Landlessness is Not Forever

Published on Landlessness is not forever, by Robert Mitchell, on March 9, 2011.

After more than a decade meeting with government officials and families in rural areas of the developing world, I have yet to encounter anyone who would discount the importance of land, or who would challenge the fact that landlessness is a severely disempowering condition for the rural poor.

It’s easy enough to grasp the concept that land is important, and that it’s especially important to rural families in the developing world. After all, most poor rural families that lack land of their own earn their living by working as day laborers on other people’s land, and land is a primary source of power for their employers. Landlessness and land insecurity, the lot of hundreds of millions of rural people worldwide, is a defining personal and social characteristic, greatly limiting their current options and future prospects. 

So much seems clear. What is much less expected—but encountered all too often—is the attitude that landlessness is an immutable “given,” a static social arrangement that cannot be changed. The sky is blue, the town is a ten-hour walk from the village, and a third of the village is and will forever remain landless. Their children and their children’s children will know only landlessness and agricultural wage labor.

This is the assumption of most people I’ve met in the developing world, including government officials, rural development professionals, landowners and even (or especially) landless families themselves. Such attitudes prevail even among progressive thinkers who would like to see landlessness eradicated. But what good is there in hoping for change that shows no sign of coming? Isn’t it better to work on change that can happen, even if such change doesn’t address the root problem of landlessness? … (full text).

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