Our Earth, Our Home
issue 177 - November 1987
OUR EARTH, OUR HOME
LAND RIGHTS AND WRONGS
Land. Its fruits sustain us. But its politics mean hunger and
homelessness for millions of people. Vanessa Baird reports.
'DRINK!' The old woman passes me the freshly filled, chipped enamel cup that has been doing the rounds. A llama tethered nearby scuffs its hooves on the rocky, dusty earth. A couple of men are crouched on their heels talking softly, their mouths green from chewing coca leaves.
'Drink,' she insists, spotting perhaps a moment's hesitation as I look into the cañaso. Home-brewed sugar-cane alcohol and sheer suicide under a high-Andean midday sun. But what the hell. This is fiesta and it would be impolite to decline. So I may as well knock it back in one gulp with the customary local panache.
I'm doing quite well (I think) when there is a sudden tugging at my sleeve. The woman is laughing and pointing to the ground, telling me to tip the remainder onto the earth. I am not disconsolate.
'Pacha Mama,' she explains. Of course. Pacha Mama. Quechua for Mother Earth. An expression and concept that exists in probably every language and culture in the world. How could I forget to honour the earth, now thirstily drinking the cañaso? Very easily. What does earth or land mean to me? I don't farm. I don't garden. I don't own a square inch of land. But clutched in my hand is the most basic reason why land matters: a baked potato. I have it because these people have been kind enough to share their feast and their meal with me. Land has very different associations for them.
Imagine yourself here, on this Peruvian mountainside a moment. You are a landless peasant. Down below you can see, clinging to the hillside, the little terraces where you grow maize and potatoes. The plots are not yours. They belong to the landowner (one of the 10 per cent who own 93 per cent of the land, in this, your country).1 You would like to try and improve your plot but you are afraid that if you do so the landowner will evict you or put up the rent. So each year you risk a bad harvest. Often there is not enough to feed your children. Studies have shown that infant mortality is much higher in families with no land than those with even just a little. You have no need of studies to tell you what you see with your own eyes and feel with your own heart. You don't forget about Pacha Mama - not for a moment Pacha Mama is your lifeline, which can be severed at the whim of another far more powerful person at any given moment.
Across the valley is another reason why land is so important a small stone dwelling with a thatched roof. For land is also a place to live. A small part of the earth that you can call home. This one-roomed dirt-floored house that you share with your family is no palace, but here you can at least feel moderately safe.
It seems unthinkable that anyone should want to deny another person such a simple right. But it is happening all the time, in poor and rich countries alike. In Bombay and São Paulo, in London and New York. As landlessness grows in the poor countries2 peasants trek to the cities in search of work, substituting urban for rural landlessness. Third World governments argue that they lack the resources to deal with this massive problem of their mushrooming cities.
But homelessness is growing in the cities of the rich countries too. And here there is no excuse - just an explanation. Land and houses are seen as a form of investment and homelessness as an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of capitalism. People in the West tend to believe that private ownership of land is a condition of human life which has always existed - barring such recent anomalies as Communist revolutions in Russia or China.
In fact it is the concept that land can be owned, bought and sold that is relatively new. In pre-colonial Africa land tenure was tribal and plots were shared out between tribe members according to need. The South American Incas ensured that everybody had access to land which was held by the ayllu - the community or kinship group. The Australian Aborigines and North American Indians had never even heard of land ownership until the white people came and started laying claims.
To people who live close to it, land provides spiritual as well as physical sustenance. It gives a deep sense of belonging and for many people forms an integral part of their system of religious belief. Land therefore cannot be bought and sold, as one Blackfoot Indian chief tried to explain to white North Americans:
'Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not perish by flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be there to give life to men and animals, therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us.'3
For some indigenous peoples land is so much a part of their identity that they see it as a part of their own body. 'Land is my backbone,' said one Aborigine. 'I only stand straight, happy and proud and unashamed of my colour because I still have land.'4
The idea that land cannot, or should not, be privately held also exists in the Hindu teaching that Gandhi turned to when he said: 'All land belongs to the Gopal (literally Shepherd or God) or in modern language, the state, that is the people'. Islam, while grudgingly permitting individual ownership of land, insists that it should not be used speculatively but put into continuous productive use. If it ceases to be used it must go back into communal ownership. Similarly, the Christian belief widespread during the Middle Ages was that common possession was a more perfect way of life than private ownership which was not 'natural' but the result of human wickedness.5
Such ideals tend to fall by the wayside when confronted with a single dominating factor power. Control over land is power in its most essential form because it is control over food and thus the means of survival. There is no shortage of arable land in the world, just as there is no shortage of food. The problem is that there is too much of it in the hands of too few people. And those few people can get the many to work for low wages and make profit for them.
