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6 November 2007

Book Review by Robin Palmer Mokoro, Oxford, England

Development in Practice, Volume 17, Number 6, November 2007

Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville (eds.)

Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform Oakland, CA:

Food First Books, 2006, ISBN: 978-1567513585, xvi + 380 pp.

"While it was inconceivable that land could be redistributed through a willing buyer-willing seller approach at the beginning of the Cold War", write the editors of Promised Land, "by the Cold War’s end it was inconceivable that it could be done in any other way" (p.18).

They thus nicely encapsulate the ironies inherent in the fact that the economic power of the old landlords was broken in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after 1945, but that the same did not happen in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, or in Zimbabwe in 1980, or South Africa in 1994.

I approached this weighty volume with a certain fear -that it might turn out to be little more than a prolonged polemical rant against the usual suspects. I was very pleasantly surprised. It is in fact a compelling collection which seriously interrogates ’competing visions of agrarian reform’, as promised by its subtitle.

The overarching theme is to scrutinise the only model for land and agrarian reform that is still seriously on the table: the World Bank’s market-led policies. This is done most effectively in a brilliant general analysis by Jun Borras, and in a series of case studies which analyse alleged Bank successes in Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia.

These follow historical chapters on Guatemala, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, and are in turn followed by chapters on ’alternatives and resistance’, featuring Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil. There is also an excellent piece on indigenous peoples, but a very disappointing one (little more than FIAN propaganda) on gender and land. One of the editors, Peter Rosset, concludes with a chapter on agrarian reform as part of food sovereignty, reflecting the book’s origins in the Land Research Action Network (LRAN) and its heavy Latin American focus (but where are Nicaragua and Bolivia?).

Promised Land’s three editors credit the (post-Cold War) World Bank with ’making legitimate again the call for land reform’ (p. xiv) but also with ensuring that debates are focused on economic growth and increased GDP, rather than on ’justice, food sovereignty, equality or rural transformation’ (p. 7). They regularly test whether the Bank’s practice matches its rhetoric of wanting ’an efficiency- and equity-enhancing redistribution of assets’ (p. 107).

Aside from particular pertinent observations, such as whether the famous Thailand land-titling programme was really necessary, since Thais already had secure tenure, the dominant overall critique is that the market approach simply ignores history and existing power relations, assuming some mythical ’level playing field’ in which the powerful and the powerless can negotiate on equal terms in a ’free market’. As a result, all too often land-reform ’beneficiaries’ have found themselves marginalised, in every sense, and frequently heavily indebted. "Before I had nothing and owed nothing. Now I have nothing and owe money. I have land, but a debt too", reported a farmer from Matto Grosso, Brazil (p. 190).

There is much to savour and learn from here: chapters on agrarian reform in Cuba after the fall of communism (where private land had earlier been expropriated, the state sector was dramatically downsized, and people suddenly remembered the virtues of previously forbidden intercropping of sweet 834 potatoes and maize); on the MST’s practical implementation of some of Paolo Freire’s ideas in Brazil, and the often authoritarian practices of the Cedula da Terra programme ´ there; a snapshot of Hugo Chavez’s attempted land reforms in Venezuela; and the neat dissection of Thailand’s ’success story’, which has benefitted sharp urban speculators but ripped apart common lands and left ’the poorest farming groups in the a precarious legal position’ (p. 144). It is good to be reminded that ’agrarian reform cannot be labelled as conservative or revolutionary per se; it is a tool, and what makes the difference is who controls it’ (p. 267). The general conclusion is that ’there is mounting evidence that these policies are unlikely to significantly improve access by the poor to land or give them more secure tenure. In fact there is good reason to believe these policies will actually worsen the situation in many cases’ (p. 303).

There is an acknowledgement, right at the end of the book, that the rural world is in crisis. This is blamed on current global trade patterns which focus on access to export markets, rather than protecting local markets, and which encourage large-scale, chemical-intensive production, which is degrading some of the world’s best soils and in some cases leading to their being abandoned completely.

A few quibbles. The very first source cited (Wood 2000) does not appear in the references, which was troubling but, I think, a minor blip in what is generally a welledited collection. It was disappointing that the Zimbabwe story here ends at 2000, since a fair bit has happened since then. This is a book which can be strongly recommended to anyone engaging in landreform programmes led by the World Bank. I can also commend it to some of my former colleagues at Oxfam GB who decreed that land rights should no longer be a priority for the organisation.


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