Stefan Ofteringer

Agricultural reform as an instrument for securing food supply

In spite of well-meaning declarations at international conferences, there has been no real progress in reducing the numbers of people who are starving. The World Food Summit's target (viewed with cynicism when it was set in 1996) of reducing this statistic from 800 million to 400 million by 2015 is still far from being realised. The bodies involved clearly lack any strategy for securing food supply and self-determination, especially for poverty-stricken rural populations. Agricultural reform could be a key instrument in improving this situation: a fairer distribution of land could secure the basic food supply of many of the hungry. This possibility is not given sufficient attention in the international debate. FIAN (a human rights organisation) and La Via Campesina - an international small-holders' network -have made it their shared aim to intensify the campaign for agricultural reform. They are demanding a 'new agricultural reform' which would involve land redistribution, the democratic transformation of production, and the protection of food-related resources. The 'Bread, Land and Freedom Campaign' (Brot, Land und Freiheit) has also made the establishment and protection of the human rights of the rural poor its main aim.

Unfair land distribution as the cause of hunger
The fact that a high proportion of those who go hungry live in rural areas is at the root of the call for agricultural reform in the campaign against starvation. In general, the rural poor possess the necessary agricultural knowledge to produce enough food for themselves and their families. The traditional rural economies of countries in the southern hemisphere always consisted in mixed subsistence-farming. However, the rural population today doesn't have access to the basic resource it needs to live in dignity; namely, land. Land ownership in these countries is concentrated in the hands of the few.

An example of such disparity is to be found in Brazil, where 89% of all farms are smaller than one hundred hectares, and total a mere 20% of the agricultural land. This statistic is even more dramatic considering that more than four million rural families are 'landless'. Half of the 31.5 million starving Brazilians live in rural areas. The big landowners leave most of their land lying fallow, and hence don't create enough employment for the starving population to make an adequate living.1 This example is typical of many countries of the South, where colonial rule established ownership of vast tracts of land by the few, a tradition which has survived until today and been consolidated by the commercialisation of agriculture (the 'green revolution') and globalisation.

The blatant injustice of land distribution makes the agricultural debate one of high conflict. Since the mid eighties there have been about 5,600 violent incidents, resulting in the murders of more than 1,100 activists, according to official reports. In countries such as Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines, conflicts over land lead to massacres and political murders. Such incidents occur in the context of the violent expulsion of small-holders from land which the big landowners have decided to claim. The squatting of big estates by landless people claiming their rights is often countered by government - or government-related - forces. In the context of globalisation, conflicts over land that is being claimed by the agricultural industry have intensified. Government forces are using increasing violence in their support of the agricultural multi-nationals which want to expand onto land occupied by smallholders.

Conflicting concepts of agricultural reform
For years, the causes of social conflict over land have been ignored. This has prevented the implementation of land reform programmes, or slowed them down. In the post-colonial period (since the end of the 'fifties), few countries of the South have managed to introduce a fairer distribution of land. In many countries the political class, which often represented the interests of the traditional land oligarchy, would not pass, or would refuse to implement, legislation on land reform. In many cases, commercialisation in the context of the 'green revolution' in the 'sixties further channelled the ownership of land into the hands of the few, because increased production due to technological advances promoted mainly industrial-scale agriculture. The big landowners therefore needed to increase their arable land, and the smallholders lost out even more. Since the 'eighties, the dominance of liberal politics in the areas of agriculture and the economy has had similar ramifications. Due to globalisation, industrial-scale agriculture has expanded in regions which were formerly the domain of smallholders, and the liberalisation of international markets has been given a higher priority than land reform. In this political atmosphere, reforms concerning land redistribution have been increasingly replaced by market-orientated reforms, though these are opposed by those who would stand to gain from the former, i.e. the smallholders and the landless poor.

The most recent failure of a land redistribution reform was the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) in the Philippines. The failure of this ambitious agrarian reform project led ultimately to the introduction of market-orientated principles. In this south-east Asian state, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few is traditionally high. In 1971, about 60% of farms were smaller than three hectares and totalled only 24% of all the agricultural land. There were 1.5 million smallholders, compared to 5,500 big landowners who held nearly 20% of the land. During the Marcos dictatorship, an agrarian reform to change this situation was out of the question. After the overthrow of President Marcos, a new debate about agrarian reform started, leading to an agrarian reform law in 1986 which prepared the way for CARP. CARP was able to prevail against the big landowners in the political class, and for ten years was quite a successful programme. Of the eight million hectares designated for redistribution, 60% had been redistributed by 1998. About 2.5 million poor farming households profited from the redistribution of mostly state-owned land, while a further 1.5 million families were registered to receive land.2

The breakdown in this success story came in 1988, after all the designated state-owned land had been given out. The Ministry of Agriculture (DAR) wanted to move into the privately-owned land of the big landowners. The Congress, dominated by big landowners, responded by cutting the budget for land reform, so from that time on, the reform programme simply ceased to be. In consequence of this blocking of funds, the pro-reform Ministry for Agrarian Reform was forced to increasingly rely on market-orientated concepts of 'reform', in order to be eligible for funding from the World Bank.

