Land Reform and Landless Livelihoods


By Prota Thomas There is a consensus being built up about the need for reforming land tenure systems and relations in order to reduce rural poverty and hunger in developing countries. The justifications for promoting land reform are many. In many developing countries, the vast majority of the population consists of landless people and agriculture workers. Yet, at the same time, much of the cultivated, fertile land is held by a small number of previously advantaged farmers, as is the case in Namibia and South Africa. Thus, the social impetus for land reform is the possibility of improved social justice, reconciliation and equity. The writer can argue that the basic reason for advocating land reform and tenurial security is that access to land by the landless should be seen as an essential human right. With this basic resource at their disposal, the possibility of access to employment, shelter, food and improved livelihoods is granted. However, landless people seem to be the least powerful group in society in their struggles to obtain and secure access to land and other basic resources. They face several human rights violations in the form of landowner harassment and unfair trials held in courts lacking an independent judiciary. Despite these clear arguments, few countries in the Southern Hemisphere have undertaken sweeping land reform measures but due to the political and economic difficulties associated with land reform the exercise has been formidable. Land reform implies intervention in local power relations. An effort to offer greater access to, and control over, land and other productive resources and improved support services to small farmers mean reduction of the economic and political power of the landed classes. Sadly is that these social relations are never easy. This explains why many land reform measures, even those initially appearing elaborate and far-reaching, fail to produce the intended results. Recent Land Reform Approaches and Outcomes Current observation indicates that land reform measures have lost political force in many developing countries. This is due to economic difficulties such as debt burdens, budget deficits and reduced public spending resulting from structural adjustment programmes. This has meant that the redistribution of land to benefit previously disadvantaged farmers remained an elusive target due to budget constraints and investment protection agreements between post-independence states and their former colonizers. Moreover, the international financial institutions associated with the structural adjustment programmes are emphasizing the higher productivity of previously advantaged farmers and their contribution to export earning. Yet, at the same time, these agencies are mainly involved in carrying out cadastral surveys, improving national land registration systems and introducing the use of computers for better consolidation of holding. However, the issues of redistribution of power and economic resources could be seen as technological problems. This makes one to conclude that the politically sensitive issue of land redistribution is being carefully avoided. In most developing countries such Latin America and Southern Africa where large holdings persist and fertile land is concentrated in the hands of a few, there is a clear reason for acquiring land for the landless, this is because people without properties are not free. Actors and Power Relations Affecting Land Reform It is clear that regardless of a broad agreement/consensus amongst actors such as national governments, national agriculture unions, NGOS and international agencies on the need to promote land reform, and efforts to undertake a few programme activities, there has been little research and critical reflection on what exactly defines land reform in the new millennium. How are current approaches, such as market-driven land reform, tested? And where? What are the global forces and developments that make landless livelihoods more in danger? Which are the major institutions and actors obstructing local mobilizations? What options and partners can the landless count on? It is obvious that the writer cannot profess to answer all the above questions. The writer is merely analyzing those forces and actors currently shaping dialogues and policies on land reform. He examines through market, social partners, role of state policies, landless legal representations how issues of land redistribution and the like are being played out in the arenas. Local Agrarian Structure and Susceptibility When a scholar examines the available information on land issues such as rates of landlessness, rural poverty, land conflict, etc., two initial observations emerge. First, the amount of available data on the current situation is greatly lacking and secondly, what data do exist point to ever increasing rates of landlessness, growing rural inequalities, high level of food insecurity and increasing frequency of land conflicts. However, it is possible that some of this growth is due to demographic expansion within the category of the landless population. Yet, at the same time many agricultural development programmes have become increasingly ineffective in recent years, in large part due to liberalization and structural adjustment policies. This has resulted in basic food items such as wheat, maize and rice being increasingly imported from rich nations while at the same time fertile land which is not under cultivation, is set aside. Weakening Role of the State The role of the state is vital in any land reform programme, not only for practical reasons such as carrying out cadastral surveys, promulgating legislation, providing technical and financial support but also because land reform is inherently a political process. Without the execution by the state of effective, social just land laws, policies and strategies, land reform will remain a dead letter regardless of popular demand for land by the landless. Regardless of the great deals of scope for an effective state intervention, very few countries in the developing world have successfully executed progressive land reform measures. Why? This can be attributed to the political nature of reform, which involves the appropriation and redistribution of land, often from the landed class, holding significant economic, social and political weight within the state machinery. Dorner (quoted in Krishna, 2001) suggests that “the nation-state has lost much of its autonomy, and levels of decision-making are increasingly confused with the growing internationalization of trade, the proliferation of transnational companies that defy national boundaries and the advances in technology that make all this possible. This means that the role of the state is thus restricted by global forces, that it only partial control.” “This is further exacerbated by the apparent remoteness of the decision-making centers of foreign-based enterprises and agro-industrial conglomerates that are now extending their control over national domains,” (Pina, 1998 quoted in Krishna, 2001). This is a clear demonstration that the state is not a monolithic institution. It does have different structures and institutions, as well as individuals with varied interests and ideologies. Land Reform? Market Reliance the Solution? Krishna (2001) argues, “Perhaps no other policy issue is more susceptible to shift in ideology and the balance of political power than the transfer of land property rights.” The current utilization of the market mechanism is viewed by international agencies to be the main remedy for today’s landlessness and poverty. This is being advocated with a view to reduce the role of the state in land reform so that it goes along with the market liberalization policies. But the reality is that the prospects for making more land available on the market for redistribution are limited due to land scarcity. What is important to mention here is that the state’s role is very crucial in an effort to reduce the power of the landed class and to put pressure on landowners to relinquish land beyond the permitted average ceiling and to decide on the land price. To allow a free hand to the landowners and banks to decide on land prices in the name of non-intervention in the market transactions process would mean more inequalities and landless people’s further dependence on landlords and banks. Legal Representation for Landless? The land question is a political question. In this part of the world, those who possess most of the cultivated, fertile land also hold most of the political power. Landowners can thus avoid, delay or even make land redistribution measures ineffective through the use of legal loopholes or outright manipulation of legal and political systems. They seem to have influential partners in high places and outside the borders. They may even skilfully employ reasoning that conforms to the approaches, methods and interest of multinational companies, banks and international agencies. Therefore, land reform legislation alone can do very little to change existing power and economic structures. Thus, landless people are victims of human rights violations especially when they try to reclaim and validate their land rights through actions such as squatting and exploitation by landowners and so forth. By the way, where are the human rights organizations on this? Why they are not advocating land reform for the landless? It is imperative that legal representation is considered at all stages of land reform, from identification of land that might be made available, to negotiation and acquisition. Conclusion A number of conclusions can be drawn from the preceding analysis: First, land reform is a valid policy option for rural development today and tomorrow. It is also evident that land reform measurers need to be perceptive and adapted to specific local circumstances. Land reform is not merely providing land from one tenurial group to another. It is about changing power structures and socio-economic relations. No sweeping land redistribution measures capable of redressing land inequality are feasible through the market mechanism other than compulsory acquisition. – Prota Thomas is a land economist employed as a valuer in the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement. Views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author.