Constraints on Land Reform


By Prota Thomas

1. Introduction
Land tenure reform is not a modern phenomenon, nor has reform been confined to developing countries only. But recent technological and institutional changes in land reform policy since 2001 to 2003 in Namibia has brought about an unprecedented shift in the options for social economic and political action.

These changes in policies have negatively affected the possibilities for effective political and economic action at local and even national levels- actions necessary to implement and preserve the benefits to introduce new reform measures.

And of course, there remains the imbalance of political power and influence within the nation state, which remains the primary deterrent to actions required for equal distribution of resources and opportunities.

This section outlines some of the major land reforms of the twentieth century, with a note on the earlier transformation of European feudalism.

Next, some possible sources of political action at the international, national and local levels are considered for the initiation and implementation of reforms by the author.

The third section examines the globalization of markets and economies, and the negative effects this new world order can have especially on local initiatives dealing with land tenure reforms. The last section suggests some prospective national and international institutional innovations to level the economic playing field.

2. Historical Landmarks.

The European feudal system of several centuries ago is today an anachronism. The author observed that although comprising of social, political and economic institutions, it was basically an agrarian system built on the control of land.

According to Krishna (2001) eventually that system conflicted with the evolving goal of creating strong nation states, proved ill-equipped to respond to the requirements of expanding markets and too inflexible to accommodate the increased use of capital and failed to meet the needs of human beings’ evolving self-conception.

Krishna (2001) further states that yet despite its inadequacies, injustices and rigidities by present standards, the feudal system was an adaptation to the times.

Growing out of a crumbling and disintegration world empire, it organized people according to strict class structures with mutual obligations between classes, thereby assuring some degree of cohesion, internal harmony and security from potential enemies external to the feudal manor.

Scholars and development thinkers further pointed out that feudal structure was inconsistent with the requirements of changing from an agrarian system to an industrial society.

It is also worthy to point out that various attempts reforming these agrarian systems and their eventual transformation defined major landmarks in the economic history of the European states.

Worth noting is that feudal land tenure systems and peasants’ struggle for land rights were key factors in the French Revolution.

Quite interesting is to learn that the history of the USA is not devoid of the land reform experience. Comad and Meyer (1964) argued that the American civil war was a conflict over land as well as slavery.

According to Krishna (200 I) the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided full title to 160 acres of public land after five years of residence and evidence of improvements, was passed only after many years of debate.

Krishna (200 I) further observed that “the Southern States were threatened by a free-land policy because it undermined the slavery system, which was the foundation for cotton production on plantations”. Edwards (1940) pointed out that “there were not enough votes in both houses of Congress to pass the Homestead Act until the Southern States seceded over the slavery issue”.
The failure to follow through with land reform after the civil war cast a 100 years shadow over race relations and the economic opportunities of black Americans.

The slaves were free, but they did not have the independent economic opportunities had land reform been carried out (Geisler and Popper, 1984).
Russian collectivization may not have provided the individual incentives and decision-making freedom that family farms did.

However, the author could argue that Russian development planners, development thinkers and policy makers’ concern was rapid industrialization.

This is due to the fact that Russian agriculture was producing a substantial export surplus when the collectivization policy was implemented and a key factor was to free up labour in agriculture and provide it to the new factories.

This is also confirmed by both Owen (1966) and Nichols (1964) when they pointed out that the collective system functioned to achieve these ends.

Another classic example of land tenure policies with various extensions and modifications during the 20th century is found in Mexico.

Scholars have argued that the Constitution of 1917, preceded by years of bloody revolution that left one million dead, declared that all land was owned by the nation.

Yet, due to fragmented political forces following the revolution, major land distribution did not take place until Cardenas’s administration in the 1930s.
During his tenure, almost 18 million hectares were distributed to more than 80 000 peasants. However, the presidency of Custano Diaz Ordaz witnessed a major redistribution of land.

Following the Second World War, another major land reform was carried out in Japan and South Korea.

In Japan, the decision to implement a fundamental land reform was essentially made by the US occupation forces in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

The People’s Republic of China also carried out the agrarian reform that affected most people on the mainland.

Initial reforms in the early 1950s were followed later in that decade by complete collectivization and communization of agriculture.

The Chinese established the production responsibility system and essentially returned to individual farming (Dorner, 1992). This change was followed by a substantial boost in agricultural productivity.

It is important to state that the author could not go on to list all land reforms implemented the world over in other countries such as Egypt, Tanzania, Vietnam, the Philippines and recently in Zimbabwe. This is due to the fact that the purpose here is not to give an exhaustive list of countries where some type of land reform has been implemented during the past century but rather to concentrate on the universal concern with these agrarian and institutional issues.

3. International, National and Local Initiatives

The author wishes to point out that most of the meaningful reforms noted above came after revolution. The influence, action and support of land reform programmes from outside by another nation has been widespread.

The influence of the USA in Japan is a classic example. However, the USA was unable to wield that same influence in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Other nations also tried with varying degrees of success to instigate and influence the land reform programmes of other nations.

A nation such as Sweden used its diplomatic and foreign assistance mission in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia to cajole and advise the government to undertake land reform for both domestic and foreign policy reasons (Krishna, 200 I).

