6.2.1 Reduction in Farm Sizes

For a long time, Asian countries have experienced a steady reduction in farm sizes due to the prevailing inheritance custom of dividing the holding among all children or among all sons in Moslem countries. The effect is emphasized by the current high birthrate. The actual reduction in farm sizes is lower than that which a mathematical calculation would suggest since, after marriage, a wife's share is combined with her husband's land. Besides, not all the children engage in farming, some go into business, join the army, find employment in government service, etc. Despite this, farm sizes are ever decreasing and, in many cases, the farms are below an economic size allowing productive cultivation or even below the minimum required to earn livelihood.

Average Size of
Holdings (ha)
Share of Holding
below 1 ha
54 %
55 %
70 %
Republic of Korea
65 %
52 %
66 %
Sri Lanka
78 % (1.2 ha)

These figures include the numerous holdings which are located in non-irrigated areas. Some countries issued floor legislation, i.e., they fixed a minimum size which cannot be further diminished by partition. However, such laws that are contradictory to the people's interests and feelings are difficult to enforce.

In a few exceptional cases, specialization in fruit cultivation, gardening or fowl raising, etc. might offer a solution, but,' in most cases, some family members have to find a non-agricultural job to reduce the pressure on land. Either a brother rents his land to his brothers and is free to look for a job, even in distant places, or he and his brothers operate the farm jointly on a part­time basis. If it is not possible to achieve such an additional income, the very small holding provides only a meagre subsistence, and the owner's family lives in great poverty.

Fortunately, in a number of countries, more and more non-agricultural jobs are created and offer such opportunities, even if not in a sufficient number, and thus help to reduce the pressure on the land. for instance, the number of jobs increased in:

  • Pakistan from 1981-90 by 3 million
  • Indonesia 1982-89 by 6 million
  • Philippines 1978-90 by 4 million
  • Thailand 1981-88 by 2 million
  • Bangladesh 1974-85 by 9 million
  • China 1981-90 by 23 million
  • India 1981-89 by 3 million
  • Korea 1981-90 by 5 million

(Source: Yearbook of labour statistics, ILO, Geneva 1988)

In addition, some countries send thousands of workers abroad, and their remittances are a welcome contribution to the livelihood of the remaining relatives, even if it is earned at high social costs.

Whenever the development of the on-agricultural sector reaches a certain momentum, this has implications for the farm sector and the reduction in the traditional size of holdings. The East Asian countries, where industrialization has been rapid, experience that the size of holdings remains more or less constant. In this case, the availability of work outside agriculture and the income earned there are so much higher than the proceeds from the cultivation of the small holding that many people do not attach much value to farming. The land is usually cultivated by a relative; in poor locations, it is sometimes left fallow.

Farm size reduction, employment alternatives, agricultural development and multiemployment have led to a differentiation within agriculture that was formerly unknown. In the past, the majority of farms were 'family farms' so that they became the prototype of agriculture in most past of the world. Exceptions (landlords, commercial farmers, plantations, etc.) were few. These family farms employed all family members and provided livelihood for all of them. Consequently, the interest of all was centered on the farm. Everybody worked hard for the family's common welfare. This was the basis of the high productivity - which has often been quoted - of small farms.

Today, there is a wide socioeconomic differentiation among agricultural holdings. While some, usually large, farmers limit their activity to farming, a large number of smallholders have a variety of attitude towards and interest in land. Among family members and even among owners of large farms, a difference exists: some manage in the traditional way with a limited productivity, other apply modern technology. Usually, the more income is earned from non­agricultural sources, the less is the family members' interest in farming or they are split in their interests. The role of the holding may be limited to production for self-sufficiency or part of it. The owner family may not be interested in high yields but in the lowest possible labour requirement so that much time remains for non-agricultural work. Other ones invest their non­agricultural earnings in agriculure and try to expand the farm and turn it into a viable economic unit. Other holdings are cultivated extensively by old couples for their own support, since there is no social security, while all their children have migrated. All these different types of holdings require different policies that support and improve them. The usual agricultural policy, especially, is not useful to most of the smaller farms earning their income from multiemployment and where the centre of interest lies outside the farm. Even those leading marginal existences, i.e., those who have no means of earning a non-agricultural income, usually have no use for the offers made by agricultural policy. In this case, new policies are required and the more so, since only about 1/4 of all holdings in Asia belong to those who engage fully in agriculture, while 3/4 are too small and only subsist because the family members combine their sources of income or are in great distress. These figures vary greatly according to countries and regions.