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Land In Whose Hands? The Facts


new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987

Land in Whose Hands? - The Facts

Illustration: Clive Offley 1. Who has plenty?
Of all the land in the world which can be owned, nearly three quarters is controlled by just 2.5% of all landowners.

Biggest Bite:

  • The New-York based International Paper Company - with it's 3.7 million hectares2 - is reputed to be the worlds biggest private landowner.

  • The 9th Duke of Buccleuch - with his 140,000 hectares exceeding the Queen's 135,000 hectares - is the biggest individual landowner in the UK.

  • The cattle-ranching Kidman family - with their three million hectares - are reputed to be the largest landowners in Australia.

  • New Zealand Forest Products - with 528,000 hectares - is the biggest private landholder in Aotearoa (NZ).

Lion's Share
Percentage of land belonging to top 10% landowners3

[image, unknown]

  • In Brazil just 2% of the country's landowners hold 60% of the arable land.4

  • In Paraguay just 1% of landowners own 80% of the land.5

  • In the UK just 1% of the population owns 52% of the land.6

2. Who has none?
More than half the rural population in the Third World are landless
- and their numbers are growing.

Rural households that have no or practically no land.8

[image, unknown]

3. Who sows?

Women grow 75% of Africa's food. They constitute more than 80% of farmers in Mali, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Botswana, Malawi and Tanzania.9

Small farmers in Colombia own just a quarter of the farm land but produce two-thirds of total agricultural output.10 However it is the larger farmers who receive development aid from the World Bank, the major funder of agriculture in the world.

Most people who toil in the land have none of their own:

In Bangladesh 75% of agricultural workers are landless. While in Brazil the figure is 70%.

4. Who reaps?
Multinational corporations are reaping increasingly fat profits from agribuisness in the Third World. Some own huge tracts of land:

In Brazil the military regime during the 1960s and 1970s granted kingdom-sized concessions, of several million acres each, to multinational corporations such as Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Liquigas, King Ranch and Swift Armour. These were used to provide pasture grass for cattle destined for the beef export market.12

In 1980 Ghana granted Firestone Rubber USA 24,000 hectares of prime agriculture land to create one of the largest private plantations in the world.13

But others have found a way of getting exactly what they want from Third World agriculture - without owning land:

Nestlé get 50% of its turnover from using milk, coffee and cocoa as raw materials. But it does not own a cow or cocoa plantation. It simply contracts local growers in Ghana, Brazil and the Ivory Coast to produce a fixed amount, at a fixed price, on a stated date. This way the company controls production - but takes none of the risks.

5. Who Squats?

About half the people living in the Third World have no secure home.

  • In Yaoundé, Cameroon, 80% of the people live in illegal squatter settlements.

  • In Manila, Philippines, only 12% of the capital's population can afford to buy or rent a legal house or flat on the open market.

  • In Bombay, India, between 100,000 and 500,000 people live on the pavements.

  • In Mexico City 60% of the population live in illegal shanty towns.15


But homelessness and squatting are growing in the West too:

  • Two million people are estimated to be homeless in the UK. And in London there are an estimated 30,000 squatters.

  • An estimated 100,000 are homeless in Canada

  • In New York City alone there are 60 - 80,000 homeless people.

  • In Australia 40,000 are homeless, with a further 60,000 on the verge of homelessness. An estimated 7% of these are squatters.

6. How Much Does it Cost?

Photo: David Moore / Camera Press
  • The world's most expensive piece of land for development is Central Giza district of Tokyo, Japan, where the site of the Crown nightclub was bough for $20,915 per square foot. However, the freehold price for a grave site in Hong Kong is even more expensive at $31,040 per square foot.

  • The highest rents in the world for prime sites are Manhattan, New York, at $68 per square foot and the City of London is top at $87.16

  • Land in Paraguay can be bought for as little as $66 an acre.


7. What About Reform?
Virtually every developing nation has policies for land reform.
Some have put them - or corrupted form of them - into practice:



China: Nearly 47 million hectares were redistributed between 1950 and 1953, affecting 497 million people. By 1975 China's yield per hectare was almost double what it was before the Revolution and 60% higher than India's. Today, China feeds a population 50% bigger than India's, 20% better with 30% less cultivated land.17

Iran: In 1962, the Shah declared a substantial reform that broke the power of the landowners. But 'land to the tiller' was applied all to literally - a family that could not afford a plough and draught animals could not qualify for a part of the broken estates.20

South Korea: More than half of all the land changed hands between 1948 and 1957. The reform was made politically possible by the US paying compensation to expropriated landlords. The level of agricultural production was hardly affected.

Peru: The left-wing military government of Juan Velasco set in motion an 'authentic' land reform in 1969. But only about a third of the rural population benefited. Around 700,000 of the poorest farmers in the mountains and seasonal labourers who compromised 25% of the rural labour force on the coast were bypassed altogether.21

North Vietnam: At least 46% of arable land was redistributed between 1954 and 1957 to the benefit of 77% of rural households. Yields of rice went up by 20% and of other crops by 50% between 1960 and 1970.19

8. And the Future
Just as important as who owns the land is what they do with it.
Large-scale agriculture and heavy use of pesticides impoverishes
the soil and does irrevocable damage to the environment. It makes
much more sense, both socially and environmentally, to support
small farmers who take better care of the land.

  • At the current rate of destruction, the Brazilian rainforests will be gone in 35 years time.

  • Two-thirds of the world's surface is threatened with desertification if current farming methods continue.

  • According to US Government estimates one quarter of the country's farmland is losing three billion tons of topsoil - enough to fill New York's Yankee stadium 21,000 times - a year. This is a lot faster than nature can rebuild it.22

1 Whose Land is it Anyway?, Richard Norton-Taylor, 1982.
2 One hectare is the equivalent of 10 Olympic swimming- pools
3 Bookot International Lists, 1981.
4 World Hunger, Twelve Myths, Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins 1986.
5 Latin America Bureau, UK
6 Norton-Taylor. 1982.
7 UN-FAQ Landlessness: A growing problem, 1984.
8 Cornell Rural Development Commission.
9 Women in the World Atlas, Joni Seagarand Ann Olaon, 1988.
10 Norton- Taylor, 1982.
11 Cornell, R.D.C.
12 Moore Lappé and Collins, 1986.
13 Agribusiness in Africa, Barbara Onham and Cohn Hines, 1983.
14 Food First, Moore Lappé arid Collins, 1980
15 Urban Land and Sheller for the Poor. Patrick McAuslen. 1986, and State of the World Atlas 1981
16 The Guinness Book of Records, 1987.
17 Food First, 1980
18 Land for People, Claire Whiltemore, 1981.
19 Food First, 1980.
20 Whittemore, 1981.
21 NI 81
22 Moore Lappé and Collins, 1986 and World Resourres 1987, 11ED

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New Internationalist issue 177 magazine cover This article is from the November 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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