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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Land Reform in Developing Countries: The Role of the State and Other Actors



An approach to sustainable and equitable development requires well informed, purposeful courses of action by the state and other concerned social actors. Land tenure institutions have to be continually adapted and regulated to serve the “public interest”. But unless the institutions and policies regulating rights and obligations in access to land are somehow made primarily accountable to poor majorities, to low-income minorities and unborn generations—instead of to currently dominant corporate and other powerful groups—“public interest” can easily be interpreted to mean the opposite of sustainable development.

A review of twentieth century land reforms in Latin America and in a few other developing countries is instructive, as it brings out several of these controversial issues. Each case is to some extent unique, but there are also common features permitting qualified generalizations. Land reforms are considered to have occurred in countries where more than approximately one fifth of the agricultural land has been redistributed to benefit over one tenth of the rural poor, over a period of a decade or less.

Social movements with important peasant support led to revolutionary regimes implementing significant land reforms in Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua. Similar processes produced massive land reforms in China and Viet Nam. Popularly based insurgencies in Peru and El Salvador convinced nationalist military officers wielding state power to undertake land reforms. Important land reforms by authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan had partially similar origins. Democratically elected regimes in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Venezuela and Chile all initiated important land reforms. Political parties in each of these cases sought increased electoral support from low-income rural voters as well as being pressured by a wide range of other clients and allies with frequently conflicting interests in reform. In all of these reforms, peasant organizations and the state regime of the moment were central actors.

The often fleeting nature of popularly based state regimes supporting serious agrarian reforms is well illustrated by the Latin American experiences. In Mexico the most sweeping phase of the reform occurred during the Cardénas administration in the 1930s, with state-encouraged militant support by armed peasant organizations. Credit, marketing, technical assistance and similar state institutions were created or redirected to serve reform beneficiaries’ needs. This resulted in significant increases in peasant food production and incomes. Subsequent administrations after 1940 continued to redistribute land, but priorities were changed to promoting commercial production by large-scale private farmers while leaving the peasants as dependent clients of the state’s ruling party. In Bolivia, peasant food production and consumption increased following reform, but the marketed surplus diminished. The state was able to meet growing urban demands for food through highly subsidized imports. It directed most investments in agriculture toward private commercial producers in frontier regions while neglecting the mostly indigenous peasantry that had benefited from the land reform. Land reform had brought substantial benefits to major low-income peasant populations in both cases, but subsequent changes in the state’s major political support groups, and hence its priorities, had excluded most peasant producers from playing a dynamic role in post-reform developments.

The Puerto Rican reform accompanied the protectorate’s full integration into the US economy. Sugar exports lost their historic importance, while food imports increased rapidly. The house and garden plots allocated to many thousands of reform beneficiaries, however, provided a cushion that enabled rural workers to migrate to other employment on the island or in the United States on better terms than would have otherwise been the case. They were also politically very popular. Land reform in Venezuela was instigated in response to peasant protests, but its reliance on paying full compensation to expropriated large holders illustrated the limitations of a “market friendly” approach in reforming rural social relations.

The initially very successful Guatemalan reform was aborted by a United States-instigated military coup in 1954 with disastrous consequences for the country’s future. The United States had supported the Chilean land reform timidly begun by the Alessandri regime and rapidly extended under the Frei administration, but its opposition to the Allende administration resulted in the coup that halted and partially reversed these earlier reforms. United States support had been decisive in promoting land reforms in South Korea and Taiwan, as well as in El Salvador. But United States opposition to the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua eventually led to a government that placed its priority on promotion of large-scale agro-export production by transnational investors and commercial private farmers who were mostly not reform beneficiaries. In Cuba, the United States trade embargo imposed in the early 1960s negatively affected production and incomes of land reform beneficiaries, but this was offset by liberal support from the Soviet Union until 1989.

Obviously, international markets as well as the policies of foreign powers and transnational corporations have crucially influenced the courses of these and most other land reforms. In rapidly globalizing national economies, this is likely to be even more the case in the future than it has been in the past.

Some analysts have concluded that growing globalization of finance, markets, information, production and modern technologies have left the redistributive land reforms of the past irrelevant for today’s developing countries. Social differentiation of their rural populations have already advanced so far that it would be impossible to redistribute land rights in a way that could benefit most of the rural poor, according to this view. The difficulties experienced during the Chilean and Peruvian reforms of building a consensus among potential beneficiaries about how expropriated lands should be divided would seem to support this conclusion. The rural poor, they believe, will have to wait until livelihoods become available in other activities. Meanwhile, some might be helped by market-assisted land reforms that promote voluntary sales of land by large holders to low-income buyers who use the land more “efficiently”. The majority of the poor who could not benefit from such real estate transactions could be tided over by social “safety nets” and emergency aid until they find other sources of income.

Fortunately, this pessimistic vision is not universally shared. Redistributive land reforms can still play a crucial role in relieving rural poverty and in promoting broad-based sustainable development. Increased social differentiation and other concomitants of globalization present new opportunities for significant reforms, as well as obstacles. Contradictions among large landowners about the costs and benefits of reform are increasing. Peasants have new opportunities to communicate and organize with access to modern transport and communication facilities. They are now in a better position than earlier to find allies among environmentalists, groups promoting human rights and others in civil society as well as from international organizations committed to the promotion of equitable and ecologically sustainable development. Popularly based development strategies that include radical land reforms are not necessarily becoming obsolete. The problem is to organize the social forces able and willing to support them.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD