The pattern of landownership in Bangladesh profoundly affects
both the production and distribution of food. Although Bangladesh is often
called a "land of small farmers," the reality in the villages is more complex.
On the one hand, many villagers own no land at all and depend upon wage labor
for their livelihoods. On the other hand are landlords whose holdings, though
modest by American standards, are large enough to free them from the necessity
of working in the fields.
A recent study commissioned by the United States Agency for
International Development (AID) found that a "dichotomy between ownership of
land and labor on it" is widespread in Bangladesh. Less than 10 percent of
Bangladesh's rural households own over half the country's cultivable land, while
60 percent of rural families own less than 10 percent of the land. One third own
no cultivable land at all, and by including those who own less than half an
acre, the study concludes that 48 percent of the families of rural Bangladesh
are "functionally landless." Pointing to the difficulties of collecting reliable
data, the authors of the study note that these figures probably underestimate
the actual extent of landlessness and the true level of concentration of
Based on their different relationships to the land, the
villagers of Bangladesh fall into five basic classes:
· Landlords do not work on the
land themselves, except sometimes to supervise their workers. Instead they hire
labor or let out land to sharecroppers.
· Rich peasants work in the
fields but have more land than they can cultivate alone. They gain most of their
income from lands they cultivate with hired labor or sharecroppers.
· Middle peasants come closest
to our image of the selfsufficient small farmer. They earn their livings mainly
by working their own land, though at times they may work for others or hire
others to work for them.
· Poor peasants own a little
land, but not enough to support themselves. They earn their livings mainly by
working as sharecroppers or wage laborers.
· Landless laborers own no land
except for their house sites, and sometimes not even that. Lacking draft animals
and agricultural implements, they seldom can work as sharecroppers, and must
depend upon wages for their livelihoods.
A villager in Katni told us, "Without land, there is no
security." Indeed, without land there is often no food. An International Labor
Organization study reports that landless laborers consume only 78 percent as
much grain as those who own over seven and one-half acres of land, despite the
fact that the landless need 40 percent more calories because they work
harder.2 As we shall see, landownership not only determines who will
have enough to eat, but also affects how much food is actually produced.
Not surprisingly, the small minority of rural families who own
over half the country's farmland are, in the words of the AID study, "at the
apex of the structure of power in rural Bangladesh; the political economy of the
countryside is controlled by them."3 Land is the key to their power,
power which in turn brings them control over other food-producing resources such
as irrigation facilities and fertilizer. Since these agricultural inputs are
often highly subsidized by the government, they are all the more desirable to
the rural elite.
Land, the ultimate source of wealth and power in rural
Bangladesh, is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
Similarly, the large landowner is better able to receive low
interest loans from government banks. His land serves as collateral, and he
knows how to deal with the bank officials: how to fill out the necessary forms
and when to propose a snack at the nearest tea stall. The large landowners also
usually dominate village cooperatives which have access to government credit.
The rural poor meanwhile must turn to the village moneylender
when they need cash, often paying interest rates of more than 100 percent a
year. Not coincidentally, the moneylender and the large landowner are often one
and the same person. Since Islam, Bangladesh's main religion, condemns the
taking of interest, moneylenders ease their consciences through such simple
expedients as buying a peasant's crop before the harvest-at half the market
rate. To get credit small farmers frequently mortgage their land, forfeiting the
right to cultivate it until they repay the loan.
The large landowners' control of food-producing resources- land,
inputs and credit-allows them to appropriate much of the wealth produced in the
countryside. As a result, they are able to buy out hard-pressed smaller farmers,
driving them into the ever growing ranks of the landless. One study found that
peasants who own less than an acre of land sell half their remaining land every
yearn Land, the ultimate source of wealth and power in rural Bangladesh, is
becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer