Agrarianism and the Good Society: Land, Culture, Conflict, and Hope (Culture of the Land)

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In many developing countries, the ways in which agrarian policies have managed the export of agricultural production have often further encouraged the process of the concentration of land in the hands of the few. Price control policies have been adopted for certain products, favouring large agro-industrial concerns and export growers, but penalizing small growers producing traditional farm products. In yet other cases, tax policies concerning agriculture have worked to the profit of certain landowners individual physical persons or companies , allowing them to recoup fixed investments in a relatively short time, either by not envisaging progressive taxes or in some way facilitating tax evasion.

Lastly, certain policies facilitating loans to the agricultural sector have distorted price relations between land and work. All this has encouraged a process of accumulation based on investment in land, with small farmers, who are often on the sidelines of the land market, being excluded from the process. The rise in land prices and the fall in the supply of jobs owing to agricultural mechanization have made access to credit, and hence the acquisition of land, difficult for small farmers if they are not grouped in associations.

The aim of reducing international debt through exports can lead to a fall in the standard of living of small farmers, who often do not produce export items. The lack of a public service of agricultural training prevents such farmers, who of necessity engage in a predominantly subsistence-style farming using traditional techniques, from acquiring the necessary technical training for a correct use of the cultivation techniques required by new products.

They are poorly integrated into the market, and their difficulties in gaining access to credit curtail their power to purchase the inputs required by new techniques. Poor knowledge of the market means that they can neither keep abreast of trends in product prices nor reach the quality required for export. If the market prompts small farmers to grow export crops, this often takes place at the expense of production intended mainly for their own consumption, thus putting farming families at considerable risk.

Unfavourable climatic or market conditions can lead to a vicious circle of hunger, so that such families contract debts that then force them to give up ownership of their land. In recent decades, various forms of economic activity based on the use of natural resources have steadily expanded into land traditionally occupied by indigenous populations.

Author Corner

In most cases, the rights of the indigenous inhabitants have been ignored when the expansion of large-scale agricultural concerns, the establishment of hydroelectric plants and the exploitation of mineral resources, and of oil and timber in areas of expanding agricultural frontiers have been decided, planned and implemented. The law is respected while all this is taking place.

However, the property rights upheld by the law are in conflict with the right of use of the soil deriving from an occupation and ownership of the land the origins of which are lost in memory. In the culture and spirituality of indigenous populations, land is seen as the basis of every value and as the unifying factor that nourishes their identity. However, when the first great landholdings were formed, these peoples lost the legal right to ownership of land on which they had lived for centuries, which means that they can now be dispossessed without warning whenever the old or new holders of legal title to the property want to take physical possession, even if they have shown no interest in it for dozens of years.

Indigenous populations can also run the absurd but very real risk of being seen as "invaders" of their own land. The only ways they can avoid expulsion from their own land is by agreeing to work for the large companies or by emigrating. In any case, they are deprived of their land and their culture. The history of many rural areas has often been marked by conflict, social injustice and uncontrolled forms of violence.

Similar tactics have been used in order to overcome conflicts with small farmers who have been farming State or other land for a long time, or in order to take possession of land occupied by indigenous populations. In these conflicts, intimidation and illegal arrests are used, and, in extreme cases, armed groups are hired to destroy possessions and harvests, deprive community leaders of power, and eliminate people, including those who take up the defence of the weak, among whom many Church leaders.

The representatives of the public authorities are often direct accomplices in such violence. The executors and instigators of the crimes are guaranteed impunity by weaknesses in the administration of justice and the indifference of many States to international juridical instruments concerning respect for human rights.

Developing countries can effectively counter the present process under which land ownership is being concentrated in a few hands if they face up to certain situations that constitute real structural problems, for example legislative deficiencies and delays regarding both recognition of land titles and in relation to the credit market, a lack of concern over agricultural research and training, and neglect of social services and infrastructures in rural areas.


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In many countries, the inadequate normative framework and the fragile bases of such administrative institutions as land registers often make it even harder for small farmers to obtain legal recognition of ownership rights over land that they have been farming for a long time and of which they are de facto owners. They are often stripped of their land because it falls by law into the hands of those whose greater financial means and access to information enable them to obtain recognition of ownership rights.

Small farmers lose out in every case: uncertainty over ownership of the land is a major disincentive to investment, increases risks for farmers if they expand their farms, and reduces the possibility of access to credit for which land is used as a guarantee. This uncertainty also encourages over-exploitation of natural resources without concern for environmental sustainability or without considering the intergenerational continuity of family property. Traditional regulations governing the credit market help to produce the effects described above.

Small farmers find it very difficult to gain access to the credit needed to improve production techniques, to expand their holdings and cope with adversities, because of the role given to land as a guarantee, as well as the higher costs that small loans entail for credit institutions. This results in a raking in of smaller properties, swelling both the ranks of the landless and the size of the holdings of large landowners, richer farmers or local traders. Basically, in poor economies, access to long-term credit tends to be directly proportionate to ownership of production inputs, particularly land, and therefore to be the exclusive prerogative of major landowners.

