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Agrarian Reform

"Providing impoverished rural people with access and secure rights to land is central to reducing poverty, empowering poor people and communities, and promoting both broader economic growth and social harmony" (Prosterman, Mitchell, and Hanstad, 1990: 19).



Background Information:

Agrarian reform is the redistribution of land and other agricultural assets, generally with the aim of providing "land to the tiller." The basic idea is that those who work the land should also own it, to ensure that they benefit from the fruits of their own labor. Existing large land owners of course resist such redistribution of assets. Struggles for land or agrarian reform have occurred in numerous countries around the world, with varying degree of success.

Land reforms that have actually been implemented vary in the rules

  • by which land to be redistributed is identified (for example, a land ceilings may be determined for the maximum amounts of irrigated and unirrigated land a single owner may own, with the excess being redistributed),
  • of compensation for the land taken away from the present owners (paid in market rates, by a government-determined rate, or not at all),
  • who is to benefit from the redistribution (e.g., existing tenants or landless workers),
  • and the kinds of new land tenure that are established (e.g., individual small farms, collective farms, or state farms).

Agrarian reform can extend far beyond the redistribution of land, including overhauling the system of agriculture in a country or simply changing practices to make the land more sustainable. Tha main focus of this article will, however, be the redistribution of land, since this is the most critical asset required for agricultural production.


Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

  • Food  agricultural reform allows small farmers/former peasants to obtain land to produce food for their own subsistence needs as well as for sale. Large estates have little reason to produce food for poor people, so land reform can often lead to a shift of land use, reducing export production for affluent countries and increasing food crop production for local consumption.
  • Security – having redistributed land gives the security of land ownership to peasants and farmers and gives them a more stable future.
  • Meaningful livelihood – agricultural reform allows for the previously unobtainable livelihoods that many peasants sought to feed their families.
  • Participation – land reform gives the peasants a voice in their treatment of the land that they now own. Conversely, land reform requires participation of the beneficiaries in political decision-making (concerning how the land reform is structured and implemented) to ensure that they actually obtain the promised benefits.

Relationships to Resources

  • Water – access to water is necessary for farming; in regions which depend on irrigation, agrarian reform must also address the distribution of water.
  • Land – the land itself is the most obvious resource that gets redistributed in land reform.
  • Living things – crop plants as well as livestock are grown/reared on the land; the point of agrarian reform is to ensure that the farmers or peasants have access to the living things that they grow.
  • Intangibles – successful agrarian reform requires requires knowledge of law and past distribution practices, as well as a good knowledge base of present land ownership. It also requires a government that is trustworthy.

Relationships to Organizational Forms

  • Committed sales or services – the successful implementation of agrarian reform requires a long-term intervention by a government. Since governments rarely oppose the interests of large landowners, it also requires strong peasant or tenant-farmer organizations that are willing to organize for land reform on a long-term basis. Where such organizations take the lead in land redistribution (as in the case of the Brazilian MST), an even greater amount of peasant mobilization is needed, based on long-term commitment.
  • Self-provisioning cluster – individuals may use the redistributed land for their own use to feed themselves and their families.
  • Community solidarity cluster – the redistributed land may be used as a commons by rural communities, as in the Mexican ejidos.
  • Individual sales cluster and currencies and markets – the new land owners usually sell much of their produce in the market.


Types of Land Reform

Title Reforms

Title reforms create legal titles in land according to Western law in order to replace traditional arrangements, and thus alter rules of land use, transfer, inheritance, sale, and so on, i.e., the rules of property in land. They can be the prelude to allowing wealthy people to acquire most of the land and thus to the creation of a new rural class system, as occurred in numerous European colonial regimes. Existing inequities in landholding are often solidified in the process. However, some of the rural smallholders may also enjoy some advantages compared to previous regimes, for example if tenants gain a better standing relative to landlords.

