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Expérience récente de la FAO en matière de réforme agraire et de régime foncier

Le présent document a pour but de résumer brièvement l'expérience de la FAO et les activités les plus pertinentes de son programme en matière de réforme agraire. Le type de réforme agraire qui envisage la redistribution des terres des riches aux pauvres par des mesures de confiscation ou de préemption appartient au passé. Cela ne signifie pas toutefois que les Etats Membres aient renoncé à chercher le moyen d'améliorer l'accès aux ressources productives (terres, eau, etc.) comme clé de voûte de leur politique de développement rural. On constate en effet une demande croissante d'assistance des Etats Membres de la FAO qui cherchent le moyen de réaliser les objectifs de développement rural de la réforme agraire dans le cadre d'une libéralisation politique et économique. La FAO veille donc à établir un réseau efficace en la matière dans le cadre des activités de développement entreprises pour donner suite au Sommet mondial de l'alimentation.

Experiencias recientes de la FAO en relación con la reforma agraria y la tenencia de la tierra

Este artículo sintetiza la experiencia de la FAO en el sector de la reforma agraria, así como las actividades de su programa actual que revisten mayor interés al respecto. Ya pertenece al pasado el tipo de reforma agraria que recurría, para la redistribución de las tierras entre ricos y pobres, a confiscaciones o a adquisiciones con derecho de prioridad. Sin embargo, esto no quita que los países miembros sigan buscando la manera de mejorar el acceso a los recursos productivos (tierra, agua, etc.) como piedra angular de sus políticas de desarrollo rural; actualmente va en aumento su demanda de asistencia para explorar las posibles maneras de alcanzar los objetivos de desarrollo rural de la reforma agraria dentro del marco normativo de la liberalización económica y política. Por consiguiente, la FAO asigna gran importancia al establecimiento de una red eficiente como parte de su labor de formulación de programas para las actividades complementarias de la Cumbre Mundial sobre la Alimentación.

Recent FAO experiences in land
reform and land tenure

Adriana Herrera
Jim Riddell
Paolo Toselli

Land Tenure Officer; Chief, Land Tenure Service; and Project Assistant
Land Tenure Service, FAO

This article provides a brief summary of FAO's experience in agrarian reform and the most relevant activities of the current programme related to this field. It argues that the type of agrarian reform that considers the redistribution of land from the rich to the poor either through confiscation or through pre-emptive buyouts belongs to the past. However, this does not mean that Member Nations have stopped seeking ways to improve access to productive resources (land, water, etc.) as a cornerstone to their rural development policy. Indeed, there is now an increasing demand from Member Nations for assistance in exploring ways of accomplishing the rural development goals of agrarian reform within the policy framework of economic and political liberalization. Therefore, FAO gives great importance to establishing an efficient network on the subject as part of its programme development in follow-up activities to the World Food Summit.


Modern concepts of agrarian and land reform probably have their most direct heritage in the agrarian transformation that began in Denmark in the late 1700s. Building on the ideas that were emerging, especially in Britain but also in France and Germany, reformers such as the Counts of Bernstorff and Reventlow initiated a programme of consolidating their peasants' fields, introducing new technology and selling the land to their peasants (Skovgaard, 1950).1 Important for our current purpose is the observation that the framers of this reform also recognized that peasants-turned-landowners stood little chance of success without institutional protection. Thus, legal reforms were implemented, land was surveyed and registered and a valuation was done, so new owners knew what they had in terms of the market of the day, and credit banks were established (Skrubbeltrang, 1950). One last point to be emphasized is that the process also depended on the emerging cooperative movement to provide the economies of scale necessary for Danish smallholders to move from indentured servants of 1770 to prosperous farmers of 1870. This characterized the transformation of the Baltics, parts of Germany and indeed served as the model for European land reform before the Second World War (Skrubbeltrang, 1950, part II; Riddell, 1995).

The Russian revolution in 1917 and a variety of national socialist as well as populist regimes between the First and the Second World Wars moved the ideology of agrarian reform in the Western world from a liberal economic process to a state-engineered way to redistribute land and achieve equity in rural areas. This, in fact, became the main mechanism whereby an "entrenched" powerful landlord class was unwilling to support and participate in land tenure reform.2 Most of the land reforms in Latin America, Asia and the Near East were derived from this model. Therefore, at the founding of FAO in 1945, land reform was seen as one of the main tools for achieving rural transformation and agricultural development. It was also considered that the state rather than the market determined redistribution of land (UN, 1951; Shearer and Barbero, 1996).

