BY: HOBETH MARTÍNEZ*
Recent decades have seen increasing levels of inequality, as demonstrated by studies like Thomas Piketty’s now-classic Capital in the Twenty-First Century and reports from a variety of organizations (CEPAL, OECD, Oxfam, BM). The pattern appears to be present all over the world, though the specific effects of inequality vary by country; its dimension and impact depend, among other factors, on the specific public policies that states adopt, as well as the success of its institutions. This context raises concerns about the global trend of land concentration and land grabbing (for various purposes, including: agroindustrial, extractive, exploitation of forests, speculation, etc), as these practices often increase inequality, rather than reducing it.
In some countries in the global South this is explained, at least in part, by current policies aimed at rural regions that do not focus on land redistribution mechanisms for rural peasants or on the recognition of property for indigenous peoples and other local communities. Instead, rural political programs often facilitate the opposite: control of land is given to various companies for low or nonexistent costs, with generous tax benefits and the opportunity to access cheap labor to reduce production costs.
This, in turn, occurs because agrarian policies of land redistribution have given way to policies that emphasize the consolidation of large areas of land for extractive activities or agroindustrial production, such as monoculture farming, to the detriment of the rural economy and indigenous peoples’ rights to land. In some countries, this accumulation of land has become an authentic agrarian counterreform. So argues researcher Tania Li in reference to what is occurring in Indonesia—a country where palm oil plantations reach up to 10 million hectares, with projections to expand some 20 million more. This concentration of land has a direct impact on inequality: of the 50 wealthiest people in Indonesia, 10 derive their fortunes directly from activities related to land. The second richest person in the country gets their wealth from the production of palm oil.
The concentration of land also has negative effects at a regional level, which compound other processes. Based on the Gini index for the distribution of wealth, Latin America as a whole is considered one of the most unequal regions in the world (See Map 1). The region also has some of the highest rates of inequality in land access, which, according to a study by Oxfam, are higher today than they were during the 1960s when parts of the region were implementing redistributive agrarian reform policies.
Map 1: Gini index world map
Thus, inequality in the access and control of land is, in and of itself, a part of the problem. Furthermore, from this inequality stems other social processes, which reinforce other kinds of inequality.
For example, although it is recognized that the agricultural sector can help spur economic growth in developing countries, it is also true that this sector is not expected to be a stable source for future jobs. On the contrary, the International Labor Organization predicted a progressive reduction of both agricultural jobs and foresting and mining jobs during the period from 2014 to 2019, confirming the trend observed in the preceding period (2010-2013). The largest source of employment is estimated to be in the private sector (business, administrative activities, and real estate), which contributes to more than a third of jobs (Graphic 1).
Given these trends, one likely side-effect of land concentration is the economic displacement of people from the countryside to the city—though it is also not guaranteed that cities will be able to offer enough employment for such migrants. Therefore, following the links in the chain, we see that activities like agroindustry will not necessarily translate to improved living conditions for rural populations.
Graphic 1: Employment growth in selected sectors (percentages)
The problem is also evident from the other side: cities are unable to sustain themselves, which means it is impossible to guarantee food security and sustainability if, for one example, states do not find a balance between urban and rural populations. Moreover, the megacities of the globalized world are not known for offering optimal standards of living to all their inhabitants. Urban spaces produce de facto barriers that reproduce exclusion and serve as continual reminders that full citizenship does not rely solely on formal recognition by the law. Not long ago, the price per square meter in some zones of Bogotá, Colombia were comparable to those of Manhattan (NY), yet the country remains the second most unequal country in the region. Such trends are frequent among megacities, which are often well-known for the aerial photographs of slums teeming with misery, separated by only a wall from the opulence of nearby neighborhoods.
It is, therefore, not a great risk to say that inequality in access, ownership, and control of land is a part of and affects the greater problem of inequality that is growing around the world. The impact this has on economic, social, and cultural rights is dramatic, and requires clear actions to reverse the tendency. One of these, without a doubt, is promoting the access and control of rural lands by indigenous peoples and rural communities. However, such changes alone are not enough—policy must also go further and push for the provision of public goods that contribute to the wellbeing of rural populations. Such actions would not only help rural communities and avoid causing further cycles of inequality in already struggling sectors of cities, it would also, among other things, reinforce and diversify both the production of food and the protection of the environment.
*Hobeth is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).