Redistribution Reforms

This type of reform is the most common and is often the one most associated with agrarian reform. It involves the transfer of land from one social class to another, typically from landlords who do little or no work on the farm, to tenants or farm laborers who do the farm work but have not hitherto gotten a fair share of the rewards of their own labor ("land to the tiller"). Mechanisms for the transfer vary. In some cases, colonial elites left the country, allowing redistribution to proceed with little resistance (e.g., in Korea after the Japanese occupation). In most cases, however, the old landlord class remained largely in place, and were either removed forcibly (the rule in most Communist regimes in China, the Soviet Union, and Central and Eastern Europe), or made to give up land above a government-determined land ceiling (e.g., India, Egypt). In the latter situation, land owners were either offered compensation (either at market prices of the land, or at a price determined by the government), or the land was taken without compensation (on the theory that the present landownership was not legitimate).

Beneficiaries of land reform could consist of small independent farmers getting a larger piece of land, tenants on the existing estates, or agricultural laborers (or any combination of the above). The land could be vested in individuals (e.g., in India), in rural communities (e.g., the ejidos in Mexico), in rural cooperatives or communes, or in state-owned enterprises (both of the latter types were common in Communist land reforms). This process of redistribution had vast implications for who actually benefited from reforms.

Cultivation Reform

This reform promotes changes in land use practices, such as particular crop rotations or specific kinds of fertilizer, with aims such as increasing crop yields, by means of rules or regulations governing land use. Depending on who issues the rules with which aims in mind, and on the degree of participation of the farming population (and especially of marginalized members of the rural community), the outcomes of such reform may or may not be consistent with greater abundance for the local population.

Education and Economic Reform

The education and economic portion of agrarian reform aims at educating farmers and other stakeholders (e.g., suppliers of agricultural inputs) about cultivation practices, new technologies, and the like. Critical questions about such reforms include whose knowledge and observations are valorized (or, conversely, ignored), and whether the methods and technologies that are being promoted contribute to sustainable, equitable agriculture.


Examples of Agrarian Reform

South Africa

One of the important aims of the African National Congress during the Apartheid regime was to redistribute land from rich white landholders (the descendants of colonizers who had grabbed the land in past generations) to poor Africans who had been allowed to cultivate their own land only in "bantustans," the "homelands" that had been established on the most marginal lands. Yet, even close to 20 years after the collapse of Apartheid, South Africa remains deeply divided between the rich and the poor. While reports claim that 30% of the prospective land has been redistributed, the land reform policy has yielded little fruit. Progress has been hindered by the policy of buying land at market value, which meant that the government was spending nearly 3.0 billion US dollars to buy 5.5 million hectares of land for redistribution. A new solution was needed, so instead of equal payment policies, the government is attempting to switch to a policy that would give an amount that it deems fair and just, rather than market value. While it is hard to predict how this policy will affect the local population, it is believed that the new approach will give faster results. For more information on South African and more generally African land reforms, see Byamugisha (2013), Irin News (2013), Moyo (2008) and African Research Institute (2013).

Major concerns also arise after land redistribution, if the groups of people who now own the land have insufficient agricultural and management skills. Bradstock (2005) discusses one program to address this problem.



Each region of India had its own land tenure regime during Mughal and earlier times, as determined by the particularities of land, climate, and culture as well as of local caste and class systems. The British tried to make these systems more uniform, more legible (in the sense of James Scott, 1998), more productive of certain crops and of land revenues by means of various title reforms. They generally strengthened the property claims of wealthy landowners (e.g., the zamindars) in order to establish a class of rural landowners who would be supportive of British rule; even where reforms were supposed to promote the interests of smallholders (the ryots), they more often promoted the interests of the middling tenants rather than those of the poor. Since the British never were able to totally homogenize land systems across the subcontinent, India had a patchwork of different land systems at the time of independence (1947). Severe inequities in landholding were virtually ubiquitous, however, and in 1958 a national survey concluded that a quarter of people did not own land at all and another quarter owned less than an acre, meaning that nearly 50% of the population did not have access to their own land.

