Research findings from the land inequality initiative

Uneven Ground

Framing land inequality, its centrality, and its impact

Chapter 2
Read time:
18 minute read

"When holders of capital are heavily reliant on a highly specific asset, the threat of expropriation is higher, as is elite resistance to democracy."

-Ziblatt (2008: 616), referring to Boix (2003)

Land Inequality is complex and multidimensional

Land inequality encompasses a number of concepts, measures, and facts. This synthesis report breaks new ground by bringing together the many facets of land inequality and analysing them comprehensively. Research presented in this report draws on a wider range of measures than is usually applied to land equality, and examines how land inequality links to pressing global issues, including power and democracy crises, poverty and unemployment, intergenerational justice and migration, climate crises and environmental degradation, and global health security and pandemics.

Historically, land inequality has been measured in terms of differences in land ownership. However, thorough investigation of land inequality requires us to study many more dimensions of land use and control. These include:

  • the size and/or value of land that people access or hold;
  • the level of security of tenure that people have;
  • the quality of land, its characteristics, and assets that may be on it;
  • the actual control that people have, including decision-making power over land;
  • the control of benefits derived from the land, including the ability to appropriate value from it.

Land inequality is both vertical and horizontal.

Vertical inequality focuses on the distribution of land among individuals, usually owners or those who directly control land. This is not enough. It is also essential to consider horizontal land inequality on the basis of factors such as gender, ethnicity, and culture.

Box 2: Gender inequality in land rights

Around the world, there is a clear male bias in land rights. With few exceptions, women have rights to less land than men and to land of lesser quality.

They are often unable to acquire or exercise the same rights as men in the same context, their rights are less secure, and it is harder for them to protect their rights when they are under threat. These patterns of inequality relate to gender-unequal social and power relations and affect women’s ability to convert the benefits of land into improved economic and social well-being. They also influence decision-making in the major sites of power in society (household, kin group, community, state).

Gender equality is a critical aspiration, yet in land rights the concept of equality can be poorly aligned with land tenure regimes, especially those that are based on culturally defined roles and relationships for men and women or tenets of communal support and reciprocity, or on spirituality. Such tenure regimes underpin many indigenous claims to self-determination. While they are locally legitimate, culturally appropriate and relevant, and often under threat from outside interests or reform processes, these tenure regimes can also be the source of gender discrimination.

Figure 3: Land ownership, men vs women, 2016

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Source: World Bank, Population (Gapfinder, HYDE 2016 & UN 2019), Our World Data

Seeking gender equality in land should be understood not as replacing one tenure regime with another, nor to destroy important social relationships, but instead to ensure that women and men have equal access to the opportunities that land rights confer, and that women’s and men’s land rights have equal protection and treatment so that everyone can realise their full potential.

Source: Scalise (2020).

Land inequality is structural and market-related.

Land inequality is not inevitable but is the result of political decisions, market forces, or a combination of both .

Structural land inequality derives from historical or present circumstances such as conquest, colonisation, and land distribution by colonial powers or by the state. In this form, it is common in Latin America and South Africa. Market forces also drive land inequality by encouraging accumulation, often by those who are already powerful and wealthy.

Land inequality is a cause and a consequence of other inequalities.

Land inequality is shaped by economic, political, social, spatial, and environmental factors, which in turn it also influences. This interconnectedness means that addressing land inequality requires an all-encompassing, cross-sectoral approach. It also means that tackling land inequality will have a wide range of positive implications for our planet’s broader inequalities and crises.

Land inequality manifests itself in numerous ways, whether social, economic, political, environmental, or territorial. Most of these manifestations are inter-related and influence one another even across inequalities, resulting in the major global crises and trends that we see today.

The manifestations of land and broader inequalities presented here are identified through the various works in the Land Inequality Initiative, and complemented with broader literature. They are not exhaustive of all issues related to land inequality, such as conflict, dispossession, poverty, and many others that have been well described (Box 3). The issues presented do demonstrate how they relate to a number of key contemporary crises that our world faces today, ultimately linking these trends and crises to land inequality.

Figure 4: Land inequality and its links to other inequalities and global crises (intended as examples, not exhaustive of all forms of inequality)

Land inequality and its links to other inequalities and global crises (intended as examples, not exhaustive of all forms of inequality)

Box 3: Land inequality and violent conflict – a self-perpetuating cycle

Violent conflict over land is well documented and is closely linked to land inequality. Not only do increasing land concentration and land inequality fuel violent conflict; conflict is also a driver of land inequality, which, if not adequately addressed, perpetuates the cycle of violence.

