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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Land Policies and Agrarian Reform. Proposal Paper. Part I. Proposals

Documents of reference

Merlet, Michel. Proposal Paper. Land Policies and Agrarian Reforms. AGTER. November 2007. (English version: Rodeghier, Mary). 120 p.

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The following proposals are not definitive. They are dynamic and will change as a function of the contributions, comments and criticisms provoked by this paper.

Neither are they presented by order of importance, since the priorities are not the same in different regions of the world. However, they are all of interest in one way or another and should be taken into account for most situations, with slight changes and adaptations according to the specific case.

A. 4 elementary proposals

1. Rehabilitating agrarian reform in the case of very inequitable access to land

In every country with very unfair land distribution, agrarian reform should be rehabilitated as a necessary and essential public policy. Furthermore, efforts should be made to systematically improve the procedures for implementing agrarian reform, so that the opportunities provided by favourable contexts for their application are not lost.

From 1960 to 1980, agrarian reform was one of the policies consistently supported by development organisations and international financial institutions. It was recognised as necessary in every country of the world with polarised agrarian structures, such as in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. Today, due to the limitations and cost of often poorly implemented agrarian reforms, and due to the fact that there has been a considerable decrease of rural populations in comparison to urban populations, agrarian reform is often considered as having lost its pertinence. Although the World Bank acknowledges in some of its documents that, in theory, agrarian reforms are still necessary, the programmes that it and other international financial institutions support no longer have speedy and radical change of agrarian structures as their objective.

However, every time land is distributed very unfairly (for example, in Brazil, Zimbabwe, South Africa, etc.), fast and efficient government intervention to redistribute land to small and medium sized farmers (very often the most apt at exploiting the land in the interest of the majority) is as necessary and urgent as ever. Agrarian reform therefore constitutes the first public policy to be implemented in strategies aimed at combating poverty. The vast majority of the poor is made up of peasants and former peasants who do not have enough resources to live on. Peasants facing ruin all over the world keep adding to the throngs of destitute people. Where large tracts of land are used for extensive farming, and where large numbers of peasants without access to land that would allow them to enter into a process of sustainable development exist, the first and most urgent measure to be taken is to give them land access and thereby implement agrarian reform.

However, the agrarian reform to be implemented must take into account previous experience and not simply reproduce the same systems as in the past. Political contexts favourable to the execution of an agrarian reform occur relatively rarely, since they require balances of power, internally and externally, capable of confronting the interests of the landed gentry, who often play important roles within the groups holding the power. Furthermore, when they do exist, these favourable conditions often fade away. Thus, it is vital not to miss the historic opportunities that arise. Hence the importance of systematically seeking ways to improve the agrarian reform process hinges on making the impact of land redistribution irreversible in the short term.

This improvement above all requires that FARMERS’ ORGANISATIONS PLAY THE LEADING ROLE and implies:

  • improving the dynamics of setting up agrarian reform policies, by seeking to progressively win support from different social classes, while sectors hostile to the reform become progressively weaker. This is an essential point without which transformations are quickly aborted.

  • revision of relations between the collective and the individual, by building mechanisms adapted to the social management of land while securing the tenure of individual farmers

    Collectivisation of production frequently impedes changes in the production system and the balance of power. Implicit acceptance of absolute ownership as the sole reference leads to thinking in terms of collective and individual, whereas the construction of viable systems depends on combinations of collective and individual rights. Tenure security for individual farmers resulting from reform and the creation of new procedures for the collective management of the commons inherent with the land are two processes that should be developed simultaneously.

  • preparation, beginning at the inception of an agrarian reform, for the «â€¯post-reform period », by avoiding the creation of a reformed sector that is cut off from the realities of other small farmers

    Agrarian reform is a public policy, requiring dynamic government intervention at a specific time. However, allowing one’s future to depend only on the goodwill of successive governments would be foolish. The creation of a reformed sector with specific rules and strong dependence on paternalist government action combined with the existence of farmers’ organisations that are specific to the reformed sector have always led to extremely precarious control over the advantages of agrarian changes (such as in Nicaragua and Honduras).

    Although specific assistance can be fully justified for farmers benefiting from agrarian reform, the disappearance of the agrarian reform benefits in the event of a sudden change in the balance of political power can only be avoided by immediately setting up agricultural policies that are common to both the reformed sector and that of small and medium sized farmers. It is also vital to constitute farmers’ organisations capable of creating a coherent link between the struggles pertaining to these sectors.

