Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform in Asia*

A Re-appraisal of Priorities in Agrarian Re-organization for Rural Development

By Frithjof Kuhnen


Land tenure and agrarian reform are among the most prevalent topics of discussion in developing countries of today. This indicates the importance of the pertinent problems for development in its economic, social as well as political aspects. A large number of different organizations and groups of population participate in the discussion: it is popular in newspapers, scientifics at academic conferences; it is taken into account in development plans and plays a role in assemblies of political parties; it is discussed in a very revolutionary tone by radical political groups and is paid lipservice even by those who are reluctant to change the existing agrarian structure.

Before joining this discussion for a review and re-appraisal of the land tenure and agrarian reform situation in Asia at the beginning of the Second Development Decade, some conceptional clarification seems to be indicated. The more so as there is no general agreement on the relevant terms and popular usage sometimes differs from scientific definition.

Land tenure means all the relations established among men to determine their various rights in the use of land. These rights may be fixed by custom or law and are often explained as a complex or bundle of rights which, together, constitute the property, i. e. the right to control an economic good, in this case, land. This bundle of rights is often shared by contract with others. For instance, the owner might transfer the right to cultivate the land to a tenant or the right to cross his field to a neighbour whose land is not directly connected with the road. For our discussion, it is of importance to recognize that in an agrarian society, the type of tenure which a man has determines to a great extent his social status and his economic well-being.

Agrarian structure is a much broader concept and covers all the structural conditions for production in agriculture and for the livelihood and social situation of the rural population. It includes the conditions of land tenure, i. e. problems of ownership, tenancy, inheritance of land, labour relations, etc. and the conditions of land operation, i. e. the pattern of cultivation, size of holdings and institutional framework of agriculture, such as credit and market structure, institutions for promotion of cultivators, like co-operatives, extension service, etc.

Agrarian reform may be defined as a measure to overcome obstacles to development which arise from defects in the prevailing agrarian structure. This concept has become popular during the last ten years superseding the former concept of land reform.

It is an outgrowth of the awareness of the need for economic development and planning which again requires the study of the whole agrarian structure as it relates tg development. Thus, agrarian reform includes reform of land tenure and reform of land operation and management. Within the development process, the latter are of special importance because land operation and management reforms often deter-min the success of the tenure reforms.

This enlargement of the concept has been criticized: it opens possibilities to label a simple measure to increase production with the term "agrarian reform" and thus disguise a negative attitude to real changes in the agrarian structure. Indeed, the wide definition of agrarian reform includes such different measures as:

  • instruments of agrarian policy which are of qualitative character and supposed to refer to smaller changes, like subsidies, tax rates, etc.;
  • structural changes to alter the structure of agriculture, like credit programmes, investments in infrastructure, extension services, etc.;
  • institutional reforms which change the foundation of the rural economy and society, like land redistribution, change in tenancy, collectivization, etc.

The economic concept of the term "agrarian reform" has sometimes been unjustly blamed for repressing the predominant political and social character of agrarian reforms. This criticism, however, loses importance if one defines development not in economic terms, but from a socio-political standpoint.

That agrarian reform is not limited to economic goals is obvious from the objectives of agrarian reform which include:

  • changes in the power structure and freedom from exploitation;
  • greater equality in access to resources, income, status and security;
  • an increase in production and productivity;
  • contribution to economic growth.

It is quite often claimed that welfare and humanitarian goals are in conflict with those of economic growth. This subject will be dealt with in detail somewhat later.

After defining the basic concepts used in this paper, the discussions will be elaborated in three chapters:

  • first, a short review of the nature of defects in the land tenure system will be given, together with a discussion of the reform measures;
  • in a second chapter, a reconsideration of land tenure relationship and agrarian structure in the context of recent technological changes, usually termed "green revolution", will bring the discussion up to date;
  • the third chapter is an attempt at re-appraising the issue of land reform in the light of the new priorities arising from today's challenges.


*) Revised version of a paper for the Asian Regional Seminar on the Contribution of Rural Institutions to Rural Development, Particularly Employment, organized by the International Labour Organization, New Delhi, 3rd to 16th November 1971.