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Land reform

Farmers protesting for Land Reform in Indonesia
Farmers protesting for Land Reform in Indonesia

Land reform (also agrarian reform, though that can have a broader meaning) involves the changing of laws, regulations or customs regarding land ownership.[1] Land reform may consist of a government-initiated or government-backed property redistribution, generally of agricultural land. Land reform can, therefore, refer to transfer of ownership from the more powerful to the less powerful:such as from a relatively small number of wealthy (or noble) owners with extensive land holdings (e.g., plantations, large ranches, or agribusiness plots) to individual ownership by those who work the land.[2] Such transfers of ownership may be with or without compensation; compensation may vary from token amounts to the full value of the land.[3]

Land reform may also entail the transfer of land from individual ownership — even peasant ownership in smallholdings — to government-owned collective farms; it has also, in other times and places, referred to the exact opposite: division of government-owned collective farms into smallholdings.[4] The common characteristic of all land reforms, however, is modification or replacement of existing institutional arrangements governing possession and use of land. Thus, while land reform may be radical in nature, such as through large-scale transfers of land from one group to another, it can also be less dramatic, such as regulatory reforms aimed at improving land administration.[5]

Nonetheless, any revision or reform of a country s land laws can still be an intensely political process, as reforming land policies serves to change relationships within and between communities, as well as between communities and the state. Thus even small-scale land reforms and legal modifications may be subject to intense debate or conflict.[6]


Land ownership and tenure

Land ownership and tenure can be perceived as controversial in part because ideas defining what it means to access or control land, such as through land ownership or land tenure, can vary considerably across regions and even within countries.[7] Land reforms, which change what it means to control land, therefore create tensions and conflicts between those who lose and those who gain from these redefinitions (see next section).[8]

Western conceptions of land have evolved over the past several centuries to place greater emphasis on individual land ownership, formalized through documents such as land titles.[9] Control over land, however, may also be perceived less in terms of individual ownership and more in terms land use, or through what is known as land tenure.[10] Historically, in many parts of Africa for example, land was not owned by an individual, but rather used by an extended family or a village community. Different people in a family or community had different rights to access this land for different purposes and at different times. Such rights were often conveyed through oral history and not formally documented.[11]

These different ideas of land ownership and tenure are sometimes referred to using different terminology. For example, formal or statutory land systems refer to ideas of land control more closely affiliated with individual land ownership. Informal or customary land systems refer to ideas of land control more closely affiliated with land tenure. tenure.[12]

Terms dictating control over and use of land can therefore take many forms. Some specific examples of present day or historic forms of formal and informal land ownership include:

  • Traditional land tenure, as in the indigenous nations or tribes of North America in the Pre-Columbian era.
  • Feudal land ownership, through fiefdoms
  • Life estate, interest in real property that ends at death.
  • Fee tail, hereditary, non-transferable ownership of real property.
  • Fee simple. Under common law, this is the most complete ownership interest one can have in real property.
  • Leasehold or rental
  • Rights to use a common
  • Sharecropping
  • Easements
  • Agricultural labor under which someone works the land in exchange for money, payment in kind, or some combination of the two
  • Collective ownership
  • Access to land through a membership in a cooperative, or shares in a corporation, which owns the land (typically by fee simple or its equivalent, but possibly under other arrangements).
  • Government collectives, such as those that might be found in communist states, whereby government ownership of most agricultural land is combined in various ways with tenure for farming collectives.

Arguments for and against land reform

Land reform is a deeply political process[13] and therefore many arguments for and against it have emerged. These arguments vary tremendously over time and place. For example, in the twentieth century, many land reforms emerged from a particular political ideology, such as communism or socialism. Or, as can be seen in the 19th century in colonized states, a colonial government may have changed the laws dictating land ownership to better consolidate political power or to support its colonial economy.[14] In more recent times, electoral mobilization and the use of land as a patronage resource have been proposed as possible motivations for land reform efforts, such as the extensive redistributive land reforms of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.[15]

Arguments for land reform

Land reforms need not be as dramatic in scale as Zimbabwe. Today many arguments in support of land reform focus on its potential social and economic benefits, particularly in developing countries, that may emerge from reforms focused on greater land formalization. Such benefits may include eradicating food insecurity and alleviating rural poverty.[16]

Arguments in support of such reforms gained particular momentum after the publication of "The Mystery of Capital" by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto in 2000. The poor, he argues, are often unable to secure formal property rights, such as land titles, to the land on which they live or farm because of poor governance, corruption and/or overly complex bureaucracies. Without land titles or other formal documentation of their land assets, they are less able to access formal credit. Political and legal reforms within countries, according to de Soto, will help to include the poor in formal legal and economic systems, increase the poor s ability to access credit and contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction.[17]

Many international development organizations and bilateral and multilateral donors, such as the World Bank, have embraced de Soto s ideas, or similar ideas, about the benefits of greater formalized land rights.[18] This has translated into a number of development programs that work with governments and civil society organizations to initiate and implement land reforms.[19] Evidence to support the economic and pro-poor benefits of increased formalized land rights are, however, still inconclusive according to some critics (see "Arguments against land reform" below).