When combined with economic and political differences, land inequality can cause deep resentment, leading to violent struggles that can last for many decades, and are often characterised by forced displacements and resettlement, lack of equitable remedy, and threats to social bonds and cohesion (Stewart, 2010). Examples are numerous, including in the framework of this project, as illustrated by the armed conflicts in Colombia and the displacement of nearly eight million people and large-scale dispossessions of their land (Espinosa Rincón and Jaramillo Gómez, 2020). Others include brutal civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, conflict over land and natural resources in Nigeria and Sudan, the Rwandan genocide, rural resistance to urban expansion in China, and so on – all arguably have their origins in land inequality, and in political and economic inequality.

Not only are conflicts associated with land and natural resources numerous and frequent, they are often protracted and twice as likely to relapse in the first five years as other types of conflict. Despite ceasefires or peace agreements, societies affected by land-related conflict often remain mired in insecurity, poverty, and persistence of the factors that sparked violent conflict in the first place. These conflicts are further fuelled by the contemporary crises described in this synthesis report such as climate change, democratic crisis, and mass migration, which are further breeding grounds for political, economic, social, and environmental instability.

Land inequality and the democracy crisis

In rural societies, elites may control formal and informal decision-making processes over land, with reduced or no representation of the poor and smaller farmers and landowners. This feeds elite control and increases income, wealth, and asset (including land) inequalities. From land accumulation within undemocratic tribal systems in South Africa (Claassens and Cousins, 2008), to land corruption at the highest political levels in Kenya (O’Brien, 2012), to the perversion of public land distribution by landed elites in Colombia (Espinosa Rincón and Jaramillo Gómez, 2020) – examples are numerous all over the world. These unequal structures often also link to rent-seeking behaviour from public, or what are often considered public, assets, such as land in collective tenure systems (Alden Wily, 2008; 2010).

When institutional quality is low, the rich wield even stronger political influence. Weak institutions, together with the under-representation of poorer segments of the population, lead to a systematic underinvestment in policies that benefit the poor, smallholders, and family farmers. Instead, incentives and tax systems tend to benefit large-scale domestic and international farm enterprises, corporate engagement, and large-scale land investments and acquisitions.

Box 4: Senegal’s GOANA – an example of elite capture of policy and processes

In March 2004, after more than two years of consultations with development partners, civil society, producer groups, and several ministries within government, Senegal launched the Loi d’Orientation Agro-Sylvo-Pastorale (LOASP), a grand vision for agriculture which promoted the modernisation of the country over the next 20 years, with a strong focus on the family farming sector and the reduction of poverty and inequalities between farmers and between rural and urban populations. However, in 2008, before the LOASP had been fully implemented, then President Abdoulaye Wade inaugurated the Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance (GOANA). Amid food security worries precipitated by a poor harvest and volatile world markets, the stated aim of GOANA was for Senegal to attain self-sufficiency by 2015, predominantly by attracting private, large-scale investments.

By 2010, over 657,000 hectares or around 17% of Senegal’s arable land had been allocated to 17 private firms, mainly concentrated in northern parts of the country. Ten of the firms were Senegalese and the rest were foreign. The GOANA case illustrates how easily powerful elites, both national and international, are able to ignore inclusive policy processes in favour of alternative development models based on large-scale land acquisitions and accumulation.

Source: Wegerif and Anseeuw (2020).

The case of GOANA in Senegal (Box 4) is just one example of how land inequality weakens democracy.

Highly concentrated land ownership or control often subverts political processes and thwarts fairer redistribution efforts (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000; Boix, 2003).

Land inequality and unemployment

There is a direct correlation between land inequality and economic inequality in agrarian societies. In simple terms, those with more land of higher value are wealthier than those with less land or none at all. However, land inequality has a much longer tail, also negatively affecting rates and distribution of growth, income generation, and wealth accumulation (Berg et al., 2018).

In the longer term, land inequality is detrimental to human development, socio-political stability, and environmental sustainability (OECD, 2014; Stevans, 2012; Stiglitz, 2012; Easterly, 2007).

Further studies find that land inequality perpetuates poverty (ILO, 2019) well beyond the agricultural sector and creates an unequal distribution of industrial assets that persists over time (Carter, 2000).

In rural societies, power and wealth may also be increased by means of “accumulation by dispossession” and the extraction of profit through multiple forms of rent capture from land and labour (Sokoloff and Engerman, 2000; Wegerif and Guereña, 2019; Cochet, 2018). Illustrative of this process is the global large-scale land acquisition trend that surged in 2010. This land rush led to 26.7 million hectares of mainly collectively held land being acquired by national and international companies, generally with the support and engagement of domestic elites (Land Matrix, 2018; Anseeuw et al., 2012).

Those driven off the land, whether through forces of accumulation, dispossession, or environmental disaster, lose their major source of livelihood. Unemployment and reduced income are therefore common results of land inequality.

