The broad objectives of land tenure policies are not essentially different to those which guide the formulation of policies for any resource or sector, but historically the discussions of the subject have placed particular emphasis on the two overriding goals of economic efficiency and equity and poverty alleviation. In addition, environmental and institutional sustainability are concerns of increasing importance in developing such policies. In the context of land use, efficiency has short-run, or static, and long-run, or dynamic, dimensions. While it refers to encouraging allocations of land to uses which currently yield the highest economic productivity, it also means stimulating appropriate management of the land resource and investments for sustaining and improving its productivity over time.
Achieving efficiency in the use of one of the sector's basic resources is an essential condition for agricultural growth to occur. A simple but complete equation of agricultural growth states that the rate of output increase is the sum of the rate of expansion of cultivated land and the rate of increase of productivity per unit of land. The last factor includes both changes in cropping patterns and increases in crop yields.
Given the increasing scarcity of suitable agricultural land in all parts of the world, and the concerns about deforestation and land degradation, the productivity factor will have to account for an increasing share of the sector's growth in the future, hence the crucial need to use land more efficiently. In addition, through multiplier effects agricultural expansion generates benefits throughout the economy, as commented upon earlier in this book, and so while sustained agricultural growth will not necessarily solve the poverty problem, it can make a uniquely valuable contribution in this regard in both rural and urban areas.
It should be noted that in determining national policies regarding land distribution, adopting the equity objective does not necessarily mean striving for an equal distribution of land. In operational terms, the emphasis usually is placed on providing mechanisms of access to land for as many rural families as possible, access to plots of at least a size that can sustain what is considered a minimum acceptable standard of living, along with reasonable conditions of access to some additional amounts of land for those who can work it.
Access to land is relevant to questions of poverty alleviation in part because poverty is usually more widespread in rural than in urban areas. It also is relevant because the distribution of land holdings, or of access to land, is one of the principal factors determining the degree of rural poverty. By extension, it also is a determinant of urban poverty when poor economic conditions in the countryside force large numbers of families to migrate to cities without secure prospects of employment. In the words of Vijay Vyas:
The countries, and regions within large countries, where least impact has been made on the eradication of poverty often suffer from an inequitable agrarian structure, or marginalized and depleted resources, or both.. . . The rigors of small ownership holdings are eased if there is an active lease market, or when non-farm employment opportunities are present and expanding. In the absence of either of those two conditions a strong correlation exists between the inequality in ownership of land and the extent of poverty, as in South Asia, Southern Africa and large parts of Latin America.5
Issues concerning the rental and leasing of agricultural land, communal land rights and whether secure access to land is an adequate substitute for its ownership, are discussed subsequently in this chapter, but the correlation with poverty indicated by Vyas also holds with respect to the distribution of effective rights to use land, independently of whether they refer to ownership.
Unequal conditions of access to land, with consequent impoverishment of much of the population, are not exclusively a phenomenon of contemporary societies. In the case of pre-Columbian Mexico, for example, it has been observed that:
The land was clearly allocated . . . [into] diverse categories of possession and rights of usufruct; but in the real order of things it was concentrated in a few hands; it was the basis for the social preeminence, the wealth and the political influence of a select group. The king, the nobles and the warriors were the great landowners of the era. .. . The conquests, trade and political relations between different peoples, and the population increase itself gave rise in the cities and towns to an agglomeration of many persons who did not have any land at all and who were prohibited from acquiring it. In this way great masses of the disinherited were formed. How did they live? Orozco y Berra says it with utter clarity: '. . . as the contemptible masses, from the grains they harvested, of which three measures gave [them] one, one of each three they cultivated; their work was for the despot of Mexico; they were slaves of the land, and when they ate eggs, it seemed to them the king granted them a great favor, and they were so oppressed that almost all what they ate was rationed and the rest was for the king'.6
There were a great number of wage workers whose condition was as bad as today's farm laborers, perhaps worse, because the latter have the legal possibility of becoming owners of land. . .. The masses recognized and respected the unequal distribution of land, because they recognized and respected the social inequalities. The legal system maintained property rights in a drastic way, since changing the fences or boundary markers was punished . .. with the death penalty.7
It is not only an unequal distribution of access to farmland that makes it difficult to reduce rural poverty. Inappropriate land policies, and poor land management practices and regulations, can undermine the efforts of rural poor to improve their situation, as well as causing inefficiencies in land use for farmers of all income strata. Both the initial distribution of land and the nature of land tenure regimes and policies have a direct bearing on the extent of rural poverty.
