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Access to land as a basis for socio-economic empowerment

Rural poverty is strongly associated with poor access to land, either in the form of landlessness or because of insecure and contested land rights. Economic analysis has long recognized the importance of secure property rights for growth, and therefore for the poverty reduction which growth can bring. Increased land access for the poor can also bring direct


benefits of poverty alleviation, not least by contributing directly to increased household food security. In countries where agriculture is a main economic activity, access to land is a fundamental means whereby the poor can ensure household food supplies and generate income. This applies both to societies in which subsistence agriculture is prevalent, where access to land is the sine qua non of household food security; and to societies where agriculture is more market-oriented, in which family farming provides a principal source of employment generating the income with which to buy food. Even where agriculture and land are becoming less important with the growth of alternative sources of income, secure land rights provide a valuable source of income for investment, retirement or security in case of unemployment. In many countries, of course, and particularly where water for agricultural use is a relatively scarce resource, these statements also ho

ld true in relation to secure access to water, including where it is in conjunction with access to land. Secure rights to land are also a basis for shelter, for access to services and for civic and political participation. They are also a source of financial security, as collateral to raise credit or as a transferable asset that can be sold, rented out, mortgaged, loaned or bequeathed. Moreover, secure access to land creates incentives for the user to invest labour and other resources in it, so as to maintain or enhance its value and sustain its productivity, and to access social and economic development opportunities. In addition, research has documented a positive relationship between equitably distributed land and economic growth (Deininger & Squire 1998). While history provides examples of countries that have developed with very unequal land distributions (see for instance the industrial revolution that took place in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries), research shows that, over the period 1960 2000, countries with a more egalitarian distribution of land tended to be characterized by higher levels of economic growth (Deininger 2003). More egalitarian land distributions are also associated with greater social peace and cohesion. Where land rights are highly concentrated, inequalities may spawn a sense of injustice, entailing risks of land occupations and even violent clashes over land. The experience of several East Asian countries (South Korea, Taiwan) shows how a reform resulting in more equitable land distribution is fundamental in creating the basis for sustained economic development.

The relationship between access to land and poverty reduction cannot be seen in isolation from broader agricultural and economic policy. Equally, these issues are intimately connected with rural development policies and environmental outcomes. The distribution of land rights and opportunities for access to land will have implications for the distribution of wealth, rates of economic growth and the incidence of poverty, and the shape and direction of agricultural development will affect the incomes and returns from different types of farming activity, the value of land and demands for access to land resources (Cotula et al 2004). The incentives and tenure structures that largely determine how land is used will profoundly affect environmental impacts and sustainability.Discussions on access to land should be placed in the context of the debate on agricultural modernization that is taking place in many parts of the world. Broadly speaking, two models of agricultural development are competing in the market for policy ideas. On the one hand, a commonly held view calls for the promotion of agribusiness as a way to attract private capital and increase agricultural productivity. On the other, family farming remains the backbone of rural livelihoods in many parts of the developing world, and has been shown to be dynamic, responsive to change, and an important source of investment in agriculture, such as West Africa (Toulmin & Guèye 2003). Elsewhere, as in Latin America, capital-intensive and family farmingcentred models co-exist, although research, development and extension support tend to be heavily concentrated on the commercial sector. Whereas social justice and equity concerns demand that agrarian strategy support the struggles of poor people for access to land as a means of subsistence and livelihood, some critics argue that smallholder farming is inefficient and that the rural poor would be better off leaving the land and finding employment in the modern economy whether in commercial farms or in the non-farm sector (Box 1). In practice, family farming competes with commercial demands for land and, given the context of increasingly globalized markets, sustaining rural livelihoods for smallholder farmers will depend on their continued modernization, with support from policy and resources to strengthen capacity and access to markets.Ultimately, the choice between large and smallholder farming systems is a question of politics as much as of economics. With the right kind of policy environment and availability of the appropriate services and infrastructure, small-scale farming systems can be at least as productive per hectare as large commercial farms, and also provide a decent living standard through assured access to local and global markets. The latter will depend not just on national policies but in large measure on the outcome of international trade negotiations such as in the context of WTO and EPA, and on the degree to which food aid will be decoupled from disposal of food surpluses, for example. In any case, smallholders must have their property rights secured and protected. This would provide collateral to obtain seasonal or longer-term credit for investment in productivity-enhancing changes or selection of an optimal time to sell the produce; enable them to safely rent out part of the land or rent in other land; or in the last resort provide the option to sell their land and harness the proceeds to develop new livelihood opportunities. Social, ethical, cultural and environmental considerations, as well as the internalization of externalities of agricultural production need to be considered in this equation.


One Comment

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