A farmer with a water buffalo in Phong Nha, Vietnam. Vietnam's agriculture success story suggests that by strengthening tenant farmers' land rights can boost rural economies. Photo by: Adam Brill / CC BY-NC-SA

Amazingly, today nearly half the world’s total population — including 60 percent of Africa’s and 55 percent of Asia’s — remains rural. This includes an estimated three-quarters of all those who live in extreme poverty.

Most of these people are dependent upon land for their livelihood. Their relationship to that land — how secure, long-term, assured and “owner-like” that relationship is — largely determines their income, nutrition, and status. To the degree that they constitute a significant share of a particular country’s population, it is also a major factor in the economic development — and often the political stability — of that society.

When a large share of a country’s population consists of tenant farmers, agricultural laborers, informal settlers, ex-collective farmers without assured individual rights, unrecognized indigenous or customary land users (and altogether they comprise roughly over one billion people), a whole series of negative consequences is likely to follow. There is no multi-year “investment horizon” to encourage mid-to-long-term improvements on the land, such as irrigation, terracing, anti-erosion measures, trellising, fishponds, tree planting, or greenhouses. With stagnant investment comes low productivity, hunger, and poverty, and low consumption of virtually all goods and services by the rural sector. All this is typically accompanied by high infant and child mortality, low school attendance and other negative social outcomes, such as high birth rates (to provide “insurance” against early childhood deaths) and the disempowerment of women. Many decide to migrate to ill-prepared cities, where life may be even worse, and often there is violence — sometimes including full-scale civil conflict — arising out of land-based grievances.

By contrast, if there are widely-held secure land rights, a considerable body of experience has established that remarkably positive results — for the rural poor and landless, and for the development process of the whole society — can be achieved.

This includes the post-World War II economic “miracles” in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, each of which started with a major land tenure reform — supported by U.S. foreign aid — that turned a population of small tenant farmers (paying high rents and evictable at will) into a thriving rural sector of investment-making, highly productive owner-operators. In Taiwan, for example, in the decade following completion of the land reform in 1953, rice production went up by 60 percent and average farm income by 150 percent. Taiwanese farmers became consumers of a wide range of goods and services, stimulating local industry.

Post-revolution mainland China also, initially, gave ownership to the tenant farmers (though without compensating the landlords) and experienced a 70 percent increase in grain production and an 85 percent increase in farm income from 1949-1956. After a disastrous interregnum when farmland was collectivized, it was again divided into family farms, with increases of 50 percent in grain production and nearly 70 percent in net farm income in 1979-1984. This decollectivization — coming in a China still three-quarters rural — laid the groundwork for rapid economic growth, and for the largest single decline in poverty ever seen on the planet.

Vietnam’s success story

More recently, Vietnam has joined the ranks of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China as a success story of economic growth jump-started by their land-to-the-tiller program, launched by USAID in the south in the 1970s, then continued later with decollectivization in the North.

Since the Vietnam land-to-the-tiller program, new approaches for land tenure reform further underline the connection between secure land rights and overall economic development. Two of the most important are micro-plots and women’s land rights.

Micro-plots. Russia, even in the heyday of collective farming, allowed some three percent of its arable land to be held in small “household auxiliary” plots or “dacha” (country cottage) plots, and these micro-plots accounted for 25-30 percent of the total value of agricultural production. This experience turns out to be highly relevant to traditional developing societies, with India, for example, now encouraging and partially financing distribution by individual states of 1/10 acre “homestead” plots for completely landless families. Landesa’s research shows that even 1/15 acre plots could provide nearly all of a family’s vegetable, fruit and dairy consumption needs, plus cash income from marketing the surplus equal to what an adult laborer would earn in the fields working all year long. Beneficiaries can also use this “place of their own” to start a micro-enterprise, and they become active participants in the economic life of the village.

Women’s land rights. Ignored for decades, it turns out that a woman’s name on the land title (at least jointly with the husband’s) is greatly empowering, often feasible where new land (such as a micro-plot) is being allocated. It makes women’s control over a significant share of the production and income more likely, which in turn directs that production and income more to the basic needs of the household — such as child nutrition, primary education, and basic health care — laying further essential foundations for broad economic development. 

There are, indeed, compelling reasons why hundreds of millions of the poorest people on our planet (perhaps including this as part of the post-2015 sustainable development goals) should be put in a far more secure and remunerative relationship to the land that supplies their livelihood.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Roy Prosterman

    Roy Prosterman is founder and chairman emeritus of Landesa, an NGO that partner with governments to extend land rights to the world's poorest people. With almost half a century of experience on land tenure, he has published several books on land reform and development.