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Version française de cette page : Cahier de propositions POLITIQUES FONCIERES ET REFORMES AGRAIRES. Partie I. Comment garantir un accès à la terre conforme à l’intérêt de la majorité de la population ? (4/5) Les réformes agraires

Land Policies and Agrarian Reform. Proposal Paper. Part I. How might access to land be guaranteed in conformity with the interests of the majority of the population? (4 of 5)

Agrarian reforms

Documents sources

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

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4. Agrarian reforms

Very unfair distribution of land inevitably leads to negative consequences. On the one hand, both socially and politically as it leads to poverty and rebellions, and on the other hand, economically69. In such a case, not only is the use of land resources far from optimum, but the internal market is blocked by the very low living standards of the minifundistas, tenants and sharecroppers. Rapid and substantial redistribution of land is therefore necessary before everything else, in order to create smaller units better able to exploit the land and/or limit the cost of the land rent paid by farmers. This is in fact exactly what agrarian reform is.

Many agrarian reforms have been implemented throughout history, each one differing according to the era and region. At the same time, very different types of action in which the redistribution of land to small farmers have not been of central importance and which have nothing to do with the concept of agrarian reform as such, have been called “agrarian reforms”.

  • thus the process of colonising virgin land has often been misleadingly called “agrarian reform”70;

  • the socialist agrarian reforms in the Soviet Union and most Eastern European countries began with the redistribution of land that belonged to big landowners followed by more or less intensive collectivisation. Another misleading use of the term appeared at this moment. Agrarian reform was still spoken of when the redistribution phase had ended, that is, when State farms were being created out of expropriated land. However, this simple change of ownership occurred without any basic change in the organisation of production. Also, the economic and political implications were quite different to those involved in a genuine agrarian reform that effectively redistributes land.

Once this essential point has been clarified, we can examine the difficulties encountered and conditions required for a successful agrarian reform.

The different sorts of failures of many agrarian reforms now lead some analysts to conclude that such interventions are unjustified due to their high social, economic and political cost, and their meagre results.

We do not share this opinion: it is easy to demonstrate that genuine land reforms have induced radical changes in countries where they have been implemented and they have been the source of vigorous development. This was the case in Mexico, and to a lesser degree in Bolivia, and also in Southern Europe, China and Vietnam, in particular due to the recent policies in favour of family farming in these countries{>(71) 71].

A lot has been written about agrarian reform, though curiously, there is little that could provide lessons from past experience. Detailing all of the situations that have lead to agrarian reforms would go beyond the scope of this paper given the multifaceted differences between Taiwan’s agrarian reform and Nicaragua’s one; between Mexico’s and Zimbabwe’s!

Nevertheless, agrarian reforms may be characterised in many different ways72, for example:

  • as a function of the type of agrarian structure they modify. For example, latifundio / minifundio in Latin America, or large farms worked by sharecroppers and tenant farmers as in South East Asia. Deininger highlights that « land reform was relatively simple in tenancy systems, but much more difficult where haciendas prevailed »73

  • as a function of their origin. Thus, in Latin America, a distinction must be made between the agrarian reforms that occurred before the Cuban revolution, such as Mexico’s, which was the result of a powerful peasant movement, and those impelled by the Alliance for Progress with the aim of containing the development of revolutionary groups on the continent, like in Honduras and many other countries. Or, in a single country such as Poland, several successive agrarian reforms have occurred each with completely different objectives and contents74.

  • they can also be differentiated as a function of the compensation paid to the owners, which varies from nothing (in the case of Cuban agrarian reform) to sums exceeding the land’s market value (as recently in Brazil).

As in the other parts of the paper, here we seek to initiate an analytical process that may be useful for those concerned by land matters, particularly farmers’ organisations. In this way, our objective is to contribute to the implementation of effective land policies.