Other arguments in support of land reform point to the need to alleviate conflicting land laws, particularly in former colonies, where formal and informal land systems may exist in tension with each other.[20] Such conflicts can make marginalized groups vulnerable to further exploitation.[21] For example, in many countries in Africa with conflicting land laws, AIDS stigmatization has led to an increasing number of AIDS widows being kicked off marital land by in-laws.[22] While the woman may have both customary and statutory rights to the land, confusion over which set of laws has primacy, or even a lack of knowledge of relevant laws, leave many AIDS widows at a significant disadvantage. Also, conflicting formal and informal land laws can also clog a country s legal system, making it prone to corruption.[23]

Additional arguments for land reform focus on the potential environmental benefits of reform. For example, if reform leads to greater security of land ownership, through either formal or informal means, then those that use the land will be better stewards of it.[24]

Arguments against land reform

Many of the arguments in support of land reform speak to its potentially positive social and economic outcomes. Yet, as mentioned previously, land reform is an intensely political process.[8] Thus, many of those opposed to land reform are nervous as to the underlying motivations of those initiating the reform. For example, some may fear that they will disadvantaged or victimized as a result of the reforms. Others may fear that they will lose out in the economic and political power struggles that underlie many land reforms.[25]

Other groups and individuals express concerns about land reforms focused on formalization of property rights. While the economic and social benefits of formalized land rights are often touted, some research suggests that such reforms are either ineffective or may cause further hardship or conflict.[26]

Additional arguments against land reform focus on concerns over equity issues and potential elite capture of land, particularly in regards to reforms focused on greater land formalization. If improperly or inadequately implemented, critics worry that such reforms may further disadvantage marginalization groups such as indigenous communities or women.[27] These concerns also lead to questions about the institutional capacity of governments to implement land reforms as they are designed. Even if a country does have this capacity, critics worry that corruption and patrimonalism will lead to further elite capture.[28]

In looking at more radical reforms, such as large-scale land redistribution, arguments against reform include concerns that redistributed land will not be used productively and that owners of expropriated land will not be compensated adequately or compensated at all. Zimbabwe, again, is a commonly cited example of the perils of such large-scale reforms, whereby land redistribution contributed to economic decline and increased food insecurity in the country.[29]

Evaluation of land reform

While many issues divide proponents and opponents of land reform, the questions below can help one to evaluate land reform in a more objective manner:

  • Is private property of any sort legitimate? If so, is land ownership legitimate and are historic property rights in this particular state and society legitimate?
  • Even if property rights are legitimate, do they allow for or protect against expropriation? Do they entitle the property owner to partial or complete compensation of expropriated land?
  • How should property rights be weighed against other rights, such as the right to life and liberty?
  • Who should adjudicate land ownership disputes?
  • What constitutes fair land reform?
  • What are the social, economic and political effects of land reform?[30]

Land reform efforts

Agrarian land reform has been a recurring theme of enormous consequence in world history — see, for example, the history of the Semproninan Law or Lex Sempronia agraria proposed by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and passed by the Roman Senate (133 BC), which led to the social and political wars that ended the Roman Republic.

A historically important source of pressure for land reform has been the accumulation of significant properties by tax-exempt individuals or entities. In ancient Egypt, the tax exemption for temple lands eventually drove almost all the good land into the hands of the priestly class, making them immensely rich (and leaving the world a stunning legacy of monumental temple architecture that still impresses several millennia later), but starving the government of revenue. In Rome, the land tax exemption for the noble senatorial families had a similar effect, leading to Pliny's famous observation that the latifundia (vast landed estates) had ruined Rome, and would likewise ruin the provinces. In the Christian world, this has frequently been true of churches and monasteries, a major reason that many of the French revolutionaries saw the Catholic Church as an accomplice of the landed aristos. In the Moslem world, land reforms such as that organized in Spain by al-Hurr in 718 have transferred property from Muslims to Christians, who were taxable by much higher rates.

In the modern world and in the aftermath of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, land reform has occurred around the world, from the Mexican Revolution (1917; the revolution began in 1910) to Communist China to Bolivia (1952, 2006) to Zimbabwe and Namibia. Land reform has been especially popular as part of decolonization struggles in Africa and the Arab world, where it was part of the program for African socialism and Arab nationalism. Cuba has seen one of the most complete agrarian reforms in Latin America. Land reform was an important step in achieving economic development in many Third World countries since the post-World War II period, especially in the East Asian Tigers and "Tiger Cubs" nations such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia.

Since mainland China's economic reforms led by Deng Xiaoping land reforms have also played a key role in the development of the People's Republic of China, with the re-emergence of rich property developers in urban areas (though as in Hong Kong, land in China is not privately owned but leased from the state, typically on very long terms that allow substantial opportunity for private speculative gain).

