Home > L R A N > About > Publications > LRAN Briefing Paper Series > Land Struggles

Number 1

23 October 2007

Land Struggles

LRAN Briefing Paper Series October 2007

Edited by Rebeca Leonard, Shalmali Guttal, and Peter Rosset

Copy edit Mary Ann Manahan

Lay-out Gaynor Tanyang

Cover Design Omna Cadavida-Jalmaani

Photos João Ripper, Jimmy Domingo, and MST

Publication Support Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst (EED)

To request for copies, please contact: Focus on the Global South, Philippines Programme 19 Maginhawa St. UP Village, Diliman Quezon City 1101 Philippines Tel: 63-2-433-3387 Fax: 63-2-433-0899

- Book Review by Robin Palmer Mokoro, Oxford, England

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"Three-quarters of the world’s 852 million men and women suffering from hunger are found in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their survival. Most of them are landless farmers or have such tiny or unproductive plots of land that they cannot feed their families".

This was the assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released at the second International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in March 2006. Immense numbers give an indication of the scale of the problem, but the urgency of the matter comes from an understanding that millions of people throughout the Global South who depend on agriculture for their livelihood are today in the process of losing their land. Many millions more who have been deprived of their land are engaged in a daily struggle to regain their rights, their dignity, and way of life. The Land Research and Action Network’s briefing paper series is intended to highlight a selection of local perspectives on the root causes of land loss to and highlight some of the ongoing land struggles from around the world. Eight issue papers have been selected and trimmed down to publish in magazine form in simplified English (Spanish and Portuguese to follow).

These papers, their extended versions, and many more articles are also available on the website. Papers will be added to this series to be published occasionally in an online edition. The central theme running through the papers gathered here is the political nature of land loss and the related need for political empowerment of the landless. Land grabs that are clearly illegal have been carried out with impunity by the politically connected, from colonial times to the present day. However, land is also being lost by the rural poor, with no less devastating consequences, through the combined effect of neoliberal macro-economic and development policies. These have been pushed and stretched over the decades by institutions like the WTO, the World Bank, and IMF, that are unaccountable to local people, but which can be taken advantage of by national political elites.

Policies promoting export production, the expansion of agribusiness, and the removal of import protections and public sector supports for national and local markets have undercut the economic viability of peasant, small and family farmers, and cooperative/collective agriculture. Over decades, farming peoples have been displaced from fertile lands toward steep and marginal soils, and the progressive incorporation of these displaced peoples into poorly paid seasonal labor forces for export agriculture. In the first chapter of this series, Shalmali Guttal’s paper entitled "Land Alienation in Cambodia" puts into local context the reasons for accelerated loss of lands and access to natural resources in Cambodia today, calling attention to the grave livelihood crisis among Cambodia’s poor and vulnerable communities. Business interests, both agricultural and non-agricultural, and large infrastructure projects are encroaching on communal and public lands, and territories of indigenous peoples with little opposition and often facilitated by the state. Control over large expanses of land in turn reinforces the political power of large landowners.

In the Philippines where the families of politicians and others well-connected to those with political power, have managed to arrange that massive landholdings remain untouched by land reforms. A strong mobilization of people’s organizations succeeded in passing a relatively progressive reform program in 1988 only for it to be delayed and distorted in the following decades. One example of how far the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program strayed from its original aims is examined in Mary Ann Manahan and Carmina Flores-Obanil’s paper "Leaseback Arrangements: Reversing Agrarian Reform Gains in the Philippines" included here as chapter 2. Co-opting the powerful concept of agrarian reform, governments, and multilateral institutions since the 1980s have essentially taken up only one policy initiative on a more or less global scale, which they have presented as a positive step to redress the problems of access to land.

This is the World Bank-designed and supported `market-assisted’ or negotiated’ land reform. These feature the acceleration of policies to title lands, facilitate land markets, and increasingly, promote `land bank’ credit for land purchases by the poor. In our third chapter, Maria Luisa Mendonça’s paper entitled "To their credit? Assessing the World Bank’s Programmes in Brazil" presents some of the mounting evidence that these policies are unlikely to significantly improve access by the poor to land, or give them more secure tenure. We are continually bombarded with news of human rights abuses towards the landless and the land poor in countries around the world. Land reform is still resisted by local elites with force, often through private militia, sometimes by the police or army and intimidation of those involved in land struggles is rife.

