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 policy agenda.

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 Food First.

"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 other models."

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 crops.

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 they own.

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 way.

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 landless poor.

Reforming the System

Index of Website

Home Page