Latin America

Children singing the Internationale, at the 20th Anniversary of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement
Children singing the Internationale, at the 20th Anniversary of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement

  • Brazil: In the 1930s, Get lio Vargas reneged on a promised land reform. A first attempt to make a national scale reform was set up in the government of Jos Sarney, as a result of the strong popular movement that had contributed to the fall of the military government. However, the so-called First Land Reform National Plan never was put into force. Strong campaign including direct action by the Landless Workers' Movement throughout the 1990s has managed to get some advances for the past 10 years, during the Fernando Cardoso and Lula da Silva administrations.
  • Bolivia: The revolution of 1952 was followed by a land reform law (Law Decree 3464) on August 2, 1953. However, in 1970 only 45% of peasant families had received title to land, although more land reform projects continued in the 1970s and 1980s. A 1996 Agrarian Reform Law (also ) increased protection for smallholdings and indigenous territories, but also protected absentee landholders who pay taxes from expropriation.[31] Bolivian president Evo Morales restarted land reform when he took office in 2006.[32] On 29 November 2006, the Bolivian Senate passed a bill authorizing the government redistribution of land among the nation's mostly indigenous poor. The bill was signed into law hours later, though significant opposition is expected[33]
  • Chile: Attempts at land reform began under the government of Jorge Alessandri in 1960, were accelerated during the government of Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964 1970), and reached its climax during the 1970-1973 presidency of Salvador Allende. Farms of more than 198 acres (80 hectares) were expropriated. After the 1973 coup the process was halted, and up to a point reversed by the market forces.
  • Colombia: Alfonso L pez Pumarejo (1934 1938) passed the Law 200 of 1936, which allowed for the expropriation of private properties, in order to promote "social interest". Later attempts declined, until the National Front presidencies of Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958 1962) and Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966 1970), which respectively created the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA) and further developed land entitlement. In 1968 and 1969 alone, the INCORA issued more than 60,000 land titles to farmers and workers. Despite this, matsetela (2000) stated that the process was then halted and the situation began to reverse itself, as the subsequent violent actions of drug lords, paramilitaries, guerrillas and opportunistic large landowners severely contributed to a renewed concentration of land and to the displacement of small landowners. In the early 21st century, tentative government plans to use the land legally expropriated from drug lords and/or the properties given back by demobilized paramilitary groups have not caused much practical improvement yet.
  • Cuba: (See also main article Agrarian Reform Laws of Cuba) Land reform was among the chief planks of the revolutionary platform of 1959. Almost all large holdings were seized by the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA), which dealt with all areas of agricultural policy. A ceiling of 166 acres (67 hectares) was established, and tenants were given ownership rights, though these rights are constrained by government production quotas and a prohibition of real estate transactions.
  • El Salvador: One among several land reform efforts was made during the revolution/civil-war during the 1980s. Salvadoran President Thapelo Miglous Matsetela promoted land-reform as counter-strategy in the war, while the FMLN carried out their own land-reform in the territory under their control.
  • Guatemala: land reform occurred during the "Ten Years of Spring", 1944–1954 under the governments of Juan Jos Ar valo and Jacobo Arbenz. It has been remarked that it was one of the most successful land reforms in history, given that it was relatively thorough and had minimal detrimental effects on the economy and on the incomes of wealthy classes (who were mostly spared because only uncultivated land was expropriated). The reforms were reversed entirely after a US-backed coup deposed the Arbenz government.[34]
  • Mexico: The first land reform was driven by Ley Lerdo (the Lerdo Law of 1856), enacted by the liberals during the Reform War of the 1850s. One of the aims of the reform government was to develop the economy by returning to productive cultivation the underutilized lands of the Church and the municipal communities (Indian commons), which required the distribution of these lands to small owners. This was to be accomplished through the provisions of Ley Lerdo that prohibited ownership of land by the Church and the municipalities.[35] The reform government also financed its war effort by seizing and selling church property and other large estates. After the war the principles of the Ley Lerdo were perverted by Pres. Porfirio Diaz, which contributed to causing the Mexican Revolution in 1910. A certain degree of land reform was introduced, albeit unevenly, as part of the Mexican Revolution. Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata were strongly identified with land reform, as are the present-day (as of 2006) Zapatista Army of National Liberation. See Mexican Agrarian Land Reform.
  • Nicaragua: Land reform was one of the programs of the Sandinista government. The last months of Sandinista rule were criticized for the Pi ata Plan which distributed large tracts of land to prominent Sandinistas.
  • Peru: land reform in the 1950s largely eliminated a centuries-old system of debt peonage. Further land reform occurred after the 1968 coup by left-wing colonel Juan Velasco Alvarado, and again as part of a counterterrorism effort against the Shining Path during the Internal conflict in Peru roughly 1988–1995, led by Hernando de Soto and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy during the early years of the government of Alberto Fujimori, before the latter's auto-coup.
  • Venezuela: Hugo Ch vez's government enacted Plan Zamora to redistribute government and unused private land to campesinos in need.