5. Vijay S. Vyas, 'Agrarian Structure, Environmental Concerns and Rural Poverty', Elmhirst Memorial Lecture, in G. H. Peters and B. F. Stanton (Eds), Sustainable Agricultural Development: The Role of International Cooperation, Proceedings of the 21st International Conference of Agricultural Economists, Dartmouth Publishing Company, Aldershot, UK, 1992, p. 11.
6. Orozco y Berra, Historia Antigua y de la Conquista de México, Mexico City, Mexico. 1880, Volume I, p. 371.
7. Lucio Mendieta y Núñez, El Problema Agrario de México y la Ley Federal de Reforma Agraria, 19th updated edition, Editorial Porrúa, SA, México, 1983 [1st Edition, 1923], pp. 28-29 [author's translation].
It is sometimes asked why policy makers should be concerned with providing land to poor families, rather than providing them with support and subsidies of other kinds. As Banerjee has put it:
On the question of whether we should redistribute land rather than money, the instinctive answer among economists is that redistributing money must be better, all else being equal, since beneficiaries could always use the money to purchase land. ... if the only reason the rural poor do not buy land is that they are too poor to do so, all poor rural residents would use a cash distribution to buy land and the productivity gains from land reforms would be realized. The case for redistributing land could thus be based on the belief that all beneficiaries want land and that redistributing land directly would eliminate some transactions costs. In all other cases, one could argue, it would be better to distribute money.
Redistributing money may not always be the best option, however, for several reasons. One is that land reform may help keep people in rural areas instead of moving to cities. ... A more compelling argument is that land can be a permanent source of income for poor families. Heads of families may not always act in the collective interest of their families.8 If there are conflicts of interest within the family or between current and future generations, the goal of redistribution may be better served by giving the family an asset other than money. Doing so might, for example, prevent a husband from decamping with financial assets. .. . Moreover, land may be a particularly good asset to inherit, because fewer skills are needed to make use of that asset than other fixed assets, such as factories or shops. .. .
These arguments are obviously highly speculative. In the absence of better empirical support, they make what is at best a very tentative case for land redistribution as a way of benefitting the rural poor.9
In addition to Banerjee's arguments, it now is widely recognized that fiscal transfers alone cannot be expected to solve poverty problems, in good measure because tax administration in most developing and transitional economies is not strong enough to support that burden.10 Furthermore, when the definition of the issue is broadened to encompass access to land, and not only ownership, there is scope for a wider variety of policies, and not just land redistribution, that can create benefits in terms of poverty alleviation and at the same time promote sectoral growth (improve economic efficiency).
It is widely acknowledged that access to land is the most fundamental determinant of income-earning potential in rural areas in developing and transitional countries, and so the equity dimension cannot be ignored in formulating land policies without the risk of generating serious social and political tensions as well as exacerbating poverty. An implicit and universal recognition of this imperative is provided by the customary practice of many African and Asian village societies of providing land use rights to all families belonging to the village,11 and by the approach of 'land to the tiller' which has characterized land reform movements, from Taiwan and the Republic of
8. See Chapter 7 for evidence that in general women in rural households handle finances more responsibly than men do.
10. Albert Fishlow also points out that 'The scope for progressive taxation is necessarily limited when simultaneously advancing private savings and investment', and observes 'Of the possibilities for redistribution of wealth, land stands out as the most potent variable used in the past' (in 'Inequality, Poverty and Growth: Where Do We Stand?', Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics, 1995, M. Bruno and B. Pleskovich (Eds), The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, 1996, pp. 32 and 29).
11. In almost all tribal systems in both Asia and Africa, 'Only by being formally expelled from the group itself can a member lose his right of cultivation of land' (Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Economic Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1965, p. 79).
Korea to Peru and Central America and South Africa. It also underlay the 19th-century Homestead Act in the United States. How to promote wider access to land in an effective way is a major issue in land policies.
Security of land rights is as important as access. Without security, farmers are reluctant to invest in productivity-enhancing improvements, they may not be able to obtain financing for the improvements and for annual production inputs, and widows and children may be denied rights to the same land. As will be discussed subsequently, security of tenure can be provided in diverse ways, not only by outright land ownership with registered titles.
Therefore, the broad policy objectives of equity and efficiency translate into the following three operational objectives for the case of agricultural land policy: equitable access to land, secure land rights, and smoothly functioning land markets and other allocative mechanisms. The latter condition allows land to be flexibly and quickly reassigned to those who are able to extract higher returns
Strictly speaking, the agricultural soil must be gradually 'constructed'... as is evident from the history of agricultural development in Europe, Asia and pre-Columbian Latin America. In these continents, vast amounts of family and village labor have been used to build fences, pick stones, remove stumps, construct flood embankments, level and terrace land, drain water, and so forth. . . . Equally important is the fact that investment of labor is also required on a recurrent basis in order to maintain the land infrastructures once they have been built. Indeed, if the soil can be 'constructed', it can also be destroyed and the process of soil destruction is especially rapid in countries -such as those of Africa - where problems such as leaching, wind or water erosion and flooding are permanent threats (From J.-P. Platteau, 1992, p. 111).
from it, thus enhancing allocative efficiency over time.
Environmental sustainability is an objective of increasing concern for land policies all over the world. Soil traditionally has been regarded as a fully renewable resource: leave it in a fallow state, apply organic fertilizers, terrace it to trap nutrients, etc., and it will regenerate. This process can work within a range of soil conditions, but if soils are abused to an extreme, their capacity to regenerate themselves is lost essentially forever. The damage may become irreversible and soil may become a non-renewable resource, at least for a span of several human lifetimes. A look at the denuded, rocky hillsides of Haiti, where there once was soil and vegetation, confirms the fragility of soils. Even if the capacity of land is not pushed to such an extreme, topsoils can be lost in sufficient quantity that their recovery could take several decades. In areas of South-East Asia, the Amazon Basin, Central America and other parts of the world, rates of soil loss are very high. It has been estimated that the rate of loss in some areas of El Salvador is equivalent to a total depletion of the topsoil in 19 or 20 years.12 In today's land use patterns, a major threat to soils arises from the sacrifice of forest cover for annual crops in tropical regions. These trends also bring with them hazards for water supplies, biodiversity, and local and perhaps global climates. A serious threat also arises from inadequate maintenance and over-exploitation of existing agricultural lands, especially through overgrazing.
The sustainability and poverty issues are interrelated. Proper management of land, which usually involves investments (via use of capital and/or labor) or decisions to set land aside for a while, whether in tree crops or in fallow rotations, implies a sacrifice of some immediate benefits for the sake of benefits in the longer run. Thus, sustainable land management often requires the ability to save, or to forego some of the present consumption possibilities. Many poor families are not able to save and are driven to extract the
12. Roger Norton, Ricardo Arias and Vilma Calderón, Una Estrategia de Desarrollo Agrícola para El Salvador, 1994-2000, FUSADES, San Salvador, El Salvador, 1994, p. 9.
maximum current benefit from land, to the detriment of its future capacity. Swidden agriculture is the classic example of this syndrome. A vicious circle is created: poverty may aggravate the problem of degradation of land, and in turn the degraded land exacerbates poverty in the future.
Environmental sustainability is not only relevant to poor societies. In fact, it will become more important for land policy in developing and transition economies as they grow, as illustrated by the experience of Western Europe:
At least in EU countries, (rural) land policy is increasingly becoming environmental policy with 'multifunctionality' of agriculture as its buzzword and justifying ongoing subsidies for rural areas. Some of the newly emerging functions of land are closely related to the provision of environmental goods and services: clean air and water, less intoxicated soils, carbon dioxide fixation, etc. . . . based not only on national policy priorities but as well demanded by legally binding international Conventions and Regimes, such as on Climate, Biodiversity and Desertification.13
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