In this light it is not at all surprising that the 1945 Quebec Conference that founded FAO stated: "Recourse to land reform may be necessary to remove impediments to economic and social progress resulting from an inadequate system of land tenure" (Conference of FAO, 1945; also Recommendations 7 and 8 in Annex). However, it can be seen in the Figure that it was the 1960s that witnessed the real growth in the demand by FAO's member countries for assistance in land reform,3 as reflected in the production of project documents, studies and reports.

In 1966 FAO organized in Rome the World Conference on Land Reform in order to summarize the lessons learned up to that date and to help Member Nations define priorities and needs. There was a general consensus in participating member countries that land reforms were an important measure to achieve equity and economic growth in rural areas and, in this way, they provided a strategic means of maintaining the equilibrium between the two world blocs.

Number of FAO publications on land tenure

Social and political unrest were an important feature of the 1960s and 1970s. The Viet Nam war, the Chilean and Argentinean coups d'états, and the Cuban revolution, just to name a few. As a way of providing a neutral forum to discuss agrarian reform and related, ideologically conditioned institutional issues, in 1979 FAO organized the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD). This conference approved a plan of action that would promote the following components in agrarian reform programmes (The Peasants' Charter, 1980):

Agrarian land policies can only take shape as part of a larger economic and political canvas. Accordingly, member countries' agricultural policies during the 1970s and 1980s were mainly characterized by special agricultural programmes such as price controls, subsidized agricultural services and inputs, state intervention and regulations to protect domestic markets and land immobility through agrarian reform regulations which intimidated investments. The programmes proved to be unsustainable. Thus, we enter into the current period, following the collapse of the Berlin wall with a return full circle to the marketplace to be the ultimate distributor of land (Fourth WCARRD Progress Report, 1995). The point we would like to emphasize here, however, is that this change did not come about because everyone suddenly came to their senses one day and wholeheartedly embraced structural adjustment and market-derived economic theory. Rather, almost literally, there arrived one day a notice of economic and political bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Even if we discount economic performance of the agrarian reform programmes conceived during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as social welfare costs for the rural populations, they still have proved unsuccessful. Rather than reduce rural poverty, they generally resulted in shared rural poverty. Subsidized services and inputs that were part of agrarian reform programmes far too seldom benefited agrarian reform beneficiaries. Political support for land redistribution was seldom obtained. The economic costs of land distribution and land regularization were too high; and security of tenure was not provided owing to inadequate (or non-existent) land cadastre and land registration programmes (see, for instance, Gordillo, de Janvry and Sadoulet, in press). That is, agrarian reform requires accompanying development of the capacity among the reform beneficiaries for capital accumulation in terms of human capital (education, training) and social capital (civil society associations) as well as productive capital. Along with this, they must also have full access to national legal, political and economic (markets, input, etc.) institutions (see Gordillo, 1996).


With the adoption of structural adjustment measures, and in the context of political and economic liberalization following the collapse of the "statist", centrally planned and socialist political economy at the end of the 1980s, the role of the state is being redefined in member countries. In the agricultural sector this is manifested by the reduction of state participation in the provision of agricultural services, removing protection of rural markets and price controls as well as the elimination of subsidies. At the same time, market liberalization policies call for the development of a more efficient and competitive agriculture, and thus a more secure situation in relation to access to resources and sustainable use.

A new agrarian reform in this framework has to envisage both the need to fulfil the institutional vacuum left by the reduction of state participation, and the need to develop efficient and productive agricultural alternatives to rural producers for a competitive market. In this respect, land reform would involve the development of a comprehensive institutional framework that ensures rights and security.

The reform and creation of public and private institutions

Collaborating with academic research and other international organizations, FAO's working findings indicate that civil society participation should be enhanced as a way to fulfil the institutional vacuum left by the reduction of the role of the state. FAO's long-term involvement in agrarian reform experiences, and the lessons learned from the past demonstrate that land reform approaches nowadays should not just target landless groups, but the reforms should become an instrument to strengthen economic and productive potentialities of agricultural producers that have been constrained by land tenure arrangements and institutional dysfunction.