We shall rely on several examples dealt with by detailed records in part two of this paper (Taiwan, Poland, Albania, Zimbabwe), and particularly the comparison between the agrarian reforms of Honduras and Nicaragua (records # 8, 9 and 10)

One question is obvious straightaway to whoever has observed the recent changes in these two Central American countries: how can the fruits of the agrarian reforms implemented after decades of struggle and effort be forgotten after only a few years of changing policies and the application of neo-liberal ideas?

Without going into detail about the elements addressed in record # 10, the following lessons can be drawn from these experiences.

  • Many agrarian reforms did not take into account the fact that agrarian structures are in a constant state of change and therefore property requires a certain amount of elasticity concerning the land tenure of family farms and cooperatives so that they may remain viable.

  • The reforms attempted to impose collective production systems that did not correspond to the demands made by the rural poor and which did not encourage them to have faith in the advantages of family farms.

  • They were decreed from above by governments, which used farmers’ organisations as instruments for applying systems that did not originate from peasants’ struggles.

  • They treated the reformed sector separately, endowing it with state protection, with a specific property system and by specialising the farmers’ organisations that worked in it. By doing so they failed to allow the collective learning process to take place regarding land management. This learning process would have been necessary in the future in order to preserve the benefits won. They also provoked division among the farmers’ movements.

  • Lastly, there was no coherence between agrarian reform policies and economic policies. When the constraints affecting organisation methods were eliminated, and when the cooperatives’ lands were divided into individual plots in Nicaragua, for example, the sudden interruption of subsidies and loans were tantamount to economic strangulation of those who had benefited from the agrarian reform.

Therefore, the agrarian reforms in Nicaragua and Honduras were radically different from Mexico’s early 20th century reform.

The case of Taiwan is particularly instructive in comparison with the previous example cited: agrarian reform in this country was able to link economic policy with agrarian changes. New landowners were protected at least temporarily from the effects of the world market and intensive mechanisation was delayed in order make the work invested by the farmers more profitable (see the corresponding record in part two).

The mechanisms used to set up agrarian reforms, the place and role of peasant organisations and the State and, lastly, the link forged between agrarian reform and public agricultural policies were essential components of their success.

Examination of past changes affecting the “reformed sectors”, trends and the risks of “counter-reforms” will give us a better understanding of agrarian reforms as processes that function in dynamic and unbalanced political contexts. As a result, they must anticipate the advent of changes such as when the State is no longer as powerful. An agrarian reform is always a political action. Whether the changes are rapid or slow, what is important is the profound transformation of the farming sector. The more difficult the situation, the more reform is necessary (see record # 4 on Zimbabwe, in part two of paper), and the more these strategies are important.

Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) is an example of this aspect pertaining to strategic struggle. This movement owes its success to its organisation, its pugnacity, and its strategy of ensuring that the agrarian reform appeared on Brazil’s political agenda by driving agrarian reform from the bottom upward. Since it was founded in 1985, 250,000 families have obtained secured use rights over more than 7 million hectares by occupations of land encouraged by the Landless Workers’ Movement75. It has also shown the need today for forging alliances with urban movements in order to make progress. Progress was made in both the organisation of agrarian reform settlements, the asentamientos, for which more space for family farming was granted and in renouncing collectivist dogma76.

These examples show that in order to transform durably the way land ownership is structured, it is necessary to avoid denying the existence of land markets and, on the contrary, to work to set up devices that control market development.

In recent years, the World Bank has offered an alternative to the agrarian reforms of the past: « market assisted agrarian reform » and « community based agrarian reform »77. By wishing to link “agrarian reform” and markets, these proposals seem to take into account one of the weaknesses of the agrarian reforms analysed previously. However, they restrict their actions to operations requiring the mutual agreement of parties (willing seller, willing buyer scheme).