The power of owning land breeds more power. In Bangladesh where 10 per cent own 50 per cent of the land and 50 per cent of rural workers are landless6, the rich have been expanding their holdings by hiring goon squads to throw the poor off what little land they do own. At a more sophisticated - but no less unpleasant level, large landowners can protect their interests by going into politics. The composition of the Philippine or Brazilian Congress, for example, shows how well landed interests are represented. The rich world is little better. In Britain, where about 1,700 individuals own one third of the country, you only have to look down the list of landholdings of Oxbridge-educated Members of Parliament to see the persistent connection between land and power7. The property speculating barons of the major cities - be they in New York, Sydney or Toronto (or, increasingly, in all three at once) - are simply a newer breed.
The only way to break the negative power of land ownership in the Third World rural context is to put it back into the hands of the poor who work it - 'land to the tiller' in other words. Whether this is best done on the basis of the collectivization seen in Maoist China, the co-operative organization now being practised in Nicaragua, or the small-scale individual ownership of South Korea, is debatable. Simply letting peasants decide what they want for themselves might be the best option. In Cuba for example, Fidel Castro admitted at the beginning of the Revolution that he had 'a nearly sacred respect for the individualism of the peasant farmer'. No attempt was made to collectivize forcibly. But since 1977 half the private farmers have joined co-operatives voluntarily, attracted by benefits such as the sharing of equipment, expertise, education and a richer social life.8
Myths about greater equality leading to less efficiency still abound - in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Agricultural production actually saw big increases after the sweeping reforms in China, North Vietnam, Cuba and Portugal.9 The main reason is simple - big landowners leave land uncultivated while the small make use of all they have. Even the World Bank, in a joint study with the International Labour Organization, concludes that land reform would lead to production increases ranging from 10 per cent in Pakistan, 20 per cent in Malaysia and Colombia, to a staggering 80 per cent in north-eastern Brazil.'10 Furthermore, the environment would benefit because small traditional farmers take much better care of their land than do big farmers growing just one cash-crop which robs the soil of its nutrients. So much for the theory. It is putting it into practice that is the political powder-keg.
'Our land reform programme has come to a pause,' a senior official in the Brazilian Ministry for Development and Environment recently told me, somewhat lamely. 'This is because landowner interests are very powerful' And determined too, it seems. When President José Sarney announced plans in 1985 for a program that would give land to seven million peasants the landowners responded by spending five million dollars on forming private armies. In that year alone the landlords and their hired killers murdered over 200 peasants whose demands for land they feared.11 This is in a country where just two per cent of landowners control 60 per cent of the land, half of which remains unfarmed. Meanwhile there are more than 12 million landless farmworkers.12
Land reform may have been put on 'hold' in the plush government offices in Brasilia - but out in the countryside peasants are taking matters in their own hands. They have been organizing mass occupations of unused land. The most dramatic of these occurred in October 1985 when, under cover of night, 8,000 landless peasants secretly 'invaded' 20,000 acres of a Rio Grande do Sul farm that had lain idle for 13 years.13 The action was organized by Sem Terra, the Landless Movement, which is spreading like wildfire throughout the Brazilian countryside and now even has its own monthly campaign journal.
When the rural poor mobilize in this way governments are forced to pay rather more than the standard lip-service to reform. Desperate and land-hungry peasants may reasonably conclude that there is only one way of getting the land they have been promised: by taking up arms and joining a communist insurgency. Then the government has to play the card of reform itself as a means of counter-insurgency, as Cory Aquino is trying to do in the Philippines at the moment (see article).