As part of swaraj (self-rule, independence), the Indian National Congress (INC) as well as the Communist Party of India (CPI) called for land reforms. However, in many areas the INC, the dominant party across most of India, depended on political support of the landowning classes, which severely hampered reform efforts, leading to very variable efforts from state to state. Where the CPI (and later another party, the CPI-Marxist or CPM that split off from the CPI) were able to mobilize mass movements for reform, more serious reform efforts were implemented – meaning in the states of West Bengal in the East and Kerala in the South.

The Kerala land reforms in particular are credited with providing land to most tenant farmers, meaning that the predominant land ownership there now consists of small owner-operated farms. Meanwhile, unionized agricultural laborers got very little land, mainly the land on which their huts stood, and which many of them use as home gardens providing significant amounts of fruits and vegetables. The agricultural laborers however did organize effectively in order to gain daily wages that are significantly higher than those in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Additional reforms ensured that most rural people have access to health care and elementary education. The literacy rate among both women and men exceeds 90% since the early 1990s. These as well as later reforms have ensured that food security is very high compared to other Indian states. Also, fertility rates declined to replacement levels as a result of better education and better security of land ownership (farmers who own a small amount of land but will have to divide it up among their sons typically desire small family sizes). These reforms were enacted bit by bit, as the Kerala Congress Party and the Communist parties vied for control of the state legislature, and could only win elections by promising (and implementing) reforms that were recognized as better than those of their political opponents. For more on the Kerala land reforms, see Franke and Chasin, 1989; on Indian land reforms in general, see Prosterman et al. (1990 and 2009).

A more mainstream example of land reform occurred in the state of Karnataka through their land reform act of 1961, which outlined nearly everything a landowner must do to establish certain property rights; the link below provides these details.


Soviet Union

Under the Czars, most land belonged to the nobility, often absentee landowners. Some title reforms were instituted to consolidate village tenant holdings into fewer and individualized units, which according to James Scott (1998) mainly promoted the ability of the state to collect tax revenue while undercutting the ability of peasants to spread their risks by utilizing lands suitable for a variety of different land uses and vulnerable to different threats (e.g., drought, flood).

The transformation of land ownership was one of the important goals of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lenin's largest platform was the establishment of bread and land for his people. Under his rule, village farms were established – in opposition to the peasants. Following Lenin's death, Stalin went further by the establishment of large scale state-owned farms, and the forcible expropriation of millions of farmers. Centralized decision-making that did not take account of the local ecology and the intricacies of farming often led to poor management decisions, which led to poor yields, especially of labor-intensive vegetable crops. Hence, much of the Soviet Union's fruit and vegetable supply was grown on individualized plots on the state-owned farms, or around the dachas (weekend rural houses or allotments) or urbanite Russians. The latter continue to be of great importance to millions of Russians, especially in times of economic crisis.

**Note: the above section requires substantial improvement; more source are needed, including about land policies since the breakup of the Soviet Union.***



Land reform was one of the great promises of the Mexican Revolution of 1911, but implementation was slow and beset by many setbacks. Gradually, however, a significant portion of land was distributed to peasants in the form of ejidos, or communally owned land that could not easily be privatized. Struggles around land continue as many ejidos have been privatized forcefully, and import policies following NAFTA that allow subsidized US maize (corn) to be imported freely undermine the livelihoods of Mexican peasants.

**Note: the above section requires substantial improvement; more source are needed.**



Since the mid-1980s, the Landless Workers Movement (MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) has successfully occupied and transferred ownership of about 7.5 million hectares of land, providing sustainable livelihoods for some 370,000 families. They take advantage of a constitutional provision that obliges landowners to make use of their land; if they don't, landless people can lay claim to that land. Obtaining land is still a struggle since the government only enforces this constitutional provision if forced to do so, but yet the land occupiers of the MST can claim that the constitution is on their side and gets many of its land occupations to be legalized. This is probably the most successful agrarian reform effort of recent decades (for more information, see Wolford 2010, as well as the MST links below).


