2. Why Land Inequality Matters
Land has historically been essential to people having food, a home, an income, and influence. Despite a smaller proportion of people being directly dependent on land today, the actual number of people in rural areas and who rely on land for their livelihoods is still growing [1
]. Those depending on land include many of the poorest, with three in every four people living in poverty depending on agriculture related activities for their livelihoods [3
]. In areas where the majority of people depend on agriculture for food and livelihoods, equitable access to land, especially for women, has a major role to play in the eradication of hunger and other development benefits. This is not just due to food production, but also the job creation in agriculture and the non-farm jobs, especially in agri-food processing, that a thriving agricultural sector, as well as more diversified land uses, can contribute to [4
More equally distributed land has been found to have contributed to the creation of more equal societies that foster sustained growth and development on more solid foundations [13
]. Deininger (2003) and Easterly (2007) show, based on a cross-country analysis, that only two of the 15 developing countries with very unequal land distribution managed to grow their economies at more than 2.5% over the period 1960–1992 [15
]. Sokoloff and Engerman [16
] compared the evolution of North America and South America, finding that large inequalities in land holdings were the basis for political inequalities that were used to block investment in improved education for the majority. Galor, et al. [17
] confirm the same dynamics from a study of the development of spending on education, compared to levels of land inequality across states in the USA. The lack of investment in education in places with high land inequality thwarted the human capital and institutional formation that were needed for economic growth in new industries and the entrenchment of democracy, resulting in a long term divergence in growth and progress between countries that invested in education and those that didn’t. These lessons continue to be important for understanding how land inequality can shape priorities and progress and are of particular importance for countries transitioning from an agrarian economy today.
Secure and more equally distributed land rights have been identified as beneficial for social and economic progress, contributing among other things to democracy, peace, productivity, and gender equality. The positive effects are better achieved when combined with other interventions, such as good local market links, agricultural support services that work for family farmers, and improvements in health and education services [6
]. This has been agreed in international policy frameworks [20
], for example, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, include a number of land inequality specific targets and indicators (i.e., SDG indicators 1.4.2. 5.a.1. and 5.a.2).
Changes in the global and national economies are bringing new pressures that people respond to in different ways changing their land uses, livelihood strategies and life styles in rural areas in what some describe as “new rurality” [25
]. The nature of the ‘peasant’ and what is ‘agrarian’ is shifting as are relationships with the land, requiring us to reconsider the rural, but not necessarily meaning land inequalities are less important [27
For many people land is bound up with their spiritual and cultural lives and sense of identity. Some argue that, far from seeing land as a commodity for us to own, we should rather see ourselves as belonging to the land and responsible for its wellbeing [28
]. Whether directly linked to land or not, land is vital for all of us, and future generations, as a common good that we depend on for such essentials as clean air and water, and biodiversity.
3. Understanding Land Inequality
Land inequality is, at a basic level, about the differences in the size of land area that people can access and have rights to and the strength of the tenure rights they have to that land. We argue, however, that it is also about the ability to control the use of land and the benefits from that land and what is produced on it. This wider conceptualization of land inequality is increasingly important in a world where (1) “accumulation by dispossession” has again become more important than accumulation through “expanded reproduction” [29
], and; (2) the forms of appropriation and distribution of value have become more complex, moving from a simple land/ground rent to what Andreucci, García-Lamarca, Wedekind and Swyngedouw [29
] refer to as “value grabbing”.
