Cover Image
close this bookCERES No. 070 - July - August 1979 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
Open this folder and view contentsCERESCOPE
View the documentNeeded:
View the documentThe new ocean regime : Winners and losers
View the documentFunding better fisheries
View the documentManaging our own
View the documentThe island that discovered the sea
View the documentA place to begin
View the documentPosed on a knife - Edge
View the documentBooks
View the documentReaction

A place to begin

by Rend Dumont

Agrarian reform

Even if the political will for major change is lacking, there are many modest measures that could start the process

Between the time that this article was written and the delivery of this issue to readers, the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development will have been held at FAO headquarters in Rome, setting forth certain guiding principles and a programme of action to support the objectives of improved quality of life and more equitable access to resources for the rural poor. Monitoring the progress of these efforts will be a continuing preoccupation of cores. Meanwhile, we believe that Prof. Dumont's modest proposals for some "pre-reform" measures make a most worthwhile contribution to the dialogue. - The editors.

Until now, Third World development has been conceived mainly as a process that should follow more or less the same pattern as that of the West, with perhaps a slight delay. The model was thus a society of consumption and waste that proved far too costly for poor countries. Only the privileged ruling urban minorities have been able to live at this level. To do so, they have wasted much foreign aid, while sometimes imposing on their peasantry exorbitant taxes (interest rates, ground rent, commercial profits, duties on crops exported, etc.), which prevent the small farmers and peasants from commanding the resources indispensable to the agricultural progress required by a population expansion without precedent in world history.

The distribution of rural resources, and above all access to land, remains generally very unequal. There are many who have too little land for adequate subsistence; and the landless do not always have enough work, remaining unemployed for long periods, whereas there is, almost everywhere, productive work to be done, as China has demonstrated.

Moreover, the poorest people are often obliged to cultivate marginal land whose deterioration they accelerate, particularly by erosion. The small holdings generally produce more per hectare than the big ones. All this combines to justify certain measures of agrarian reform. But the experience of reform already undertaken shows that it is not always easy to execute them while achieving the rapid rise in agricultural production demanded by these countries to avoid expensive imports to reduce malnutrition.

All this merits reflection. A half century of studies throughout the world leads us to be particularly cautious in the advice offered both to international organizations and to governments, the more so since agrarian reform remains a political decision on which various governments hold sharply divergent views.

In this article, I would like, above all, to draw attention to other measures that might be called "pre-agrarian reform." However modest they appear, these measures would constitute a considerable step forward, both for the liberation of the peasantry and for agricultural production.

With this in mind, let us examine three clearly different situations, as representative of regional problems:

· Ecuador, for Latin America;
· Upper Volta, for tropical Africa;
· India and Bangladesh, for southern Asia (countries that we have had the opportunity to study since August 1977).

In Ecuador, the latifundia still occupy most of the level land, plains or plateaus, whether on the coast or in the furrowed inter-Andean valley of the Sierra. The greater part of it is grazing land, with a very low yield, often between 30 and 50 kg of meat live weight per ha/year.

On the foothills of the Sierra, agricultural stations have proved that it is possible to produce, in two seasons in the same year, 4 tons of maize and 2 tons of soya per ha. But for this, the farmer must be present or the owner must be the farmer. However, the owner usually lives in the town, often in the capital. He neither cultivates nor abandons his land; so he encloses the prairies with a guard, a simple herdsman armed with a gun against cattle thieves.

Most of the Indian peasants, formerly semi-slaves in the haciendas, have left. They rarely find any land available except on the slopes of the Sierras, where they grow wheat, barley, potatoes, beans and quincas for subsistence. They plough up excessively steep slopes, thus making them more subject to erosion, which has already destroyed 15 percent of the slopes of the inter-Andean valley.

The rational agricultural solution is self-evident. Exploitation of the flat land should be increased, and grasslands and forests should be situated on the medium and steep slopes of the Sierra. However, landowners usually oppose this solution and must be induced or persuaded to accept it. Large landowners can show that they have crop yields slightly higher than those of the small farms, but what they do not say is that their grasslands yield, on average, four times less than the land tilled by smallholders. If they had to pay a land tax at a rate comparable to that which propelled agricultural development in Western Europe in the eighteenth century, or Japan in the nineteenth, they would be obliged either to intensity cultivation or to give up their land.

In the case of the flat land, easily ploughable, the proprietors could be obliged either to plough a minimum amount or, as in Italy during the fascist regime, to provide a minimum of employment per hectare. Or else a minimum of production could be required; for example, half of that achieved on the intensively exploited meadowlands by the stockmen who keep the capital, Quito, supplied with milk. Other measures could induce the owners to sell part of their land. Thus, land tax, if it were progressive like income tax and increased according to the area owned, would oblige them to share their properties out, little by little. This was proposed by Thomas Jefferson in the United States at the end of the eighteenth century. But at present the landowners dominate the Government, whether it be civil or military. So...