Therefore, it should be a priority for land reforms to remove obstacles that discourage or inhibit farmers' investment on their land. A comprehensive set of rules and a legal framework, as well as the clarification of individual rights, land regularization and land titling, would be important mechanisms to ensure security to favour producers' investment in the agricultural sector.

Land tenure and legal reforms must respect and reflect the immense diversity of land transactions that take place in the rural sector. Farmers must have access to a wide range of land tenure options that could allow them to respond strategically and effectively to changing conditions, opportunities and external environmental constraints. It would be in the interest of governments to develop and consolidate strong alliances within social groups to support reforms. The creation of institutions to favour coalitions and the participation of rural producers and target groups would be important mechanisms to create alliances and favour consensus.

The Mozambique Technical Cooperation Programme

The population of Mozambique is now around 17.4 million, and growing at 2.8 percent per annum (expected to reach 20 million by the year 2000). Around 60 percent of Mozambicans live in a 50-km wide strip along the coast. Some 75 percent live in rural areas, 90 percent of whom live on small farms using mostly family labour which, despite their size and low technology, account for some 50 percent of gross national product (GNP) and a high share of exports.

Secure access to land and natural resources for all Mozambicans is an essential element for the national agricultural programme, and a precondition for stimulating the productivity of small rural producers. Market reforms and peace have produced a dramatic surge in national and foreign private investors' interest in land and natural resources, creating a high potential for conflict between different forms of use, and between investors and local people.
The Government of Mozambique has become increasingly aware of the need to develop a new approach to land issues. It has followed two separate paths: addressing questions of a more political nature by creating a series of commissions since 1992; and implementing a range of projects and programmes addressing purely technical issues through more permanent public institutions.
In 1992, the government created the Ad Hoc Land Commission within the Ministry of Agriculture that prepared a new land policy and. on 12 September 1995, the Council of Ministers unanimously approved the new National Land Policy:

  • to create a modern legal and administrative system which can secure the diverse rights of the Mozambican people over land and other natural resources, while promoting new investment and the sustainable and equitable use of these resources to achieve broader goals of social and economic development.

The government's effort to resolve the problem includes various institutions. Therefore, it has been presented a National Land Programme, which is an integrated programme prepared by the Land Commission. The effort must be adequately coordinated among the government institutions and donors to avoid interference and duplication of actions.
FAO Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) projects have supported the Land Commission, providing an international team (socio-economist, agro-economist and legal specialist) and consultants to work in the Land Commission as well as essential equipment.
The TCP team assisted in drafting the National Land Policy. It has also helped to establish a "programme approach" for Land Commission activities, according to which donor resources are managed within a single budget framework supporting a national programme with a single set of priorities and objectives. A necessary condition for this approach is an open, collaborative programming environment. The TCP team has promoted dialogue between different groups working on land issues, and striven to achieve a transparent and collaborative approach between donors supporting the land issue.
The TCP also supported an Open Seminar Series in which individuals or institutions working on land issues were invited to present papers. The seminars promoted the discussion of key technical issues and generated new ideas to enrich the legal review; while also stimulating the collaboration of NGOs and the universities. In addition, the TCP has opened up discussions on key questions that are central to the implementation of all land laws.
The TCP process has also focused attention on the need to bring other institutions not previously involved in Land Commission activities into the "land question". These include the Land Registries in the Ministry of Justice, and elements of the judicial and legal supervision process, such as the Tribunal system and the Office of the Attorney-General.
FAO is still supporting the Government of Mozambique in its efforts to implement the National Land Policy approved in September 1995 and, through the programme approach strategy, it has been possible to integrate and coordinate donor inputs.
Participants in the project are: the Ford Foundation; the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC); USAID/University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center (LTC); the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)/Swedesurvey; the World Bank; UNDP; and the Netherlands.

Improving land valuation and taxation systems. In a democratic society and liberalized market economy, taxation is one of the most powerful policy tools available to government in support of land planning and management. In this regard, most tax policy experts favour leaving land and other property taxation as a revenue source for local government. This is so for several very important reasons. First, although the sums collected are minimal from a national perspective, they are usually significant from the perspective of local and municipal governments. Second, the local use of property tax revenue creates an incentive for keeping good local records at the parcel level, reducing national administrative expenses and overheads. Third, this approach creates a mechanism by which the local community can take a proactive role in implementing environmentally sound, sustainable land policy, since decisions on who and where to tax, and at which rate, are made at the local level.

