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement (MST). We will read more about
The Times They Are A-Changin'
There are many signs of change. Landless movements are bringing
land reform to national and international policy debates even
as they seize, occupy, and plant idle lands often at a tremendous
cost of lives lost and arbitrary arrests. At the opposite end
of the spectrum, even economists at the World Bank are finally
accepting a key point that Food First has been making for decades.
Bank economists have concluded that extremely inequitable access
to productive resources like land prevents economic growth, and
the Bank is now placing its version of land reform at the center
of the policy packages it pushes on Third World governments.
While what the Bank calls land reform-essentially privatization,
the promotion of markets in land, and 'market-led' mechanisms
of redistribution is a far cry from what La Via Campesina, Food
First, and others call for, the change in Bank policy is making
it 'legitimate' again to call for land reform and to struggle
over its definition. At least we are beginning to reach agreement
that there is a problem to be addressed.
The Problem: Land Concentration Around the world, the poorest
of the poor are the landless in rural areas, followed closely
by the land-poor, those whose poor quality plots are too small
support a family. They make up the majority of the rural poor
and hungry, and it is in rural areas where the worst poverty and
hunger are found. The expansion of agricultural production for
export, controlled by wealthy elites who own the best lands, continually
displaces the poor to ever more marginal areas for farming. They
are forced to fell forests located on poor soils, to farm d thin,
easily eroded soils on steep slopes, and to try to eke out a living
on desert margins and in rainforests. As they fall deeper into
poverty, and despite their comparatively good soil management
practices, they are often accused of contributing to environmental
But the situation is often worse on the more favorable lands.
The better soils are concentrated into large holdings used for
mechanized, pesticide, and chemical fertilizer-intensive monocultural
production for export. Many of our planet's best soils-which had
earlier been sustainably managed for millennia by pre-colonial
| traditional agriculturalists-are today being rapidly degraded,
and in some cases abandoned completely, in the short term pursuit
of export profits and competition. The productive capacity of
these soils is dropping rapidly due to soil compaction, erosion,
waterlogging, and fertility loss, together with growing resistance
of pests to pesticides and the loss of biodiversity.
The products harvested from these more fertile lands flow
overwhelmingly toward consumers in wealthy countries. Impoverished
local majorities cannot afford to buy what is grown, and because
they are not a significant market, national elites essentially
see local people as a labor source-a cost of production to be
minimized by keeping wages down and busting unions. The overall
result is a downward spiral of land degradation and deepening
poverty in rural areas. Even urban problems have rural origins,
as the poor must abandon the countryside in massive numbers, migrating
to cities where only a lucky few make a living wage, while the
majority languish in slums and shanty towns.
If present trends toward greater land concentration and the
accompanying industrialization of agriculture continue unabated,
it will be impossible to achieve social or ecological sustainability.
On the other hand, our research at Food First shows the potential
that could be achieved by re-distribution. Small farmers are more
productive, more efficient, and contribute more to broadbased
regional development than do the larger corporate farmers who
hold the best land. Small farmers with secure tenure can also
be much better stewards of natural resources, protecting the long
term productivity of their soils and conserving functional biodiversity
on and around their farms.
Only by changing development tracks from the large farm/land
concentration/displacement of peoples/industrialization model
can we stop the downward spiral of poverty, low wages, rural-urban
migration, and environmental degradation. Re-distributive land
reform holds the promise of change toward a smaller farm, family-
or cooperative-based model, with the potential to feed the poor,
lead to broad-based economic development, and conserve biodiversity
and productive resources.
History shows that the re-distribution of land to landless
and land-poor rural families is a very effective way to improve
rural welfare. Dozens of land reform programs were carried out
after WW II. In looking back at the successes and failures, we
can distinguish between what might be called 'genuine' land reforms,
and the more 'window dressing' or even 'fake' reforms.
When a significant proportion of quality land was really distributed
to a majority of the rural poor, with policies favorable to successfully
family farming in place and the power of rural elites to distort
and 'capture' policies was broken, the results have invariably
been real, measurable poverty reduction and improvement in human
welfare. The economic successes of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan,
and China resulted from such reforms. Even the felling of fragile
forests has been slowed, as happened during the 1980s with the
now-aborted Sandinista land reform in Nicaragua.
