Land Rights

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  • by Anup Shah
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On this page:

  1. Whoever controls the land controls its use
  2. Food production and population growth
  3. Causes of food scarcity and food security

Whoever controls the land controls its use

One important aspect about the causes of hunger is often ignored; that is, land ownership and who controls the land.

The following passage summarizes it very well, asking "Is It Overpopulation or Who Controls the Land?"

"The often heard comment (one I once accepted as fact) that "there are too many people in the world, and overpopulation is the cause of hunger", can be compared to the same myth that expounded sixteenth-century England and revived continuously since.

Through repeated acts of enclosure the peasants were pushed off the land so that the gentry could make money raising wool for the new and highly productive power looms. They could not do this if the peasants were to retain their historic entitlement [emphasis is original] to a share of production from the land. Massive starvation was the inevitable result of this expropriation.

There were serious discussions in learned circles about overpopulation as the cause of this poverty. This was the accepted reason because a social and intellectual elite were doing the rationalizing. It was they who controlled the educational institutions which studied the problem. Naturally the final conclusions (at least those published) absolved the wealthy of any responsibility for the plight of the poor. The absurdity of suggesting that England was then overpopulated is clear when we realize that "the total population of England in the sixteenth century was less than in any one of several present-day English cities."

The hunger in underdeveloped countries today is equally tragic and absurd. Their European colonizers understood well that ownership of land gave the owner control over what society produced. The most powerful simply redistributed the valuable land titles to themselves, eradicating millennia-old traditions of common use. Since custom is a form of ownership, the shared use of land could not be permitted. If ever reestablished, this ancient practice would reduce the rights of these new owners. For this reason, much of the land went unused or underused until the owners could do so profitably. This is the pattern of land use that characterizes most Third World countries today, and it is this that generates hunger in the world.

These conquered people are kept in a state of relative impoverishment. Permitting them any substantial share of the wealth would negate the historic reason for conquest -- namely plunder. The ongoing role of Third World countries is to be the supplier of cheap and plentiful raw materials and agricultural products to the developed world. Nature's wealth was, and is, being controlled to fulfill the needs of the world's affluent people. The U.S. is one of the prime beneficiaries of this well-established system. Our great universities search diligently for "the answer" to the problem of poverty and hunger. They invariably find it in "lack of motivation, inadequate or no education," or some other self-serving excuse. They look at everything except the cause -- the powerful own the world's social wealth. As a major beneficiary, we have much to gain by perpetuating the myths of overpopulations, cultural and racial inferiority, and so forth. The real causes must be kept from ourselves, as how else can this systematic damaging of others be squared with what we are taught about democracy, rights, freedom, and justice?"

J.W. Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth: the political economy of waste, (New World's Press, 1989), pp. 44, 45.

Many have pointed out over the years that even the US Founding Fathers understood this very well, to the effect that some elites were able to affect the Constitution in this manner:

"Despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution and an attempt to place a proclamation in the Constitution for a "common right of the whole nation to the whole of the land," the powerful looked out for their own interests by changing Locke's insightful phrase: "all men are entitled to life, liberty and land." This powerful statement that all could understand coming from a well-read and respected philosopher was a threat to the monopolizers of land, so they restructured those words to "life, liberty and [the meaningless phrase] pursuit of happiness." Knowledge of the substitution for phrases in America's Constitution which would protect every person's rights with phrases that protect only the rights of a few should alert one to check the meaning and purpose of all laws of all societies carefully."

J.W. Smith, Subtly Monopolizing Land

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Food production and population growth

The Washington D.C-based World Resource Institute point out that "[f]ood production has more than kept pace with global population growth. On average, food supplies are 24 percent higher per person than in 1961, and real prices are 40 percent lower. Over the same period, the global population has doubled from 3 to 6 billion people. Approximately 790 million people in the developing world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of whom reside in Asia and the Pacific." (The World Resource Institute quote the report "World Resources 2000-2001-- People and ecosystems: The fraying web of life" that was prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute.)

However, they continue to then importantly also point out that this "may mask negative trends in the underlying biophysical capacity of agroecosystems, e.g., nutrient mining, soil erosion, and overextraction of groundwater resources." Basically, while population numbers do have an impact on land, by making additional demands, current (industrial) agricultural methods are damaging to the land and the environment, which affects us all.

