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close this bookThe Crisis in African Agriculture - Studies in African Political Economy (UNU, 1987, 99 pages)
close this folder5: The second post-independence decade: The food crisis
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View the documentThe basic needs strategy in the current capitalist crisis

Agrarian reform

In Redistribution with Growth, published under the auspices of the World Bank, it is stated: 'Where much potentially productive land in the hands of big landowners lies uncultivated, there may be widespread support for measures to turn it over to small farmers without a hint of an attack on rights to property.'

In Employment, Growth and Basic Needs, published under the auspices of the ILO, it is stated: 'Where large holdings are typically underutilised, agrarian reform may also be necessary to provide for the increase in food production required to meet basic needs.'

It will be noted that the proposals contained in these two publications, which did most to spread the word about the content of the strategy, conceive agrarian reform in the same way. First, the reform must relate to the unused lands of large estates. Next, it must be carried out with compensation for big landowners, as is spelled out in other passages. Finally, it must be carried out without challenging the right to property.

Given these conditions, it may be asked whether an agrarian reform subject to them is really applicable in practice and whether, in that case, there can legitimately be talk of true agrarian reform. In fact, in countries where the shortage of cultivable land is strongly felt, a redistribution of land which only related to the unused parts of large estates would be insignificant and could in no way ensure access to land to the mass of people needing it. On the other hand, getting round the measure would be easy for big landowners who wanted to, and they all want to. All they have to do is to act quickly to give the appearance of making use of unused land.

But even admitting that these lands can be recuperated, the 'fair compensation' mentioned poses problems. Who is going to pay the costs of compensation? If it is the poor landless peasants, it goes without saying that they lack the means, and what we risk seeing happening, as was the case at the time of the agrarian reform in Egypt in 1961, is that only rich peasants will be able to increase their holdings because only they have the means of meeting the expense of compensation. In this case, nothing will have changed in the living conditions of the poor and landless peasants.

If it is states that are responsible for compensating the big landowners, there is a strong likelihood that they will later pass on the costs incurred to the peasants. In this case, for the peasants who have secured plots of land, the running costs of farms will be such that they will continue to live in poverty.

In addition, is not the determination to respect existing property rights in contradiction to any real determination to carry out any agrarian reform? The response cannot be in doubt since wherever the problems of access to land are acute, it is the rich landowners who constitute the real obstacle. If their property rights are being respected, how could pieces of their property be taken away?

Those who advocate such reforms, however, think that 'almost all Third World countries have already adopted or at least promised to adopt legislation for this purpose.' They think that it is the implementation that is simply insufficient. This reveals clearly that an agrarian reform proclaimed by the dominant classes who control power, many of whom are big landowners, is only a charade with the political aim of fooling the people.

Advocates of the strategy declare their powerlessness to act on governments. They simply express the hope that the spectre of revolution will lead these governments to opt for the lesser evil. It is expressed in this way by the President of the Bank: 'But the real issue is not whether land reform is politically easy. The real issue is whether indefinite procrastination is politically prudent. An increasingly inequitable situation will pose a growing threat to political stability.'

Still with the aim of encouraging big landlords to make a few concessions to safeguard the system, other arguments are put forward in Redistribution with Growth. Thus, to counter the fear that an agrarian reform might lead to 'a sort of "landgrab" epidemic, accompanied by a good deal of dislocation and perhaps violence', the authors of this book explain that:

More importantly, there is the general thesis that once the peasantry's immediate demands for land are met, it becomes a conservative force, a bulwark of the [new] status quo. Provided the process is controlled, therefore, a land reform in a setting where land ownership is initially highly concentrated can do much to alleviate the lot of the poor without tearing apart the fabric of society.

All that is very clearly set out and shows clearly that it is the preservation of the system that is the main concern.

But to say that the World Bank and other financial agencies do not have the means to put pressure on governments does not seem to accord with reality. In fact, the great majority of these states finance their economic policy from loans obtained from the Bank or other similar financing bodies. How could they resist conditions fixed by these agencies? Does not this confer on these agencies the most powerful means of pressure if they were truly moved by social goals?

It is difficult not to believe that there is complicity between the Bank and the powers that be in these countries. It therefore seems illusory to expect them to promote a true agrarian reform that would give land to the peasants. Such a reform can only come from the struggles of the peasants themselves, organized in powerful structures capable of mounting a comprehensive challenge to the famous status quo.