#16 food & farming
Isabel Makhoul

Land, Protest and Tenure Security

In many countries of the Global South, agricultural production is an important sector of economic activity that provides employment, livelihood and subsistence for smallholder farmers. At the same time tenure of the land, the basis of any agricultural production, is often insecure. Difficult access to land represents a major factor that is driving up poverty and vulnerability in rural areas.

In Latin America, the unequal distribution of land has constantly been at the centre of agrarian conflicts, and over the centuries rural turmoil has more than once been a trigger for larger protests that eventually evolved into revolutionary movements. The ever-growing commercial importance of tenure and the exclusion of vast groups of the population has given birth to new social movements and in some cases even forced profound political regime changes. The earliest cases of land reform in the 19th century included Simon Bolivar's efforts to free and redistribute land around the entire continent and the rebellions of slaves against colonial landowners in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic leading to the distribution of land on the Caribbean islands. No less significant was the popular revolution in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century that led to wide land reform. The revolt was a consequence of the deterioration of the peasantry's livelihood and the monopolization of land which resulted in a massive redistribution of land. In Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador) as well as the Andean region (Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador), countries have also experienced political change through mass land invasions by indigenous communities and peasants throughout the century.

On average the region shows the world’s most inequitable distribution of land characterized by a dualistic tenure system.

Rising dissatisfaction together with changing living conditions and increased political participation has led to attempts at larger land reform and redistribution programmes from the 1950s until the 1970s. Either way policies have often failed to integrate vast parts of the population and have mostly been designed to foster national agricultural production with little impact on small farmers and poor peasants. In 1971 when Eduardo Galeano published his famous book “The Open Veins of Latin America”, he points out the continuation of colonial structures of exploitation as well as the concentration of power and land in the hands of the few, which has prevailed to the present day. In his impressive work, Galeano shows how the wealth of the resource-rich continent and the design of national policies are still based on the attempt to increase the profit of the countries’ elite through primary and agricultural products, natural resources and the exploitation of indigenous workers while excluding large parts of the population from access to the land. In fact, on average the region shows the world’s most inequitable distribution of land characterized by a dualistic tenure system. This means most land is controlled by either national governments or the economic elite and is concentrated into large holdings known as latifundios (>500 ha), while poor rural farmers are pushed into subsistence-oriented farming or share-cropping on minifundios (beyond 5 ha), small properties of low value. These are often marginal soils of inadequate quality located on the fringes of cultivable regions.

To the present day, the region has shown high levels of insecure land tenure and weak property rights for the poor leading to widespread informality of agricultural labour and rural housing. Women and indigenous groups are generally the most affected and access to land is considerably complicated by either complex and inefficient land administration systems or the lack of data and information on tenure and property status.

Land ownership is an important prerequisite for gaining access to loans which can in turn foster further economic growth.

Undoubtedly, the equitable distribution of land in developing countries would be highly desirable and provide a higher capacity of economic growth, productivity gains and poverty reduction. Access to land not only provides work and livelihood for peasants and stability for farmers’ lives. Land ownership is an important prerequisite for gaining access to loans which can in turn foster further economic growth. Finally, decreased farm size generally leads to higher productivity rates through higher self-motivation and lower marginal supervision costs, for example.

In geographic size and with a population of almost 200 million inhabitants, Brazil is the largest and one of the most advanced Latin American countries. At the same time the country ranks high in terms of land concentration, second only to Paraguay where most of the big landowners are Brazilian. In Brazil as little as 1% of the population owns 45% of the total land, whereas almost 80 % of the rural population lives in poverty.

The inequality of land distribution, inadequate access to land by the poor, and insecurity of land tenure are major challenges for socio-economic development and represent a poverty trap for the rural population.

Historically, unequal land distribution has been an important subject in Brazil that has given birth to the famous peasants’ movement Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). Economic giant Brazil heavily relies on its natural resources while the inequality of land distribution, inadequate access to land by the poor, and insecurity of land tenure are major challenges for socio-economic development and represent a poverty trap for the rural population. The precarious living conditions in the countryside have led to a significant rural exodus and pushed large segments of society towards the shanty towns around the metropolitan areas.