As Peter Rosset points out, the methods of requiring more pesticide use etc from larger industrial farms is harmful to the environment, and smaller farms may be more efficient and at the same time friendlier to biodiversity and the ecosystems. Vandana Shiva, in her book Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000) for example, also points out how industrial farming methods, using monocultures (single crops) result in a tremendous loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, excessive water usage and so forth.

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Causes of food scarcity and food security

Another impact of land ownership, and the concentration or control of it (especially the latter in the global sense) has led to those who are powerful to be able to influence international economic and trade agreements in their favor. This also impacts food production, its distribution and its consumption, which in turn affects the food security of many nations.

  • In many cases where food is grown, it is often for exports.
  • In some cases, while local people may be going hungry, they are growing food to export for the hard cash that would be earned.
  • However, this increasingly export-oriented led policy for the poor is being promoted and heavily pushed to the poorer countries by the wealthier North, IMF and World Bank, as detailed in the Structural Adjustment section on this site.
  • The result of this is that the wealthier nations would benefit in cheaper products and food being exported to them, while poorer countries would lose out. Their land goes to growing food, but not for themselves.
  • Additionally, because so many poor countries are doing this, there is a lot of food being grown, more than needed normally by the rich nations and a lot of it going to waste through either discard, or through wasteful consumption. Valuable land is therefore misused, as described in the poverty section's page on hunger.
  • As well as misused, land may be well used, but not to meet people's needs -- for example, as also detailed by that previous link, much land is used up to grow cattle (for beef etc in fast food restaurants), lots of sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee and other "luxuries turned into necessities". Not that we need to do away with all of these things (maybe tobacco!) but that these are grown disproportionately to real needs/demands. They are grown for over-consumption based demands of wealthier countries. This hints at the enormous waste in land use. Already this therefore questions the simple observation of hunger and large populations being related issues. (We will see a lot more detail on consumption issue versus population numbers to explain major causes of environmental degradation in the next part on this issue of populations.)
  • Further, hunger itself is not addressed -- in some cases it will continue, and in others it can get worse.
  • There are of course, chances that improved economies will result, allowing better affordability of food. However, as also detailed in the structural adjustment section of this web site, most have not fared will from these SAPs. Besides, if the rich are being fed by the poor, who will feed the poor?
  • These free trade agreements that reduce subsidies on local farms etc, has a worse impact on developing countries with few resources. We hear of these subsidies being "barriers" for foreign investment. Yet, the nature of the foreign investment isn't to help promote self-sufficiency etc. It is to follow on from what the SAPs opened up -- that is, SAPs opened up these economies, companies etc can go in and now help "export" base foods and commodities. Yet, the wealthier nations realize the importance of food security and heavily subsidize their own farming infrastructures:

    "While subsidies are viewed as barriers by companies outside the region, they are critical incentives for the smallholder farmers especially those in southern Africa, most of whom are still using traditional methods and are only just beginning to acquire vital modern technology. Large-scale commercial farmers in Europe and the US have been modernized for decades and have benefited from similar subsidies from their own governments for many years.

    Paradoxically, the European Union, one of the leading proponents of trade liberalization has one of the most protected agricultural sectors in the world through its Common Agricultural Policy. Such is the double standard of the EU that it forces developing countries, through the western-dominated World Trade Organization (WTO), to open up their economies when Europe's agriculture sector is the most highly subsidized in the world."

    Munetsi Madakufamba, Unequal 'freetrade' threatens food security, The Mail & Guardian (a South African national newspaper), August 13, 2001

The poor are hit the worst, as a result:

"[Farmers] producing [fruit and vegetables] for export markets has recently become more common. TNCs are increasingly involved in the production of crops that have traditionally not been exported. But export crops are replacing staple foods in some areas, resulting in food scarcities and rising food prices that hit hard at the poorest." (Emphasis Added).

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) p. 64

The above quote also indicated a cause of food scarcity -- political economics. I have only touched here how politics and economics impacts hunger. This is important, as there is often the claim that hunger is because of overpopulation and growth rates outpacing our ability to provide enough food etc. However, as the next section details, it is a "myth" that we have too many mouths to feed and the causes of hunger are not in "over" population, but in issues to do with economics and politics. This therefore hints where priorities should be placed by those concerned about world hunger related issues.

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  • by Anup Shah
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