Cry of the landless

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Mon May 20 18:03:53 BST 2002

Cry of the landless
By Lies Craeynest (War on Want)
Morning Star (The UK Newspaper of the Left)
Saturday 18th May, 2002

When the landless people of South Africa – about 4 million families – realised that the government’s promises regarding land distribution were being implemented at such a slow pace that even their great-grandchildren would not see any change in their conditions, many voices started calling for the creation of a South African landless grassroots movement.

Eventually, in July last year, the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) was founded, gaining momentum via the historically significant mobilisation of more than 3,000 people in Durban for an international Landless People’s Assembly in August.

Almost since the very beginning, the charity War on Want has helped to facilitate the creation of this movement.  Together with another War on Want project partner, the Landless Movement in Brazil, the LPM will be struggling for access to land by mobilising and organising people on the ground.

War on Want’s longstanding commitment to defending the rights of workers inevitably leads us to strongly endorse the calls of landless rural workers for the redistribution of land. In our opinion, the first and most fundamental right of a rural worker is the right to land to work on. Inequalities in land distribution are absurd.  In Brazil, a country with one of the most unequal land distribution patterns in the world, the big farms – some of them covering areas as big as Denmark – take up almost half of the total land.  This leaves small farms – some 89% of the total number of farms – with only 20% of the land.

In post-apartheid South Africa, 97% of rural families – almost exclusively black – survive on 14% of the country’s land. A mere 2% - predominantly white – occupy 86% of the land.  War on Want is at the centre of the tough battle for land – strengthening and supporting the social movements that mobilise rural people.  It is in these movements that the seeds and forces for change are being sown. It is through them that real land reform and comprehensive rural development can be achieved so that the poor can live and work with dignity.  But these movements also face great challenges. The interests of the big landowners to maintain control of their land and the political influence that they often exert make the struggle for land and agrarian reform a difficult and often a violent one.

On an international level, it is the World Bank that appears to create the greatest obstacles for the implementation of land reform. While for many decades the World Bank has ignored unequal land distribution and the need for agrarian reform in a large number of countries in the South, since the mid-1990s, the bank has started talking about a model of “market-assisted land reform”.  This new model stands in stark contrast with the previous state-led reform programmes – advocating that the market, instead of the state, should distribute land from the haves to the have-nots.  What this means is that the former model of land reform – land belonging to those who work on it – has been replaced by the principle of land belonging to those who can pay for it.  

Landless people and small farmers have realised that the model protects property rights for big landowners and agro-businesses rather than guaranteeing land rights to rural workers. Landless and peasant organisations have joined forces to oppose the transformation of rural poor people from citizens with land rights to consumers with the right to buy.  From April 15th to 19th, coinciding with the spring meetings of the World Bank nd the International Monetary Fund, delegations of rural social movements, the international peasant organisation Via Campesina, progressive researchers and supporting non-governmental organisations, including War on Want, came together in Washington DC to discuss the negative impacts of the World Bank market-based land reform. 

It was the first time that detailed case studies from countries as diverse as Thailand, Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala and South Africa had been presented by social movements to social movements and it soon became clear to all that landless people and small farmers all over the world are being marginalised by this one-size-fits-all programme promoted by the World Bank.  Additionally, while experiences of dealings with the World Bank were being shared, we discovered that, for all the rhetoric of the World Bank about participation and consultation of the “civil society” groups, not a single case could prove that this “participatory process” had in any way influenced the policies of the World Bank.

The determination of the rural social movements to defend the right to land for those who work on it only increases and their message directed to the World Bank is very clear – “Enough is enough!”

Lies Craeynest is a project officer for War on Want.

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