Land valuation and taxation is a complex issue in its own right, and is made all the more complex by the self-interest of all parties either to collect as much as possible, on the one hand, or to avoid paying as much as possible, on the other. An effective land taxation policy has always to walk a very fine line of efficiently collecting revenue while not discouraging investment.

Reforming the cadastre and modernizing the land record system. Because the valuation of property for a land tax needs to be done on each parcel and because of the legal implications for non-payment, careful, detailed and precise records must be kept. Hence the government realizes that it needs cadastre reform. The cadastral system is old and of questionable precision, but it is accepted by landowners and buyers. The modernization of the system, therefore, need not entail a wholesale replacement of existing data but, instead, should focus on verifying and updating such data.

Modernizing and integrating the collection, management and dissemination of land information. The absence of a coherent strategy concerning spatial data is a condition that has seriously hampered the efforts of many countries around the world as they have tried to deal with the demands and opportunities presented by the information age. A common symptom of this condition is that virtually every government organization wants to automate its data, to sell this data and to support other users. Consequently, data are frequently collected without any clear relationship to the collecting organization's function or responsibilities. This often leads to bloated, non-effective databases that are of marginal use, overly expensive to maintain and duplicative of one another.

To avoid the inevitable confusion and concerns that are evolving over roles and responsibilities within this domain, some countries have taken steps to rationalize policy regarding the production and management of spatial data. It is a matter of high priority to develop a comprehensive and coordinated environment for the production, management, dissemination and use of geospatial data.4 The governments recognize that digital spatial data collected by various producers can be integrated into a national coverage and that, in an environment of collaborative data production, there is the potential to satisfy today's requirements for current, accurate geospatial data. Adequate policies therefore need to be developed concerning the data to be collected and the institutions that are to be responsible for collection - in other words, policies that address the questions of what data are to be collected by whom, for what purposes and how?

Development of a networked, distributed enterprise requires new relationships and partnerships among different levels of government and between public and private entities. To this end, there are two areas that require special attention.

The first area concerns the development of standards. Standards are essential for data collection, content, presentation, organization and management to facilitate data sharing. Standardization is required in data models, data content, feature delineation, data collection, geo-referencing, indirect positioning, data quality, metadata and data transfer and exchange. Effective spatial data standards are necessary for any efforts in collaborative data production. Standards will increase the ability to share spatial data and preserve its original meaning, to create more complex applications and to stimulate the commerce associated with GIS technology and spatial data.

The second area concerns facilitating access to data, with the goal of minimizing duplication and assisting partnerships for data production where common needs exist. This could be done through the development of a national geospatial data clearinghouse based on the use of metadata to describe data sets, lntemist, and search and query software such as Wide Area Information Service (WAIS) for use on the Internet. The establishment of pilot projects in the above themes could help develop standards, identity institutional issues and provide the foundation for programmatic changes and funding proposals for the framework.

Ensuring a favourable legislative framework. Reform in the areas of land valuation, taxation, cadastre and land registration, for example, will all necessitate review and perhaps modification of existing laws.

As an increasing number of countries are coming to realize, the application of new technologies to the surveying and registration of land, as well as to the collecting, sharing and disseminating of spatial information, all present new and relatively unfamiliar challenges to existing legal regimes. Areas such as intellectual property rights, evidence, interagency administrative law, etc., are all likely to be implicated. In addition, legal institutions and professionals are themselves users of land information, and their needs and perspectives need to be taken into account in the design of viable systems.

Finally, there are many laws whose relationship to one of the above areas is indirect, but nevertheless significant. Laws, for instance, which affect the operation of land markets generally should be reviewed as part of the process of reform in the areas of taxation, cadastre and land information.

