The likelihood of conflict increases substantially when a large population of people owning little or no land has limited livelihood opportunities. Agitation is usually directed towards those people who are seen as having an undeserved but profitable hold on land, as can be seen in many countries where only a few great land owners and corporate groups own the land.
In some cases this unfair distribution of land is a result of colonisation; in others it has happened through later land expropriation. In most cases it is unclear who the estate belongs to, with the land mostly inhabited by indigenous people or peasants whose only chance of survival is access to a piece of land. In places like India, Latin America or Africa, more than half of the population earns its living from farming and supplying the local population with food. Not owning land means first of all dependence and most of all hunger.
Land is more than a piece of arable land. Land is a strategic socio-economic asset, particularly in poor societies where wealth and survival are measured by control and access to land. Land estate means cultural and social identity. In some domestic contexts, recognition of citizenship is also attached to ownership of land.
A lack of clearly defined and circumscribed land rights is intrinsically linked to poverty, conflict and most of all chronic hunger. People are banished and lose their basic nourishment which can result in migration to cities and the formation of urban slums.
Landless People All Over the World
“Give us a piece of land” demands the leader of a Landless movement in Tamil Nadu, India, where 70 percent of the population lives from agriculture but only a small proportion of the people can call a piece of land their own. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, also called the “Rice bowl of India”, 10 percent of the rural population is absolutely landless, a further 36 percent owns less than half an acre of land, and only six percent of the rural households own more than five acres of land.
For decades, indigenous communities and peasants in Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru or India have been banished from their soil and territories because of private mineral, oil or mining projects or by woodcutters.
In Brazil an estimated three percent of the population owns two thirds of all arable land. Having lost most of their ancestral lands to sugar cane and other plantations, some 45 thousand Guarani people in Mato Grosso do Sul for example now live in extreme poverty and are unable to exercise their rights to their ancestral lands.
In Peru, where 80 per cent of the Amazonian Forest is covered by oil, gas and mining concessions, many of these overlap with indigenous community lands. Decades of drilling have not just reduced tree cover but also contaminated the land and water with toxic chemicals. The effects on local health, environment and livelihoods have been devastating.
Dangerous levels of lead and cadmium (by-products of extractive industries) for example, have been found in the blood of more than half the Achuar children and young people in Northern Peru. The government has called for a state of emergency in the Pastaza, Tigre and Corrientes river basins, but the polluters have yet to be held responsible.
NGOs like Survival International report over and over again on human rights violations against indigenous people or land right activists.
Land and Conflict
Fertile soil or land which is full of basic commodities is highly sought after and will run short. This is due to the increase of the world’s population as well as the conditional climatic change which makes the soil less fertile.
Recently, states like China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea or Kuwait started buying fertile land in the global south (e.g. in Cambodia, Sudan, Tanzania, the Philippines) to try to eliminate hunger in their own nation. Critical observers describe this as “land grabbing”.
While governments welcome them as investors, local indigenous communities are banished without any compensation. The International Food Policy Research Institute offers a deeper insight into this issue.
Government land appropriation and resettlement schemes are notorious for causing conflict and tension related to competition for land uses and claims. Frequently, governments appropriate land and forcibly move people when they want to use an area for an incompatible use such as a dam or natural resource development.
Landless People in Action
There is a growing resistance against the banishment and a desire for the fair distribution of land worldwide. Representatives of indigenous associations in several countries are fighting against concessions to multinational companies which exploit their natural resources.
In Central and South India, the Indian movement Ekta Parishad has offered resistance against banishment for the last 20 years. On 3 October 2012, ten thousand landless poor walked by foot from Gwalior to Delhi to get the Indian government to clarify the issue of land rights.
In Brazil the movement of the landless (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra / Movimento dos Sem Terra, MST) is fighting for rights to land. This movement is one of the most important organisations in Brazil. In 1991, it received the Alternative Nobel prize and was recently designated the most important and exciting movement of the world at the World Social Forum by Noam Chomsky. In other Latin American countries (such as Bolivia, Peru or Paraguay) the number of movements in the last 15 years is rising. Each year, April 17 marks a worldwide protest day of the peasants and landless, organised by La Via Campesina
Land Rights in the International Legal Framework
To whom does the land belong? What is a fair distribution of land? And what have we all got do with it?
Agrarian reforms are on the to-do list of many developing countries, but so far, there has been hardly any progress, and political problems occur especially where there is dispossession of great land owners.
There is no “right to land” codified in international human rights law. Within the international legal framework, rights to land access have been established for particular groups (e.g. indigenous people and women) however, numerous rights are affected by access to land (e.g. food, water, work) and general principles in international law provide protections that relate to access to land. An explicit consideration of the legal implications of access to land for a broad range of human rights is needed.
Even if some countries are not directly involved in this issue, it nevertheless influences their foreign, economic and development policies. Furthermore, each inhabitant of each state worldwide is involved by consuming commodities from other countries. Each individual can influence the situation at least a little by buying fair trade products and by becoming sensitive to this cause.
Updated by Annalisa Dorigo in April 2015