Whose :Land Reform?
by Gumisai Mutume,
Third World Network Features/IPS
Multinational Monitor magazine, June 2001
As they seize, occupy and farm the land, poor communities
in developing countries are placing land reform on the international
But market-assisted land reforms, championed by institutions
such as the World Bank, are threatening sustainable land redistribution
in a growing number of countries, the Oakland-based Institute
for Food and Development (Food First) warns.
"While we applaud the World Bank for recognizing the
importance of the land issue, we fear their policy prescriptions
are doomed to failure," says Peter Rosset, co-director of
"The market responds to money, not human need, and it
is hard to see how the poor will benefit" from the Bank's
policies, says Rosset, the author of a new report, "Tides
Shift on Agrarian Reform: New Movements Show the Way," which
critiques World Bank-led land reforms and highlights mass movements
driving alternative reforms from below.
Decades of grassroots movements have convinced institutions
such as the World Bank that landlessness is an important cause
of poverty. The Bank is now either financing or setting the tone
for land-reform programs in many developing countries, from Guatemala
to the Philippines to South Africa.
Three countries-Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines-have
been most exposed to market-assisted land reforms, which the Bank
has been pushing over the last five years.
"The World Bank has never pushed that model of land reform
as the only model," says John Bruce, senior counsel at the
Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development Network of
the Bank. "It is a model that can produce genuine benefits
where the political situation does not permit redistribution through
The Bank says its model is not a substitute to laws enabling
governments to expropriate land. Expropriation has been an important
instrument of breaking large landlord resistance to land reform.
"This is still a new model that is still being evaluated
and we need to do more studies on it," says Bruce.
Market-assisted reforms involve granting loans and credits
to the landless to buy land at market rates from wealthy landowners
and to acquire fertilizers and technical assistance for new, marketable
They are often viewed as an instrument for rewarding landlords
rather than for improving the livelihoods of the landless poor.
Food First says market-assisted reforms are bound to fail
because they place a heavy burden on poor people to repay expensive
loans, often from harvests from poor soils. Landowners often choose
to sell the most marginal and ecologically fragile plots that
While assisting resettled farmers with technical support is
hardly opposed, some sections of the NGO community and landless
people's movements such as La Via Campesina are against Bank-supported
packages that rely on pesticides and chemical fertilizers and
introduce non-traditional export crops into communities.
"The approach responds to the need to make land reform
more demand-driven and, in addition to giving access to land,
provide avenues for beneficiaries to make investments and make
productive use of this land," says Robert Thompson, director
of the Bank's rural development department, in response to an
earlier NGO petition to the Bank.
One of the concerns around market-assisted land reform is
that privatizing communal lands increases individual competition.
Individual profit motives-sometimes linked with outside corporations
-can create an emphasis on extraction-like profit-taking, breaking
down community-based resource management systems and accelerating
land degradation, critics charge.
"In our research on the promotion of similar packages
by the U.S. Agency for International Development 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," notes the
Food First study
Profit-driven land use often leads to the introduction of
new exotic crops, often more in demand abroad. New problems may
also arise with land claims of women and indigenous communities
- often left out of land-titling programs because of a myriad
of reasons such as traditional or discriminatory practices.
Landless people and their struggles have gained world attention.
In Zimbabwe, so-called veterans of the liberation war are currently
confronting white commercial farmers who control the vast majority
of prime land in the country, as the government looks the other
In Brazil, landless workers occupy idle lands and take advantage
of a clause in the constitution to legalize their claims [See
"Brazil's MST: Taking Back the Land," Multinational
Monitor, January/February 2001]. Some 250,000 families have managed
to win titles to more than 15 million acres of land through the
Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil by seizing land, described
by Food First as "a veritable reform from below."
"The total cost to the state to maintain the same number
of people in an urban shanty town is 12 times the cost of legalizing
such land occupations," says Rosset. "The beneficiaries
are measurably better off than other poor people in Brazil."
Yet these seizures are not without incident. Brazil's Catholic
Church estimates that the number of people who have died fighting
for land in the country is four times the number of those who
officially disappeared during military rule in the country from
1964 to 1985.
Food First says poor families should not be saddled with high
debts when they receive land and thus recommends government expropriation
of idle land as the most workable solution for many of the world's