The approach of this paper, therefore, involves four axes along which to analyze land inequality: (1) The size and/or value of land that people access or hold with some people holding large tracts of high value land and others having no land, or small amounts of low value land; (2) the level of security of tenure that people have including the ability to defend their land when encroached upon and to get justice if land rights are taken away. This is harder to measure than land sizes and value, but just as important. Some people have extremely strong rights to land that are very unlikely to be violated, while others may be registered as land owners, but due to social or political factors could have the land taken at any time and would not be able to get justice in the courts or elsewhere; (3) the actual control that people have, which includes their decision-making power over land. This goes beyond the tenure rights contained in the land administration system. It can be affected by factors like social norms constraining women from planting certain crops, state imposed decisions about what crops should be grown where, or corporate control of inputs and markets that severely limit the viability of certain crops while aggressively promoting others, and; (4) their control of the benefits from the land, i.e., the ability to appropriate value from the land. Again, factors from social dictates at the micro level (e.g., men appropriating certain cash crops), to political interference (e.g., imposed marketing boards), access to infrastructure (e.g., roads and irrigation), or a corporate concentration of control over required finance as well as control of processing facilities and markets, can severely limit people’s options, even if they have strong tenure rights to land (see Figure 1
It is important to also look at land relations within the context that they contribute to shaping and that also shapes them. These are summarized as social, political, economic, and environmental factors—all of which impact all aspects of land inequality—and are represented in green on the outside edge of Figure 1
. Social factors—most obviously in dynamics such as gender power relations, but also manifesting in discrimination against particular ethnic groups and castes or classes—can shape the extent to which certain people gain rights to land and the strength of those rights. These social norms can be just as influential in markets for outputs and for farming inputs, thus constraining the ability of some to benefit from land use. Political power often shapes outcomes for communities attempting to defend their land rights, and in turn, ownership of land can be a source of political power. Political power is used to influence land administration regimes, justice systems, and marketing and financial services policies and practices, all of which shape the levels of equality along the four axes of land inequality we identify. The nature of the wider economy, including the agri-food sector, will clearly enable more or less beneficial land use. Those with economic power, if not adequately constrained by policies and regulations, can have enormous power to dictate farm production and terms of trade that make certain land uses more or less viable. We are becoming more aware, with the increasing impacts of climate change as well as loss of biodiversity and soil fertility, of how the environment is shaping land use opportunities, while land use choices are also having impacts on the environment. In water scarce areas, for example, the inequality between those with irrigation land and those without is becoming far greater as rainfall becomes more unreliable.
Land Inequality, Further Considerations
Most measures of inequality focus on the individual and on the changes in the aggregate income of individuals grouped according to income or wealth percentiles, in what is referred to as vertical inequality. Such an approach in relation to land tends to look at the value and/or hectares of land individuals own. Examining horizontal inequalities involves looking at inequalities that arise between particular groups of people defined by some form of common identity based on embedded values of particular societies [31
]. This is of particular importance in relation to land, as gender, ethnic, caste, racial, and other forms of group identity are often used to discriminate against people in relation to land rights and access.
], p.282 has pointed out: “Whether and to what extent economic inequality is a problem also depends upon what goods are freely available, without purchase.” This is a pertinent point in relation to land and benefits from the land. In some countries public land is available to all for activities, such as grazing and recreation, and in some cases public land can be allocated to people without charge, or at low administrative rather than market costs [34
]. At the same time, the presence of public land and state custodianship of land does not necessarily mean greater equality of access or security, as state control has often been used to exclude the poorest people and to favor elites, even in supporting the grabbing of community and public land [35
]. For many people, having access to land themselves is not necessary for them to secure food to eat, as they have other sources of income and food is available to be purchased. If all countries were able to transition to economies that could provide sufficient urban industrial or service sector jobs, we could worry less about direct land inequality, but these jobs are not materializing in most lower and middle income countries. This requires us to maximize the potential of land and agriculture to produce food, to create economic opportunities including on and of off-farm jobs in food and agriculture processing and trading. These benefits have been found to be greater within equitable territorial and symbiotic food and agricultural systems that are also effective in providing accessible food for urban residents even in the largest cities [6
Up to 2.5 billion people around the world depend on land held under forms of collective tenure for their homes, incomes, food, medicine, and cultural identity. These communities hold around 65% of the world’s land, but have formally recognized rights over just 10% [41
]. Many of these are Indigenous communities, and almost all Indigenous communities use collective tenure arrangements based on some form of customary land rights and administration [42
]. The level of security of families and individuals within such communities depends on the strength of rights of the community as a whole and the rules, social norms, and practices within the community [36
]. Ensuring strong rights requires that they are legally and socially recognized and that people and communities have recourse to get justice if their land rights are violated. This is too often not the case for indigenous and other rural communities who rarely have the same access to courts and to political decision makers that elite individuals and large corporations have. The diversity of practices, the collective nature of rights, the weakness in practice of some of these rights, and the lack of documentation pose particular challenges for measuring land inequality in communal land holding.
