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Written by: Michel Merlet, (English version: Mary Rodeghier)
Writing date: November 2007
Organizations: Association pour contribuer à l’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de la Terre, de l’Eau et des Ressources naturelles (AGTER), Institut de Recherche et d’Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM), Réseau Agriculture Paysanne et Modernisation (APM), Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH)
Type of document: Research Paper
Merlet, Michel. Proposal Paper. Land Policies and Agrarian Reforms. AGTER. November 2007. (English version: Rodeghier, Mary). 120 p.
The contemporary rural world is characterised by several new elements:
the international character of issues and matters,
the speed of changes.
The globalisation of trade leads to a differentiation of types of agriculture that now occurs immediately on a large scale. The changes incurred are often irreversible. Putting farmers with very different productivity levels into competition with one another implies the ruin of entire sectors of farming around the world and growing inequality12.
The last few decades have seen a radical redistribution of land in the countries of the former socialist bloc, with the decollectivisation and privatisation of State and cooperative farms. The lack of transparency and democracy in this process raises questions. What is more, this phenomenon has occurred within a very short time and on a large scale.
Whether in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe or elsewhere, societies no longer have the time to adapt to these changes and develop adequate regulation mechanisms. Box # 2 illustrates this phenomenon, whose consequences are often disastrous, using an Asian example.
Box # 2 An example of the insufficiency of customary laws regarding changes in the economic context of the Ifugao, an indigenous community (Luzon, Philippines) 13
The Ifugao are an indigenous people known for their remarkable terraced rice fields sculpted several hundred metres high into the slopes of the mountains in the north of the island of Luzon. They have developed an efficient agrarian system based exclusively on manual farming under extremely difficult ecological conditions.
A traditional practice among the Ifugaos is a sharecropping system known as « kinapiá » which permits adjustments to land access. In order to avoid dividing up the paddy field, custom states that only the two eldest sons (or daughters) may inherit their parent’s plots when they marry. In return, they must ensure the subsistence of their parents.
Today, however, the eldest children are the first to leave to study and work outside the community, and most of them do not return to work in the fields. Thus, they cede their land to their younger brothers and sisters on a sharecropping basis. This is the reason why the percentage of sharecroppers in Ifugao villages is so high (often about 50%).
Given the low productivity of labour in this mountainous environment, the economic impact of sharecropping and subsequent difficulties such as in obtaining loans, are making this system unbearable for the farmers.
Since they had not adapted quickly enough, customary rules have become completely inappropriate. The processes that we have described accelerate the ruin of these growers as well as their disappearance.
Similar situations, in which customary rules and forms of social organisation are outpaced by new economic conditions, can be found on different continents, and not only in so-called “indigenous” societies.
It has become increasingly difficult for rural populations to handle the consequences of globalised trade. Furthermore, problems and conflicts related to land resources are increasing and worsening.
Two alternatives now play an essential role in the debates:
the opposition between private ownership and common property on the one hand, and
the opposition between free market and government management on the other.
We feel it necessary to surpass this simplistic and dichotomous vision in order to make progress in the form of useful proposals. To go further down this path, we shall examine three distinct but central questions that are nonetheless related:
How might the rights of land users be secured?
How might access to resources be guaranteed so as to attain the economic and social optimum for the majority?
How might cultural and historic diversity be given recognition and territories be managed?
12 Cf. Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, Histoire des agricultures du monde, Paris : Le Seuil. 1997. See also the speeches of M. Mazoyer at the World Social Forum 2001, during the plenary session and workshops.
13 Cf. Michel Merlet, Land tenure and production systems in the Cordillera. Mission report for the FAO and the Ministry of Agrarian Reform of the Philippines (DAR), March 1996.