The trouble with this is that it produces half-baked reforms that please no-one. Agrarian reform only half-done digs its own grave. In Peru in the 1970s, for example, the left-wing military regime of General Velasco told the people the land was theirs - and then proceeded to bypass the poorest majority when handing it out. The legacy is a land concentration that remains one of the most unfair in Latin America - as well as a Communist insurgency movement (Sendero Luminoso or The Shining Path) that will have no truck with parliamentary processes and which is slowly but steadily moving the country towards a state of civil war.
To be successful reform must be radical and far-reaching, going well beyond the simple redistribution of land. It must be a fully co-ordinated system of agrarian reform. That means helping peasants to market their produce, giving technological assistance and making credit available to small farmers - especially women, who grow most of the food in the Third World. These are things that Western development agencies are rather good at. But the biggest funder of agriculture is the World Bank and it acts almost as if small farmers did not exist. The Bank's money goes only into projects that help large or middle-sized farmers, who are usually men dedicated to cash-crop cultivation.
At the end of the line genuine reform requires a radical and integrated commitment to social equality. The West with its rampant property speculation, privatization of public housing, growing homelessness and deepening divide between rich and poor could do with a strong dose of this. Everywhere the message to those in power must be clear - as clear as this pre-revolutionary message from the black Cuban peasant poet, Nicolas Guillen, to the landowners:
'Yesterday I sent you a letter,
Written in my blood,
to tell you that I want back
the mountains and the plains
and the rivers you stole from me
the ones that run between the trees
swaying in the wind
full of birds
and my life
which is nobody's but mine.
'Lord, you'll have to reckon with me.
From the sugar cane to the rose bush
and from the rose bush to the sugar cane,
you've staked your claim and
you'll have to reckon with me
Lord, how you're going to reckon with me.'
For the millions of landless and homeless people denied the fruits and the security of Pacha Mama the reckoning cannot come too soon.
1 US Agency for International Development, International Lists, 1981.
2 UN-FAQ, Landlessness: A growing problem, 1984.
3 Ed. T C McLuhan, Touch the Earth, 1972.
5 George H Sabine, A History of Political Theory.
6 Christian Aid, Focus on Land, 1987.
7 Richard Norton-Taylor, Whose Land is it Anyway?, 1982.
8 Peter Marshall, Cuba Libre, 1987.
9 Frances Moore Lappé and Joe Collins, Food First, 1980.
10 R A Berry and W R Chine, Agrarian Structure and Farm Productivity, 1979.
11 BASE, Brazil Information, 1985.
12 Lappé and Collins, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, 1986.
13 Christian Aid, 1987.
Born in 1985, the daughter of a tribal chief, Whina was brought up in a Europeanized house, wore European clothes and was a devout Roman Catholic. But in all else, she identified with the Maori people around her. When she was only 18 she won her first battle on their behalf by frustrating a Pakeha (Maori word for European) farmer who was claiming mud flats belonging to the local tribe. In the years to come she was to be many things - gum digger, teacher, farmer, business manager, faith healer, mother of five and rugby coach.
But what has always animated her most is the condition of the Maori people.
'I can't sleep at night, because I'm worrying about things and planning things. It's the mana*, you see. If you've got it , it never lets you alone. You have to be thinking about the people and working for them, all the time.'
By 1974, after four decades of campaigning for Maori health and housing rights, Whina was saying to a journalist, 'My life is over - all I can do now is talk'. Yet the following year, at 80, she was more prominent in the public eye than ever before. By now the key issue was Government seizure of Maori land. City based radicals recognised that Maori culture and identity would disappear if they lost their land. In the previous ten years their share of Aotearoa's (NZ) land had almost halved.
They formed a pressure group and asked Whina to be it's leader. She called it Te Roopu O te Matakite - 'Those with foresight'. The action which was to unite them was the Maori Land March of 1975 which Whina headed - all the way from the northenmost tip of the North Island to the Parliament building in Wellington.
But there followed political dissent within the group and it split up. Some criticized Whina for agreeing, in 1980, to become Dame of the British Empire but she responded: 'They don't understand that if I accept this decoration I have more power to fight for all the Maori people against the government'.
Today, the cause of Maori land rights is engaged in its biggest battle ever - a court case which could concede their right to huge tracts of the South Island.
At 92, Whina may yet live to see her greatest victory. One thing is certain: she will never just sit back. 'I have always said I will die at the post. I can never retire.'
* mana - no equivalent English word. Means the authority, prestige and influence with which a person is seen.