Below is a reproduction of a recent World Bank text on agrarian reform:

“{key principles for successful land reform, namely (i) to be voluntary and based on the decentralized decisions of land owners and potential beneficiaries with a mechanism in place to ensure that land prices are not artificially inflated as a result of the program; (ii) to incorporate a limited grant element that is fungible and can be used for acquisition of land as well as associated investment; (iii) to be associated with a business and investment plan that is economically and financially feasible before moving on to the land; (iv) to be linked to a strong element of training and capacity building; and (v) to be cheap enough to be replicable under the fiscal conditions of the country (or be financed through taxation).” »78

This is no longer a question of agrarian reform, but of intervention on land markets. Furthermore, it is only a relatively minor intervention since it goes no further than proposing a loan to finance the purchase and subsidise the installation of the beneficiaries.

Hence “La Via Campesina” International Peasant Movement in the Philippines, Brazil, Honduras and elsewhere quite rightly rose up against this new and abusive utilisation of the term agrarian reform and against the intention to replace genuine agrarian reforms by a quite different system. Moreover, it now seems increasingly clear that the actions begun will not produce the results expected79.

Agrarian reform is not constant intervention on land markets with the intention of making them less segmented. It is an exceptional measure answering a situation to which no satisfactory solution can be found through the market alone. Although mechanisms such as those promoted by the World Bank may be of interest in that they allow peasant organisations or governments to learn how to manage their land markets better, in no way could they replace actual agrarian reforms when the agrarian structure demands radical intervention, such as in Brazil’s case.

It is interesting to note the evolution of the discourse on land issues held by the World Bank’s research team. The 2003 Policy Report acknowledges that « land markets will not equalize a highly skewed land ownership distribution ».

« (…) it is unrealistic to assume that restrictions on the functioning of markets will lead to significant and quick redistribution of land and other productive assets to the poor. Where a strong social, political, and economic case for such redistribution exists, other mechanisms will need to be adopted. There is considerable potential for such mechanisms to draw on market outcomes in more imaginative ways than in the past, for example, to facilitate targeting and the acquisition of managerial experience by potential beneficiaries. Relying on markets alone will, however, not be sufficient. »80

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69 See, among other papers, Stiglitz, Joseph, Distribution, Efficiency and Voice: Designing the Second Generation of Reforms, World Bank, 1998.

70 See the examples of Venezuela and Honduras. Records # 7 and # 8. Part two of this paper.

71 See record # 6. Dao The Thuan, Vietnam. réformes agraires successives et succès de l’agriculture familiale. See also DPH records 2029 and 2040 written by Sylvie Dideron in part three of this paper. China. Souvenirs du vieux Li, paysan pauvre du nord de la Chine. and Tenure foncière et système des contrats de production entre l’Etat et les paysans en Chine: exemple de Bozhou, canton de la plaine du Nord.

72 Marc Dufumier’s book Les politiques agraires, Paris: PUF, 1986 provides a good idea of the diversity of agrarian reforms.

73 Deininger, 2003. ibid. pp. 16.

74 See the corresponding record in part two of the paper.

75 Figures supplied by Peter Rosset in “Acceso a la tierra: reforma agraria y seguridad de la presencia. Cumbre Mundial sobre la Alimentación: cinco años después. Aportaciones de la sociedad civil/estudios monográficos”, Discussion document, October 2001.

76 Nonetheless, coordinating and relating movements with CONTAG, the other major movement mobilising Brazil’s small farmers still remains very difficult. This can be seen as a vestige of the ideological oppositions between the market and agrarian reform, and between collective production and peasant production.

77 Deininger Klaus, Making negotiated land reform work: Initial experience from Colombia, Brazil, and South Africa, World Bank, 1999.

78 Land institutions and land policy. Creating and sustaining synergies between state, community, and market, A policy research report, World Bank, 2001.

79 Borras, Saturnino Jr, Questioning Market-Led Agrarian Reform: Experiences from Brazil, Colombia and South Africa. Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 3 No. 3, July 2003, pp. 367–394.

80 Deininger, PRR 2003, World Bank, op cit. pp. 131