United States

The United States was established by negating Native Americans' right to their land, and instead establishing land ownership for people of European descent. Wendell Berry (1986) refers to this and its aftermath as the "Unsettling of America." A particular infamous action in this regard was the "Trail of Tears" in which large numbers of Native Americans were sent large distances away from their homelands to reservations that could not possibly support their livelihood strategies.

Following the Civil War's conclusion in 1865, some policies were supposed to give a home, or land to the slave population following their declaration of emancipation. One such policy, implemented by Sherman following his sacking of Georgia, was the "40 acres and a mule" policy in which slaves were given 40 acres of land taken from white slave owners as restitution for the war. However, this policy was often poorly implemented (see Lamar 1998).

The United States farm policy generally supports increasing concentration of land ownership in a declining number of ever-larger farms, utilizing varying combinations of machinery and cheap labor. This means that the U.S. could use some new land reform to assure that all the people working the land (including migrant laborers) get a fair share of the benefits.


Ways Forward for Agrarian Reform

An approach to land reform consistent with a Georgist philosophy would consist of increasing taxes on large landholdings, and to use that tax revenue to buy land for redistribution. The increased taxes would have the effect of reducing the revenue of large holdings, which would in turn reduce their market price and thus lower the financing needs for government. By this method, the large landholders would effectively pay the cost of transferring their land to those who need it.

The Brazilian MST shows how landless people can organize to obtain land; the Brazilian example also shows the importance of land laws that place certain obligations on landowners.

On a smaller scale, but requiring less social mobilization, the rights of smallholders to the land they already occupy can be strenghthened; for more detail, see the Landesa link below.

Georgist approaches to land value taxation may offer a more permanent approach to preventing the concentration of land ownership, and preventing a small class of people from accumulating land-based rents.



Agrarian Trust (seeks to ensure that young farmers interested in sustainable agriculture can gain access to land in the United States)

Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development

FIAN International (Food First Information and Action Network)

International Land Coalition

Landesa, Rural Development Institute, Seattle, Washington

Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra

Friends of the MST

Via Campesina 



Berry, Wendell. 1986. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Bradstock, Alastair. 2005. Land Reform and Participation in South Africa. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Byamugisha, Frank. 2013. Securing Africa's Land for Shared Prosperity. A Program to Scale Up Reforms and Investments. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank).

Dixon-Gough, Robert W. ed. (1999) Land Reform and Sustainable Development. Aldershot; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate.

Eguren, Fernando. 2005. Land Reforms in Latin America, A Discussion Paper.

Economy Watch 2010 Agrarian Land Reform. Accessed 1 October, 2013

Franke, Richard, and Barbara Chasin. 1989. Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State. San Francisco: The Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Irin News. 15 August 2013 Why South Africa's Land Reform Agenda is Stuck. Accessed Dec 2, 2013.

Lamar, Howard. 1998. The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Moyo, Sam. (2008). African land questions, agrarian transitions and the state: contradictions of neo-liberal land reforms. Senegal; Codesria

Prosterman, Roy, Robert Mitchell, and Timothy Hanstad (eds). 2009. One Million Rising: Law, Land and the Alleviation of Global Poverty. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Prosterman, Roy, M Temple and Timothy Hanstad (eds). 1990. Agrarian Reform and Grassroots Development: Ten Case Studies. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State:How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Villarreal, M. Angeles. Congressional Research Service (2010) NAFTA and the Mexican Economy.

Wolford, Wendy. 2010. This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lerman, Zvi; Kisley, Yoav; Biton, David (2003). Agricultural Output and Productivity in the Former Soviet Republics. University of Chicago Press.

Basu, Kashik. Land Reform in India Oxford University Press.


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