  • the creation of local capacities for land management, without waiting for the end of the reform process

    In response to the same concern, rather than completely separating the land of the reformed sector from the real estate market, it is advisable to prepare far in advance for the changes that follow agrarian reform. The farms of the reformed sector also require modifications regarding land access. Instead of these modifications being only the result of settlements managed by Agrarian Reform Institutes, it is necessary to develop local competencies and capacities to learn how to wield the different procedures for control over the real estate market (including the rental market in certain cases). Farmers’ organisations must learn to conceive, develop and manage these regulation procedures, while fostering relationships with the other farmers of the area.

  • linking land reform with an agricultural policy that permits the development of peasant farming

    This is a crucial point. Although agrarian reform in terms of redistributing land is the first essential step, its success depends on the availability of economically satisfactory conditions to new farms, so that they might be productive.

    We have seen that the potential for family farming can only be fulfilled if appropriate public policies permit its consolidation and modernisation. This is especially so for fragile farms set up during a radical process of agrarian reform. The protection of key products at border areas, so as to prevent competition with farmers with far higher productivity levels, and a policy like that of Taiwan, where mechanisation and modernisation did not immediately replace human labour with machines, constitute the essential elements without which the fruit of the reform cannot be harvested. Other policies can play a major additional role, such as a product quality policy, a policy to compensate disadvantaged areas, etc.

2. Regulating land markets and managing land structures

Where the unequal distribution of land is not so serious, it is necessary to set up farm size restriction policies and mechanisms to regulate land markets.

This proposal applies to countries that do not as such need an “agrarian reform”, i.e. the rapid redistribution of land via government intervention. This also holds for those that have just instituted an agrarian reform. In these two cases, it is advisable to manage the progression of agrarian structures so as to permit the modernisation of family farms, since we know that this cannot be achieved by the market alone.

Structural policies here are public policies intended to correct the functioning of the land market and ensure that the progression of the agrarian structure conforms to the interests of the majority. Just as much as an agrarian reform, structural policies ensure that land fulfils the social function assigned to it at a given moment. This implies that farmers and public institutions agree on the types of farms they want in each region, in terms of size and farming systems, in order to create the conditions under which the largest number can become economically viable and achieve gradual modernisation.

Here again, as with agrarian reform policies, STRONG, DEMOCRATIC AND REPRESENTATIVE FARMERS’ ORGANISATIONS standing for the majority of farmers is absolutely essential (see the example of the experiences of the Netherlands, Denmark, Taiwan and France).

There is a wide range of possible measures, though some are too expensive for poor countries. Mention should be made of the importance of those that can be taken almost everywhere:

  • Land taxation that tax large estates, over-extensive use of land and destructive use of natural resources;

  • Regulation and improvement of land markets, which can use mechanisms to control the land market managed jointly by the government and farmers’ organisations (somewhat like the SAFER in France), land banks, and land credit for those without access to long-term finance to purchase land. These interventions are complex and require constant monitoring of the land market and the capacity to adapt procedures if necessary;

  • Policies that facilitate land consolidation, regrouping small holdings when these have been dispersed to such an extent as to impede modernisation.

However, apart from these measures aimed at adapting existing land systems into small private properties, it is also important to guarantee the right of farmers to farm independently from ownership rights. This is one of the only ways of solving the problems raised by equal successions between generations in the peasant economy.

  • Providing tenure security for tenants, share croppers and all users who are not owners is a very positive land policy and has proven to be most efficient in certain contexts. Naturally, it requires adequate legislation, though in no way does this suffice. Such policies can be enforced only if strong farmers’ organisations exist that are capable of fighting to get them voted through and making sure that they are applied. Specific jurisdictions must sometimes be set up so that small farmers can have access to the law on such delicate subjects.

  • The constitution of specific landowning bodies (whose legal status may take different forms: land trusts, stock companies, groups of landowners, cooperatives, etc.) that rent out the land needed by farmers. This can be an interesting option provided that farmers’ rights are guaranteed and that the lessees truly practice the kind of farming that is being promoted.

3. Thoroughly decentralise the mechanisms for administering individual property rights

International development programmes spend hundreds of millions of dollars setting up national cadastres and land registries, asserting that the only way to guarantee farmers’ rights is to give them title deeds, and that these deeds will permit spurring investment and can be used as collaterals to obtain loans.

Most of these efforts remain in vain as far as small farmers are concerned due to high operation costs and the lack of local procedures for updating rights, since in a few years these cadastres (land registries) will no longer reflect the real situation vis-à-vis their rights.