Agrarian reform via the market?
Since the mid-'nineties, the World Bank has once again been addressing the issue of land distribution and rural poverty. The escalating poverty of the world's rural population as a consequence of national economic structures adapting themselves to the world market has given rise to increasing criticism, which has prompted the World Bank to develop a strategy for agrarian reforms that follow market rules. The assumption was that with the introduction of market mechanisms into agrarian reform, the objectives of economic efficiency and social justice could be realised more effectively and inexpensively than using traditional methods of reform. However, early trials show that this market strategy failed to realise its aim of combating poverty, because the rural poor can't profit from a loan-based system.

Market-orientated agrarian reforms, in contrast to re-distribution-orientated reforms, require farmers who want to stay on the land to negotiate directly with private landowners. After an agreement is reached, the two parties go to a 'Land Bank' which will pay the seller the market price for the land. The farmer, as the buyer, receives a bank loan covering at least part of the market price, in order to buy the land from the bank. The system intends to motivate borrowers to work more efficiently in order to pay off their debts. In fact, one area of increased efficiency is in the agrarian reform process itself, in that the lengthy and complicated processes of expropriation and compensation are avoided. However, vast numbers of the rural population are being deprived of access to land. The loans system requires borrowers to produce effectively for the market, but this excludes the more deprived and less qualified farmers from the programme because they can't fulfil the necessary conditions. Borrowers who are not sufficiently qualified, or who are unable to pay back the loan due to unforeseen circumstances, are in danger of running into huge debt and losing the land again. If this happens, they will probably be worse off than before they joined the programme.

The first visible effects of this market-orientated agrarian reform legislation confirm that there is cause for concern. In Columbia, in the context of the 'Law 100' of 1996, a 'land bank' was established to serve the new loan-based system, but the take-up of loans has declined in the intervening years. In fact, many farmers who took out loans couldn't cope with the pressure of having to be efficient, and lost their land again. This policy has if anything reinforced the dramatic concentration of land ownership in this South American country. Big estates of more than five hundred hectares now hold 19% of the agricultural land, which represents a doubling of their share over a period of fifteen years.3 Similar experiences have been recorded by smallholders in Brazil, the Philippines and Honduras, where the World Bank has been financing 'land banks'.

Land banks can be useful for certain agricultural sectors. The problem lies, however, in the fact that they are increasingly looked upon as the ultimate cure; as such they undermine any campaigning for agrarian reform based on the redistribution of land. As in Columbia, the 'land banks' absorb the entire land reform budget. Ultimately, this policy serves to drive up the market for land, and promote market-orientated production. Human rights, which are the constitutional duties of a government, are pushed into the background. The declared aim of combating poverty is passed over, and the principle of social responsibility through ownership is abused. Those who need the land the most to secure a living - the smallholders and the landless - are excluded and the vicious circle of poverty and hunger is perpetuated.

Agrarian reform - a governmental duty based on human rights
In the face of these traditional strategies of agrarian reform, based on land redistribution or the World Bank's market-oriented concepts, the international 'Bread, Land and Freedom' campaign has developed a concept which integrates the securing of food supply, the protection of resources, and the development of democracy. These integrated concepts are based on internationally agreed human rights. The human right to food, as laid down in Article 11.2 of the 'International Agreement on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' means that farmers must be guaranteed access to resources to enable them to produce food independently. In Article 12 of the above, the 'reform of agricultural systems' is stated as the primary method of implementing this 'right to food'. The UN Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Human Rights has repeatedly criticised governments for not implementing agrarian reform.

Besides the primary resource of 'land,' farmers also need access to seed crops and water to secure food production. Article 11.2 require a commitment to agrarian reform, which would ensure permanent access to the resources necessary for individually-managed food supply.

In addition to this, the right to food also includes the right to healthy food, which in turn would depend on a transformation of production to sustainable methods. Increasingly labour-intensive methods and reduced use of pesticides would only be achievable through the promotion of small-scale agriculture as against the industrial production of big estates. Sustainable food production which catered for a local market would make agrarian reform financially viable. Such a human rights-based reform would offer the rural population an escape route from the poverty trap and stop the process of social exclusion.