The Slovenian case

Eighty-five percent of Slovenia's agricultural land is privately owned and about 15 percent is still in state farms and enterprises. Most of the agricultural units are family farms, with an average size of 4 to 5 ha. In approximately 60 percent of these cases, farming activities are hampered by poor capital formation, lack of inputs and technology and a mountainous environment. Land fragmentation is also placing serious constraints on production, and the possibility of creating larger and more economic parcels through land consolidation is currently foreclosed owing to unfavourable legislation and a deep-set historical suspicion of such techniques among the rural population. These problems are further aggravated by an increasing number of part-time and elderly agriculturists; only about 20 percent of all farmers are engaged in agriculture on a full-time basis, and 10 percent of all farms are populated by elderly people.
Slovenia's primary objective in the agricultural sector is to satisfy the demands of its national market. Recent years have witnessed sharp yet inconclusive fluctuations in overall agricultural production.
The Government of Slovenia realizes that significant improvement of the agricultural sector will require broad-based reform of the nation's land institutions in such a way that investment in agriculture is encouraged rather than inhibited.
The objectives of this FAO intervention is to assist the Government of Slovenia in: evaluating the country's needs in the areas of agricultural land valuation and taxation; cadastral reform and improvement of land records; the collection, sharing and dissemination of land information; and related reforms to law and legal institutions; and designing integrated technical, policy and legal strategies for addressing those needs, drawing as appropriate on the comparative experience of other FAO member countries.

The analysis of land transactions

Land market transactions. FAO member countries have been increasingly looking towards land markets as the most appropriate mechanisms for guaranteeing both a fair and equitable access to land and for maximizing the efficiency and productivity of land. In responding to requests for assistance, FAO discovered that there was little understanding of the substantive consequences of these processes of privatization and the shift towards land policies grounded in the market. That is, the theory of "what was supposed to happen" was well developed. What was lacking were empirical data, especially sociological, on why the real estate market seldom provided a mechanism for access to land and landed resources by those most in need of land. As a result, FAO has been developing a series of studies directed at developing a basic understanding of the impact of land market policies on the rural sector. It has also been asked by Member Nations to initiate technical assistance projects in this area.

Further to the work FAO has carried out on the analysis of land markets, it has also been providing technical assistance support to member countries. Through a technical assistance project in Colombia, FAO is working on the elaboration of a monitoring and evaluation system for land markets.

The request for technical assistance came from Colombia after the government had elicited the new land reform law (Law 160) in 1994. The law is aimed at the promotion of market-assisted land reform and involves the need to stimulate the participation of previous agrarian reform target beneficiaries in land purchase negotiations. It stipulates a 70 percent direct subsidy on the total value of the land to facilitate beneficiaries' acquisitions. Technical support and government assistance are foreseen as being necessary, both for the beneficiaries' negotiation procedures and for the cultivation of the land in a more productive and efficient way. A new institutional setup is also envisaged by the law. This will insure both coordination and complementary activities that will facilitate the law's successful implementation.

In order to be able to monitor and evaluate the application of the law, the Colombian National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA) requested FAO's technical assistance in the elaboration of a monitoring and evaluation system for their land market programme. At present, FAO is elaborating a system that will provide a continuous flow of information that will allow INCORA to identify the characteristics of the potential beneficiaries of the programme; prioritize target groups and rural zones for the programme application; identify the status of the land market processes by regions, a better elaboration of the institutional working programes and an efficient use of institutional resources. Through the evaluation system, INCORA will be in a position to appraise the effects and impacts of the land market programme development in terms of the targeted beneficiary groups.

Land transactions in Tunisia

In Tunisia agricultural land is classified as: productive agricultural land (cereal growing, plantation, irrigated and pasture land), forest and uncultivated land, representing 44 percent of the national territory.
Land transactions in the country are both formal and informal. On the one hand, there is an institutionalized system developed by the government and subject to strict, well-defined procedures. On the other hand, there is an informal system that is commonly accepted by the majority of land users and functions outside legal and administrative constraints.
In this context, FAO carried out a study to analyse the situation and characteristics of rural land transactions in Tunisia in order to provide a better view of the type of transactions, their socio-economic costs and benefits and the main participants.
The research analysis considered a variety of aspects, including: the type of transaction involving registered land; the place where the land transactions are registered by individuals and the title deed required;
the number of official title deeds or registered documents for each district; the role and the status of transaction of the Sharia (traditional Islamic law) in real estate ownership; the charges normally involved in purchasing rural land.
The FAO recommendations supported a government initiative to set up a single legal, administrative and technical agency that would give efficiency and security to land transactions.