In addition to direct gender inequalities in rights and access to land, women carry far more responsibility than men for family reproduction and unpaid care work, particularly in areas such as child care, ensuring that food is available for the family, and taking care of the sick at home and in the community. This has an impact on women’s time, finances, and well-being, thus affecting their ability to assert land rights and benefit from land use. Interventions, such as those to increase agricultural production, that do not take this into consideration, can add to women’s burden with negative outcomes for their quality of life [9
4. The Data: What We Know and We Don’t Know
There are currently limitations to the amount and reliability of data relating to land inequality. The ways that land inequalities are measured and the challenges involved are elaborated in a 2019 International Land Coalition (ILC) publication on land inequality [50
]. Different countries capture different data in their land administration systems and in agricultural surveys (most of which are very dated), making them hard to compare. There are also large gaps such as very few countries capturing information on the extent of land holding on communal land and many countries not gathering sex disaggregated data [50
]. For example, when the government of South Africa carried out a land audit they were only able to identify the land owners and rights holders on private land, not on communal land where most of the rural population live. Further, on 61% of that private land they could not identify the sex, race, or nationality of the owners because the land was registered in the names of companies and trusts for which they didn’t have those details available [51
Globally, estimates of the number of farms range from around 570 million [52
] to just under 610 million [53
], using a total agricultural land area of around 5 billion hectares [54
]. An indicator of the level of inequality in agricultural land holding is that 84% of farms are smaller than 2 hectares, and account for 12% of the world’s farmland, which leaves just 16% of farms controlling 88% of all farmland [52
]. Based on the varied definitions of “small” farms in different countries across the world, it has been calculated that 92.3% of farms are “small” and use just 24.7% of the world’s farmland [53
]. It is difficult to make a direct comparison of global farm size figures overtime, due to less countries having gathered this data in the past, countries gathering the data at different times, and inter-country differences and changes in data gathered [52
There is a clear trend towards larger average farm sizes in wealthier and land abundant countries, with declining average farm sizes in developing countries [52
]. For example, average farm sizes in Europe grew from 14.4 hectares in 2010 to 16.1 in 2013 [58
] and half of all agricultural land in 2013 was controlled by only 3.1% of all farms, while small farms (less than 10 hectares), representing three-quarters of all farms, controlled only 11% of the agricultural area [59
]. Two-thirds of farms in Europe have disappeared in the last 30 years [60
], cheap food imports have destroyed the livelihoods of farmers in parts of Europe and large corporate land deals have targeted land used by smallholder farmers, especially in Eastern Europe [61
]. For now, however, the situation remains relatively egalitarian in Europe compared with North America and Latin America with average farm sizes of 170 hectares in the USA and 590 hectares in Argentina. In the extreme case of Colombia just 1% of landowners hold over 80% of the agricultural land, with the largest landowners controlling over 50,000 hectares each [62
]. Despite the concentration of ownership at the top end, the average farm sizes across Latin America and the Caribbean decreased from 80 hectares around 1960 to 54 hectares in 2000 [52
] due to declining small farm sizes. It is now the continent with the most extreme land inequality, with a Gini coefficient for land of 0.85 (Asia is 0.55) [63
]. Despite the high level of urbanization in Latin America, this land inequality is continuing to have negative impacts, especially in distorting pollical power, leaving too many people landless, and contributing to conflict [62
Meanwhile, average farm sizes are in decline across Asia and Africa and are now below 2 hectares per farm in many countries [52
]. In South Asia farm sizes halved from an average of 2.6 hectares around 1960, to just 1.3 hectares in 2000 [52
]. However, these average figures miss the creation of an increasingly unequal “bimodal” world agricultural sector. While the mass of poorer people struggle to survive on increasingly small pieces of land, there is a fast growth of medium-scale farms [57
] and large land deals and corporate investments are establishing mega-farms [35
], trends that are elaborated in Section 4
The figures show an overall increasing concentration of land in a few, often powerful and well connected hands, while the vast majority of farmers who depend on land are finding it harder to survive on smaller land parcels. Those holding onto and gaining large tracts of land often use their political influence to do so and to ensure economic policies favorable to their business model and to capture state resources for agriculture and development. In a brazen example of this, politicians in Hungary (and other countries) have utilized tens, if not hundreds of millions, of Euros of European Union agriculture funding to create enormous land holdings and farm operations for themselves and their friends and business associates [66
