Land inequality is rising in most countries, study says

Cover of Uneven Ground

International Land Coalition November 24, 2020

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.

“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, (CIRAD/ILC), 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. “These findings radically alter our understanding of the extent and far reaching consequences land inequality has, proving that not only is it a bigger problem than we thought but it’s undermining the stability and development of sustainable societies,” Anseeuw added.

The shocking state of land inequality

New measurements show that the top 10 percent of the rural population captures 60 percent of agricultural land value, while the bottom 50 percent of the rural populations only control 3 percent of land value.

The study finds that land inequality directly threatens the livelihoods of an estimated 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder agriculture, as well the world’s poorest 1.4 billion people, most of whom depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

“Growing inequality is the greatest obstacle to poverty eradication; in countries like Guatemala, extreme inequality costs lives,” asserts Oxfam Guatemala Country Director, Ana María Mendez.“ In rural Guatemala, extreme land inequality undermines the rights and livelihoods of indigenous and small-farmer communities and exacerbates the climate crisis. Today, as we confront the coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic hurricanes fueled by climate change, the impact of land inequality is even more stark, and the imperative to tackle the problem is urgent” she added.

Hidden hands – the unseen drivers of land inequality

Global inequality experts blame the upward trend of land inequality partly on the increased interest from corporate and financial actors, such as investment funds, in agricultural land investments. As corporate and financial investments grow, ownership and control of land becomes more concentrated and increasingly opaque.

Today, the largest 1 percent of farms operate more than 70 percent of the world’s farmland and are integrated into the corporate food system, while over 80 percent are smallholdings of less than two hectares that are generally excluded from global food chains. This phenomenon has even reached European shores with less than 3 percent of farms now accounting for more than half of the farmed land in the EU.

The report further brings new evidence to light on how tackling land inequality is imperative to effectively respond to the most pressing challenges of our times and has the potential to deliver significant positive outcomes for humanity and the planet. If not addressed and the trend continues, increasing land inequality will have significant negative consequences for all societies, on economic and social development, on the environment and on democracy and peace.Yet the authors insist that land concentration is not inevitable.

“What we’re seeing is that land inequality is fundamentally a product of elite control, corporate interests, and political choices. And although the importance of land inequality is widely accepted, the tools to address it remain weakly implemented and vested interests in existing land distribution patterns, hard to shift,” said Giulia Baldinelli of ILC and co-author of the report.

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,” Mike 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.”

See full report (39 page PDF file)

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