The dynamic differences between land markets in Ecuador

Land markets in Ecuador have been studied on a regional comparative perspective. The study that FAO carried out in Ecuador analysed the characteristics of land markets in two of the three regions of the country, the coast and the highlands.
The coast is a productive agricultural area where export crops such as cacao, banana and sugar cane have been cultivated since the colonial period. The highlands, where many of the Indian communities are settled, have less productive land, and agriculture is based on traditional food crops.
The results of the study demonstrated that land transactions (both purchase and disposal) in the more traditional and subsistence sectors of the regions, particularly in the highlands, only take place with people who are known and accepted by the community. For these peasant groups, land possesses both a social and economic meaning. On the one hand, land is considered an asset that allows them to assure their economic subsistence. On the other hand, it is a source of social and economic recognition in the community. Land transactions in these groups are usually controlled by the peasants themselves, are informal and usually involve few or no transaction costs. In general, the peasants prefer to rent or to sharecrop their land instead of selling it.
In the more economically dynamic zones where export crops are cultivated, such as the coast, the land markets are open. Land transactions are usually registered, and the participants do not have to have the social acceptance of the group where land is located. Analysing the data of both regions, the coast and the highlands, the study found that land markets become more open and dynamic when land prices rise because of increases in technology, changes in agricultural activity (a shift, for example, to export crop cultivation), infrastructure improvements or changes in land use (from rural to urban, or for tourism purposes).

Land transactions through leases. FAO has initiated a multiyear analysis of land leases as an arrangement in the private sector for granting terminable interests in land. There is widespread experience in a very large number of countries that shows that statutory restrictions that override the freedom of landowners and tenants to negotiate the terms of the lease freely often lead to a general reluctance of landowners to enter into new leases and, over a period of time, reduce access to land. This is certainly so if the balance in the statutory restriction is weighted too much in the favour of tenants.

The present tendency is to recommend the removal of all restrictions on new lettings. It is suggested that, in agriculture, there are disadvantages in leaving such matters entirely to the unregulated effects of the market. A tenant of agricultural land without security will tend to take what he or she can from the holding without regard to the long-term maintenance of the land. Such circumstances do not encourage sustainable development.

There are less well-known tenancy regimes, however, where there are restrictions on, or regularization of, the landowner-tenant relationship that do work well. Therefore, it is possible to devise correct arrangements that balance the interests of landowner and the tenants and that can improve access to farmland and lead to better agricultural production and improved stewardship of land.

The analysis of traditional tenure and farming systems

In recent years many researchers and policy-makers have noted that post-colonial land and resource management policies did not favour sustainable resource management or agricultural development. Generally, it has been established that there is a need to change existing legislation to accommodate customary rights and a greater participation of local communities.

As a result, many Sahelian states define and recognize "traditional" ownership rights and encourage local participation in resource management.

An FAO project still in progress in the Niger represents an interesting field experience in customary land tenure application (see Box on p. 62).

In the Philippines, FAO has been supporting the agrarian reform process since 1987 within the framework of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP). For agrarian reform in the Philippines, the conservation of the environment and the respect of traditional land rights of indigenous communities are fundamental.

In this perspective, FAO initiated a project in 1987 aimed at the enhancement and consolidation of the participation of peasants' organizations in the distributive land reform processes. Training has been the main tool for reinforcing and consolidating such participation in the implementation of the agrarian reform policies and in the sustainable use and management of the acquired land.

A second FAO project dealing with the participation of indigenous communities in the agrarian reform programmes was initiated in 1995. The project's objectives are to facilitate indigenous groups' participation in the formulation of development plans for their own communities and in the elaboration of improved measures for land use and tenure arrangements. The project aims finally to promote indigenous groups' participation in the identification and formulation of investment project proposals for external donor funding.