There is much, of course, that is not revealed about land holdings by these global figures, such as important differences between regions and countries and land fragmentation in the sense of one farmer’s land holding being in multiple parts (see below). Even harder to get a clear picture of are other factors of land inequality, such as the differing levels of rights and control that farmers have, with many smaller-scale farmers facing serious obstacles in defending their land rights, and unequal access to markets.
Land fragmentation is commonly used to refer to the process of land holdings getting smaller as well as to the phenomena of one farmer’s land holding being made up of several smaller parcels of land that are not necessarily contiguous, nor evenly shaped [67
]. Fragmentation is rather hard to measure and is not well covered in existing data [68
]. The land size data referred to above considers fragmentation in the sense that the figures are based on surveys that count the total land held by a household, so cover all land held by that household even it is in separate parcels. The figures also hide land fragmentation in the sense that they do not reveal if household land holdings are made up of one piece of land, or split across multiple holdings.
Land fragmentation has mixed implications for production. In some contexts, it is seen as a disadvantage as it can thwart or reduce the effectiveness of greater mechanization. In other contexts, land fragmentation is an advantage as it allows the farmer to spread risk and have a diversity of crops on different pieces of land that may have different qualities. Land consolidation efforts, as a response to fragmentation, have been common in Europe and it would appear that such efforts can be more beneficial if well managed and within an economy that has more off-farm job opportunities and capital for investment in mechanization [67
]. Land consolidation is likely to be less beneficial where there are labor surpluses and few opportunities off-farm. The nature of land, crops, and land administration also determine the impacts of fragmentation, as they do farm-size efficiency, and the desirability of land consolidation that should therefore be considered on a case by case basis in each context.
The exact scale of gender inequality in land rights is contested, with inadequate and often incompatible ways of measuring it, but its existence is clear; patriarchy and discrimination against women leaves them with weaker rights to less and poorer-quality land [9
]. Standing between formal equality of rights, now recognized in most laws, there are entrenched cultural norms and institutional barriers that reproduce historical exclusion of women [72
]. Given that on average women earn less than men they are also disadvantaged in land markets [74
]. Almost universally, when land tenure is formally registered, more land is registered to men than to women. Across all tenure systems, within communities and households, women have less decision-making power and control over land than men. Often, women access land through male family members (their husbands, fathers, or sons). This leaves them with less control over land, less right to inherit, and more vulnerable to eviction and dispossession, especially if relationships sour [9
Across the European Union, women’s agricultural land holdings average 7.6 hectares compared with an average of 19.5 hectares owned by men; also, women control only 28% of all agricultural land holdings and 13% of the land [56
]. In Latin America, women make up fewer than 12% of land reform beneficiaries [76
] and on average only 18% of farms in the region are in women’s hands, ranging from 8% in Guatemala to 30% in Peru [77
]. In Africa there are a few countries that report having gender equality in land holdings. For example, in both Cape Verde and Rwanda over 50% of land titles are in women’s names. The extent of land controlled by women is, however, likely to be less than that controlled by men, due to women having smaller farms and legally registered rights not always being enjoyed due to discriminatory social norms and practices [73
]. Other African countries show much higher gender inequalities, with just 9.1% of land holdings in women’s names in Senegal, for example [77
]. The situation in Asia appears to be worse, with women having a very small share of land holdings: from 4.6% in Bangladesh and 8.8% in Indonesia to a high of 27.4% in Thailand [77
The figures mentioned above, do not give us the full picture of the nature of land rights and women’s and men’s differentiated enjoyment of these rights. Most data gathering on land rights fails to adequately address the complexity, the household dynamics, and gender roles, and many lack sufficient sample sizes and credible counterfactuals [4
]. They do not tell us about the power relations that so often exist within families. They tell us even less about the challenges women face in accessing finance, technology and markets. There is also a dearth of available information on the extent to which women face systematic discrimination when seeking justice for land rights violations.