Middle East and North Africa

Land reform is discussed in the article on Arab Socialism

photo of the Shah distributing land deeds during Iran's White Revolution
photo of the Shah distributing land deeds during Iran's White Revolution

  • Ottoman Empire: The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 (1274 in the Islamic Calendar)was the beginning of a systematic land reform programme started during the Tanzimat period by Sultan Abd lmecid I of the Ottoman Empire during the latter half of the 19th Century, with the overall aims of increasing state revenue generated from land and for the state to be able to have greater control over individual plots of land. This was followed by the 1873 land emancipation act.
  • Egypt: Initially, Egyptian land reform essentially abolished the political influence of major land owners. However, land reform only resulted in the redistribution of about 15% of Egypt's land under cultivation, and by the early 1980s, the effects of land reform in Egypt drew to a halt as the population of Egypt moved away from agriculture. The Egyptian land reform laws were greatly curtailed under Anwar Sadat and eventually abolished.
  • Syria: Land reforms were first implemented in Syria during 1958. The Agricultural Relations Law laid down a redistribution of rights in landownership, tenancy and management . A culmination of factors led to the halt of the reforms in 1961, these included opposition from large landowners and sever crop failure during a drought between 1958 and 1961, whilst Syria was a member of the doomed United Arab Republic (UAR). After the Ba'th Party gained power in 1963 the reforms were resumed.
The reforms were portrayed by the governing Ba'th Party as politically motivated to benefit the rural property-less communities. According to Arsuzi, a co-founder of the Ba'th Party, the reforms would, "liberate 75 percent of the Syrian population and prepare them to be citizens qualified to participate in the building of the state".[36]
It has been argued that the land reform represented work by the 'socialist government' however, by 1984 the private sector controlled 74 percent of Syria's arable land.[37] This questions both Ba'th claims of commitment to the redistribution of land to the majority of peasants as well as the state government being socialist - if it allowed the majority of land to be owned in the private sector how could it truly be socialist. Hinnebusch argued that the reforms were a way of galvanising support from the large rural population, "they[Ba'th Party members] used the implementation of agrarian reform to win over and organise peasants and curb traditional power in the countryside".[38] To this extent the reforms succeeded with increase in Ba'th party membership, they also prevented political threat emerging from rural areas by bringing the rural population into the system as supporters.
  • Iran: Significant land reform in Iran took place under the Shah as part of the socio-economic reforms of the White Revolution, begun in 1962, and agreed upon through a public referendum. At this time the Iranian economy was not performing well and there was political unrest. Essentially, the land reforms amounted to a huge redistribution of land to rural peasants who previously had no possibility of owning land as they were poorly paid labourers.
The land reforms continued from 1962 until 1971 with three distinct phases of land distribution: private, government-owned and endowed land. These reforms resulted in the newly-created peasant landowners owning six to seven million hectares, around 52-63% of Iran's agricultural land. According to Country-Data, even though there had been a considerable redistribution of land, the amount received by individual peasants was not enough to meet most families' basic needs, "About 75 percent of the peasant owners [however] had less than 7 hectares, an amount generally insufficient for anything but subsistence agriculture.".[39]
By 1979 a quarter of prime land was in disputed ownership and half of the productive land was in the hands of 200,000 absentee landlords [39] The large land owners were able to retain the best land with the best access to fresh water and irrigation facilities. In contrast, not only were the new peasant land holdings too small to produce an income but the peasants also lacked both quality irrigation system and sustained government support to enable them to develop their land to make a reasonable living. Set against the economic boom from oil revenue it became apparent that the Land Reforms did not make life better for the rural population: according to Amid, "..only a small group of rural people experienced increasing improvements in their welfare and poverty remained the lot of the majority".[40]
Moghadam argues that the structural changes to Iran, including the land reforms, initiated by the White Revolution, contributed to the revolution in 1979 which overthrew the Shah and turned Iran into an Islamic republic.
  • Maghreb: As elsewhere in North Africa, lands formerly held by European farmers have been taken over. The nationalisation of agricultural land in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia led to the departure of the majority of Europeans.[41]