Producers' participation in the formulation of land reform mechanisms: the Argentine Land Fund

The participation of the producers in the formulation of new ways for an efficient use of land is one of the aims of the FAO project in the Argentine province of Chaco.
Owing to the decrease of tobacco prices and the elimination of government subsidies on the production of this crop, the tobacco cooperatives, which are members of the Intercooperative Agricultural Confederation (CONINAGRO), organized a seminar to discuss how to reconvert the cooperative's production structure in order to face the new situation and address the new market needs.
The cooperative members decided that the reconversion of the cooperative would need an investment programme that would allow them to shift from tobacco production into more lucrative crops that could be sold better both in national and international markets. The reconversion would take advantage of the now booming market of intermediate cities which is emerging along the axis that joins São Paulo (Brazil), Montevideo (Uruguay) and Buenos Aires (Argentina) as a result of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR).
In this way, with the support of the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture, the technical assistance of FAO and the willingness of banks to finance the initiative, a programme was prepared consisting of three project components for the reconversion of the cooperative: a land fund to finance land purchases; another project for training and technical assistance purposes; and a third component on the decentralization of the cooperative's management structure.
The land fund project has been envisaged as a way to enable farmers to acquire more land to enlarge their plots and accommodate the shifts in crop production that the cooperative is considering. It will also serve to finance the regularization of members' lands, which are not yet regularized, and this will provide security of tenure for future investments. This particular project is considered the main component of the programme and is the means by which the farmers hope to obtain more land and security of tenure.


The Rural Code in the Niger

The Niger's most recent land reform effort is the new Rural Code, which recognizes and empowers customary land tenure practices and institutions. The Code's objective is to establish a national-level legal and institutional framework for increasing local participation in resource management. It recognizes customary ownership rights and incorporates local tenure and land management systems.
Considering customary tenure systems as a proper base for development, the Rural Code allows remarkable flexibility in dealing with land tenure matters without shifting away from the security of tenure that these systems offer.
Taking this framework into account, FAO and the people of the Niger have been developing an integrated approach to the management of resources on a community basis. This approach, referred to as the "Gestion des terroirs", recognizes the rural communities' resources and traditions (e.g. customary tenure systems) and uses people's participation in the formulation of the communities' own resource management systems. "Gestion des terroirs" is an answer to a fundamental question, how to insure the management of the resources in a way that ensures sustainable development, while involving the people in the necessary decision-making processes.

Land tenure and pastoralism. According to some estimates, pastoralists, i.e. populations from whom livestock herding on open rangeland is the dominant activity, may not exceed 40 million people worldwide. The importance of pastoralism is in its use of an extremely large number of relatively fragile ecosystems. Intensive research over the last 20 years has clearly demonstrated that pastoralists have traditionally used the existing natural resources in sustainable systems while giving due consideration to regeneration and protection, contrary to arguments along the lines of the "tragedy of the commons". An important point in light of the recent World Food Summit is that the land used by pastoralists cannot stand continuous cultivation without resulting in ecological degradation.

One key question in pastoral development is the interaction between the political and bureaucratic structures of the state, on the one hand, and the nomadic pastoral population, on the other. Unclear tenure arrangements for their land is one of the problems facing pastoralists nowadays; in many cases government policies have given little attention to traditional forms of land tenure. FAO has undertaken studies on customary and formal land tenure systems and offers related policy advice to governments. In this context, the Organization has been analysing the impacts of transition in pastoral communities of Central Asia.

The breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s threw most Central Asian countries into a deep economic crisis. Among those most affected were people involved in pastoral production systems, as the collapse of state-driven supply and rural service systems created an "institutional vacuum" which privatization efforts have failed to fill.

This was one of the findings that emerged from "Trends in Pastoral Development in Central Asia", a study carried out by Mongolia's Research and Teaching Institute of Animal Husbandry (RTIAH) in collaboration with FAO's Rural Development Division (SDA). The study examines recent developments - with a focus on the process of privatization - in pastoral livestock subsectors of Buryat, Inner Mongolia, Kalmyk, Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and Mongolia. It shows that, in the initial phase after privatization, land reform, price liberalization and the decentralization of decision-making, the living standards of the population, including those of the herders and their families, decreased as poverty, unemployment and food insecurity increased dramatically.

The study identifies major constraints to the resolution of this crisis: the rural institutional vacuum, a lack of social safety nets to mitigate risks to herders, a lack of working capital to generate additional sources of income, and weakened terms of trade that have forced livestock producers to change the structure of production which, in turn, undermines their marketing capacity.

Gender: land tenure and demographic conditions

FAO has recently conducted studies on the links that exist between agricultural and population policies. For instance, the establishment of secure cultivation rights and the redistribution of land are influenced by demographic conditions. Similarly, demographic patterns are shaped by the rural environment, including land tenure arrangements.