Other major deficiencies concern agricultural research and training, 12 that is the study and development of new and appropriate production techniques for different situations, and extension work to inform farmers of the existence of such techniques and how to use them to best advantage. In many developing countries, there is very often little financial commitment to setting up research structures and centres, so that those in charge of training are ill-prepared for their task.

This creates conditions for two closely linked phenomena of particular economic and social importance:.

Land, culture, conflict, and hope

In such cases, there is a major danger that the spread of such new techniques will have negative effects on the standard of living of small farmers and the very survival of their farms. Neglect of the infrastructures and social services so indispensable in rural areas is having very marked effects. The serious deficiencies in both quantity and quality in the school system in these areas mean that young people do not receive the tools for developing their personal potential and becoming aware of their dignity as human beings and their rights and duties.

Similarly, the scarcity and poor quality of health services is often translated into what amounts to a denial of the right to health for the rural poor, with all the inevitable consequences for their lives. Apart from making access to the other social services difficult, deficiencies in transport systems tend to reduce considerably the profitability of farming for small farmers.

The lack or poor maintenance of roads and the scarcity of public transportation increase the cost of inputs, thus reducing any incentive to improve production techniques. The most serious effect of deficiencies in the various infrastructures is that small farmers are forced to depend on local markets to sell their produce. These markets are not in a condition to provide the necessary information to ensure that the quality of production meets the requirements of demand.

They are also dominated by traders whose monopolistic position means that farmers are forced to accept the price offered if they want to sell their produce. Imbalances in the division of land ownership and the policies giving rise to and sustaining them are the source of serious obstacles to economic development. Such imbalances and policies can have economic consequences which affect the majority of the population.

At least five of these can be listed:.

The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

Such advantages lead to further investment in land, and hence a rise in its price. As a result, small farmers see their purchasing power for land eroded, and hence their possibility of improving the efficiency and equity of the land market through normal trading operations;. The production per land-unit of small landowners is higher than that of large landowners.

The production of the large landowners, who own the greater part of the land, is less, with the consequent reduction of the overall agricultural production of the country;. The social consequences are heavy and high. The agricultural sector is enmeshed in a process that increases and spreads poverty. Increases in population levels are therefore very high, while education and health needs are inadequately met. The traditional balance in the distribution of population is upset in rural communities by processes of destructuration, which cause a migratory movement to the outskirts of the large cities, which are increasingly becoming megacities, and where social conflict, violence and criminality are growing worse.

Constant pressure is put on indigenous populations in an effort to force them off their land. They have to look on as their economic, social, political and cultural institutions disintegrate and the environmental balance of their land is destroyed.

For many countries, even those rich in land and natural resources, hunger and malnutrition still constitute the main problem. While the use of land for export production reduces food costs in countries with developed economies, it can have very negative effects on most of the families who live from farming.

Agrarianism and the Good Society: Land, Culture, Conflict, and Hope

No thinking mind or conscience can countenance this paradoxical situation. As economic and social problems mount up, political problems become ever more complex, causing instability and conflict, which in turn curb democratic development. All this works to the detriment of agriculture and represents a major obstacle for any programme of economic growth. Lastly, inequalities in the distribution of land ownership set in motion a process of environmental degradation that is hard to reverse. Deforestation of large areas is often encouraged with tax and credit facilities in order to make way for forms of extensive ranching or mining activities or to exploit the resulting timber, but plans for environmental rehabilitation are either non-existent or not implemented.

Poverty is also linked to environmental degradation in a vicious circle when small farmers suffer expropriation by major landowners and the landless poor are forced to search for new land, therefore occupying structurally fragile areas such as slopes, and further eroding the forest heritage in order to clear a space to farm. The first page of the Bible tells of the creation of the world and of the human person: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" Gen Solemn words describe the task that God entrusts to them: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" Gen However, in biblical language, they are used to describe the rule of a wise king who cares for the well-being of all of his subjects.

Man and woman must care for creation, so that it will serve them and remain at the disposition of all, not just a few. The underlying nature of creation is that of being a gift of God, a gift for all, and God wants it to remain so. God's first command is therefore to preserve the earth in its nature as gift and blessing, not to transform it into an instrument of power or motive for division. The right and duty of the human being to have dominion over the earth is derived from being the image of God: all, and not just a few, are responsibile for creation. In Egypt and Babylonia, this prerogative was attributed to a few, whereas in the biblical text, dominion belongs to the human person as such, and hence to all.

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Indeed, it is humanity in its entirety which must shoulder responsibility for creation. Man is placed in the garden to till it and keep it cf. Gen , so that he can nourish himself of its fruit.


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  7. Israelites had the right to ownership of the earth, which the law protected in many ways. The Ten Commandments state: "You shall not desire your neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour's" Deut It can be said that an Israelite felt truly free and fully Israelite only when he had his own plot of land. However, the Old Testament insists that the earth is God's and that God has given it as a heritage to all the children of Israel. It is therefore to be shared among all the tribes, clans and families.

    Man is not the true master of his land, but rather an administrator. God is the true master. Thus the book of Leviticus states: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me" In Egypt, the land belonged to the Pharaoh, with the peasants as his servants and property, while in Babylonia there was a feudal structure, with the king granting land in exchange for fidelity and services. Things were very different in Israel: the earth is God's, and God gives it to all his children.

    This has some specific consequences.