Research findings from the land inequality initiative

Uneven Ground

Conclusion – the urgent need to act on land equality

Chapter 5
Read time:
12 minute read

There is an urgent need to act on land inequality if humanity is to make any significant progress towards global sustainability, stability, and social justice. As this synthesis report reveals, land inequality is greater than previously estimated, and it plays a role in numerous global challenges. Despite its importance, however, the tools to address it are weakly implemented and vested interests in current land distribution patterns are strong and hard to shift. Change is necessary.

Land is more concentrated and its ownership and control increasingly opaque

Measurements vary, but all come to the same conclusion:

global land concentration has increased continuously since the 1980s. Today, when land size distribution is considered, the largest 1% of farms in the world operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland (Lowder et al., 2019).

About 84% of farms are smaller than two hectares in size, but they operate only about 12% of farmland (Ibid). When the value of land is considered and when landless populations are accounted for, these measures of land inequality are 41% higher across sampled countries.

Beyond this, land inequality and control over land are increasingly opaque. Shareholdings in agricultural assets, particularly land, are not made public, with corporate entities and investors able to acquire parts of farms or multiple farms as assets. In addition, the ultimate beneficiaries and major investors in these corporate and financial firms, especially investment funds, are often unknown. Meanwhile, official household surveys or farm censuses that are relied on for farm size and distribution data do not pick up corporate and multiple land holdings within countries and even less so across borders. The control of production (instead of outright purchase or rent of land) is also difficult, if not impossible, to monitor and quantify. Land access, holding, and control over land are more unequal than we have presumed up to now, and much greater than we can effectively measure – for now.

Land inequality is amplified by gender, ethnicity, and culture

Horizontal inequality, which is inequality based on gender, ethnicity, or culture in specific groups of people, is interconnected with land access, ownership, and control. These types of inequality seriously undermine sustainability. This is because women, indigenous people, and local communities tend to be the custodians of household well-being, sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity preservation, bio-cultural conservation, and social justice.

It is thus in humanity’s shared interest to prevent these types of land inequality from increasing.

Seeking horizontal equality in land should be understood not as replacing one tenure regime with another, nor as the destruction of important social relationships, but as an additional form of rights to be protected.

A polarised land and agri-food system

A key outcome of current trends is an increasingly bimodal and unequal land and agri-food system, with growing inequalities between the smallest landholders and the largest, and accelerating with the emergence of mega-farms in terms both of land size and value of production.

On one side are the globally dominant food systems largely controlled by a small number of corporations and financial institutions. This sector is driven by the logic of return on large-scale investments through corporate governance and industrial production systems aiming for economies of scale. This involves a degree of detachment of decision-making from the specificity of any particular piece of land or place – or “farming without farmers” (Wegerif and Anseeuw, 2020). At the other end of the spectrum are locally dominant agri-food systems, largely made up of small-scale producers and family farmers connected to particular pieces of land. These producers rely on established and low-external-input agricultural practices and link primarily to local and territorial markets involving many similar-scaled owner-operated enterprises in trading, processing, and retailing (Colque and Mamani, 2020; Espinosa Rincón and Jaramillo Gómez, 2020).

In reality these are not completely separate systems; there are many points of intersection, but they represent, in the scale and logic of their production, two approaches that are moving further and further apart. This is a highly unequal contest, as powerful actors will not only continue to accumulate land and take over production and market space but also exert influence to shape the policy environment and infrastructure in their favour.

The biggest danger is that the expansion of corporate-controlled agriculture will render the locally dominant system unviable, displacing people from their land and livelihoods with no meaningful alternatives.

Addressing land inequality means transforming power relations

The current global order – legal, corporate, and financial – is highly unlikely to stop or slow the rate of growing land inequality. Yet the impact of land inequality on other inequalities and global crises demands a response.

It is important to emphasise that land redistribution efforts alone will fail to ensure sustainable livelihoods, let alone prosperity, for the majority of rural people.

A range of measures is needed, including redistributive programmes, regulatory reforms, taxation, and accountability measures, not only in relation to land but across the agri-food sector, from inputs to retailing.

Such interventions will entail redressing the power imbalances affecting land and the agri-food sector, while also supporting more equitable relations between people and the land.

Regulation of land ownership, use, and distribution – and the regulation of corporate-controlled food systems in particular – will require greater transparency and the prevention of “hidden” shareholding and investors who are geographically and institutionally detached from the land and operations, and therefore difficult to hold to account for their economic, social, and environmental impacts.

Addressing land inequality addresses other inequalities and global crises

Land inequality is inter-related with other inequalities, whether they are social, economic, political, environmental, or territorial. Land inequality is also a cause and a consequence of many global crises and trends, from the democracy crisis and unemployment, youth disenfranchisement and mass migration, to climate change and the spread of pandemic diseases. Tackling land inequality could have a wide range of positive impacts on people, societies, and our planet’s future.

Addressing land inequality is not only redressing asset and wealth inequality, it is also enabling the generation of more equal incomes from the land for those who till it, while reducing rent-seeking by a minority, and allowing for more inclusive development. It will give a voice to a broader base of rural populations, strengthening democracies and making policies more participatory and, subsequently, less elite-biased. Its direct relationship with environmental inequality makes addressing land inequality a basis for more environmental sustainability, improved global biodiversity, strengthened bio-cultural conservation, and justice – although this will require ensuring that climate mitigation strategies minimise the demand for land and the consequent risk of exacerbating land inequalities. All of the above will be necessary stepping-stones towards more resilient and sustainable societies, where populations, even the most marginalised, including women, youth, indigenous peoples, and local communities, can thrive and migration is unnecessary as a last resort in economies with minimal labour absorption.

