Rome in the summer of 1979 played host to one of the least publicised of UN gatherings. The World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development arrived unheralded and passed virtually unrecorded. Representatives from 150 nations came, conferred and dispersed and the world was none the wiser.
As a public event it was flat and empty and fully merited such obscurity. Delegates from one country after another strode up to the podium and proclaimed their good intentions and successes so far. Meaningless wrangles over words and paragraphs that were to form the final Programme of Action occupied days and nights of multilingual confusion. The result was predictable.
But that very tedium was for some participants the conference’s greatest success. The centrepiece of the debate after all was land reform, a potentially explosive issue that few powerful people in developing countries wish to discuss at all. Yet they can no longer ignore it. Land in the Third World is the largest and most palpable source of wealth - 70 per cent of people in developing countries make their living from it. But its distribution is massively unjust and that injustice has been clearly and critically documented for so many years that there is now little dispute over the basic facts.
As a result there are few Third World countries that do not have land reform statutes. It is no longer possible to pose as a responsible government if one does not have a statement to make about redistribution. Nor is it possible to address critics from the developed world considering aid if one does not have the gleaming new machinery of redistribution available.
And yet there is a problem. If there were a genuine sharing of wealth, if that machinery were actually put into effect, it would wreak havoc. Governments by definition reflect the power structure - and that means that they generally arrive with the support of large landowners. In many cases the government is composed of landowners. One can be against poverty in principle but parcelling out your own land to peasant farmers is quite a different matter and calls for a more moderate approach.
What to do? The safest thing is clearly nothing at all. Land reform in most countries has proceeded at a snail’s pace. The blocking processes are many and varied and show an ingenuity that could achieve great things were it harnessed to more constructive purposes.
At the most obvious level of evasion, laws can be framed to exclude from reform any land of real value or they can be filled with sufficient loopholes. And landlords powerful enough and with a sufficiently warm relationship with the local officials can simply ignore the legislation. As a last resort the intelligent landlord can disperse and re-register land in the names of his relatives, many of them living.
For the purposes of international display a conference can be a good way of concealing inertia. One Minister of Agriculture after another stood up in Rome to proclaim the virtue of his intention and the purposefulness of his action. Indeed such was the general air of self-satisfaction that one wondered why there was a conference at all, if everything was sweetness and light?
The reality is dark and bitter. One Colombian peasant leader struggling to gain access to the conference pointed out that, while campesinos had no right to be in the UN building, they were the people whose urgent and desperate plight was supposed to be being resolved. Who was on the delegation supposedly pleading their case? One Dona Paulino de Castro Monsalvo - wife of one of Colombia’s largest landowners.
In an atmosphere of such distressing cynicism one figure stood out as a beacon of enlightenment. This was President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. His country may be a far cry from the bizarre inequity of Colombia but it is not short of problems. And the problems centre round the distribution of power - which is what after all agrarian reform is all about.
With characteristic honesty he used his speech to publicise a criticism of himself made by Michael Lipton in his important book: ‘Why Poor People Stay Poor’. Lipton described Nyerere’s words as ‘sincere egalitarian rhetoric’ but pointed out that the rural masses of Tanzania ‘lack the power to organize the pressure that alone can turn such rhetoric into distributive action against the pressure of the elite’.
Nyerere accepted that this was a ‘serious problem’ and then continued: ‘Both political and economic power has to be held by the people within the village, in the region and in the nation if development is to be in the people’s interests. People are the best creators and defenders of their own human rights including the right to eat. Freedom is essential to development and not just a product of it.’
Fighting for those rights and that freedom is an uphill struggle. In Tanzania it means pushing against an elite bureacracy. Elsewhere it can be downright dangerous. Tens of thousands of peasants around the world have lost their lives in the struggle. Others today are sitting quietly in dark cells wondering if it was worth the effort.
Those of us in the West sitting safely thousands of miles away must also question our position. We are closely linked to the world food system through what we buy from and sell to the Third World and through our corporations which operate there. We must accept that the peasant farmers’ fight for freedom is a struggle against ourselves. This is not a side that many of us would choose to be on.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.