Land Reform in the Era of Neoliberalism: Case Studies from the Global South

By McCusker, Brent; Fraser, Alistair | The Geographical Review, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Land Reform in the Era of Neoliberalism: Case Studies from the Global South


McCusker, Brent, Fraser, Alistair, The Geographical Review


This is a propitious moment in which to research and write about land reform. For example, and as Zimbabwe's "fast-track" program exemplifies, land-reform efforts aiming to address the unequal distribution of land in specific national contexts can have broad impacts and grab headlines worldwide. And in other places, such as South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Philippines, land-reform efforts are creating tensions over the unequal distribution of land. The contemporary and contested place, meaning, and potential of land reform therefore demands further scholarly research.

This moment in which to examine land reform also stands out because of rising global commodity prices, which look set to continue their steady appreciation and, concomitantly, to threaten food crises and associated widespread social unrest. We sense that governments and populations experiencing rising bills for imported foodstuffs or, indeed, food shortages are unprepared to tackle maldistributions of land via new land-reform efforts, but the leftward turn of electorates in Venezuela and Bolivia and the renewed urgency with which land-reform programs seem likely to be pursued there suggest to us that other left-leaning governments may tackle the issue. Although Zimbabwe looked like a radical outlier in the early 2000s, we wonder whether its program presaged a new phase of land reform, especially given the joint pressures of rising food prices and climate change.

Beyond these examples, geohistorical studies of land reform are timely in light of broad changes in the ways in which land reform is conceived and pursued. Land reform once occupied a prominent place in debates regarding "development." The era of so-called classic redistributionist land reform, pursued for different reasons by communist/socialist as well as capitalist/modernizing states, targeted large landholdings, usually in the hands of an elite. Socialists and capitalists alike considered these maldistributions untenable, albeit for very different reasons. For protagonists at opposite ends of the political spectrum, therefore, land reform was central to national economic and sociopolitical development. Faced with acute land crises, moreover, governments in numerous newly independent countries pursued extensive state-led land-reform agendas.

The period of state-led land reform has ended (Bernstein 2002), although we cannot completely rule out its return. Worldwide, the prominent place of the state in achieving "development" has come under attack by neoliberal theorists. Political and economic hegemonic forces in the development and lending communities now trust the power of market penetration, rather than state intervention. Across the world, an alliance of social forces now promotes the market as the most efficient and equitable mechanism for promoting development (Harvey 2003).

In the realm of current efforts at land reform, therefore, the state's ability to shape agrarian relations, or dictate the path of rural development more generally, is weak. Consequently, the international development and lending communities have reassessed state-led land reform as a vehicle for delivering change--perhaps to some extent justifiably. Such state-led approaches to land reform, like other state-led development efforts, were far from perfect: Political elites co-opted many attempts to address acute reform needs, while many efforts designed to assist the poor only alienated them even further.

According to some prominent observers, therefore, the most appropriate approach to land reform is via market-led agrarian reform (MLAR) or variations thereof (Deininger 1999). Reformers who support MLAR call for land acquisition from willing sellers who are paid full market values for their land. MLAR also states that beneficiaries should want to use the redistributed land for commercial purposes. The model seeks a departure from contested, protracted, and coercive methods of land redistribution.

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