In a new study, researchers say that land inequality is rising in most countries. Worse, new measures and analysis proves that land inequality is significantly higher than previously recorded, with data reporting a 41 percent increase compared to traditional census data.
The report, Uneven Ground: land inequality at the heart of unequal societies, is the first of its kind, shedding new light on the scale and speed of this growing phenomenon and providing the most comprehensive picture available today. The report was informed by 17 specially commissioned research papers as well as analysis of existing data and literature under a wide partnership led by the International Land Coalition, and in close collaboration with Oxfam.
South Asia exhibits the highest inequality, with top 10% landowners capturing up to 75% of agricultural land and bottom 50% owning less than 2%, while China and Vietnam are the world region with lowest inequality. Asian countries that appeared to be moderately equal using traditional measures (such as India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) have among the highest levels of inequality when land values and the landless population are included.
“In the framework of this project, a new way to measure land inequality was developed that goes beyond land size distribution captured through traditional agricultural census.” said Ward Anseeuw, co-author of the report and coordinator of the initiative. Historically, methods to measure land inequality excluded vital pieces of information, such as the value of land, multiple ownership and landlessness, as well as the control a person or an entity has over it.
The study finds that land inequality directly threatens the livelihoods of an estimated 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder agriculture. The vast majority of the smallest farms globally are in Asia, where they are essential to the livelihoods of a large proportion of the population.
Land inequality solutions for resilient, sustainable, and equitable societies
The report shows that Asia has seen a significant increase in the inequality of farm and land distribution. In this case, it is related to consolidation within the framework of the Asian Green Revolution, the significant number of large-scale land acquisitions for agriculture and other sectors (mining, infrastructure, tourism), and a growing landless population. As corporate and financial investments grow, ownership and control of land becomes more concentrated and increasingly opaque.
To respond effectively to land inequality, it is essential to interrogate and challenge support for elite- and corporate-driven growth, commodification of land and natural resources, and the push for greater productivity and ever greater returns on investment in the agri-food sector.
“Collective action strategies for inclusive food chains can challenge the drivers of land inequality,” says Truong Quoc Can of the Consultative Institute for Socio-Economic Development of Rural and Mountainous Areas in Hanoi, Vietnam. “By building direct linkages to processing enterprises or by owning processing facilities, primary producers can earn the same amount of income on less land, as they capture the added value from processing. This means that strategies of accumulating larger landholdings become less important for economic sufficiency and well-being in competitive settings,” he added.
Secure collective land rights contribute to reducing inequality, both within communities and between communities and external actors, including surrounding populations. It also reinforces the stewardship role that communities and territories play with regard to climate change, global biodiversity management, bio-cultural conservation, and justice, including territorial and gender justice.
In the Philippines, for example, after the People Power Revolution of 1986, indigenous peoples were given the opportunity to reclaim ancestral domains with the passing of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.
“With this legislation, the community was able to exercise rights over the land, prevent intrusion by illegal occupants and investors, regulate the felling of trees in the forests, and settle disputes among community members. The community could also collaborate with other stakeholders and institutional partners,” said Roel Ravanera of ILC member organisation the Xavier Science Foundation in the Philippines.
Nevertheless, the study finds that change is necessary and the urgency of addressing land inequality is fuelled by the same urgency with which people are demanding action on contemporary global crises.
“As we move towards a post-Covid world, we will see increased pressure for fast economic gain at the expense of people and nature,” Michael Taylor, Director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat warned. Adding, “there is always, however, a more inclusive path to re-building our economies, that emphasises sustainable use of natural resources, respects human rights and addresses systemic causes of inequality.”