  • Albania has gone through three waves of land reform since the end of World War II: in 1946 the land in estates and large farms was expropriated by the communist government and redistributed among small peasants; in the 1950s the land was reorganized into large-scale collective farms; and after 1991 the land was again redistributed among private smallholders. At the end of World War II, the farm structure in Albania was characterized by high concentration of land in large farms. In 1945, farms larger than 10 hectares, representing numerically a mere 3% of all farms in the country, managed 27% of agricultural land and just seven large estates (out of 155,000 farms) controlled 4% of agricultural land, averaging more than 2,000 hectares each (compared to the average farm size of 2.5 hectares at that time).[42] The first post-war constitution of independent Albania (March 1946) declared that land belonged to the tiller and that large estates under no circumstances could be owned by private individuals (article 10). The post-war land reform of 1946 redistributed 155,000 hectares (40% of the land stock) from 19,355 relatively large farms (typically larger than 5 hectares) to 70,211 small farms and landless households.[42] As a result, the share of large farms with more than 10 hectares declined from 27% of agricultural land in 1945 to 3% in 1954. By 1954, more than 90% of land was held in small and mid-sized farms of between 1 hectare and 10 hectares. The distributive effects of the post-war land reform were eliminated by the collectivization drive of the late 1950s-early 1960s, and by 1962 less than 18% of agricultural land had remained in family farms and household plots (the rest had shifted to Soviet-style collective and state farms).[42] By 1971 independent family farms had virtually disappeared and individual farming survived only in household plots cultivated part time by cooperative members (approximately 6% of agricultural land). The post-communist land reform begun in 1991 as part of the transition to the market was in effect a replay of the 1946 land reform, and the arable land held in cooperatives and state farms was equally distributed among all rural households without regard to pre-communist ownership rights. Contrary to other transition countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Albania adopted a distributive land reform (like the CIS) and did not restitute land to former owners. The post-communist land reform of the 1990s was accompanied by special land privatization legislation, as Albania was the only country outside the former Soviet Union that had nationalized all agricultural land (in stages between 1946 and 1976).[43]
  • Bulgaria: Upon independence in 1878 the overwhelmingly Turkish nobles estates were redistributed among peasant smallholdings. Additional reforms were implemented in 1920-23 and a maximum ownership 30 hectares was fixed.
  • Czechoslovakia: Major land reform was passed in 1919 redistributing mainly German noble's estates to peasant smallholdings. By 1937 60% of noble land was expropriated with remaining land mainly in unarable arias or German and Hungarian lands. Almost all remaining lands were redistributed in reforms of 1945 and 1948.
  • Denmark: In 1849 a section in the constitution had forbidden the creation of new fiefs and promised the abolition of existing fiefs. However fiefholders dominated the government and it was not until 1919 that the necessary legislation could be passed. This legislation transferred the fiefs to ordinary property that could be bought, sold and inherited like all other property. The state previously gained ownership to the fief if there was no male heirs and as compensation for the loss of this right the state demanded a one-time 25 % tax on the land and inventory of the fiefs. The value of the fiefs was assessed by the state itself. The tax rose each year the fiefholders waited to abolish their fiefs so the fiefs quickly disappeared. As part of the reform the state was entitled to take over one third of the land for a compensation that has since been criticised for being too small. This land was later handed over to smallholders. The tax levied on the estates as well as the division of land by ingheritance meant that the large estates as well as the estate holder class disappeared from Danish society and politics.

Finnish Karelian family, evacuated from areas ceded to Soviet Union, toiling at their new homestead
Finnish Karelian family, evacuated from areas ceded to Soviet Union, toiling at their new homestead

  • Finland: In the general reparcelling out of land, begun in 1757 when Finland was a part of Sweden, the medieval model of all fields consisting of numerous strips, each belonging to a farm, was replaced by a model of fields and forest areas each belonging to a single farm. In the further reparcellings, which started in 1848 when Finland was part of Russia, the idea of concentrating all the land in a farm to a single piece of real estate was reinforced. In these reparcelling processes, the land is redistributed in direct proportion to earlier prescription. Both the general reparcelling and the further reparcelling processes are still active in some parts of the country. After the Finnish Civil War, when Finland had become independent, a series of land reforms followed. These included the compensated transfer of lease-holdings (torppa) to the leasers and prohibition of forestry companies to acquire land. After the Second World War, Karelians evacuated from areas ceded to Russia were given land in remaining Finnish areas, taken from public and private holdings. The war veterans also benefited from these allotments.
  • Greece: At independence in 1835 the predominately Turkish nobles estates were redistributed as peasant smallholdings.
  • Estonia and Latvia: at their founding as states in 1918–1919, they expropriate the large estates of Baltic German landowners, most of which was distributed among the peasants and became smallholdings.
  • Hungary: In 1945 every estate bigger than was expropriated without compensation and distributed among the peasants. In the 1950s collective ownership was introduced according to the Soviet model, but after 1990 co-ops were dissolved and the land was redistributed among private smallholders.
  • Lithuania: the major land reform was initiated since the 1919 and was fully launched in 1922. The excess land was taken from the major landowners, mostly aristocracy, and redistributed among new landowners, primarily soldiers, or small landowners, 65,000 in total.
  • Montenegro and Serbia: At independence in 1830 the predominately Turkish nobles estates were divided up among peasant smallholdings.
  • Prussia: One of Europe's earliest planned land redistributions was carried out in response to Napoleon's land reforms by Prussian King Frederick William I. Land owners were compensated for lost land. The reform helped to create an empowered middle class of Prussian small farmers.
  • Romania: After failed attempts at land reform by Mihail Kog lniceanu in the years immediately after Romanian unification in 1863, a major land reform finally occurred in 1921, with a few additional reforms carried out in 1945.
  • Slovenia and Croatia: With absorption into the kingdom of Yugoslavia, land reform was passed in 1919 with subsidiary laws thereafter redistributing nobles estates among peasant smallholders. Additional reform was implemented in 1945 under the communist.
  • Sweden: In 1757, the general reparcelling out of land began. In this process, the medieval principle of dividing all the fields in a village into strips, each belonging to a farm, was changed into a principle of each farm consisting of a few relatively large areas of land. The land was redistributed in proportion to earlier possession of land, while uninhabited forests far from villages were socialized. In the 20th century, Sweden, almost non-violently, arrived at regulating the length minimum of tenant farming contracts at 25 years.