But there is worse to come. We saw that the process of recognising rights is usually based on the Torrens system invented during the colonial era, and that large numbers of beneficiaries risk being despoiled when establishing cadastres and land registries. Although it encounters several obstacles and resistance from different areas, the implementation of new systems adapted to developing countries, such as the land plans in West Africa, is an attempt to break with this top-down registration system.

Therefore, the idea that security of rights can only occur by acquiring full ownership should be fought against vigorously.

Decentralising the administration of rights to the level of municipalities, farmers’ organisations, indigenous and customary organisations, and ad-hoc commissions is a priority as well as a condition ensuring that land registries at the national level are sustainable and that the rights of all users can be updated at a reasonable cost.

It is the participation and the existence of local-level witnesses whose honesty is known to all, rather than Global Positioning Systems that should be used to establish where the boundaries of plots lie as a last resort. This requires respected local institutions able to validate the rights of each and everyone.

To avoid recourse to official justice, which is always slow, expensive, and often inefficient and corrupt, it is necessary to combine these functions of pure administration of rights with other functions for settling conflicts and mediation, adapted to current requirements, which can take the form of different institutions.

In some situations, according to procedures that can be adapted to each case, a very useful procedure is an initial “registration” or writing down of the rights of collective or communal bodies, and not only those of individuals. Nonetheless, these rights cannot be simplified into ownership rights in the Western meaning of the term. This leads us to the fourth proposal.

4. Set up decision-making bodies for managing common resources at the territorial level

Apart from rights over land in the strict meaning of the term, this entails managing all common property and taking into account bundles of rights over a single area. Just as agrarian reform, the sustainable management of resources (wood, water, biodiversity) cannot be ensured solely in a top-down manner through government institutions.

Setting up these participatory decision-making bodies at the level of different territories should constitute an avenue for our work in the coming years. This concerns all territories and not only so-called indigenous ones.

Today, this challenge cannot be dissociated from the implementation of land policies. In addition, it fits in with the mechanisms mentioned in the prior sections, whose aim is to empower a society to establish and apply policies of common resource management.

B. What should be done to ensure that these policies are applied?

A certain number of actions must be carried out so that these proposals can come to fruition.

They are not recipes: it is not possible to implement a “good” agrarian reform simply because one “knows” how to. It requires mechanisms and strategies that, in time, aim to change the current balance of power. Thus from the very outset, farmers’ organisations are at the centre of these proposals. We will now detail the proposals in five points.

1. Set up an experience exchange network between farmers’ organisations

Setting up an experience exchange network between farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ organisations, with periodic support from researchers and experts, is essential. By means of such a network, everyone is aware of the myriad dimensions of the problems and is able to learn better from the experiences collected around the world. It entails globalising know-how in view of more efficiently globalising struggles.

2. Education and research-action on land issues with farmers and rural inhabitants

It is advisable to set up education and training programmes on land issues for farmers and rural inhabitants and create conditions so that action and research on the subject helps to guide farmers to combat new challenges and develop more pertinent public policies.

  • There is now a real need to teach farmers and rural inhabitants about the strategic importance of land issues with respect to the future of their societies as wholes, so that they become more aware of what is at stake in their struggles.

  • The development of research-action methods in this forever politically sensitive area is an unavoidable step in the process. The struggles led by farmers, indigenous people, rural inhabitants and other allies must succeed in convincing their interlocutors of the feasibility of the alternative projects described, by making use of pilot projects and experiences where it was possible to change the balance of power and build the different structures required to create large-scale social capital.

  • Consequently, the methods employed for the fight need to evolve, since it is no longer a question of simply demanding these things from the government, but of being able to construct alternatives together.

3. Lobbying to influence financers and decision-makers

Lobbying at international financial institutions and bilateral and multilateral development bodies is necessary in order to obtain the space and resources that spur innovation and the implementation of policies different from those promoted today.

4. Build new alliances

To make progress with the previous proposals on land management, it now appears vital to build new alliances beyond peasant and indigenous circles on subjects of direct interest to urban populations, which often form the majority in many countries (food quality, the environment, rural management, the link between urban poverty and underpaid small farmers).

These proposals do not only concern farmers and rural populations, but the whole of human society as it seeks sustainable development.

5. Link land issues and the fight against poverty and inequalities

Including the issue of land on the agendas of discussions on global problems should be done by emphasising the fundamental tie between land matters and the causes of world poverty.

Without agrarian reform and agricultural policies favourable to small farmers, it will be impossible to eradicate poverty or achieve the sustainable management of the world’s natural resources.