Agrarian Reform – The Unfinished Business

During the years following World War II, many countries introduced land reforms – however, with varying degrees of success. In East Asia, strong pressure from occupying armies and sever crises led to successful improvements in the economic, social and political situation. An important part of the success story was the result of the inclusion of a land management reform and the organization of services for the beneficiaries of the agrarian reforms. Taiwan was without a doubt the most outstanding example, and it is a pity that other countries following suit did not learn the lesson from this success story. These early reforms provided incentives for increasing productivity, as well as promoting equality and reducing the power based on the control of land.

The many attempts at land reforms that followed were not able to achieve the same results. Weak governments were not able to break the resistance of powerful landlords, and the only limited provision of services to, or even the exclusion of beneficiaries of the reforms from services further decreased whatever success there might have been.

The arguments respecting land reform – pro because of the need to eliminate obstacles to socio-economic development and con because of the tremendous political and financial costs – lost momentum with the advent of powerful new developments during the late 60s and 70s. Severe food shortages became the overwhelming concern of the governments in some of the large countries. The continued decreases in farm sizes due to the partitioning of land through inheritance initiated discussions – beginning with the Indian Association of Agricultural Economists – as to whether it would make sense to increase the already large number of too small farms by allocating small plots to landless in the course of land reform. The impact of biological and technological innovations in agriculture, the so-called ‘green revolution,’ was regarded as proof that technology could solve all problems. Finally, real or assumed non-agricultural development seemed to offer alternatives to rural life and reduce pressure demanding land reform. Some of these arguments will be taken up in more detail later on in this paper.

No matter what the short and long-term value of such arguments might be, it had become rather quiet respecting the issues of land-tenure reform until the changes in the socialistic countries took place. While it is probably still too early to draw conclusions on the land tenure changes in these countries – some of them are still experimenting, others are going through an obscure process of arbitrary actions by regional administrations – a number of the old assumptions concerning land reform are no longer accepted as the ultimate wisdom, and new issues have emerged. Recently the discussion has concentrated on the following aspects:

  • Is traditional land reform necessary, or could the goal be reached at lower cost by means of structural policy measures, or incentive taxation, or ‘market led land reform’? Who would be charged with the burden of such land reform?
  • Is it still possible to pass a land reform for an entire country as in the 50s, at best with double ceilings for non-irrigated areas – but without paying attention to the great differences in quality and quantity or security of irrigation, the soil and location – or have regional differences become so influential that they have to be taken into consideration (which would probably lead to structural policy measures).
  • The increasing mobility of the people is related to this issue, both residential as well as occupational. The greater mobility results in migration from remote areas with limited fertility to the centres of agricultural production and more non-agricultural development, a trend which might demand different treatment in attempts to change the agrarian structure. This includes the need to anticipate socio-economic changes which can be expected to take place in the near future, whether caused by outmigration or technological impacts. Changes have to be accepted by the people, and it makes little sense to distribute small parcels of land to people who will migrate within a few years because of poor prospects for improving their lives under the prevailing conditions. Should we invest in marginal, fragile land, and what are the land tenure preconditions for doing so?
  • Today, changes in land tenure have to take the requirements not only of the agricultural sector and population into consideration, but rather also of the economy and society at large. Urbanization and industrialization require land, and improvements in the infrastructure, recreational facilities, water reservoirs and environmental concerns have their own land requirements. The loudest request for a golf course should not be the winner in the competition for land, but rather proper land-use planning which takes all of the aspects into consideration.
  • Finally, at the higher level of sophistication that exists in most countries today, the different interests and conditions represented by various cultural groups within the countries call for specific treatment in accordance with the varying needs and requirements. The division of land that is registered in the name of an ethnic chieftain who is actually, or should be, the custodian of his tribe could destroy the economic basis of the tribal society. Each case must be considered separately because the same legal situation may signify that expropriation would result in the deterioration of the traditional tribal society, or that in other cases the chieftain would be transformed from being a custodian into a landlord.

All of these and similar aspects in the end call for the incorporation of land tenure policy into a broader general policy of socio-economic development with the goal of facilitating increases in productivity, improving the living conditions of the rural population and protecting the environment. Ultimately, it will probably require a transition from land tenure to a broader concept of resource tenure with the focus not only on including land, but also water, grazing land, forestry and the available or other potential means of existence and, last but not least, such aspects as the protection of biodiversity.

In order to make such a comprehensive policy manageable, it would be necessary to limit it to a specific region, i.e., it would have to be a regional development policy.


next: 3. The Farm Size - Productivity Issue