In the interior of tropical Africa, the very complex land laws allow the farmer no more than rights of usage, often going back to the first man to clear the land, and to his heirs. Until recently, this left him with no right to sell, lease or mortgage "his" land. Whoever has more than he can cultivate willingly concedes the right of cultivation to a neighbour, without asking him for any rent and therefore without land tax. This system, widely prevalent in Upper Volta, is already profoundly different in the south of the Ivory Coast, where land is sold freely and often at a very high price.

In Upper Volta, the traditional system maintained the fertility of the soil by alternating two or three years of cropping with three to eight years of fallow, during which wild vegetation enriched the humus in the soil. With the increase in population, the fallow period shortens and the humus decreases. Cash crops such as cotton and groundnuts have also become more widespread at the expense of food crops and fallow periods. The use of the animal-drawn plough is spreading, making the soil more vulnerable to erosion, by water, where there is a 1 percent slope, or even less, and by the harmattan wind, if the soil is left loose after harrowing, disking or rooting up of groundnuts.

Pioneering Mossi tribesmen leave their overpopulated territory and behave, in the southwest of Upper Volta, as if the land loaned to them were conquered territory. They even cut down useful trees. Fulani herdsmen of the Dari Sahel, when they take their flocks south to graze, tend to bum the scrub, respecting the pastures and the trees less than in their own country.

Bonded labour continues

Formerly, the land chief controlled practices preserving soil fertility. His authority and that of the traditional village chief have been reduced in favour of the administration; but the agents of the latter live too far away from the village, and cannot be considered by the peasants as their representatives. In reality, they are often considered - and not without reason - as the exploiters of the peasants, which reduces their credibility.

If the village communities were renewed, if their authority were strengthened over territories defined by survey, each community could genuinely come to life again. In its own interest, it would protect its land from degradation and improve it. Deforestation around the villages accelerates soil degradation. Villagers and city-dwellers need firewood, and they exhaust the natural reserves without renewing them. Communities could manage their land, reforest part of it for their own benefit, encourage small individual reforestation, and collaborate in the management of watersheds and in the use of dams which are at present very much under-used. The authorities might therefore be well advised to organize and strengthen the village communities. Legislation could give them a legal entity and the means of exercising their authority in their territory, including economic activity. A local tax could help these communities to achieve progressive management and utilization of their territory. Credits at present granted to the regional development organizations could then be transferred to this type of "commune."

The unploughed land used by the Fulani herdsmen also be entrusted to pastoral communities, who would thus have an interest in improving forage resources by opposing bush fires; and later by planting fodder trees there and establishing fodder reserves. To sum up, each parcel of national land would be entrusted to a regalvanized community, which would have an interest in improving it, whereas, at present, anyone can use non-appropriated land as he pleases and quickly degrade it. In recent years, Upper Volta has been receiving foreign aid at an annual rate of 20 percent above the amount of its budget. But the effect of this aid is almost nil in the countryside, since the town has quickly drawn back, by way of taxes, export duties, commercial profits, etc., the little money that found its way there. Aid has therefore merely increased the wealth and the demands of the towns, particularly the capital. Thus aid ends by increasing the need for aid, since the capital produces practically nothing.

In a study carried out for ILO, A.R. Khan shows that in Bangladesh the social situation in the village is extremely unequal, and that this inequality is becoming more pronounced. He explains that, in the last 25 years, not only has the poorest section of the rural population become poorer, but the richest section has definitely become richer. It is known that, in India, the green revolution enriched the farmers who were already comfortably off, and the other strata of the population benefited to a much lesser degree. When the Koulaks bought tractors, and even combines, with their profits, they increased unemployment. Finally, we noted in Bihar the persistence of bonded labour, which keeps a considerable part of the agricultural workers in semi-slavery.

A study by Pradhan H. Prasadi for the Social Sciences Institute in Patna, Bihar, shows that large-scale farmers use irrigation water far less than smallscale farmers. Prasad concludes that "an unfair trading system brings the rich people in rural regions enormous economic benefits: cheap and constantly available manpower, better conditions for renting land, the advantage of being able to buy land for practically nothing from the poor peasants, obliged to sell at 'disaster' prices." This concentration of wealth means that "the ruling classes have no great enthusiasm for launching out into large-scale agricultural development. They prefer limited development," because only this enables them to keep the poor indebted in semi-slavery. Usury ensures better profits for them than modernized agriculture. However, low salaries encourage the latter, so that in the Punjab many landowners have transformed their sharecroppers into wage-earners. In such a climate, the small indebted peasant has no incentive to increase his efforts, knowing that this will benefit above all the landowner in sharecropping, the usurer and the trader, if not also the corrupt official.

