Land use in the Third World
Systems of land distribution vary throughout the world, but everywhere the poorest people are those with the least control over the land on which they depend.
Land reform legislation has been passed in many Third World countries, but remains on paper only. The law has usually been resisted successfully by powerful minorities, who manage to evade or ignore it.
This guide gives a snapshot view of land tenure systems in 22 Third World countries. The star rating is our assessment of governments’ attitude to land reform - both the legislation and the reality.
The map below has been used to give a better indication of relative land areas and is based on the projection of Arno Peters.
Note: Unless stated, infant mortality rates are 1975 figures, per thousand live births until 12 months old.
World Development Report 1978. World Atlas of the Child
Economist Intelligence Unit Quarterly Economic Reviews
Africa Contemporary Record 1977-78.
GOVERNMENT Liberal democracy. POPULATION 2.05. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, bananas. INFANT MORTALITY 2%. LAND In 1972 a quarter of the people of Jamaica were thought to own 90% of the land. Some 50,000 arable hectares were lying idle or unused. Under Project Land Lease 33,981 farm hectares, of which 19,092 are arable, had been leased to 23,618 tenants by January 1977. This was land that had previously been lying idle. Manley’s government has a positive policy of land reform, but it is hampered by the Island’s economic problems and traditional social inequalities.
GOVERNMENT Popularist democracy. POP. 18.25m. FOOD EXPORT Wine. INFANT MORTALITY 8.6% (1960) LAND The Agrarian Revolution was launched in 1971 by President Boumedienne, with dispossession of the big estate owners starting in 1973. By the end of 1977 1.3m hectares had been distributed amongst 100,000 people. This covered about 8% of the active agricultural population and onesixth of the arable land. But even using all the land that could be nationalised, the food requirements of only about half of Algeria’s landless peasants can be satisfied without increased productivity. At present half the land is in private hands and half in the socialist sector.
GOVERNMENT Liberal democracy, POPULATION 40m. FOOD EXPORTS Rice, fruit and vegetables. INF. MORT. 9.8% LAND Land ‘ceilings’ introduced in the 1952 land reform legislation are still quite high - 25 hectares for an individual, So power, as an I LO study puts it, has ‘merely shifted from the very rich to the rich’. By 1965 0.3% of owners still had 13% of the land. About half of rural families are landless and the proportion is growing. The four-year old ‘Open Door’ policy encourages foreign business which is taking up more and more of the limited land resources.
GOVERNMENT Popularist democracy. POPULATION 12.9m. FOOD EX.Sugarcane, oilseeds, potatoes, INF. MORT. 30%. LAND Agriculture is the source of livelihood for over 90% of the population. Production s very ow, mainly because the inequitable land tenure system destroys incentive. A Land Reform Act was passed in 1964, which provided for measures such as land ceilings and tenancy rights for the tiller. A compulsory savings scheme was set up, by which cash and produce was paid by the tenant/owner/absentee landlord to village committees, but there has been widespread embezzlement. Lack of data has also impeded land redistribution,
GOVERNMENT Liberal democracy, POPULATION 620.. FOOD EXPORTS Tea, oilseeds, coffee. INF. MOST. 13% LAND India’s experience of two decades of land reform has been dismal. Small farmers, those with less than two hectares each, still have only 20% of the land. And sharecropping on highly exploitative terms for the tenant is a widespread practice. Responsibility for the enactment of land reform legislation lies with individual State governments, whose bureaucrats are often substantial landowners themselves - they are al best apathetic. The result is that land reform has largely been a paper exercise with little impact on the gross inequalities of rural life.
GOVERNMENT Authoritarian conservative. POP. 84.8m. FOOD EXPORT Tea. INFANT MORTALITY 14%. LAND A series of land-reform measures since 1947 have been stalled and evaded by the power of the large landowners. Today 78% of rural households still own only 25% of agricultural land and the proportion of landless labourers is increasing. The Post-1971 Bangladesh legislation imposed a land ceiling of 14 hectares per family but the wording of the act has steadily been diluted and many loopholes found. And beyond that there has been widespread evasion with connivance between local officials and the rural rich.
GOVERNMENT Authoritarian conservative. POP. 45.03m. FOOD EX. Coconut oil, sugar, bananas. INF. MORT. 7.2%. LAND When the Marco s dictatorship began in 1972 land reform was one of the cornerstones for the creation of his ‘New Society’. Originally 1.5m hectares of rice and corn land were to be transferred to the tiller. But plantation crops like sugar and bananas were deliberately excluded - and these covered three times as much land. Subsequent dilution of the reform and evasion by landlords have dramatically reduced the amount of land eventually offered to peasants who must find the money to buy it. The reform has therefore had only a limited effect but has been of considerable polit- ical value to the regime in helping to contain rural unrest.
GOVERNMENT Military POPULATION 28.68., FOOD EXPORTS Coffee, oilseeds, Pulses. INF. MORT. 19.5%. LAND Land reform in 1975 nationalised all agricultural land and limited individual holdings to 10 hectares. State farms of a minimum 800 hectares are being set up and peasants have been organised into 25,000 farmers associations to farm the. land collectively. In 1977 the All-Ethiopian Farmers Association was set up to "create conditions facilitating the complete destruction of feudal rule."
GOVERNMENT PoPularist democracy POP. 14.46.. FOOD EXPORTS Coffee, tea, maize, meat. INF. MORT. 5.1%. LAND One-fifth of the cropland is in farms bigger than 100 hectares and the large farms are getting larger. Half the country’s farmers have two hectares or less and by the early seventies 20% of the rural population was landless. Both colonial and independent governments have promoted the shift from tribal to private tenure. The goal was to have relatively small prosperous farmers with a stake in a stable capitalist system. But this is increasingly threatened by the rise of land concentration, exploitative tenancy and land lessness that typically arise with unregulated freehold tenure in developing countries.
GOVERNMENT Popularist democracy. POP. 17.5.. FOOD EXPORTS Coffee tea cashews.) INF.MORT. 16% (1970). LAND Agriculture is ‘poor but equal’ with 87% of cultivated land worked by smallholders with two hectares of land or less. President Nyrere’s ‘Ujamaa’ policy involved moving the scattered rural population into villages and 90% were in villages in 1977 as opposed to one per cent in 1968. Ujamaa is intended as a move towards collective agriculture but in fact it is still largely in individual hands. Indeed the country’s impressive drive towards self-sufficiency in food has relied heavily on the market mechanism, counter to Nyrere’s socialist principles. But Tanzania is much closer to the ideal of an equitable society than most other developing countries.
SOUTH AFRICA *
GOVERNMENT Authoritarian conservative. POP, 26.1.. FOOD EXPORTS Grain, fruit and vegetables. INF.MORT. (Complete statistics not available. Estimates give African level as 25 times higher than white.) Land South Africa’s system of apartheid rules out an equitable distribution of land. Africans can only own land in the Homelands. Europeans own about the same acreage of land as Africans (about 44m acres) but Africans make up 80% of the population. The Homelands correspond roughly with the original homes of different tribes, but only represent about 13% of the Republic’s land area. Subsistence farming is the Homelands’ main activity and is dogged by lack of support, land exhaustion and overcrowding.
GOVERNMENT Authoritarian conservative. POP. 26.5.. FOOD EX. Palm-oil, coffee, cocoa. INF. MORT. 10.4% (1960) LAND The country is in economic and political chaos. Ritually described by the government as its "priority of priorities" agriculture has however been consistently neglected in favour of mining and industry. The creation in 1977 of a separate Cabinet post for agricultural development, as well as the existing Department of Agriculture, was typical of the regime’s bureaucratic response to the problems. Some Belgians have been invited back to manage plantations.
GOVERNMENT Soviet democracy. POPULATION 9.6m. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, tea, cashews. INF. MORT. 9.3% (1970) LAND Since independence in 1975 agriculture has been collectivised. There has been a drop in production, partly because the Portugese took much of the technical skill with them when they left. Cooperative /arming is still in the early stages, but there are 1,000 communal villages with another 500 on the way. Small family-owned farms, private and stateowned plantations also exist.
GOVERNMENT Liberal democracy. POPULATION 692,000 LAND Botswana’s climate and soil are well suited to large-scale ranching, but, due to lack of water, stock can only be grazed on 20% of the land area. Some 5% of the farmers own 50% of the cattle. The government is now trying to make things more equitable by reorganising ranching methods through a programme to establish fenced leaseholds and there are measures to set up a cooperative structure and credit facilities for smallholders.
GOVERNMENT Soviet Democracy. POPULATION 866. FOOD EXPORTS Animals, tea. INFANT MORTALITY 6.5% LAND China’s is the most dramatic example of the solution of a food problem through land reform. Prior to 1949, 10% of the landowners held 70% of the land,with a majority of the population destitute. Today per capita grain availability is 800 grams per day - 60% higher than in Bangladesh Incomes are based on ‘work points’ which are allocatec according to physical effort and skill. Points are added ur for a whale production team, then distributed equally The aim is to reduce the risk for the individual but not his incentive to work.
GOVERNMENT Liberal democracy. POPULATION 25.1.. FOOD EXPORT. Coffee. INFANT MORTALITY 9.7%. LAND In 1961 a moderate Agrarian Reform Programme started which combined colonisation with compensated expropriation of idle land and provided for increased technical aid. Between 1962 and 1968 74,650 families were given the titles to 2.5m hectares of land, most of it formerly public land. In 1968 the law was extended to cover the expropriation of estates worked by sharecroppers and an estimated 200,000 were to be given family-unit holdings. A new law was passed in 1973, but little is expected from it and land reform has not altered the existing land tenure system.
GOVERNMENT Military. POPULATION 5.95.. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, coffee. INFANT MORTALITY 15.4%(1970) LAND The Agrarian Reform Law of 1953 abolished obligatory labouring by tenants for landlords and made it possible for peasants to buy land on long-term mortgages. Before then 4% of landowners controlled about 95% of all agricultural property. But the only tangible result of the law has been the official abolition of the neo-feudal system and the peasants’ servile status. Redistribution of land has been slow. While some peasants now have their own land, there are no adequate support services and economic pressures make them prey to a different sort of exploitation.
GOVERNMENT Military. POPULATION 10.85.. FOOD EXPORTS Fruit and vegetables. INFANT MORALITY 5.6%. LAND From the mid 1960’s governments introduced land reform, mainly aimed to break up large landholdings. Reform reached a peak in 1972/3 when the redistribution of the Agrarian Reform Corporation was supplemented by local land seizures. Peasants were organised into cooperative state-run estates. But on coming to power the military government returned siezed land to previous owners and suspended the reform. The cooperatives were split up and the land was sold in plots. In 1978 the law was replaced and restrictions on land holdings were lifted and private companies were allowed to buy farmland. Economic pressure has forced many beneficiaries of the previous reform to sell their land.
GOVERNMENT Military. POPULATION 16.58m. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, coffee. INFANT MORTALITY 6.5% (1970) LAND Cautious and underfinanced agrarian reform legislation of 1954 and 1963 was superseded in 1969 by more far-reaching measures. By 1976 10.5. hectares of land had been expropriated, 7.04. hectares had been transferred to new ownership and 294,500 families had been resettled. But the reform has never changed the basic power structures and has been undermined by the failure to provide support far the peasants in the form of extension workers, credit facilities and marketing help,
GOVERNMENT Military. POPULATION 116.4.. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, coffee. INFANT MORTALITY 11% (1970). LAND In Brazil one per cent of the population owns 40% of the land. Of the agricultural land 80% Is in the form of large estates which concentrate on export crops - Brazil is the world’s second largess exporter of food while 40% of the population is malnourished. A land Statue was passed in 1964 which aimed at promoting ‘social justice’ but the implementation has been feeble. One investigator looking at the budget of the Land Reform Institute found that 17% was being used for land reform, 52% for administration and 31% far other purposes.
GOVERNMENT Military. POPULATION 6.44.. FOOD EXPORTS Coffee, bananas. INFANT MORTALITY 7.5%. LAND The military and large estate-owners work hand-in-hand with domestic and foreign agricultural corporations to maintain the present inequality. One fifth of the population owns over 60% of all arable land. Attempts by peasants and labour unions to organise behind platforms of reform are met by rigid apposition from the government, sensitive to what it wrongly feels is Communist subversion. In 1954 powerful landowners secured backing from the US and a coup took place to remove the government, which had plans for land reform.
GOVERNMENT Soviet democracy. POPULATION 9.5m. FOOD EXPORTS Sugar, coffee. INF. MORT. 2.9%. LAND Since FldeI Castro ousted the Batista regime in 1959 the revolution has focused on education, health care and rural development. The first Agrarian Reform Law, in 1959, made all absentee-owned farm land and all farmsiarger than 995 acres subject to eventual expropriation. Ranch and cane holdings were set at a maximum 3,333 acres. The second law in 1963 made the limit on all private holdings 165 acres, and farms of any size are liable to state purchase if they are neglected. State farms under the Agrarian Reform Institute control 70% of agriculture.
After the Punta dal Este Agreement in 1960 most Latin American governments introduced some kind of land reform legislation. At that point 7% of proprietors owned 94% of arable land, usually in the form of large estates. Since then very little has happened. By 1975 it was estimated that enacted measures had affected barely 15% of the expropriable land, and in several countries the process has now been reversed.
Traditionally land was held in common. The system governing tenure was based on the need for labour to clear it. The person who cleared the land became the owner and his heirs continued to own it as a group, each member having the right to enough land to feed his family. Colonists altered land use and created plantations. Indigenous elites were created who continue this system today.
There is often a hierarchy of landlords, each dominating the next level of sub-tenant. There is a similar hierarchy of moneylenders charging high levels of interest to the poorest peasants. Security of tenure is a problem, as people are often tricked into signing away or mortgaging their land. The number of landless peasants is increasing as some modernisation of agriculture takes place.
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.