European Union States such as the French through its policy of assimilation (in Senegal and Ivory Coast) and British indirect rule through experts (in Kenya) tried to convert a variety of communal land systems to the Western freehold model throughout their African colonies, before and after independence.

The conversion of the communal land system to the Western freehold model is currently being implemented in Namibia with financial and technical assistance from the EU.

Interesting to note is that no African or Asian nation can boast of success from this initiative.

In Kenya, there is no more food security and the result is a state of landlessness.

Worth mentioning is that the specialized agencies from the other parts of the world have held conferences, offering technical assistance and using various forms of leverage and pressure in Africa to encourage land policies that their experts consider more effective or more equitable than the existing system.
Other Scholars call it neo-colonialism. The writer cannot find a comfortable different terminology other than that used by those scholars. Will ever Africa learn a lesson?

Remember in this part of the world if we do not do it ourselves, we have failed!! Russia and Chinese officials have used their own approaches to land ownership in order to inspire reforms in many newly independent countries.

Many land reforms begin as political initiatives and action at the local level.

The main thrust of peasant collective action has been in many instances out of sheer desperation to meet their end needs, sometimes as a means of pressuring their governments or simply as a means of defying the government inaction.

– To be continued

In the case of peasant organizations, one must distinguish between those whose origins and purposes are focused on the struggle for their rights and those created primarily to perform economic functions.

Peasant collective action in the fight for land was more visible and significant in Latin America’s earlier reforms in countries such as Mexico, Venezuela and Bolivia.

The author wishes to emphasise that local collective action before and after will remain crucial to the support of meaningful land reforms. The following section explores the hypothesis that local action has become more constrained due to a variety of development over the past decades.

4. Obstacles to Effective Action

Scholars have argued that during the course of the past 100 years, changes in the conditions of agricultural life were unique and momentous.

Early on, a family needed little to provide for its subsistence beyond a parcel of land and basic tools. In today’s world, subsistence farming is becoming less and less viable, and it is next to impossible to exchange excess Omahangu for the raw materials of other life-sustaining necessities.

The market is now all important. All items vital to life are becoming necessities. The market penetrates and rules many aspects of life, even in the remotest of rural areas.

The technological revolution in farming totally transformed the conditions under which it is carried out today.

According to Krishna (1995) technology and the market demand new institutional rules and procedures, locally, nationally and internationally. Yet Korten (1995) observed that these developments have led to the increasing globalization of a food system in which the interests and powers of other nations, as well as of multinational corporations, penetrate deeply into life and decisions at the local level.

The author could also argue that all these developments have made actions and initiatives by local people, especially peasant interests, increasingly difficult to be guarded against.

This is because one of the most significant phenomena of today’s world is globalization, growing ties, networking and interdependencies among and between nations the world over.

Krishna (2001) argues that all economies, even those of the largest nations that were essentially self-sufficient a generation or two generations ago, are today highly dependent on international trade.

A corollary of this increased trade is that national economies are less amenable to direction by domestic economic policies, making life increasingly difficult for national legislators and executives. Cleveland (1985) concludes that “no nation controls even that central symbol of national independence, the value of its money, and inflation and recession are both transnational”.

5. Future Institutional Modernization to Level the Playing Field.

What are the fundamental essentials underlying the major constraints discussed above? Technology!!! But the question is can we turn back on technology? The author cannot propose to shut down the inquisitiveness of the human mind.

However, not all technologies are spreading world wide. How many states have nuclear weapons at their disposal? I leave it to you to find an answer.

The writer cannot profess to answer all questions. In addition, it is a fact that technology and globalization are here to stay. Who wants to deny humanity?

Krishna (200 I) argues that free markets are magnificent if the economy has the right characteristics for them to operate effectively. However, the author is of the opinion that market forces are subject to manipulation and control by those with the economic and political power to do so.

In fact nations do not possess the same knowledge, skills and experiences. It is also important to mention that when resources and opportunities are widely and equitably distributed, most economic activity is best left to individual and market forces.

But this is not in the interest of Namibia, where skewed distributions make self-help impossible for a larger and desperately poor proportion of the society due to the colonial legacy on this nation.

The author wishes to conclude by saying that this means that if we do not do it ourselves, we have failed Namibia! Why? Simply because a larger group of people is better at solving complex problems than an expert, no matter how brilliant he is.

So this implies that local people must be given the freedom to act on local problems. Let the local people do it, let local people take charge and solve their own problems.

6. Conclusion

The author has observed that only if responsibility is seriously embraced at each level can there be meaningful, fruitful, harmonious and widely accepted actions and consequences on land reform.

It is especially difficult when dealing with issues such as land redistribution, yet this issue must be dealt with by the people themselves.

The alternatives are either no solution to such difficult problem and risking a prospective revolt by the otherwise powerless masses or some selective but key-issue partial solutions with the potential to evolve into more general solutions.

In conclusion, I just wish to mention that there is a Chinese symbol for crisis called Wei ji which has two faces – one is risk, the other is opportunity. Doers are a different breed from head scratchers -Scott Sassa
-Prota Thomas is a land economist and Acting Deputy Valuer General in the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement. Views expressed are those of the writer and not those of the employer.


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