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Land reform the Key to Ending Rural Poverty

Inter Press Service News Agency

DEVELOPMENT: Access to Land Essential to Eradicating Poverty, Experts Say Humberto Márquez

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Mar 23 (IPS) - Family farming can be a more efficient means of producing food and promoting development than large-scale agricultural operations, Brazilian expert Edson Teófilo told participants at the International Land Coalition Global Assembly currently underway in this eastern Bolivian city.

New schools of economic thought maintain that units of agricultural production that can be worked by a single family can be successful and lead to the sustainable generation of income, as long as certain conditions are in place, such as access to markets, credits, education and technology, said Teófilo, an advisor to the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development.

Brazil, where 16 million hectares of land have been distributed to half a million families in the last decade through agrarian reform, is a prime example, he noted.

"In 2003, the contribution made by family farming to the country's gross domestic (GDP) grew by 9.4 percent, while the intensive agribusiness share rose by only 5.1 percent," Teófilo explained later in an interview with IPS. Since the Millennium Summit in 2000, the world's leaders have recognised that poverty is the greatest challenge facing humanity, and the key to reducing it is ensuring progress in rural areas, said Bruce Moore, the coordinator of the International Land Coalition (ILC).

Of the 1.1 billion people in the world living in extreme poverty, three-quarters of them, or around 800 million, live in rural areas, trying to survive on less than a dollar a day, he noted.

They include small farmers, fishers, animal herders, forest dwellers and landless peasants. Large numbers of them are indigenous people, and in every grouping, the majority are women, Moore told the representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from over 20 countries attending the ILC meet, which ends Thursday.

In September 2000, the U.N. General Assembly adopted eight Millennium Goals (MDGs), aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, improving infant and maternal health, providing greater access to education, ending gender discrimination and curbing pollution, among other objectives.

The number one goal established at the U.N. Millennium Summit is to halve the proportion of the world's population living on less that one dollar a day by the year 2015.

This the first time that the ILC assembly is being held outside Rome, where the organisation is based. There is plenty of material for the discussion of access to land in this eastern Bolivian city, capital of a region characterised by extensive tracts of land used for cattle farming and forestry and a million hectares of soy grown on large plantations.

Large numbers of campesinos (peasant farmers) have emigrated here from the highlands of western Bolivia, no longer able to make a living on small parcels of land with deteriorated soil.

In the eastern lowlands, alongside these newly arrived small tenant farmers and landless campesinos, indigenous communities are fighting for their rights to land that they consider their ancestral territory.

Jorge Prestel, president of the Cattle Farmers Federation of Santa Cruz, told IPS that "the crux of the problem does not lie in access to land or the conditions needed for production, but rather in the terms of trade. If we are the ones who produce, but it is the First World that determines the rules of the game, then we will not be able to produce wealth."

But Teófilo refuted this theory, saying "it focuses on the conservative modernisation of the countryside, but as has been demonstrated in Brazil -- where a combative movement of landless rural workers emerged last decade -- economic growth alone merely exacerbates social inequalities and transforms rural poverty into urban destitution."

Moore noted that in many countries, the issue of improving secure access to land for the poorest sectors is linked to the fundamental inequalities in rural communities or in the country at large.

He referred to studies from the World Bank and the European Union which conclude that democracy is achieved much later in countries dominated by large landowners than in those that depend on the production of small farmers, and that the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few reduces incentives for providing public services.

Moore also defended the right of women to control assets in rural communities, given the positive impact this has on expenditures on education and other social needs.

Rita Lakor from the non-governmental group Uganda Land Alliance said that in east Africa, women's participation in the agricultural workforce can be extremely high, reaching up to 80 percent in some communities, yet studies reveal that barely 13 percent of women farmers in Uganda own their own land. The outlook has become even more bleak as a result of the high incidence of HIV/AIDS in countries like Uganda, because when men become sick, they begin to sell off their lands, which are therefore not left to the women.

Lakor added that her organisation and others are pushing for changes in the country's agrarian legislation, so that at least one-third of landowners are women.

Throughout the world, Moore noted, disadvantaged women and men, like the rural poor, are demanding more. Unleashing the potential of the poorest sectors to make them better producers and consumers, through access to land, capacity building and public investment, will contribute to economic prosperity in general, he concluded. (END/2005)