The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Land rights problems vary country to country

The land rights problems stem from each developing country’s history, Landesa CEO Tim Hanstad explained.


After the 1949 Communist revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong spread landownership from the small feudal elite to the masses, but in the 1950s collectivized the farms with the help of the Soviet Union.

That collectivization led to the largest famine in the 20th century, with 35 million deaths, Harstad noted. In 1980 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the collectives where 2,000 to 3,000 people worked were decollectivized and each farm family got an acre and a half.

That system improved productivity — 50 percent in three years — but land rights were never formalized. In many villages local leaders respected the family’s right to an acre and a half of land, but often took land, especially on the increasingly valuable edges of cities, and gave the farm family a different acre and a half each year.

Landesa has been working with the Chinese government since 1987, devising ways to give farmers long-term rights to land.

“Private ownership is not in the cards” in China, Hanstad said, but about half of China’s farmers now get 30-year renewable use rights that are tradable, rentable, inheritable. In some areas, where the government wanted what was considered waste land to be farmed, the government has given out leases for 50 to 70 years and in larger plots, he said.


Hanstad said India has four separate land rights problems:
  • A significant rural population that relies on agriculture but owns no land;
  • Small farmers who say they own land but do not have formal legal rights;
  • Women who are increasingly active in agriculture, but do not have land rights within the household;
  • And a highly restricted farm tenancy market, because in most Indian states it is either illegal or highly restricted to rent out agricultural land.

India’s land ownership problems do not stem from British colonialism, Hanstad said, but from “socialist ideal” laws that were passed in the early years after independence.

African countries

The problems vary from country to country in Africa, but in most countries stem from the use of “customary law rather than statute,” Hanstad said.

Customary law is not a problem, he said, until outsiders come in and want the land for agricultural production, conservation, diamonds, minerals or commercial development. There is usually a “formal statutory overlay” that exists from the British or the French colonial period, and those formal laws are used by the elites to grab land despite customary usage.

“You have government as the most powerful actor,” he said. “The situation is often a bit ambiguous. Then power wins, not the rule of law.”