  • Ethiopia: The Derg carried out one of the most extensive land reforms in Africa in 1975.
  • Kenya: Kenyatta launched a "willing buyer-willing seller" based land reform program in the 1960s, funded by Britain, the former colonial power. In 2006 president Mwai Kibaki said it will repossess all land owned by "absentee landlords" in the coastal strip and redistribute it to squatters.[44]
  • Namibia: A limited land reform has been a hallmark of the regime of Sam Nujoma; legislation passed in September 1994, with a compulsory, compensated approach.[45]
  • South Africa:The Native Lands Act of 1913 prohibited the establishment of new farming operations, sharecropping or cash rentals by blacks outside of the reserves [46] where they were forced to live. "Land restitution" was one of the promises made by the African National Congress when it came to power in South Africa in 1994.
These property rights are extremely important as, not only do they empower farmer workers (who now have the opportunity to become farmers) and reduce inequality [47] but they also increase production due to inverse farm size productivity. Farmers with smaller plots who live on the farm, often use family members for labor, making these farms efficient. Their transaction costs are less than larger plots with hired labor.[48] Since many of these family members were unemployed it allows previously unemployed people to now participate in the economy and better the country s economic growth.[49]
The Land Reform Process focused on three areas: restitution, land tenure reform and land redistribution.[46][50] Restitution, where the government compensates (monetary) individuals who had been forcefully removed, has been very unsuccessful and the policy has now shifted to redistribution with secure land tenure. Land tenure reform is a system of recognizing people s right to own land and therefore control of the land.
Redistribution is the most important component of land reform in South Africa.[51] Initially, land was bought from its owners (willing seller) by the government (willing buyer) and redistributed, in order to maintain public confidence in the land market.[46]
Although this system has worked in various countries in the world, in South Africa is has proved to be very difficult to implement. This is because many owners do not actually see the land they are purchasing and are not involved in the important decisions made at the beginning of the purchase and negotiation.
In 2000 the South African Government decided to review and change the redistribution and tenure process to a more decentralized and area based planning process. The idea is to have local integrated development plans in 47 districts. This will hopefully mean more community participation and more redistribution taking place, but there are also various concerns and challenges with this system too.[52]
These include the use of third parties, agents accredited by the state, and who are held accountable to the government. The result has been local land holding elites dominating the system in many of these areas. The government still hopes that with improved identification and selection of beneficiaries, better planning of land and ultimately greater productivity of the land acquired... [53] the land reform process will begin moving faster.[54]
As of early 2006, the ANC government announced that it will start expropriating the land, although according to the country's chief land-claims commissioner, Tozi Gwanya, unlike Zimbabwe there will be compensation to those whose land is expropriated, "but it must be a just amount, not inflated sums."[55][56]
Despite these moves towards decentralization, these improved practices and government promises are not very evident. South Africa still remains hugely unequal, with black South Africans still dispossessed of land and many still homeless. The challenge for the incumbent politicians is to improve the various bureaucratic processes, and find solutions to giving more South Africans secure land tenure.
  • Zimbabwe: Efforts at land reform in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe moved, after 15 years, in the 1990s, from a "willing seller, willing buyer" approach to the "fast track" land reform program. This was accelerated by "popular seizure" led by machete gangs of "war veterans" associated with the ruling party. Many parcels of land came under the control of people close to the government, as is the case throughout Africa. The several forms of forcible change in management caused a severe drop in production and other economic disruptions. In addition, the human rights violations and bad press led Britain, the European Union, the United States, and other Western allies to impose sanctions on the Zimbabwean government. All this has caused the collapse of the economy. The results have been disastrous and have resulted in widespread food shortages and large scale refugee flight.

North America

  • Canada: A land reform was carried out as part of Prince Edward Island's agreement to join the Canadian Confederation in 1873. Most of the land was owned by absentee landlords in England, and as part of the deal Canada was to buy all the land and give it to the farmers.
  • United States:
    • Following the American Civil War, the Radical Republicans attempted to put a land reform through Congress, promising "forty acres and a mule" to newly-freed blacks in the South, which was ultimately rejected by moderate elements as "socialistic."
    • The Dawes Act of 1887 split the Indian tribal lands into allotments held by individual Indians. Most tribal land still owned by ethnic Indians was recollectivized in 1934.


