|Peasants' Pursuit of Outside Alliances in the Process of Land Reform: A Discussion of Legal Assistance Programmes in Bangladesh and the Philippines (UNRISD, 1999, 40 p.)|
Outside alliances and support are crucial to peasants and other marginalized rural groups during the land reform process. Political mobilization, leadership development, organization of land acquisition actions and protests, networking, and influencing the media, political parties and government land policies are important but often beyond the means of peasants without the assistance of more powerful outsiders. Rural groups also benefit from external assistance in the identification of land for redistribution, selection of beneficiaries, acquisition of titles, prevention of eviction of tenants by landowners, improvement in wages for agricultural labourers and negotiation with landowners or government departments. Outside support is similarly critical in resolving land conflicts among the rural poor themselves, as well as across tenurial classes, and in ensuring that the beneficiaries of land reform have access to essential agricultural inputs and support services. In short, the benefits of outside alliance and support are enormous.
In practice, however, landless peasants and other marginalized rural groups can seldom count on the support of outside forces. The landless rely mainly on traditional authorities, religious leaders and elders. A supportive teacher, extension worker or village counsellor can often provide tremendous backing for the peasants' cause, as they tend to have a better knowledge of the functioning of the government bureaucracy and, perhaps land legislation.
The cases from Bangladesh and the Philippines show that legal aid has been critical to the struggle of landless peasants for land. In these two countries, even though legal assistance did not enable the peasants to break the power of landowners, it did help restrain the latter in some cases. Despite the fact that landowning classes were sometimes able to manipulate the legal system to their advantage and were able to pay top price for legal advice, they could not completely ignore the interests of their tenants, the local landless peasants or public opinion. Legal proceedings often went together with complex negotiations with the landless, their representatives or opposing lawyers.
Sufficient land reform legislation exists in both countries; the problem lies in its effective implementation. Lawyers have an important role to play in this regard as well, especially in advocating the interests of the near landless, tenants, agricultural labourers and other marginalized land-seeking rural groups. With their knowledge of national and international legislation and legal covenants, lawyers can work to advocate and sustain an independent judiciary, monitor government policies, signal human rights violations and ensure that land reform legislation is implemented. But it is rare that marginalized groups can retain the services of lawyers, as they are costly and based mainly in urban areas. Furthermore, even among lawyers willing to work for peasants, very few would be fully sensitive to the peasants' cause.
Despite recognition of the usefulness of legal services, provision at the official level has been insufficient in both countries. In the Philippines, the DARAB has protected the interests of a significant number of tenants and landless peasants seeking access to land. This experience is unique and could provide useful lessons for other developing countries promoting land reform. This also demonstrates that state capacity to defend the interests of the landless through regulatory institutions and processes is necessary - in spite of calls by international funding institutions to curtail state involvement in agricultural and economic planning. Demands on agrarian courts are overwhelming even though they deal exclusively with disputes over land acquisition. Of course, the case studies also revealed the tactics of some landlords, who may concoct "diversionary" cases (such as damage to property, acts of violence or theft) so that cases will be tried in criminal courts over which peasants have little influence. Because of a prolonged history of land disputes in the Philippines, a number of Filipino NGOs have given considerable attention to the agrarian question, especially since the fall of the Marcos regime. However, the legal component has tended to remain weak in their overall activities and demands for legal assistance can scarcely be covered. In Mindanao, for example, NGOs have been able to accept approximately one case out of every 10 (personal communication with a CART paralegal activist).
In Bangladesh, the government's recent land reform measures have been limited mainly to the distribution of khas land to the landless. The government has thus avoided the political risks involved in radical land reform (reduction in the land ceiling, progressive land taxation, greater provision of credit and other institutional production support services to the poorer farmers). The government has also managed to evade direct conflicts with the powerful landed classes, and the influence of the latter over the local administrative and judiciary machinery remains staggering. As a result, even redistribution of khas land has been far from smooth. The government of Bangladesh has made no specific provision for agrarian courts that would protect the interests of the landless. Furthermore, few NGOs working in rural areas focus on land reform, and even fewer provide legal services relating to tenurial disputes. Indeed, there is not a single rural development organization in the country with a specific mandate to provide legal assistance to the peasant and landless populations. Nevertheless, the activities of those which have integrated legal assistance into their programme, such as Nijera Kori, have been highly effective.
Ideally, for land reform measures to be more successful, landless groups and peasant organizations should have their own lawyers. Alternatively, a cadre of motivated lawyers should be available to pursue the peasants' cause. Clearly, more lawyers would not automatically mean that more legal aid would be available to the land-aspiring rural poor, but a legal curriculum more sensitive to agrarian problems, land laws and rural poverty could help increase future lawyer's awareness of land disputes and perhaps increase their support of land reform measures. Raising the awareness of school teachers, agricultural extension workers, NGO activists and so forth about land laws and reform initiatives could produce a valuable local pool of paralegals, as these actors constantly interact with the landless and marginalized rural population. Efforts to raise rural people's consciousness through literacy classes, community training programmes and legal education would also have possible results.
Cases in both countries indicated that social mobilization by NGOs, peasant organizations and professional organizations has been more decisive than the supply of legal aid per se. Naturally, this would not have happened if the local populations were not active as well. But it does reveal that social actions surrounding land questions are more effective when the process of mobilizing and empowering the rural poor, as well as the wider public, is combined with the provision of concrete legal tools and support.