Item 7 : The Right to Development

March 22 - April 28, 1999
Palais des Nations, Geneva

In the 1970’s, many governments committed themselves with good intentions to realizing equitable distribution of land through its 'redistribution with speed' and, to systematically monitoring progress in poverty reduction. They also undertook 'to eliminate severe under-nutrition by the year 2000'.' Alas, this unanimous commitment and enthusiasm was short-lived. Since the early 1980’s there has been a sudden shift away from government-implemented redistributive land reform towards reliance on the formal credit market and on landed property transfer, freely negotiated in the open market.

Accordingly, the pro-social transformation and anti-poverty redistributive land reform policy has been suddenly eclipsed and condemned. In devising policy prescriptions that are tightly bound to aid and debt relief, international aid agencies and donor countries have propagated in their policy packages, technical programmes of agricultural credit and legal procedures for land transactions based on the dominance of a private sector free from price control by the state. Accordingly, poor peasants and landless workers wishing to purchase a piece of land have to search for a willing seller, negotiate the sale price of land, and compete with speculators and rich landowners to secure credit, and even bid at land sale auctions.

For example Colombia's Law no. 160 of 1994 provides a mechanism for market-based land transfers to reduce the very high inequality of land and income distribution and the persistently high poverty level of 45 per cent in rural areas. Under this scheme, potential buyers of land are granted 70 per cent of the sale price and are grouped in project-like activities supported by the World Bank. According to a study prepared by the UN/CEPAL, the programme has had very limited success owing to high prices imposed by violent coercion from landlords and narcotics dealers, the refusal of willing buyers to purchase land in any locality and cumbersome bureaucracy. The study found also that most of the land buyers are urban, that transaction costs are prohibitive for small peasants, and that 'transfers of property rights through the existing market mechanisms have failed to shift land from one [rich] group to another group [of poor peasants]'.

What is more significant in the propagation of land market reform is the shift in development objectives and the constituent elements in the ordering of means and ends. Whereas Redistributive Land Reform gives high priority to the rapid reduction of poverty in rural areas, combined with the development of the abilities of the beneficiaries, sponsors of land market based reform accord priority to economic efficiency in the market-determined allocation of resources in order to realize export-led agricultural growth. land market based reform policy supports the freedom of the producer and of capitalists in the accumulation of land and income, irrespective of adverse distributional consequences and effects on the well-being of the poor. Although the advocates of this approach, express concern over increasing poverty, they anticipate its eventual reduction by a sustained all-round rise in average real income per head. Equitable distribution of growth benefits is not a clear development objective. We believe that seeing land-market reform only in narrow economic terms as an end in itself represents a set-back in the progress made since the 1950s both in developing thinking and in the realization of equitable rural development.

Since 1985, Brazil's land policy was proclaimed to pacify the millions of discontented poor peasants and landless workers and, at the same time, to serve the interests of influential landlords and multinationals. The October 1985 law typifies this strategy. Its Article 11 (section 1.5) intended to provide 1.4 million rural workers between 1985 and 1990 with landownership between 1985 and 1990 by way of distributing 40 million hectares of cultivable but unutilized land, in units of 20 ha. on average. The affected farms are those which do not serve 'the social function of land'. While the government was busy defining 'social function', conducting cadastral surveys and studying the legal procedures, nothing happened about actual redistribution. Supported by NGOs, the rural workers occupied the land in anticipation of ownership as promised by the politicians. Violent confrontation between the occupants, on the one hand, and the police and the landlords' paramilitary organizations on the other, resulted in hundreds of deaths. Eventually, only a fraction of nearly 6 per cent of a total 1.4 million landless workers received land.

The Brasilian government, according to the 1999 Pastoral letter of the Roman Catholic Brazilian Bishops “has dedicated itself to addressing problems as they arise, such as the land problem of occupations or "tension points", and leading to the so-called "expropriation industry", in which the price of land purchased by the government is inflated at the moment of the sale.
The logic of the economic model not only ignores the possibility of small scale production, but forces this sector to disappear or reduces it to subsistence level.

“The Landless Movement (MST) and the rural union movement, which organize workers who want to work the land and are the only social movements with effective social power, are gaining ground among workers and legitimacy in the struggle to return to the countryside. There is also a novel approach within the process as the grassroots movements are showing that they are capable of organizing production in their camps and are integrating their agricultural production in the industrial production. Before they had to depend on the insufficient support of State agencies.

“But even with all this evidence Brazil’s government does not see the link between agrarian reform and the problem of unemployment. A revealing fact is seen in the ten points of the so-called war against unemployment offered after the 10th March 1999 Cabinet meeting: There is not a single word about agrarian reform. In relation to the issue of rural unemployment, there is mention of theoretically reinforcing a programme to strengthen family agriculture and support the fruit-producing industry, which is managed by the giant companies…”

Madam Chair, we refer to the land tenure policies of only 2 countries, Colombia and Brazil, to illustrate the obstacles to the right to development.
Without land people cannot support themselves, they are forced to leave their land for cities where they live together in uninhabitable, often violent living condition, without access to opportunities for education or adequate health care.

The pattern of destruction caused by the shift from a redistributive land reform to a land reform based on market prices is causing havoc throughout Africa, Asia and The Americas.

We call upon the UN Commission on Human Rights :

  1. the Special Rapporteur on the right to development consider the issue of land tenure and agrarian reform in his report to the Commission next year;
  2. to request the SubCommission to appoint one of its members to prepare a working paper without financial implication on the question of land tenure and agrarian reform.
Oral, Written or Summary: 
Meeting Year: 


UN Commission on Human Rights: Fifty-fifth session
Meeting Name: 
UN Commission on Human Rights: Fifty-fifth session