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

Peasants' Pursuit of Outside Alliances in the Process of Land Reform: A Discussion of Legal Assistance Programmes in Bangladesh and the Philippines



In order to secure access to land and improve its productivity, peasant groups need external support. Their ability to establish solid alliances with NGOs, church groups, trade unions, political parties, development agencies and others is key to ensuring that their land and related livelihood demands are heard by landlords and authorities. External organizations can provide peasant groups with key information and resources that they would otherwise lack access to, as well as broaden the space in which they can operate to mobilize support for their causes.

In this configuration of potential external allies are lawyers and other legal representatives. In fact, one of the most tenuous and overlooked alliances in the process of land reform is that between peasant organizations and their legal representatives. Land reform is clearly a political issue, but it is also a legal one. The formulation and, more importantly, the implementation of effective land reform legislation is a vital step in improving the livelihoods of the rural poor.

From this perspective, this paper examines the search for legal support by peasants in their efforts to secure land and tenurial rights. The role of lawyers and legal aid groups as possible allies (and potential enemies) for peasants is critically examined, and their will and capacity to help peasants are assessed.

In order to determine what role lawyers can, or could, play the nature of what exactly constitutes a peasant’s legal needs is initially discussed. Experiences have shown that even when progressive land reform legislation exists on paper, it may remain mute on the ground. This is often due to the political and legal clout powerful landowners and business interests possess in developing countries, allowing them to manipulate the system in their favour through legal loopholes and other means.

Given this situation, this paper highlights the myriad of important roles legal aid can play—from informing peasants of their basic rights, to holding governments and the legal system accountable for areas where land reform legislation has not been implemented in favour of the rural poor. Lawyers can also help peasants in the often long, costly and arduous process of taking cases of wrongdoing by landowners and other more powerful individuals and groups to court. The very nature of their profession and their detailed knowledge of legislation regarding property rights, land and tenurial clauses and international human rights declarations means that lawyers can play a most valuable role in ensuring not only that peasants get what they are legally due, but also in monitoring the legal system so that accountability and transparency are respected.

But this paper points out that, in reality, lawyers and legal aid services rarely fulfil this role. It argues that although the ability of lawyers to act as allies for peasants is context specific, on the whole the availability of efficient legal aid in rural areas remains weak. To try and counter this trend, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and peasant groups are increasingly including the provision of legal aid, legal awareness and training programmes in their activities. Examples are given of a few such initiatives, but evidence shows that this process is often hampered by a lack of resources (especially financial) as well as by a very limited pool of skilled persons who are willing to work in rural areas to promote peasant legal needs.

These issues are indeed complex and multi-layered. To elucidate, case studies from the Bangladesh and the Philippines are discussed, showing that despite land legislation and jurisdiction favouring sharecroppers, smallholders, women and other groups, other more powerful actors are able to retain their stronghold. In the cases from Bangladesh, even though legal provisions exist in favour of the distribution of government khas land to landless peasants, very little is actually given to them. A few NGOs and other groups are getting involved in mediating land disputes. Legal assistance has been essential in preventing unjust eviction of peasants, as well as in fighting off false charges issued against them.

In the Philippines, the roots and complications of the Carruf and Mapalad cases are analysed. They not only present a very complex legal struggle between peasant beneficiaries and the legal system, but also depict internal fighting between various government agencies and business interests. In both cases, farmer beneficiaries were given legal land titles under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme, but they faced continuous legal and physical harassment due to the embedded interests of business and political élites in the area. But the Mapalad case is also an encouraging example of the large degree of social mobilization and support a peasant group can achieve even when confronted by powerful political and business opponents.

In the concluding section it is argued that, in general, securing outside alliances is crucial in conflict mediation, identifying land for redistribution, rallying media, political and public support for peasant causes, and other areas. More specifically, the provision of legal aid and the support of lawyers increases the chances that peasant organizations will achieve their objectives. In reality, however, opportunities for such alliances remain limited, and justice is often far from being the blind, objective arbitrator it is theoretically meant to be. It is argued that for changes to occur in favour of the rural poor, networks between peasants and other support groups need to be strengthened, and legal aid services made more available in rural areas. Furthermore, popular mobilization by the concerned population groups themselves is particularly crucial if social actions related to land rights are to be more effective.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD