“When I Have the Land”: 200 Years in Search of Agrarian Reform

By João Pedro Stedile on April 17, 2022

On April 17, 1996, 19 peasants of the Brazilian Landless Movement were assassinated in the municipality of Eldorado Dos Carajás, in the south of the state of Pará. The event took place during a peaceful mobilization organized to demand the expropriation of idle land from local landowners. To this day, the secular peasant struggle for agrarian reform continues to be persecuted and criminalized in one of the regions with the highest rates of land concentration in the world.

Twenty-six years after that tragic day, and on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of La Via Campesina International, ALAI shares a text by João Pedro Stedile – historical leader of the MST, economist and specialist in the field – which systematizes some of the main historical experiences of agrarian reform; from anti-colonial to radical, from popular to moderate, from those linked to national liberation processes to those of a more clearly socialist character. The article in question is part of the book “Experiencias de reforma agraria en el mundo”, first volume of a unique research program of its kind, published in Portuguese by Expressão Popular and in Spanish by Batalla de Ideas.

Agrarian Reform can be characterized as a government program that seeks to democratize land ownership in society in order to guarantee access to land, distributing it to those who want to produce on it or use it.

To achieve this objective, the main legal instrument used in practically all existing experiences is the expropriation by the State of large estates and large estates and their redistribution among landless peasants, small farmers with little land and rural wage earners in general.

There are, however, various ways for the State to obtain land in order to eliminate large-scale concentration. Among these, the first -and most widely used- is the instrument of expropriation. Once the criteria for the classification of large estates and/or large properties to be distributed have been established, the government issues a decree expropriating, that is, transferring the private ownership of that area from the estanciero/capitalist landowner to the State. For this transfer of ownership to occur, the government compensates the former owner by means of value criteria defined by the laws of each country.

These values may be symbolic or may be the same prices practiced in the market. Once the ownership of the land has been transferred to the State, the State organizes a project to distribute the land to the landless farming families in the region who claim it.

The second instrument is expropriation or confiscation. This is when the ownership of the property of the large landowners is transferred to the State without any compensation or payment of values. This situation depends on the existing legislation in each country and is a punishment for irregularities practiced by the owner.

There are intermediate cases in which the government does not pay for the land, but compensates the owner for the assets contained in the property, such as houses, sheds, fences. In Brazil, there are cases of this type when the estancieros enter public land, without having the legal right to it; the government then removes them from the public land but indemnifies them for the existing assets.

In the Brazilian case, the expropriation takes place by means of a decree that compulsorily transfers the ownership of the land to the State, by means of compensation. There is even the modality of negotiated purchase with the owner (Decree No. 433, January 24, 1992), in which compensation values are negotiated without the need for a decree of expropriation. The possibility of confiscation, which does not provide for payments, occurs in Brazil in the case of farms used for smuggling, activities related to drug trafficking or cultivation of psychoactive substances such as marijuana, for example.

For ten years, the Constitutional Amendment Proposal No. 438/2001, already approved in the Senate, which would impose the expropriation or confiscation of all lands where labor regimes analogous to slavery are found, has been waiting for a vote in the Chamber of Deputies. The parliamentary bench linked to the latifundia has prevented the vote on this bill.

After obtaining the land from the latifundia, the State, in the name of society, carries out the distribution of the land. In the historical experiences, as we will see throughout the texts, there were multiple forms of organization of these production units. In most cases the distribution to peasant families in family units was maintained, in others this form was coupled with the location of houses in agrovillages, villages, communities, with a small plot of land for vegetable gardens and raising domestic animals. There are organizations of collective association, production cooperatives or cooperatives for the commercialization of production and individual organization of work, social enterprises, state enterprises, etc. These different forms could complement each other in the same country’s agrarian reform process, or some were predominant, depending on the country. The forms of land production and the organization of production do not depend on laws, but on the correlation of forces of the classes in society, on the development of the productive forces in the countryside and also on the agricultural-territorial vocation of each region.

In the same way, the legal status of post-agrarian reform land varies from one country to another. There are cases of distribution to peasants and transformation into private land owners, who after a certain historical period could even buy and sell plots of land. There are cases of concession of use by the State, with the right of inheritance but without the right to buy and sell. There are cases of collective ownership by families. And cases in which the land remains the property of the whole Nation and the State merely administers the concession of use for cooperatives, families, etc.

Types of Agrarian Reform

The term “agrarian reform” was adopted during the 20th century as a synthesis of programs or proposals for the democratization of access to land in each country. In the past, even in earlier modes of production (such as Asia or even in the mercantile stage of capitalism) there have been historical experiences of democratization of access to land in various societies, but without using the term “agrarian reform”. These experiences were more connected to the notion of the right to work on the land. There are references in biblical texts to the laws in force in those peoples regarding the periodic redistribution of land, and there are also references in the literature to similar processes applied in the Persian civilization.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in the so-called modern history, but especially since the development of industrial capitalism, many countries and governments implemented land reform programs. These programs, which emerged in the 19th century, were intended to guarantee the right to land and to build more democratic societies by proceeding to a fairer distribution of a good of nature that, strictly speaking, should be for the entire population living in that territory.

The characteristics and nature of the processes of land distribution and expropriation vary greatly from one country to another, depending on the historical circumstances of each country and the geographic and edaphoclimatic conditions1. Therefore, on the basis of the various experiences of agrarian reform that have taken place around the world, we can put them together and classify them into different types of agrarian reform: a) classical; b) anti-colonial; c) radical; d) popular; e) partial or moderate; f) national liberation; g) socialist. In addition to these, the debate also includes rural settlement policies and colonization projects.

Classical agrarian reform

This refers to those government programs for the expropriation and massive distribution of land that occurred during the process considered as “classic” industrialization. This type of agrarian reform was the first carried out by the bourgeois state. Its main characteristic is that these reforms were made with legislation applied by the governments of the industrial bourgeoisie. The main objective of these governments was to apply republican and democratic law to guarantee all citizens access to land and also to develop the internal market for industry, with the distribution of land and income to peasants who had been deprived of property until then.

In general, all classical agrarian reform experiences were massive and broad. That is, they established a maximum size limit for rural property and expropriated all land above that limit. On the other hand, they sought to distribute and serve peasant families who wanted to work on the land. This type of agrarian reform is also characterized by its rapid implementation over a certain period of time, generally three to five years. From the political point of view, its implementation represented an alliance between the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie and the peasants against the interests of the rural oligarchy, which concentrated land ownership.

Classical land reforms began in the industrialized countries of Western Europe in the middle of the 19th century and lasted until after World War II. The Land Act of Abraham Lincoln’s administration, enacted in the midst of the Civil War in 1862, can also be considered a classic land reform. This law guaranteed every citizen living in the United States the right to access 100 acres of land (the equivalent of about 80 hectares). No more and no less. And that was enforced by the citizens themselves. The aim was to break the economic power of the southern slaveholding estates and to seek an equitable distribution of land in the western agricultural frontier, expropriated from indigenous peoples through their removal or confinement to reservations. Despite its origin, this law benefited more than 6 million farm families from 1862 to 1910. It distributed more than 300 million hectares of land.

Agrarian reform book

Between World War I and World War II, some twenty Eastern European countries enforced land reform laws through local bourgeois governments that distributed land to peasants. In this case, it is suspected that the main motivation was not the development of the domestic market, as these were countries with low industrialization, but the fear that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would spread to neighboring countries.

After World War II, the US interventionist military forces promoted land reform laws in some Asian countries that they invaded and controlled during the war. And so, under manu militari, extensive land reforms were carried out in Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan Province of China, which being an island was protected by the US military from the Maoist People’s Revolution. After 1956, land reform also took place in South Korea.

Anti-colonial land reform

During the processes of political independence of the Latin American colonies there were also some experiences of agrarian reform. They were promoted in the context of a new political order of nationalist vocation that tried to expropriate the lands of the subaltern landowners to the metropolis, distributing them among the local landless peasants. The largest of all such experiences was Haiti, which began in 1804. It was very important for the Haitian population, as it combined the liberation of slavery from the French political yoke with the establishment of the republic and the massive distribution of land to the people to peasants and former slaves.

In Paraguay, during the republican government of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, there was also an attempt at Agrarian Reform, with the distribution of land to peasants of Guaraní origin, but in a limited way.

In Uruguay, during the government of José Artigas, since 1815, there was also an attempt, even more limited, to distribute land to Creole peasants on the lands of Spanish ranchers.

Radical Agrarian Reforms

Characterized by the attempt to eradicate the large estates and distribute the land by the peasants themselves. These processes have excluded the need for the bourgeois state to create agrarian reform laws, which take place in the midst of broader popular revolts.

The first historical example of radical land reform is that of the Mexican Revolution, which took place from 1910 to 1920, when the peasants, led by “Pancho” Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south, armed themselves and under the slogan “Land for those who work it” distributed the land among themselves, expelling or shooting the landowners. Even with the Mexican Revolution defeated and its leaders assassinated, the national bourgeoisie that finally took power had to respect the distribution of land that had been made without the law and without the government of the State.

The second experience is the Popular Revolution in Bolivia, between 1952 and 1954, when, repeating the Mexican case, the peasants took up arms and marched on the capital, La Paz, imposed a revolutionary government and in the process expropriated all the large properties and distributed them among themselves, without law and without the power of the State. In this case, history repeated itself. The revolution was defeated, the peasants returned to their communities, but the new power respected the land distribution made during the process.

Popular Agrarian Reform

It consists of the massive distribution of land to the peasants in the context of the processes of change of power in which an alliance was formed between popular, nationalist and peasant governments. These processes resulted in progressive and popular agrarian reform laws, implemented by combining state action with the collaboration of peasant movements.

Where this type of agrarian reform took place, it did not necessarily affect the capitalist system and its extension was related to the processes of social, economic and political change in each country. Some of these reforms have had results that continue to this day, others have been defeated and the expropriated large landowners have recovered their lands.

There are many examples of this type of agrarian reform. Here we cite only the most notorious or influential cases in other countries and governments. The most important experience of popular land reform was that which occurred during the process of the Chinese Revolution from 1930 to 1950. As the Red Army and the Communist Party liberated territories, land distribution processes were also applied, which united the power of the people’s revolutionary government with the peasants, who were also involved in the Red Army. The main objective was to secure land for all peasants living in rural villages, the basis of the social organization of the Chinese hinterland, and through it to eliminate the rent paid to landowners and create conditions for food production for all.

In the 1950s there were experiences of popular land reform on the banks of the Nile, during the Nasser government in Egypt; and in northern Vietnam, in the areas liberated from the French. There was also an attempt at agrarian reform in Guatemala during the short term government of Jacobo Arbenz (1951-1954).

Then, in the 1960s, we had the best known experiences of Cuba, which throughout its history made three Agrarian Reforms of different nature and extent but the first one, shortly after the 1959 Revolution, was essentially of a popular nature. The other more recent experience was that of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua between 1979 and 1989, which also developed a popular agrarian reform process.

Partial or moderate agrarian reform

Immediately after World War II, with the effervescence of the class struggle and the resurgence of revolutionary movements in several countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, local governments of a bourgeois nature and imperialist allies were forced to implement land reform policies. However, these were generally not of a massive and comprehensive character, since these governments were also composed of rural oligarchies.

The Kennedy administration in the United States, during the 1960s, even pressured its conservative allies to implement land reform policies as a way of containing the momentum for change in the continent. His administration proposed the need for classical land reform at a famous conference held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1961, believing that, with the majority of the population being rural, land reform could produce reforms that would prevent more radical changes, as had recently occurred in Cuba.

At this conference, the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Sciences (IICA), based in Costa Rica, was created to support these processes. Thus, there were some attempts at agrarian reform in some countries, but they were partial, without reaching the majority of landowners, and few peasant families benefited.

These experiences include several cases of agrarian reform that occurred in Latin America in the period 1964-1970, such as in Chile during the government of Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), in Peru during the military government of Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) and in Ecuador (1963-1966) and Honduras (1963-1980), governed by the military junta. The Mexican agrarian reform carried out during the government of General Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) had a certain breadth; it was administered by the progressive government, but it was not able to attend to all landless peasant families.

Agrarian Reform of National Liberation

Experiences that took place basically in African countries, since the 1960s, during the process of struggle for independence and decolonization. In the context of these victories, most governments seized used land, “owned” by European settlers, usually white capitalist farmers. These lands were distributed in various ways to communities and tribal leaders. In some cases, more democratic criteria were followed, which sought to satisfy all the peasants who wanted land.

The most significant cases were the national liberation and land distribution processes in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Libya and Algeria. However, there were also national liberation processes in which, after independence, the new rulers made deals with white capitalist farmers and did not distribute land to the peasants, as happened in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Socialist Agrarian Reform

Carried out in several countries in the context of revolutionary processes that also sought the overcoming of capitalism and the construction of the socialist mode of production.

Socialist agrarian reforms are based on the principle that land belongs to the whole nation. Therefore, there can be no private ownership of land, no buying and selling of land. And the State organizes the various forms of land use and social ownership. The most widely adopted social forms of use and ownership were grassroots associations in small groups of families, self-managed social enterprises, production cooperatives and state enterprises. Each country, according to its objective and subjective conditions, had the predominance of one or another form of social ownership.

In the processes of socialist agrarian reform, production was planned by the State according to the needs of the whole society and induced to be applied by the different forms of production and land organization.

The best known cases of this type of agrarian reform were the experiences in Russia, especially under the government of Josef Stalin (1924-1953), but there were also experiences in Yugoslavia, North Korea, East Germany, Ukraine and other countries of the so-called “Soviet bloc”.

China attempted socialist land reform during the Cultural Revolution period of the 1960s, but was unsuccessful; then, in the 1980s, the country returned to its origins with the people’s land reform. Cuba also attempted to move toward socialist agrarian reform since 1975, stimulating new collective forces of production and increasing the weight of state enterprises in the countryside, especially in sugar cane production; however, after the 1989 crisis, it returned to the previous processes of popular agrarian reform.

Rural settlement policy

These are those government programs that seek to distribute land to peasant families, using the expropriation or purchase of land from farmers. However, they are limited in scope and do not affect the structure of land ownership. They are partial policies that serve peasants but are not massive, so they work more to solve localized social problems or to meet the demands of mobilized populations that put political pressure on the government.

The U.S. government, in particular, has encouraged this policy in many countries through World Bank actions and resources, which help finance the purchase of land by farmers. The World Bank programs became known as land credit, Land Bank, and so on, and have been applied in the countries with the highest tension in land disputes, such as Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia, and Indonesia.

Colonization projects

In several sparsely populated countries and where there are large areas available that are still in the public domain or state ownership, programs have been established to distribute these lands for the use of farmers. The lands are public, there is still no private ownership, they are uninhabited or governments often appropriate them from native populations, indigenous peoples who lived there since time immemorial. This is what happened, for example, in the distribution of land in the western United States between 1862 and 1910, and what happens in Brazil to this day, with the distribution of public lands in the Legal Amazon, in colonization projects.

Many governments established programs to distribute these still unproductive areas of land to farmers, turning them into private owners and settlers of frontier agricultural regions. The distribution of this land constitutes colonization projects, which do not affect the latifundia and land ownership structure. Agrarian reform programs involve the democratization of access to land and the elimination of latifundia.

 

Source: alai