The need to embed land regulation into society

Land provides common goods, like biodiversity, water, and other natural resources. Relating to a finite commodity, land markets are not likely to self-regulate, and inevitably become markets of exclusion and concentration where inequalities steadily increase. As such, allowing land markets to develop independently of society cannot work. Abolishing all forms of market and entrusting the management of land only to states and governments is not a solution either. Land can be sold and bought, but land markets – and all land regulation interventions – must be regulated through human intervention and institutions to prevent them from creating perpetually unequal land patterns and societies.

The need to rebuild together and to deepen democracy

In order to reduce land inequality and establish permanent mechanisms to control its growth, it will be necessary to establish institutions based on collective rights that can establish rules with a certain degree of autonomy.

The overarching objective should be the construction of institutions and mechanisms to control and prevent land inequality that are compatible with broad social interests, and in line with the achievement of the SDGs.

While governments need to lead and enforce reforms, it is likely that in most countries CSOs and local institutions will have to lead the way in demanding change, particularly in the power relations between citizens, corporate and financial interests, and the state. The strengthening of organisations that defend broader social and public interests in relation to land policy and land market regulation is absolutely essential.

Change will be hard, but not impossible

Land concentration is not inevitable. It is a product of elite control, corporate interests, and political choices. It is possible to put in place a very different system, building on existing initiatives with more equitable relations between people and with the land. Ideally, coordinated state action – across functions within national governments and between governments – is needed to turn this situation around. But this will only happen if governments can put aside their uncritical embrace of large-scale modernisation policies and act in the interests of their societies and future generations, with a total focus on the most vulnerable.

In the absence of, or alongside, any decisive state action, opportunities have to be built that allow greater autonomy for local food producers in production and distribution. The growth of various counter-movements, from food sovereignty to slow food and inclusive food chains, based on climate-smart and agroecological production models, shows that there is space for a different organisation of the production and distribution of food. This is shaped by new paradigms that draw on both old and new technologies, based on respectful and interdependent relations among people and with the natural environment

Towards a blueprint for action

The following actions can contribute to taking us off the path of growing land inequality, and instead build more equitable access to land as a basis for a sustainable and inclusive future.

  1. Democratise land governance: Land governance, from national policies to local institutions, should be based on broad representation. Decision-making should include representatives of the state and organisations of producers and other local land users. These should function in the framework of people-centred land policy frameworks and governance structures, aimed at the common good.
  2. Strengthen land-related regulation: Governments should develop land ownership, land use, and land distribution policies and institutions to address patterns of land inequality and their drivers. At national and decentralised levels, these should be reconceived based on broad social consensus, in light of contemporary circumstances and taking into account the full range of causes and impacts of land inequality.
  3. Invest in well-functioning land registries: Governments and their partners should invest in institutions and technology for efficient and fully transparent land registries, including at decentralised levels. Land registries should include information regarding institutional ownership and control of land through sophisticated financial instruments, including listed and unlisted funds. This provides an informed basis for land taxation and other redistributive measures.
  4. Strengthen transparency and monitoring of land holdings: Governments should ensure public access to information about all transfers of rights to use land, whether through purchase, rental, usage, or shareholding. At the same time, there should be greater investment in the capacity of citizen-led monitoring initiatives, including the monitoring of companies and their shareholders operating in agriculture and land-related activities and controlling production. Public support, including development finance for investments or projects, should be contingent on the release of all relevant information.
  5. Legally enforce responsible corporate practice: Governments, especially of investor countries, should hold companies registered in their jurisdictions to account. They should oblige companies to report against the principles of key international frameworks, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture of the CFS. Legal frameworks of host countries should be upgraded to be equal to or stronger than the standards of international frameworks.
  6. Protect common and customary rights: Governments should recognise and protect customary land claims, ranging from legally recognised and documented community land rights through to non-statutory and undocumented rights. An urgent task is recognising the territorial rights and governance systems of indigenous peoples. In all cases, free, prior, and informed consent should be a standard procedure for all decisions affecting the territories of indigenous people and local communities.
  7. Recognise and protect women’s land rights: Governments should ensure gender equality in land rights, in law and in practice. This requires a range of actions, from legislating for equal opportunity and rights to encouraging adaptation of social norms, attitudes, or behaviours that support women’s self-directed decision-making and ability to benefit from land. Legal mechanisms should enforce women’s rights to land when they are under threat and provide mechanisms for redress, including in collective land tenure systems.
  8. Respect and strengthen civil society institutions and capacities: Strong CSOs have a key role to play in monitoring, promoting accountability, and challenging power relations. Powerful and representative constituency-based organisations – belonging to farmers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, women, and fisher folks – can ensure that the voices and priorities of land users are heard.
  9. Build more sustainable and equitable production models and food systems: Governments should support the more resilient and sustainable production models of small-scale producers and family farmers. This means allowing them greater autonomy from corporate production systems and the ability to get reasonable returns from employing agroecological, or at least low-external-input, production practices, linked with local markets. Public investment is needed not just for their access to good-quality land, but also for improved public market spaces, protection of national agricultural produce markets from international commodity market pressures, research for improved ecologically sound inputs such as seed and genetic stock, and appropriate storage and processing technologies.

A transformative agenda of this magnitude is not optional. It is urgent and is in the interests of all humanity, for more resilient, sustainable, and equitable societies.

Change will require broad-based action, involving state institutions at all levels, donors and development partners, the private sector, and, not least, people’s organisations, farmers, and all those who make their living from land.