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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.