Sofia Monsalve’s paper entitled "Human rights violations against peasants, indigenous peoples, and other rural communities" is produced here as chapter 4. This paper outlines some of the internationally recognized civil, economic, social, and cultural rights related to land and livelihood, and highlights the main patterns of human rights violations of rural peoples, with examples from around the world. The present day slave conditions of agricultural workers in the huge sugar estates in Brazil are revealed in Maria Luisa Mendonça’s paper entitled "Excess Sugar: the Devastating Impacts of the Sugarcane Industry in Brazil" included here as chapter 5. The paper also discusses the concentration of the industry in the hands of very few families and the increase of involvement of transnational corporations and the environmental problems that are being overlooked. This is all the more worrying given the present trend to promote sugarcane for the production of agrofuel energy that is supposedly beneficial for the environment. In the paper by Edivan Pinto, Marluce Melo, and Maria Luisa Mendonça entitled "The Myth of Biofuels", the promises behind the current rush of optimism for biofuels are examined (chapter 6).

The paper makes an assessment of the green credentials of biodiesel and bioethanol production in Brazil, which is set to build an agreement with the U.S. with the effect of controlling over two thirds of the world bio-ethanol production. Its expansion is expected to bring with it serious consequences for the country, increasing both land concentration and its corollary landlessness. This also represents a trend by which the products harvested from fertile lands flow overwhelmingly toward consumers in wealthy countries. Another example of capture of resources by wealthier strata around the globe is in the exclusive acquisition of large areas of land for tourism. Land acquired over the heads of the local people and sometimes illegally, for luxury tourism has been commonplace in many of the world’s developing country resort locations. Where there is loss of land, combined with massive use of water resources, and cultural invasion, little space is left for traditional communities to thrive.

The irony remains that local cultures are invariably used as marketing charms. A case that brought all these issues into sharp focus was the sudden displacement of hundreds of thousands of families following the Asian Tsunami. In chapter 7, entitled "When water was used to clear the land: Post-tsunami Reconstructions", Rebeca Leonard identifies the loss of land to tourism projects that was experienced by fishing communities in some of the countries worst affected. The paper highlights those communities who have been locked in a struggle to regain their land rights even when this led to the forfeit of development assistance. This is testament to the strong grassroots poor people’s movements. Land occupations prove once again to be one of the most effective methods of pressuring governments to act, and reigning in the power of private landowners. It becomes clear that the present trends toward greater land concentration and the accompanying industrialization of agriculture will make it impossible to achieve social or ecological sustainability. In the final chapter, Peter Rosset’s paper entitled "Food Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform: Alternative Model for the Rural World" summarizes research which shows, by contrast, the potential that could be achieved by the redistribution of land. Small farmers are found to be more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to broad-based regional development than the larger corporate farmers who hold the best land.

Small farmers with secure tenure have demonstrated they can also be much better stewards of natural resources, protecting the long term productivity of their soils and conserving functional biodiversity on and around their farms. Support for the struggles of peasants and the landless peoples is imperative, as Peter Rosset states in a series of guidelines for the future (printed on the back cover): "severe inequality in landholdings is inefficient, environmentally and socially destructive, immoral, and impedes broad-based development". The human rights of the poorest groups in society are being subject to persistent abuse. Access to land and productive resources by peasants and smallholder family farmers are a necessary precondition to realize the right to feed oneself. Where land has been lost, the only way this can be achieved sustainably is through truly redistributive agrarian reform that can challenge the established holders of power. This must be underpinned by strong support for essential services like credit that is affordable and carefully monitored, infrastructure, support for ecologically sound technologies, and access to markets and fair prices. "Perhaps most critical" says Rosset "is a step back from damaging free trade policies and dumping— which drive down farm prices and undercut the economic viability of farming— to be replaced by a food sovereignty perspective which places the highest priority on national production for national markets".


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