Bonded labour is forbidden by a law passed in 1975, but it still continues. In India, sharecropping is forbidden in principle, and rates for renting land are prescribed. None of these laws is applied, nor are those on the minimum wage. A first measure, taken by the Government of West Bengal, consists in organizing the sharecroppers, the agricultural labourers and the small peasants so that they can defend themselves and obtain the benefit in respect of which the existing agrarian reform laws have not been applied. Each sharecropper, when he brings in his share of the harvest, must obtain a receipt from his landowner. This enables him to ensure security of tenure, his landlord having no right to dismiss him without cause. It also enables him to borrow, since the receipt constitutes proof of some kind of agricultural ownership.

Against usury, a system of official credit can be developed, but this latter works properly only if loans are punctually repaid. Care must also be taken to see that the loans are used to best advantage, in the form of credits supervised by a village authority, a panchayat that would no longer be an instrument in the hands of the village potentates. Loans could be made to groups accepting a collective responsibility for individual repayment, as in the German Raiffeisen system.

A minimum of education

In 1973 I submitted to the Government of Bangladesh two reports proposing a new economic organization at village level. In Bangladesh, as in India, many irrigation reservoirs are clogged up with silt. To correct this situation would require an enormous amount of work, which would increase the income and the employment of the landless and the smallholders, and would also be capable of increasing production through fish ponds and irrigation reservoirs. Current "Food-for-work" programmes could be used to feed workers on a large scale.

The owners of the reservoirs should be ordered to clear them. If they did so, they would receive credits. If not, the reservoirs would be expropriated. The reorganized panchayat, endowed with an economic statute, could then undertake the work at its own expense. By hiring out the reservoirs already cleaned, it could obtain the funds necessary to extend the work to other reservoirs. The panchayat would have authority over water, reservoirs, small irrigation canals and drainage, which it could also arrange to clear.

In Bangladesh, land tax was suppressed in 1972. It would be a good idea to bring it back, not for the benefit of the Treasury, but for that of the local communities, the panchayats. In India, favourable rates of exchange have encouraged the import of agricultural material, which has increased unemployment and rural poverty. On the contrary, tractors should be heavily taxed and the purchase of harvester threshers forbidden, since they do nothing to increase production.

Many other measures could be proposed, particularly concerning a new distribution of land, whether in individual lots assisted by credit and marketing cooperatives, or by state exploitations, as in Cuba and Yugoslavia.

In southern Asia, the privileged minorities in power in the villages and particularly in the towns will not allow their excessive privileges to be demolished without any reaction; the peasantry must be solidly organized to defend its interests. Such organization must have, as in West Bengal, political support.

Organizing the peasantry presupposes that it is capable of being organized, therefore it must first receive a minimum of education. Functional literacy of adults and young adolescents could be achieved everywhere at small cost, as has been shown by the evening schools organized in Mali and those of the Frs des hommes in the Union of Narchi in the Bogra District of Bangladesh. The point about this type of school is that it can be almost self-financed by the pupils cultivating a garden whose vegetable produce can be sold. Tanzania is also financing most of its primary schools from the pupils' cultivation of allotments and their parents' cultivation of collective fields. From October 1977, it has managed to provide primary education for all boys in rural areas, and almost all girls. In the Sahel, a classic type of primary school costs too much, absorbs 24 percent of the budget to educate 11 percent - and still less in the country - of the children and puts its pupils off agriculture. The success of agrarian reforms thus depends on a genuine revolution of rural education. A school for the collective promotion of the village could combine manual work and education based on the life of the village, hold literacy classes for adults as well as children, and organize the whole of agricultural life and the cooperatives around the school. A generation of peasants educated in this way would be more easily made aware of their problems. They would no longer accept exploitation by the moneylender, the trader, and particularly the people in power in the towns. They would be organized to liberate themselves concretely, by community achievements, which are not necessarily of the "Anglo-Scandinavian cooperative" type, from these different forms of exploitation. The traditional

Indian commune of Ecuador, the traditional village of tropical Africa and the Indian panchayat are managed with less paperwork and bureaucracy than Western cooperatives.

To avoid the worst errors

A strong political will is necessary for rapid rural development. But the governments of developed countries willingly help the privileged urban minorities to maintain themselves in power, because the latter help them to exploit the scarce resources that the Third World needs so badly for its own development. They fail to see that these minorities are an obstacle to the organization of the peasantry that is indispensable to the recognition of its importance in the nation, and therefore ultimately to its political weight, which again is indispensable to a rural development that would provide for the basic needs of the whole population.

Every country has to construct, often by trial and error, its own development model. But all have much to learn from current experiences, both from their successes and their mistakes. This problem of rural development is one of great complexity and we must approach it with considerable humility. A deeper study of the various experiences of agrarian reform and rural development would however help us to avoid the worst errors. The insufficient consideration generally accorded to the peasantry, both in the so called socialist countries and in those with market economies, and urban domination over this peasantry, seem to me the principal obstacles to rural development. Decidedly, "politics are in the driving seat."