This is the second in a three-part series of features on global landlessness. The features attempt to shed light on the centuries-old problem of landlessness, how it’s exacerbated today, and to bring to the fore the extremely neglected question in intergovernmental policy discussions: ‘who are the landless peoples of the world?’
Despite covering the majority of rural peoples in the Global South, landless peoples’ right to land has been absent in key national and international agendas. Most of the landless, especially the agricultural workers, have been dropped from the “official” definition of landlessness and are experiencing the systematic oppression of having no right to land. These sectors are dislodged and disenfranchised by international institutions in the realm of “land reform.”
Land reform programs are supposed to address domestic landlessness, but neoliberal policies continue to favor the monopoly concentration and corporatization of land and wealth.
History has shown that strong peasant movements in the 50s to late 70s has pushed a definitive global agrarian reform agenda which puts ‘redistribution of land to landless farmers’ at the heart of poverty alleviation programs and espousing social justice. This was reflected in numerous UN and FAO agenda in the late 60s to the late 70s2. However, the implementation of redistributive land reforms largely depended on the strength of rural peoples movement in national arenas. Subsequently, the redistributive land reform agenda went to the back burners and was eventually replaced by a market-assisted land reform model.
From 1995 to 2002i, the World Bank pushed for a reformulation of agrarian reform in line with its macroeconomic, political, and institutional agenda of neoliberalism – market-assisted land reform. Conveniently, the WB tied its ‘policy recommendations’ with strategic aid to States in the Global South. This triggered a ‘new’ wave of land access policies that veered away from the redistributive and social justice-premised land reform programs in the 60s. In Latin America and in Asia, this has led to further dispossession of lands as it opened up so-called land markets favoring the local elite and international corporations.
Local elites and corporations take advantage of austerity measures that push for the privatization of public and customary lands and legalize dispossession through deceptive lease-type schemes and financing programs that enable their jurisdiction over already owned farmlands. Efficiency in land use is defined as “capital-intensive,” giving way to investments in industrial agriculture that have occupied many rural communities worldwide.
Such is the case in Ukraine, where the government plans to open up the sale of its 41 million hectares of agricultural land by lifting the 18-year ban to the tune of a USD 5.5 billion loan. This was widely opposed in the country as the land reform would affect six million rural peoples.
This is more so apparent in Latin America, where right-wing leaders unabashedly use their government positions to deliver to business interests. In the case of Colombia, where land concentration in Latin America is highest, land reform from the peace pact with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is unlikely to be realized due to the strong conservative opposition of President Ivan Duque. Meanwhile, in Brazil, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and his corporate associates have been pushing for the legalization of cleared land in Amazon to regularize 750,000 land deeds on agribusiness and mining, which is expected to worsen deforestation and landgrabbing.
In addition, land reform laws only pay lip service to socially excluded rural peoples. In India, rural women are “invisibilized” and own only 13% of the country’s farmland although they make up more than a third of the agricultural workforce and share 60 to 75% of farming-related work across most regions. Half of the country’s lower-caste population is also landless, as Dalits and Adivasis are denied land rights despite the 1955 caste-based discrimination ban. The country’s Indigenous Peoples, especially in the northeastern states were also made landless by land policies that promote individual tenure, like in many other countries. In Assam, the redefinition of who are “indigenous” in the 2019 land policy disqualifies Bengali Muslims, Hindus, and even Adivasis from owning land.
Unfortunately, the landmark UN Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP) does not guarantee full protection from such legal means that facilitate landlessness as it still adheres to the current neoliberal globalization paradigm in land and agriculture.
Nevertheless, the UN has already recognized land as “an essential element for the realization of many human rights” and that land disputes are “often the cause of human rights violations, conflicts, and violence.” However, landlessness as a crucial issue of our time is just as unseen as the landless rural peoples of the world – even in the 2021 UN World Food Systems Summit.
The summit, which intends to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in time through the transformation of our food systems for sustainable development, could have been a timely and apt venue to tackle landlessness. But because it purports climate change as the “defining issue of our time,” the summit’s rationale deflects the bigger and perhaps more fundamental matter that will resolve global landlessness – the widening wealth gap worldwide. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reported that about seven out of ten of the global population live in countries where inequality has grown and that the world’s richest 1% accumulated more wealth. Dismissing this as a mere threat and trend excludes and disregards many of the landless rural peoples.
As such, the landless peoples have acted by themselves to protest neoliberal land reform programs and reclaim food sovereignty. Social unrest is sweeping the Global South due to the ailing global economy. ###