The legal framework of land tenure is regulated by the Brazilian Constitution, which in theory guarantees the fundamental right to land ownership as well as other forms such as customary land rights for indigenous communities and the transfer of land titles following the possession of land over longer periods known as "usucapião". The social importance of land tenure is defined by the Estatuo de Terra from 1964 that introduced the need for land reform with measures that would provide a better distribution of land. The concept implies that rules regarding land ownership and use of land should always be geared towards social justice as well as increasing productivity, allowing for expropriation of land for social reasons in regions with land conflicts. The latter was reinforced by the constitution of 1967.

In practice, land reform and expropriation of underutilized land was only slowly implemented by the Brazilian government. The first mobilizations and invasions of land already occurred during the 21-year period of military dictatorship. This led to the founding of the Brazilian workers party, the PT, in 1980 as well as the MST in 1984, mobilizing thousands of landless peasants in a short period of time. Following further laws and policies, the democratic constitution of 1988 resulted in profound change for the landless movements. Its article 184 paved the path for a constitutional guarantee of land reform: “It is within the power of the Union to expropriate on account of social interest, for purposes of agrarian reform, the rural property which is not performing its social function […].” Based on this new legal and political framework, new programmes and policies were supposed to be initiated to respond to the needs of landless farmers.

Since the return to democracy, attempts at land reform and public policies aiming at improving the life of rural farmers have been only marginally successful.

But quite the opposite happened and land conflicts have increased considerably in the past two decades, resulting in a rising number of victimized smallholder farmers and landless peasants. This has particularly affected the Afro-Brazilian community and the poorer population in the North-East. Violence is widespread, but the majority of newly reported cases do not ultimately go to trial. Since the return to democracy, attempts at land reform and public policies aiming at improving the life of rural farmers have been only marginally successful. Farmers' interests have been poorly integrated into the process of policy design and women were almost completely neglected in the first years of land reform. Although rural landownership has slightly increased for the poorest, it has decreased for the majority of farmers.

Today, only 20 companies control all food production in Brazil, and 14 of these are transnational corporations.

What adds to the difficulty of acquiring land is also the number of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles that increase the complexity of registering a property. The process forces a claimant to navigate a decentralized network of separate agencies involving 15 different procedures and takes an average of 47 days. These major challenges and the ongoing globalization of agribusiness sectors make the call for land reform even more urgent. Today, only 20 companies control all food production in Brazil, and 14 of these are transnational corporations. The agribusiness sector and the rising global demand for cash crops have become important business factors that particularly benefit the large landowners. The demand for and production of monocultures, e.g. soy, sugar cane and eucalyptus, has expanded as part of agricultural activity over the past three decades. In the end this leads to greater competition for land, threatens biodiversity, and negatively affects the agricultural activity of smallholder farmers.

The dissatisfying living conditions in rural areas have led to an increased expansion of urban centres in Brazil where today more than 85% of the population lives in cities. But urban growth is concentrated in informal areas of the city, namely slums or favelas. After a decade of economic boom and the improvement of living conditions for many, Brazil has reached a point of economic deceleration while high rates of inflation and expensive living conditions in the big cities persist even in informal areas. In 2013, a general dissatisfaction with basic public services among the Brazilian population led to broad social unrest and week-long mass protests. The country is hosting several mega events, while most of the population is struggling to support their everyday needs.

The creation of participatory structures and the inclusion of stakeholders are highly recommended in the design of land policies.

Rendering the distribution of economic resources more equal as well as improving access to land and livelihood in rural areas seems an urgent task for the Latin American giant and other countries in the region. The creation of participatory structures and the inclusion of stakeholders are highly recommended in the design of land policies. In Brazil in particular, in addition to the MST, a plethora of actors at the national, regional and state level, such as the church, labour unions and various other social movements and smaller organizations, have contributed to the process of land reform over the past 25 years and in the process acquired important experience and expertise. Land reform must be accompanied by adequate public policies that take the need for secure land tenure and protection from eviction into account. For a long time the most important policy actions have focused on the management of property rather than on access for the poor and the security of land tenure. Large titling projects often supported by international financial institutions have shown to be insufficient in promoting new development. Therefore land reform and the provision of tenure security must be strengthened by complementary support programmes that prevent the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few major agribusiness companies.

Photo: “Acampamento MST • Pirapora (MG) • 10/08/2013” by Ninja Midia
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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