In addition, when large farms dominate the agricultural sector, labour becomes more salaried and labour relations are often skewed and casualised, pushing real wages down (Wegerif and Guereña, 2019). Women are particularly vulnerable to casualisation of labour on farms (Barrientos, 2001: 91), while increased industrialisation as average farm sizes increase reduces employment opportunities overall. Depending on the type of production, labour absorption rates are from one (for the most labour-intensive types of production, such as horticulture) to 25 and even 100 times (for cereals, for example) less in industrialised farm models compared with family farms (Burnod et al., 2018; Cochet et al., 2015). In many low-income countries, where agriculture is still the largest employer and few other opportunities exist, the unfettered realisation of this trend risks creating a social and economic disaster of massive proportions (Box 5).

Box 5: Land inequality, the youth bulge, and unemployment in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa faces a dramatic “job challenge” to generate employment for its young, rapidly growing population. The numbers are huge. The annual cohort of youth reaching working age was around 19 million in 2015, and is expected to reach 28 million in 2030 and to total 375 million over 15 years (Losch, 2016). This is as large as the current population of Canada and the United States combined. Based on the existing distribution of population and trends in migration to cities, 60% (about 220 million) of these workers are likely to be from rural areas. How will the continent’s economies absorb their booming labour forces and, specifically, deal with youth (un)employment? This question is all the more important in the context of increasing land inequality and the promotion and proliferation of large-scale agricultural development models which are capital-intensive, liberating – not absorbing – and even displacing labour forces.

Land inequality and the climate crisis

Climate change is a driver of global inequality, including land inequality. It is already driving down agricultural productivity and driving some people from the land altogether (FAO, 2017).

Conversely, land inequality is associated with environmental pressures that contribute to climate change, such as the growth of large-scale, environmentally damaging monocultures that maximise economies of scale (Ceddia, 2019; Sant’Anna 2016; Tole, 2004). At the same time, the more sustainable land use practices of small-scale producers, family farmers and indigenous peoples are threatened by land evictions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and excessive pressure on natural resources such as water and soil (IFAD, 2018; Borras et al., 2012; Bailey, 2011).

Although mitigation actions such as the promotion of green energy, hydroelectric projects, or biofuel production may have positive effects on climate change, they can push people off their land, divert or deplete water sources, and cause deforestation and environmental destruction (for example, the expansion of monocultures for biofuels – see Box 6) (UNDESA, 2020). Such pressures will likely be magnified by the increasing demand for land for carbon sequestration linked to the achievement of “net zero” emissions targets by both countries and companies. In this sense, even environmental policies aiming to respond to climate change, if not designed and implemented carefully, can further exacerbate land inequality, particularly in developing countries.

Box 6: Land inequality and large-scale monocultures

In Brazil, the increasing interest in land, especially in areas where agricultural frontiers are expanding and agribusiness is advancing, is driving the dispossession of traditional communities, including by forced and sometimes violent and illegal methods. The transfer of public lands to private actors for large-scale monocultures has led to contamination of the environment and privatisation of access to water. For example, in Santa Filomena in Piaui state, large-scale soy production has led to the contamination and depletion of water sources, depriving surrounding rural communities of good-quality water (Kato and Furtado, 2020). At country level, this has generated violence and conflict, with 1,833 cases of conflict related to land and water in 2019 alone. Over the past decade, Brazil has also recorded one of the highest murder rates in the world of land and environmental defenders (Global Witness, 2020).

In Colombia, the establishment of agri-businesses has reduced production of sustainable food crops like traditional tubers, pulses, and grains and has limited many rural communities’ access to land and water. In Montes de María and Oriente Antioqueño, where oil palm and floriculture for export flourish in the favourable climate, widespread use of agrochemicals and, particularly in the case of flower production, water contamination lead to negative consequences for the livelihoods and health of small-scale farmers and agri-business workers (Espinosa Rincón and Jaramillo Gómez, 2020).

Sources: Kato and Furtado (2020); Espinosa Rincón and Jaramillo Gómez (2020).

Land inequality, global health security, and pandemics

There are strong connections between land inequality, changes in agricultural practices such as increased monocropping, and poor health and the spread of disease.