It would be important for the partnership between the international farmers movement Via Campesina and the human rights organisation FIAN to take advantage of the current favourable situation. Since the World Food Summit in Rome, 'the right to food' has been back on the international agenda. The summit's concluding declaration emphasised the importance of agrarian reform in pursuit of this aim. Although the declaration isn't a binding commitment, the commitments are derived from the UN Declaration of Human Rights signed by one hundred and fifty states. The main objective should be to oppose bad developments such as market- orientated land reform programmes. Successful implementation of agrarian reforms to secure the rural population's human right to food needs a strategy which would support the farmer's movement in their campaign for land reform. The 'human rights' approach provides a practical means of participating in political conflicts over agrarian reform at a national and international level.

Creating favourable conditions for agrarian reform
In countries where movements for farmers and the landless can mobilise large numbers of people, the issue of land ownership can't be pushed off the political agenda. International networking with other movements can reinforce these movements' effectiveness. In Brazil, international solidarity achieved a first partial success. In early 2000, the existing pilot project of a 'land bank' was going to be extended to the whole country with the help of the World Bank. Many other farmers' movements supported the opposition of the farmers and landless movements, and the 'Forum for Agrarian Reform and Rural Justice' came into being. International petitions to the Brazilian government and the board of the World Bank succeeded in making the latter reduce its financial support of the project dramatically. Subsequent debate on agrarian reform gained new impetus. The international campaign also gave a new impetus to agrarian reform legislation in Honduras. There, the farmer's movement was able to secure a government commitment to include them in all negotiations of new agrarian reform legislation.

International development policy is at least as important as this type of pressure on national agrarian reform debates. Since countries of the north are the 'donor states' and are members of multilateral development institutions, they carry a responsibility for securing the human right to food and for creating favourable conditions for agrarian reform. The new objective set by Germany's overseas development ministry, of 'food for the world', emphasises the importance of the right to food and of agrarian reform.4 This recognition of its human rights responsibilities should involve an evaluation of previous policies and, in the long term, promote the fight against poverty through agrarian reform. In 1999 the German branch of 'Bread, Land and Freedom' had already demanded an evaluation of the World Bank's market-orientated agrarian reforms. An assessment of the World Bank's policies, in view of its track record, should make the German government use its influence in the World Bank to promote a restructuring of its agricultural policy. The integration of processes of agrarian reform into the World Bank's fight against poverty could make these processes more effective. The credibility of Germany's human rights-based development policy will depend on the degree to which these changes are realised.
Pressure for change is directed at the World Bank in particular because it claims to promote economic, social and cultural human rights. An internal audit of the World Bank's market-orientated agrarian reforms in the case of Brazil has already been recommended, but has until now been rejected. The mass-rejection by other countries of market-orientated policy will continue to increase this pressure.

The partnership of the human rights organisation FIAN and the La Via Campesina farmers' movement has developed some initial strategies for the effective support of new agrarian reforms. The implementation of 'new agricultural reforms' involves the whole of society, because this task reaches far beyond the specific provision of access to land. Agricultural reform is an important means by which farmers can take control of their lives and improve their living conditions. The reforms provide a blueprint for the transformation of agriculture and for a new future for rural areas. The farmers' campaign for reform puts high expectations on movements, organisations and individuals in north and south. The 'Bread, Land and Freedom' campaign aims to provide a network for those who want to fight for a future based on equal rights.

1. 'Censo agropecuário 1995-1996 Brasil - n.1' (Brazilian Agricultural Census 1995-6), Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of National Statistics and Geography).
2. R.V. Polestico, A.B. Quizon, P. Hildemann, Agrarian Reform in the Phillipines (Deutsche Welthungerhilfe, Bonn, 1998).
3. Economia Colombiana No. 278 (June 2000).
4. Statement of parliamentary private secretary Dr Uschi Eid during the Grüne Woche(annual agricultural exhibition) in Berlin, 2000.

Further reading
'Declaration on World Food Security;' 'World Food Summit, Plan of Action' (FAO, Rome, 1996).
Brot, Land und Freiheit Globale Kampagne fuer die Aggrareform in Brasilien (FIAN, Herne, 1998).
Hiedl, Peter, Das ende der Aggrareform in Lateinamerika, Neoliberale Modanisierung und die Konsequenzen fuer den Agrarsektor (FIAN, Herne, 1996).
'UNO Internationaler Pakt ueber wirtschaftliche, soziale und kulturelle Rechte.'

This article is taken from: AgrarBuendnise e.V., Bramsche (eds), KritischerAgrarbericht 2000 (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Laendliche Entwicklung an der Universitaet Gesamthochschule Kassel).

Email: Stefan Ofteringer
StefanOfteringer is the manager of FIAN (FoodFirst Informations- und Aktionsnetzwerk). FIAN is a supporter of the 'Bread, Land and Freedom' campaign in Germany. Campaign materials can be ordered from FIAN, which can also supply information on current actions (in English and by email).
Contact: FIAN Deutschland, Overwegstr. 31, 44625 Herne, Tel. 02323/ 49 00-99 Fax 02323/4900-18.