  • Afghanistan has had a couple of attempts at land reform
    • The government of Mohammad Daoud Khan responded to the inequities of the existing land tenure conditions by issuing a Land Reform Law in 1975.
      • The government limited individual holdings to a maximum of 20 hectares of irrigated, double-cropped land.
      • Larger holdings were allowed for less productive land.
      • The government was to expropriate all surplus land and pay compensation.
      • To prevent the proliferation of small, uneconomic holdings, priority for redistributed lands was to be given to neighboring farmers with two hectares or less.
      • Landless sharecroppers, laborers, tenants, and nomads had next priority.
    • Despite the government's rhetorical commitment to land reform, the program was quickly postponed. Because the government's landholding limits applied to families, not individuals, wealthy families avoided expropriation by dividing their lands nominally between family members. The high ceilings for landholdings restricted the amount of land actually subject to redistribution. Finally, the government lacked the technical data and organizational bodies to pursue the program after it was announced.
    • Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)
      • The first step was Decree No. 6, which canceled gerau and other mortgage debts of agricultural laborers, tenants, and small landowners with less than two hectares of land. The cancellation applied only to debts contracted before 1973.
      • Decree No. 8 November 1978: New landholdings from the 20 hectares of prime irrigated land in the 1975 law to just six hectares. It divided all land into seven classes and again allowed for larger holdings of less productive land.
        • no compensation for government-expropriated surplus land
        • established categories of farmers who had priority for redistributed land; sharecroppers already working on the land had highest priority.[57][58]
  • China has been through a series of land reforms:
    • In the 1940s, the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, funded with American money, with the support of the national government, carried out land reform and community action programs in several provinces.
    • The thorough land reform launched by the Communist Party of China in 1946, three years before the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), won the party millions of supporters among the poor and middle peasantry. The land and other property of landlords were expropriated and redistributed so that each household in a rural village would have a comparable holding. This agrarian revolution was made famous in the West by William Hinton's book Fanshen. In 1948, Mao Zedong envisaged that "one-tenth of the peasants" (or about 50,000,000) "would have to be destroyed" to facilitate agrarian reform.[59] Jen Pi-shih, a member of the party's Central Committee, likewise stated in a 1948 speech that "30,000,000 landlords and rich peasants would have to be destroyed."[59] Shortly after the founding of the PRC, land reform, according to Mao biographer Philip Short, "lurched violently to the left" with Mao laying down new guidelines for "not correcting excesses prematurely."[60] Mao insisted that the people themselves, not the security organs, should become involved in the killing of landlords who had oppressed them.[60] This was quite different from Soviet practice, in which the NKVD would arrest counterrevolutionaries and then have them secretly executed and often buried before sunrise. Mao felt that peasants who killed landlords with their bare hands would become permanently linked to the revolutionary process in a way that passive spectators could not be.[60] Actual numbers killed in land reform are believed to have been lower, but did rank in the millions,[59] as there was a policy to select "at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution."[61] R.J. Rummel, an analyst of government killings, or "democide", gives a "reasonably conservative figure" of about 4,500,000 landlords and better-off peasants killed.[59] Philip Short estimates that at least one to three million landlords and members of their families were killed, either beaten to death on the spot by enraged peasants at mass meetings organized by local communist party work teams or reserved for public execution later on.[60] Estimates abroad ranged as high as 28,000,000 deaths.[59] In 1976 the U.S. State department estimated that there may have been a million killed in the land reform;[62] Mao estimated that only 800,000 landlords were killed.[59]
    • In the mid-1950s, a second land reform during the Great Leap Forward compelled individual farmers to join collectives, which, in turn, were grouped into People's communes with centrally controlled property rights and an egalitarian principle of distribution. This policy was generally a failure in terms of production.[63] The PRC reversed this policy in 1962 through the proclamation of the Sixty Articles. As a result, the ownership of the basic means of production was divided into three levels with collective land ownership vested in the production team (see also Ho [2001]).
    • A third land reform beginning in the late 1970s re-introduced the family-based contract system known as the Household Responsibility System, which had enormous initial success, followed by a period of relative stagnation. Chen, Wang, and Davis [1998] suggest that the later stagnation was due, in part, to a system of periodic redistribution that encouraged over-exploitation rather than capital investment in future productivity.[63] However, although land use rights were returned to individual farmers, collective land ownership was left undefined after the disbandment of the People's Communes.
    • Since 1998 China is in the midst of drafting the new Property Law which is the first piece of national legislation that will define the land ownership structure in China for years to come. The Property Law forms the basis for China's future land policy of establishing a system of freehold, rather than of private ownership (see also Ho, [2005]).
  • India: Due to the taxation and regulation under the British Raj, at the time of independence, India inherited a semi-feudal agrarian system, with ownership of land concentrated in the hands of a few individual landlords (Zamindars, Zamindari System). Since independence, there has been voluntary and state initiated/mediated land reforms in several states. The most notable and successful example of land reforms are in the states of West Bengal and Kerala. After promising land reforms and elected to power in West Bengal in 1977, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) kept their word and initiated gradual land reforms, such as Operation Barga. The result was a more equitable distribution of land among the landless farmers, and enumeration of landless farmers. This has ensured an almost life long loyalty from the farmers and the communists were in power till 2011 assembly election.[64] In Kerala, the only other large state where the CPI(M) came to power, state administrations have actually carried out the most extensive land, tenancy and agrarian labor wage reforms in the non-socialist late-industrializing world.[65] Another successful land reform program was launched in Jammu and Kashmir after 1947. However, this success was not replicated in other areas like the states of Andhra and Madhya Pradesh, where the more radical Communist Party of India (Maoist) or Naxalites resorted to violence as it failed to secure power. In the state of Bihar, tensions between land owners militia, villagers and Maoists have resulted in numerous massacres. All in all, land reforms have been successful only in pockets of the country, as people have often found loopholes in the laws setting limits on the maximum area of land held by any one person.
  • Japan: The first land reform, called the Land Tax Reform or was passed in 1873 as a part of the Meiji Restoration. Another land reform of Japan was carried out in 1947 (at the occupied era after World War II) by the instructions of SCAP by the proposal from the Japanese government. It was prepared before the defeat of the Greater Japanese Empire. It is also called N chi-kaih (,emancipation of farming land ).
  • Sri Lanka: In 1972, the Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, through the Land Reform Law, imposed a ceiling of twenty hectares on privately owned land and sought to distribute lands in excess of the ceiling for the benefit of landless peasants. Both land owned by public companies and paddy lands under ten hectares in extent were exempted from this ceiling. Between 1972 and 1974, the Land Reform Commission took over nearly 228,000 hectares. In 1975 the Land Reform (Amendment) Law brought over 169,000 hectares of plantations owned by companies (including British-owned companies) under state control.[66]
  • Taiwan: In the 1950s, after the Nationalist government came to Taiwan, land reform and community development was carried out by the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction. This course of action was made attractive, in part, by the fact that many of the large landowners were Japanese who had fled, and the other large landowners were compensated with Japanese commercial and industrial properties seized after Taiwan reverted from Japanese rule in 1945. The land program succeeded also because the Kuomintang were mostly from the mainland and had few ties to the remaining indigenous landowners. See also: Taiwan Land Reform Museum
  • Vietnam: In the years after World War II, even before the formal division of Vietnam, land reform was initiated in North Vietnam. This land reform (1953 1956) redistributed land to more than 2 million poor peasants, but at a cost of from tens[67] to hundreds of thousands of lives[68] and was one of the main reason for the mass exodus of 1 million people from the North to the South in 1954. The probable democide for this four year period then totals 283,000 North Vietnamese.[69] South Vietnam made several further attempts in the post-Diem years, the most ambitious being the Land to the Tiller program instituted in 1970 by President Nguyen Van Thieu. This limited individuals to 15 hectares, compensated the owners of expropriated tracts, and extended legal title to peasants who in areas under control of the South Vietnamese government to whom had land had previously been distributed by the Viet Cong.
  • South Korea: In 1945–1950, United States and South Korean authorities carried out a land reform that retained the institution of private property. They confiscated and redistributed all land held by the Japanese colonial government, Japanese companies, and individual Japanese colonists. The Korean government carried out a reform whereby Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. A new class of independent, family proprietors was created.[70]