Demographers have argued that certain forms of land tenure may leave families little choice other than to have more children to ensure economic security and old-age support for parents. In the case of Mexico, to give but one example, tenancy and fertility have been found to be positively related in the ejido5 system. Croplands are granted to individual families who cannot sell, lease or mortgage land. Heirs may receive rights to land but these rights may be lost if the land is not cultivated for two consecutive years. Thus, demographers have argued that the ejido system of granting land on a usufruct basis creates pronatalist incentives for women.

The FAO study, Gender, rural fertility/mortality and land tenure, offers examples of the disparity that women suffer in access to land throughout the world - the consequences of which have a direct influence on demography.

In India, daughters usually waive their land rights in favour of a brother to avoid being denounced as "selfish" and thus risk being alienated from their natal families. This often results in social pressure for women to bear as many sons as possible, as this can be their only means of security for access to land.

In the Near East, women rarely own land, and when they do, the land is often controlled or managed by male relatives until marriage, after which the titles are transferred directly to their sons.

Not only do women not have access to land but, when the security of tenure is menaced, women tend to be among the first group to lose use rights. To have a large number of children (with a preference for sons) is a rational strategy by which to improve food and tenure security and ensure old-age support.6 It is important for women to have rights to land property, and an end must be put to the unequal treatment that rural women still experience and that constrains their role as agricultural producers.


We can say in conclusion that much more is needed than agrarian reform legislation. A way must also be found to turn law into action. All the countries discussed above have more or less well-designed legislation in place. Is the lack of "law in action" the result of a lack of goodwill on the part of the legislatures that passed it? Or is it that we still lack the tools and understanding of how societies put their laws into action when it comes to massive transfers of property rights. We started this paper with the examination of one society that provided a model for several generations of agrarian reform experts. Were the designers of this reform able to implement their programme because they were somehow better endowed than our generation? Our conclusion is that so many later land reform programmes failed to achieve their goals because they failed to create the institutional and social capital of civil society necessary for creating a landowning class out of landless and disenfranchised populations.7

This article has tried to identify FAO's strengths and weaknesses in the agrarian reform process. We can see the Organization as having a comparative advantage in three areas:

  1. Knowledge of the workings of conveyancing institutions and the practices, both at the local and national level - as FAO has historically had an interest in how cadastres, registries, etc., function and are organized (Binns, 1953; Dale, 1995).
  2. Experience in the civil society support and decentralized institutional development needed to make regular contractual transactions work for small as well as large stake holders.
  3. Its focus, at the transaction level, on reducing costs and broadening flexibility.

1 In line with the purposes of this article, all the literature that is cited is limited to FAO-related documents. This does not mean that we have ignored other works, rather we want to demonstrate a continuity of development within the Organization.

2 In this regard, agrarian reforms have taken place under a variety of land tenure systems. For example, the agrarian transformation in England that so influenced early thinking was accomplished largely under leasehold reform that supported tenure security and fixed rental costs.

3Often following independence.

4 The term frequently used to describe such an environment is National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). An NSDI could be conceived to be an umbrella of policies, standards and procedures under which organizations and technologies interact to foster more efficient use, management and production of geospatial data.

5 The ejidos were areas of land that were distributed to the people during the revolution of 1910-1917. They were made up of individual allotments, consisting of family plots which were to be farmed collectively. (See FAO. 1994. The legal status of rural women in nineteen Latin American countries, p. 44.) Ejido land rights have been the subject of an innovative programme by the Government of Mexico to transform completely this land tenure system.

6 FAO has recently promoted an initiative in Honduras that attempts to set the institutional and social foundations for the improvement of the discriminatory conditions currently faced by rural women.

7 Possessing land rights is more than a market transaction for most target populations of agrarian reform programmes. It also implies the acceptance of a whole set of behavioural norms belonging to socio-cultural self-perceptions.


This article is the result of an investigation by the authors of the total collection of the literature produced by FAO on land and agrarian reform since the founding of the Organization. Since this literature consists of well over 1 000 studies, articles, books, project reports and other material, for those items or topics that are of relevance to their special interests, readers should consult the FAO Virtual Library on FAO's Internet site:


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