Landlessness and land poverty constitute a growing crisis. Many of those affected still depend on land for their livelihoods and often work as temporary, vulnerable, and underpaid laborers in agri-business where they are in a weak negotiating position as they have no options left for independent production [78
]. A study in five African countries revealed that roughly a quarter of agricultural households were virtually landless, controlling less than 0.1 hectares per person [81
]. In Bangladesh, 29% of rural households own no farmland at all, with a total of 8.7 million landless rural households as a result of land pressures and environmental changes [82
There is currently a great lack of data available to properly show the dynamics and impacts of these land inequality trends. While there is some information on farm sizes it is not gathered regularly and consistently across all countries and there is even less comparable data on the nature of rights to the land. The SDG commitments to monitor indicators 1.4.2, 5.a.1 and 5.a.2, which would at least provide a breakdown of secure land rights by sex, are still largely unimplemented. We have even less data on the changing nature of control over financing of agriculture and on the appropriation of value in the marketing of produce, as well as challenges in linking such data to information on land parcel sizes and rights. There is a need for governments and others to regularly gather more common and consistent primary data, at a minimum this would include what is suggested by the World Program for the Census of Agriculture [173
] and that agreed in relation to SDG monitoring [175
]. Further studies could draw on such data to investigate and analyze land inequality in all its dimensions. More country and local case studies that go into greater depth would also be useful and achievable in the short-term.
It seems clear, however, that there is a dominant process creating increasingly untenable levels of land inequality with greater land concentration in fewer hands, while the majority who depend on land for their livelihoods struggle to survive on smaller parcels of land and deal with worsening terms of trade. Even in contexts of less dependence on land, high levels of land inequality are impacting negatively on democracy, social cohesion, and the environment.
There are counter movements to the dominant trends, such as people in their every-day practices reconfiguring their economic lives and land uses, social movements resisting commoditization, peasant movements pushing for food sovereignty, and civil society groups advocating for more responsible business practices. Reinforcing these movements seems important, as is further study of their impacts, in particular to analyze if they are bringing systemic or only limited reforms. Interventions need to avoid reinforcing the status quo driving inequality and instead address the structural drivers of land inequality for meaningful and sustainable change.
Historically, land reforms were seen as time bound and put in place to deal with specific injustices, such as colonial land dispossession, after particular national political moments, such as liberation of a country from colonialism. We can see now that land reforms are needed as an ongoing processes to reduce and deal with the negative outcomes of what are increasingly global economic processes. Land redistribution policies and programs—including direct interventions to acquire land, progressive property and inheritance tax reforms, etc.—are needed as much as ever. To be successful, these need to be combined with interventions—such as democratizing control of markets and capital—to create greater autonomy and equality in the wider agri-food system and in the new ways people are configuring rural life.
Karl Polanyi’s identification of ‘labor, land, and money’ as fictitious commodities and his related critique of the utopian myth of the self-regulating market economy is useful to analyzing and addressing land inequality [115
]. Although essential to production, labor, land, and money are not produced for sale in the market and therefore do not respond to market forces as commodities are expected to. People are not produced in response to market demand. Land and nature is not produced for sale [115
]. Finding new ways to manage these three factors of production, outside the paradigm of their maximum exploitation, remains central to a systemic response.