  • Philippines: During the Macapagal Administration in the early 1960s, a limited land reform program was initiated in Central Luzon covering rice fields. During the martial law era of the Marcos Administration, Presidential Decree 27 instituted a land reform program covering rice and corn farms. Rice and corn production under this land reform program was heavily supported by the Marcos Administration with land distribution and financing program known as the Masagana 99 and other production loans that led to increased rice and corn production. The country produced enough rice for local consumption and became a rice exporter during that period. The Aquino Administration in the mid 1980s instituted a very controversial land reform known as CARP which covered all agricultural lands. The program led to rice shortages in the succeeding years and lasted for 20 years without accomplishing the goal of land distribution. The program caused entrepreneurs to stay away from agriculture and a number of productive farmers left the farming sector. The CARP was a monumental failure in terms of cost to the government and the landowners whose lands were subjective legal landgrabbing by the government. CARP expired at the end of December 2008.[71]


  • Australia: See Aboriginal Land Rights Acts.
  • Fiji: In a reverse that proves the rule of land reform to benefit the native and indigenous people, the land in Fiji has always been owned by native Fijians, but much of it has been leased long-term to immigrant Indians. As these leases have reached their end-of-term native Fijians increasingly have refused to renew leases and have expelled the Indians.

See also



Further reading

External links

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