In contrast, when 'reforms' gave only poor quality land to
poor families and failed to support them with favorable polices,
credits, and access to markets, or failed to alter the rural power
structures that work against the poor, land reform failed. Mexico
and the Philippines are typical cases of such failure.
The more successful reforms triggered relatively broadbased
economic development. By including the poor in economic development,
they built domestic markets to support national economic activity.
The often tragic outcome of failed reforms was to condemn the
'beneficiaries' to even worse poverty, as they frequently assumed
heavy debts to pay for the poor quality land they received, in
remote locations without credit or access to markets, and in policy
environments hostile to small farmers.
The World Bank: Repeating the Errors?
Today the World Bank is taking the lead in promoting, and
in some cases financing, comprehensive reforms of land tenure.
This includes titling, registries, land market facilitation, market-led
redistribution and credit, technical assistance, and marketing
support. Governments and aid agencies are following the lead of
the Bank, aggressively implementing some or all of these reforms.
From South Africa, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, and
Brazil, to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, and countless
others, various combinations of these reforms are either being
carried out or their possible implementation is a hot topic of
While we at Food First applaud the fact that thanks in part
to the Bank it is no longer taboo to propose land reform as a
key element in sustainable development, we have serious concerns
about specific elements in these so-called reform packages. Relying
on land privatization and free market forces may well be a repeat
of the main errors of the failed reforms of the past, and is fast
bringing civil society into conflict with the Bank. Concerns include:
* When communal lands are privatized, as in Mexico and many
places in Africa and Asia, increased individual competition can
cause the breakdown of community-based resource management systems
like terraces and small-scale irrigation, leading to accelerated
land degradation. The introduction of the individual profit motive-sometimes
linked with outside corporations-can produce a new short term
emphasis on extraction-like profit taking, to the exclusion of
other concerns. Individualism can also come into sharp conflict
with indigenous land use systems, and new problems may arise with
the land claims of women and indigenous communities, who are often
left out of the process.
* Land titling, registries, and facilitation of land markets
all seem to meet the demands of farmers for secure title to their
land. Yet in today's free market macroeconomic environments this
can induce mass sell-offs of land, causing increased landlessness,
land concentration, and rural-urban migration. This 'reconcentration'
of land is occurring rapidly today in many parts of the world.
Market-led redistribution-the current favorite land reform
policy at the Bank-seeks to overcome elite resistance to agrarian
reforms by offering credit to landless or land poor farmers to
buy land at market rates from wealthy landowners. This is fraught
with risks. Landowners often choose to sell only the most marginal,
most remote, and most ecologically fragile plots that they own
(steep slopes, rainforests, desert margins, etc.), many of which
may not presently be in production, and they are often sold at
exorbitant prices. Selling these lands can easily lead to extending
the agricultural frontier, deforestation, desertification, and
soil erosion, as well as the introduction of unsustainable practices-such
as pesticide use-into fragile habitats.
* Such programs also set up 'beneficiary' families for failure.
They are saddled with heavy debts at high interest rates from
the land purchase itself, while finding themselves on poor soils
with little access to markets. This can actually deepen poverty
and land degradation, much like the failed reforms of earlier
decades. Such appears to be the case with the hotly disputed market-led
reform in Brazil, which the Bank is actively trying to replicate
in the Philippines and elsewhere. In such 'reforms', there is
also a very real likelihood that the parcels sold by landowners
will be those which are in dispute, most likely from indigenous
peoples' land claims, turning indigenous people into a second
set of potential losers, and setting the poor against the poor.
The Bank usually accompanies these reforms with packages for
the new land holders that include production credit, technical
assistance for new, marketable crops, and sometimes assistance
in marketing. While these support services are essential to successful
land reform, Bank-supported packages are often based on pesticides,
chemical fertilizers, and non-traditional export crops. In our
research on the promotion of similar packages by the US Agency
for International Development (USAID) in Central America during
the 1980s and early 1990s, we found them to intensify land degradation
and ecological problems, while leaving poor farmers in risky enterprises
with high failure rates.