COVID-19 is the latest zoonotic disease to emerge from a combination of unsanitary animal farming and pressure on wildlife populations. While its main impact has been on urban populations, COVID-19 has further exposed inequalities faced by land-disadvantaged groups, such as indigenous peoples, lower castes, the elderly, women, youth, and migrants, as well as casual workers (common in agribusiness) and landless tenants (UNDP, 2020; FAO, 2020; ILC, 2020). Land inequality diminishes resilience to disease shocks and, at a household level, may lead to loss of shelter and lack of access to infrastructure and services, traditional community networks, and institutions of social reciprocity. Women’s resilience and coping strategies are limited by weaker land rights, which puts them at even greater disadvantage in these situations, with a knock-on effect on children and youth in their households (FAO, 2020; FAO, IFAD and UNIDO, 2016). Land grabbing and forced evictions have been documented in the context of COVID-19 (ILC, 2020), exacerbating land and land rights inequalities, particularly in societies that are heavily policed.

Land inequality and migration

Migration has always been an adaptation strategy for humans, including for people affected by land inequality, for whom it is a common coping strategy. Poverty, displacement, poor living conditions, social exclusion, and lack of opportunities often arise from unequal access to land. Migration is also a response to conflict, climate change, and unstable democracies – all related in one way or another, as we have seen, to land inequality. Overall, land inequality – through its interconnectedness with social, economic, environmental, and spatial inequalities – influences people’s resilience and capacity to react (IOM and UNCCD, 2019; Obeng-Odoom, 2017), with migration often being a last resort.

Besides being a push factor for migration, land inequality is also a consequence of migration. Particularly in informal settlements in their places of destination, migrants are often trapped in highly unequal labour and living conditions. Their entitlement to land and land rights is limited and they often risk further displacement. For host communities, migration may add to land pressures, with impacts on the land rights of women and other vulnerable groups within that community.

Box 7: Land inequality feeds other inequalities through migration

In Costa Rica between 1984 and 2014, the land area used for export crops such as pineapple, palm oil, melon, orange, and cassava increased from 26,000 to 151,000 hectares; this was accompanied by greater concentration of land ownership and reduced state support for small and medium-scale farmers. The expansion of agribusiness has also seen an increase in labour migration from neighbouring countries, with about 30% of Costa Rica’s agricultural workforce coming from Nicaragua, where demographic growth from the 1960s to the 2000s, small farm sizes, and landlessness have been strong drivers of migration. These workers are often hired informally and underpaid, while Costa Rican rural workers have shifted to non-agricultural activities in urban areas, contributing to uncontrolled urbanisation (Baumeister, 2020).

Similar trends are evident in Peru, particularly in the municipality of Virú. Since the Peruvian government’s embrace of neoliberalism in the early 1990s, large corporate agribusinesses have shaped the country’s agricultural sector, largely to the detriment of subsistence and small family farmers. In the new constitution of 1993 with Law 26505, known as “Ley de Tierras” (land law), and Law 27360, “Ley de promoción del sector agrario” (law of agrarian sector promotion), the state approved policies that fuelled land concentration and large-scale corporate agriculture. This also led to increased use of migrant and seasonal labour, with high rotation of workers, temporary contracts, and low wages. In Virú migrants, mostly coming from Peru’s poorer highlands, are forced into labour and living conditions that aggravate land pressure and marginalisation, further feeding the spiral of inequality (Araujo Raurau, 2020).

Sources: Baumeister (2020); Araujo Raurau (2020).

Land inequality, social exclusion, and intergenerational justice

Rural women and youth face multiple challenges linked to land inequality, including reduced access to land and employment prospects, exacerbated by climate change (IFAD, 2019; Kosec et al., 2018). This has further implications for social exclusion and disempowerment.

In particular, land inequality structurally reduces opportunities for younger rural generations, especially girls, to improve their lives in the long term.

This negative spiral is reinforced as women and youth are systematically excluded from policy decisions, including in relation to land (Oxfam, 2016), overlapping with other forms of exclusion based on wealth, place of residence, race, or ethnicity.

Overcoming wider inequalities is impossible without addressing land inequality

The centrality of land inequality to many global problems is clear. Tackling this issue therefore has the potential to deliver significant positive outcomes for humanity and the planet.

Addressing land inequality will not only redress asset and wealth inequality, but will reduce rent-seeking by a minority, improve income equality, and enable more inclusive and sustainable development.

This can strengthen democracies by establishing more broadly based decision-making among landed populations, with greater participation and transparency. The direct relationship of land inequality with environmental damage makes addressing it imperative for achieving environmental sustainability, improved global biodiversity, and spatial and social justice – all necessary to combat climate change and health crises. All of the above are stepping-stones towards more resilient, stable, and sustainable societies, where no one is left behind.

As Merlet (2020, citing CTFD, 2020) writes: “It is because small producers, peasants or indigenous peoples produce more net value per unit area than large companies, because they preserve biodiversity, soils, forests (on condition that they are not reduced to having to survive at all costs), and because their decisions respond to a logic of heritage and not to a logic of maximizing short-term profits, it is in everyone’s interest not to allow an explosion of land inequalities.”