Democracy Lab

A Place of One's Own

Land is more than real estate. In many parts of the world, it’s the key to survival, belonging, and identity.

Here are some of things that have been happening around the world, of late:

The Colombian government's negotiations with the group behind that country's 50-year-old insurgency have broken down. Kenyans are preparing for their next presidential election. Israeli settlers and Palestinians have clashed on the West Bank. Chinese villagers are railing against the government.

These headlines might seem to have little in common. Yet there's something that unites them: the longing for land.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is talking about a peace agreement with the FARC, the guerrilla group born out of demands for land reform back in the early 1960s. Fittingly enough, land is also a sticking point in the current negotiations: Both sides accuse the other of displacing peasants from their farms.

In Kenya, where inequitable distribution of land has been a major bone of contention for at least the past two decades, the issue has been the source of some vicious mud-slinging in the recent presidential debates. The country's most recent constitution holds out the prospect of wide-ranging land reform, but Kenyans are still waiting to see it implemented.

In China, meanwhile, residents of the village of Wukan, who staged a much-noted protest against illegal land seizures in 2011, now say that the government is going back on its promises to return what was taken. And nine Palestinians were wounded in a clash with settlers after the Israelis chased a local man off his land in the West Bank village of Kusra.

Conflicts over land have existed pretty much ever since people began settling down in one place. Yet that doesn't mean that disputes are part of the natural order of things. There are many countries in the world where settled traditions of clear property rights protect against the most egregious abuses. But there are far too many other places where land scarcity, powerful business interests, muddled laws, or entrenched social inequality make fights over land inevitable.

Economists tend to view land as another natural resource, like oil or timber. There is some truth to this, of course. In places where farming is still the main form of economic activity, whether your family is rich or poor can depend to a large degree on your access to land.

But land is never just about economics. Claims to land are wrapped in notions of identity and belonging, ownership and justice. Take someone's oil or timber away and they'll be angry with you, but you can probably placate them with the equivalent in cash. Take someone's land away and they'll never forgive you. "Most group political identities involve a very strong sense of relationship to the land," says political scientist Derek Hall of Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University (whose new book is entitled, simply, Land). "‘Relationship' isn't really even the word. People will say, ‘We're part of this land.' That can often make struggles over land particularly intense."

Even today, disagreements over land all too often end in bloodshed. Witness the massacre a few weeks ago in a corner of Kenya plagued by rival property claims -- or the murder of two Honduran peasants who were protesting illegal land grabs by military-backed oligarchs. The conflict between Japan and China over a few small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea even has experts worrying about the possibility of war.

People in the developed world sometimes have trouble appreciating the centrality of the problem. True, even countries with well-established property rights have their periodic controversies over eminent domain. Or they can find themselves confronting impassioned demands from indigenous peoples who claim land as recompense for colonialism.

And yet such controversies are minor compared with the predicament of a place like Burma, where two-thirds of the population live in the countryside and thus depend on the land for their livelihoods. The political liberalization that started there two years ago has been accompanied, unfortunately, by a rash of illegal land seizures (most likely orchestrated by cronies of the former military junta, who are eager to grab while the grabbing's good).

If the current government can't solve the problem, it will confront both an increasingly rebellious citizenry and a community of foreign investors unwilling to put money into a place where assurances of ownership don't seem to count for much. Failure to solve these problems could easily subvert the progress of Burma's nascent democracy. Fair access to land is a major precondition for a healthy polity. (The same is true of democratic India, where unequal distribution of land sustains another long-running insurgency by the Maoist Naxalites.)

Similar patterns repeat themselves around the world. Despite China's breakneck urbanization, the fate of the country's reform process depends to a crucial extent on whether the Communist Party can prevent local governments from conducting expropriations, which have been fueled by a system in which local governments finance their budgets through the sale of land. (Add rampant corruption, and you get a powerful set of incentives for an epidemic of evictions that drives much of China's simmering domestic unrest.) Hall notes that up to 60 million peasants have been displaced from their homes between 1990 and 2002. That adds up to quite a potential for discontent.

China's Communist leaders, whose revolution triumphed in 1949 thanks to the support of rebellious peasants, are surely in a position to appreciate the risks of skewed land distribution. The ownership of land by a privileged few is one of the most frequent triggers for rural insurgencies. (And the occupation and expropriation of a vanquished foe's land is a great way to ensure that proper peace will never come -- as Israelis ought to have figured out by now.)

Just to make matters even more complicated, now we have the burgeoning phenomenon of corporations buying up huge tracts of land in poor countries. In Liberia, for example, landless people are protesting big land purchases by palm oil companies from Malaysia and Indonesia. Land, in other words, is no longer a national problem, but increasingly one with a cross-border dimension. Hall points out that even plans for countering climate change ultimately entail compelling people to change their patterns of land use. In practical terms, he says, many policies designed to fight global warming amount to "paying people not to cut down trees on their land."

Policymakers in the developed world need to do a better job of appreciating the importance of this issue. It's possible to imagine many situations where implementing sensible land reform (including a full-fledged system of property rights) could do just as much to secure the future of democracy as election monitoring or advice on constitution-writing. This is a job that's too important to be left up to international financial institutions like the World Bank. It would be good to see individual countries pitching in with solutions, too. Washington, where are you?    

Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

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