There Are Better Ways
Rather than following the World Bank's market-based approach,
policy makers should learn from the successes and failures of
the post-WW II period. A set of useful principles might include
* When families receive land they must not be saddled with
heavy debt burdens. This can be accomplished by government expropriation
of idle lands, with or without compensation for former owners.
* Women must have the right to hold title to land. When titles
are vested exclusively to male heads-of-household, domestic disputes
or the premature death of a spouse inevitably lead to the destitution
of women and children.
* The land distributed must be of good quality, rather than
ecologically fragile soils which should never be farmed, and it
must be free of disputed claims by other poor people.
* People need more than land if they are to be successful.
There must also be a supportive policy environment and essential
services like credit on reasonable terms, infrastructure, support
for ecological sound technologies, and access to markets.
* The power of rural elites to distort and capture
: policies, subsidies, and windfall profits in their favor
must be effectively broken by the reforms.
* The vast majority of the rural poor must be beneficiaries
of the reform process.
* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, successful reforms
are distinguished from failed ones by a motivation and perception
that the new small family farms which are created are to be the
centerpiece of economic development, as was the case in Japan,
Taiwan, China, and Cuba. When land reform is seen as 'welfare'
or as a charitable policy for the indigent, failure has been the
Unfortunately, if we just write policy papers, even Y with
the facts on our side, we will wait a long time for policy makers
to act. That is why it is so very important that movements and
organizations of the poor and landless take matters into their
own hands, both to achieve concrete results for their members
in the short term, and to push the policy process along.
Land Reform From Below
MORE HAVE DIED IN LAND STRUGGLE THAN AT DICTATORS' HANDS
The number of Brazilians who have died fighting for land reform
since the country returned to democracy 15 years ago is four times
the number who were officially disappeared during the two-decade-long
authoritarian military regime (1964 - 1985), according to figures
provided by the Catholic Church. -- EFE news agency wire report,
September 6, 2000
Brazil and the MST are a case in point. While large landowners
in Brazil on the average leave more than half of their land idle,
25 million peasants struggle to survive in temporary agricultural
jobs. Founded in 1985, the MST organizes landless workers to occupy
idle lands, using a clause in the Brazil constitution to legalize
their claims, though they must defend themselves against the hired
thugs of the landowners and government security forces. Today
more than 250,000 families have won title to over 15 million acres
of land seized through MST-led takeovers, a veritable reform from
The impact on government coffers of legalizing MST-style land
occupations-cum-settlements, versus the cost of services used
by equal numbers of people migrating to urban areas is startling.
When the landless poor occupy land and force the government to
legalize their holdings, it implies costs: compensation of the
former landowner, legal expenses, credit for the new farmers,
etc. Nevertheless, the total cost to the state to maintain the
same number of people in an urban shanty town-including the services
and infrastructure they use-is twelve times the cost of legalizing
land occupations. Another way of looking at it is in terms of
the cost of creating a new job. Estimates of the cost of creating
a job in the commercial sector of Brazil range from two to twenty
times more than the cost of establishing an unemployed head of
household on farm land through agrarian reform.
Land reform farmers in Brazil have an annual income equivalent
to 3.7 minimum wages, while still landless laborers average only
0.7 of the minimum. Infant mortality among families of beneficiaries
has dropped to only half of the national average. When the movement
began in the mid-1980s, the mostly conservative mayors of rural
violently opposed to MST land occupations in surrounding areas.
However, in recent times their attitude has changed. Most of their
towns are very depressed economically, and occupations can give
local economies a much needed boost. Typical occupations consist
of 1000 to 3000 families, who turn idle land into productive farms.
They sell their produce in the marketplaces of the local towns
and buy their supplies from local merchants. Not surprisingly,
those towns with nearby MST settlements are now better off economically
than other similar towns, and some mayors now actually petition
the MST to carry out occupations near their towns.
This provides a powerful argument that land reform to create
a small farm economy is not only good for local economic development,
but is also more effective social policy than allowing business-as-usual
to keep driving the poor out of rural areas and into burgeoning
cities. It also demonstrates that while policy makers dither,
social movements can show the way.