The Development of Man-Land Relations in Asia

by Frithjof Kuhnen


Human life is not possible without land. We live and reside on land, and by applying labour on the land, man produces food and raw materials for his requirements. Man-land relations have economic, socio-political and even religious implications. Since the beginning of history, the relations between man and land have been of basic importance for society. Because of their importance, these relations are institutionalized in all societies in a system called land tenure.

The system of land tenure governs the individuals' or groups' rights to land and the resulting relationships among the rural population. These rights may be fixed by custom or law and are often explained as a complex or bundle of different rights which, together, constitute the property, i.e. the right to control an economic good, in this case land. This bundle of rights may be vested with groups or belong to individuals. Even in this case, it is often shared with others.

The components of the land tenure system are the system of control over land (in modern times often ownership) and the system of labour organization.

The system of control over land (ownership) regulates the relationship between people and land, specifically the power of disposition over and the right to use land. As it is practically impossible to increase the amount of land, and it is the basis for primary production, for living and recreation i.e. the basis for existence , the amount of land controlled and the type of distribution determine the social conditions. Rights an land bring with them work and income, prestige and influence. Anyone without rights an land is dependent in an agrarian society. He is forced to work an someone else's land in order to earn his livelihood.

The system of labour organization regulates the relation between the people carrying out the work an the land, particularly the method of dividing the work and the yield, i.e. the wage. These relations may exist among family members alone, between farm family and hired labourers or among members of a collective.

Already at a very early stage in history, man attempted to facilitate his work an the land by designing simple implements and thus forming capital. The conventional production factors labour, land and capital are utilized in traditional cultivation. But, in early times already, many cultivators had begun to run a sort of enterprise. Their goals are of economic nature: production for their own needs, for barter and, in modern times, for sale. Through this enterprise, cultivators are tied to the overall society: they are dependent upon supplies and buyers and have to fulfil the latters' wishes and conditions. Thus, modern agriculture is not only an interplay between land, solar energy and labour, but is rather determined by a number of modern factors that originate outside agriculture. Together with the conventional factors of production. These factors form the system of land management.

Neither the system of land tenure nor the system of land management are immutable. On the contrary, they are subjected to a continuous process of change. Alterations in the natural growing conditions, technological innovations, increases or decreases in the size of population, social and economic evolution, influences exercised by the political power structure and decline in the importance of agriculture in society and economy bring about changes. As these factors have been changing more and more rapidly in recent times, the systems of land tenure and land management frequently lag behind the new situation and do not adjust to it an time. Their institutional establishment makes it difficult to alter the systems. Political power structures, cooperative ties, class, cultural and ethnic interests and motives work towards maintaining the established forms.

The necessary changes in the land tenure system can take place in various ways:

  • Instruments of agrarian policy try to adapt the land system in small steps over a long period of time. They work mostly by means of incentives such as taxes, subsidies, investments in institutional support, etc. or are of regulatory nature. They are suited for supporting the continuous adaptation to changing conditions, but are too mild to balance out serious shortcomings once they have arisen.
  • Agrarian reforms are measures to overcome obstacles hindering economic and social development that are the result of shortcomings in the agrarian structure. Changes in land tenure as well as changes in land management are included. Agrarian reforms make use of legal force and intervene in the property and land use rights of the people, although with compensation. The former term "land reform" points out the changes in rights to land without referring to changes in land utilization, as well. Such mere changes in land ownership were sufficient at a time when the goals of reform were political and social in nature. During a struggle for economic development, it is of utmost importance to include the reform of land operation and management so that the wider concept of agrarian reform is more popular today.
  • Agrarian revolutions are spontaneous, radical changes in the traditional land system with the uncompensated redistribution of all rights on land and usually a drastic reorganization of the society.

As a result of the continuous change in the factors that govern and form the land tenure systems, an ideal land tenure system cannot exist. The momentary specific land tenure system is the institutional framework, within which the agrarian production and way of life occur under currently existing circumstances and conditions. It is interrelated with the natural, social, economic and political conditions. As these change, the land tenure system has to continually adapt itself to the altered situation. The same applies to the system of land management.

The paper at hand analyses, as an example of institutional change within the socio-economic-political development process, the main features of man land relations in Asia during the different periods of history. The main emphasis is an

  • the varying role of agriculture in society;
  • the social, economic and political goals the land tenure system has to support;
  • the system controlling rights to dispose of and use the land;
  • the forces initiating changes in land tenure,
  • and the actual tenure arrangements in different time periods.

While the historic development in Asia varies from country to country, there are common or at least similar features among Asian countries as far as the changes in the land tenure system are concerned, if one compares the stages in development and not the historical periods of time. The paper at hand interprets the man land relations for the following periods:

  • early history,
  • pre colonial times,
  • colonial rule,
  • after independence, and
  • beginning industrialization.