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Land: key facts and resources

19 May 2008

A collection of facts, organisations, reports and further resources about the land crisis from a global perspective. 

Origins of the land crisis

"Before the advent of title to social wealth through industrial capital and finance capital all sustenance for life, and thus all wealth, was processed directly from land. Finance capital is the money symbol for industrial and distribution capital and these factories and distribution systems are only extremely efficient tools to process and distribute products from the land. So the subtle monopolization of finance capital and/or industrial capital is only an extension of the subtle monopolization of land. When wealth began to be produced by capital as well as land, powerful people undertook to lay claim to these instruments for the production of wealth just as historically they had laid claim to land. The process of usurping rights through monopoly title to society's wealth takes many generations and leads to great wealth for a relative few and dispossession and poverty for many."[1]

The efforts to alienate the individual from common use of the natural wealth of the land are documented in Britain by the nearly 4,000 enclosure acts passed between 1760 and 1844 that effectively gave legal sanction to this theft. For the powerful to protect their title further, it was necessary to erase from social memory all traces of the earlier custom of social ownership of social wealth.[2]

"Today's neo-liberal philosophies are ongoing efforts to prevent a rekindling of mutual support beliefs and social wealth held in common... Exclusive title as opposed to conditional title is that remnant of feudal law which is the primary cause of today's inefficient economies creating a wealthy few and an impoverished many."[3]

"Once land had been confiscated from the masses in the Middle Ages, it belonged permanently to the lord of that land and could only be lost through war. When English law changed to permit the sale of land, this created the foundation for modern capitalism... The privatization of land and resultant mobilization of capital was a key stage in the development of capitalism that expanded rights to more people."[4]

Defining the land crisis

70 per cent of the world's dollar-poor live in rural areas, and "rural shares of poverty intensity are substantially higher (than urban shares); and in Africa and Asia poverty is even more rurally concentrated."[5]

The livelihoods of the dollar-poor are inextricably linked to agriculture: as a global average they derive around 50 per cent of their income from agricultural employment (hired or self-employed).[6]

As in developed countries before 1900, so in developing countries since 1950: kick-starting the reduction of mass dollar poverty normally requires accelerated growth of staples output on family farms.[7]

Globalization, accelerating from the 1980s,"should have" enhanced the market and trade prospects of poor people. Yet each unit of economic growth, while still cutting dollar poverty after 1990, has done so less than during 1970-90.[8]

"[F]ood production has more than kept pace with global population growth. On average, food supplies are 24 percent higher per person than in 1961, and real prices are 40 percent lower. Over the same period, the global population has doubled from 3 to 6 billion people."[9]

The problem of land ownership is intertwined with the issues of food distribution, the crisis of rising food prices, and the persistence of hunger.  [See related sections on the STWR pages for Poverty/Inequality and Food Insecurity/Agriculture.]

The problem of land is also directly related to the crisis of migration across the developing world.  "What's happened with the Green Revolution is sort of a microcosm of what's happened in the United States in this century, where agricultural production has gone up tremendously, but at the cost of driving people out of the countryside and into the cities, where the economy cannot absorb the excess labor. The Green Revolution promoted seeds that required chemicals, irrigation and other expensive investments that could only be adopted by larger, wealthier farmers, but not by smaller, poorer farmers. This allowed the larger, wealthier farmers to expand at the expense of the smaller farmers" - Peter M. Rosset, Executive Director of Food First.[10]

The explosion of slums is a modern consequence of the land problem, with millions of rural dwellers in the developing world forced to migrate into city shantytowns. "Most everywhere, corporations -- especially those involved in agribusiness, real estate development, and mineral, petroleum, and timber extraction -- are extending their control over the planet's natural resource base -- in many instances depleting, destroying, or poisoning the renewable land and water resources that once provided livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people. The resulting development refugees are left with no choice, but to struggle for survival at the margins of the world's overcrowded cities."[11]

The United Nations estimates that one billion people live in peripheral neighborhoods outside Third World cities, and that the poor in the largest cities in the world number some two billion - a third of all human beings. These statistics will double within the next 15 or 20 years. All future growth of the world's population will occur in cities, 95% of it in cities of the Global South and the majority in slums.[12]

The fact of urbanization in the developing world does not preclude the need to focus policies on the agriculture sector.  Projections indicate that by 2035, 50 per cent of the poor will still live in rural areas.[13]

The land problem that results in a lack of adequate housing: The United Nations estimates that 100 million people presently sleep outside with no shelter at all or sleep in public buildings such as railway, bus, or metro stations. If the definition of homelessness is expanded to include people living in insecure or temporary shelters--often of poor quality--the estimate of the world's homeless rises to more than a billion. The problem is not limited to Southern countries. In the 12 countries of the European Union, some 1.8 million people sleep on the streets or depend on temporary public shelters.[14]

Causes of the land crisis

Economic hegemony and the unequal distribution of world resources: "The ongoing role of Third World countries is to be the supplier of cheap and plentiful raw materials and agricultural products to the developed world. Nature's wealth was, and is, being controlled to fulfill the needs of the world's affluent people. The U.S. is one of the prime beneficiaries of this well-established system. Our great universities search diligently for "the answer" to the problem of poverty and hunger. They invariably find it in "lack of motivation, inadequate or no education," or some other self-serving excuse. They look at everything except the cause -- the powerful own the world's social wealth" - J.W. Smith[15]

Land concentration and trade liberalisation: "The expansion of agricultural production for export, controlled by wealthy elites who own the best lands, continually displaces the poor to ever more marginal areas for farming. They are forced to fell forests located on poor soils, to farm thin, easily eroded soils on steep slopes, and to try to eke out a living on desert margins and in rainforests."[16]

Although the World Bank has taken the lead in promoting reforms of land tenure, its methods are widely criticized by land campaign groups.  Their approach relies on the privatization of communal lands, land titling and the formation of land markets, and market-led redistribution.[17]

An example of the result of land privatization: "Egypt's experience of the liberalization of the land rental market should be taken as a warning: Until 1992 access to land was regulated by the 1952 agrarian reform law that aimed to protect small-scale peasants. Within the framework of the negotiations on structural adjustment with both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Egyptian government adopted the 96/1992 land tenure reform law as one of the main reforms towards the liberalization of its economy. This law invalidated every leasing contract of agricultural lands and prescribed that access to land should be controlled by market forces.  The results of this change was immediately felt: leasing prices increased by approximately 300%. The exorbitant leasing prices deprived small-scale peasants of access to land since they could not afford those prices."[18]

Agri-business as a cause of land concentration and monopolization: "The last two decades have seen major restructuring of the global agri-food system. Some of the salient characteristics of this restructuring are an increasing concentration of power among a relatively small number of transnational firms; commodities and their components increasingly seen as globally substitutable inputs for food manufacturing; and a rapid expansion in South-to-North trade in fresh fruit and vegetables... (I)n recent years there has [also] been much interest in what has been called the ‘supermarket take-off' throughout the developing world, including Africa. A growing body of research shows that supermarkets in the developing countries are no longer serving only urban and upper class customers but are rapidly penetrating all segments of food marketing. All of these developments are likely to pose serious challenges to family farmers."[19]

Solutions to the land crisis

Sustainable farming: Many development NGOs, notably the California-based think tank Food First and the food sovereignty campaigns, challenge the current economic ideology in favour of large-scale, mechanized, corporate agriculture.  Small farms are not only contended to be  more productive, more efficient, and better stewards of natural resources, but - as argued by such land movements as La Via Campesina - they are now hailed as the necessary solution to battling climate change and overcoming the global food crisis.[20]

Land Value Tax (LVT): Many campaigners and groups promote a tax to the annual rental site value of land, as prominently argued by Henry George in the late 1800s.  By shifting the burden of taxation from production and exchange to the value or rent of land, the implications are widespread; the rental value of land is enjoyed by the community, no distortions or loss of welfare ensues, and land monopolisation would no longer pay.  The degree of belief in a site-value tax varies among its supporters, with some arguing that it is the ‘single tax' needed to finance all public spending, and that is should replace all other taxes.  Other advocates present its merits as one resources tax among others, contributing to less inequality of wealth and more sustainable use of land in towns and cities.[21]

Further resources







[1] J.W. Smith. Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle for the 21st Century (The Institute for Economic Democracy, 4th Edition, 2005) see chapter 24: Land is Social Wealth 

[2] Petr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1914), p. 234-5.  As quoted in J.W. Smith. Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle for the 21st Century (The Institute for Economic Democracy, 4th Edition, 2005) see chapter 24 

[3] J.W. Smith, ibid, see chapter 24, section 3: The Feudal Origins of Land Titles

[4] Ibid, section 5: Saleable Land Titles permitted the Mobilization of Capital 

[5] Michael Lipton. ‘The Family Farm in a Globalizing World: The Role of Crop Science in Alleviating Poverty' (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2020 Discussion Paper No. 40, June 2005) 

[6] Ibid. Cited in James Sumberg. ‘A long row to hoe: family farming and rural poverty in developing countries' (New Economics Foundation, October 2006) p 7. 

[7] Michael Lipton, ibid, p 1.

[8] Michael Lipton, ibid, p 2.

[9] ‘World Resources 2000-2001: People and ecosystems: The fraying web of life' (United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank, World Resources Institute, April 2000) 

[10] Peter Rosset. ‘The Case for Small Farms' (Multinational Monitor, Volume 21, Number 7 & 8, July/August 2000). For more on the Green Revolution, see the STWR section on Food Security and Agriculture.

[11] David Korten, ibid. 

[12] see Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso 2006).  See also: Raúl Zibechi. ‘The Militarization of the World's Urban Peripheries' (Nacla News, 15th February 2008) 

[13] James Sumberg, ibid, p 7. 

[14] David Korten. ‘Property Rights Versus Living Rights' (Earth Rights Institute, undated) 

[15] J.W. Smith. World's Wasted Wealth II (The Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994) see chapter four 

[16] Sofia Monsalve et al. ‘Agrarian Reform in the Context of Food Sovereignty, the Right to Food and Cultural Diversity: "Land, Territory and Dignity"' (Paper prepared by the International NGO/CSO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), January 2006) 

[17] For more on the World Bank's land reform policies, see: Klaus Deininger. ‘Land policies for growth and poverty reduction: Key issues and challenges ahead' (World Bank, March 2005) 

See also: ‘Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform - Working document: Commentary on land and rural development policies of the World Bank' (Food First Information and Action Network / La Via Campesina, undated probably 2005) 

[18] ‘Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform - Working document: Commentary on land and rural development policies of the World Bank' (Food First Information and Action Network / La Via Campesina, undated probably 2006) 

[19] James Sumberg, ibid, p 7. 

[20] See: Peter M. Rosset. ‘The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture In the Context of Global Trade Negotiations' (Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, Policy Brief No.4, September 11th 1999) 

See also: La Via CampesinaFood First Information and Action Network (FIAN), and the Food Sovereignty movement.

[21] James Robertson. ‘The New Economics of Sustainable Development: A Briefing for Policy Makers / A Report for the European Commission' (Initially published by Kogan Page for the European Commission 1999, now out of print) <http://www.jamesrobertson.com/book/neweconomicsofsustainabledevelopment.pdf>