Why land inequality matters
“Land can be a major engine of shared prosperity or one of the most pervasive drivers of inequality.” – Guereña and Wegerif (2019)
Land is important not only for the people who directly depend on it – but for us all. It provides essential common goods like biodiversity, water, and other natural resources. As such, just and equitable access to and use of land contribute to a stable climate, food security, gender justice, and more peaceful and equal societies for the benefit of present and future generations (Guereña and Wegerif, 2019).
In the second half of the twentieth century, a prevailing view was that inequality created incentives for progress, especially in the early stages of economic development, and that market economies would self-correct over time (Kuznets, 1955; 1963). Today, it is clear that inequality is detrimental to the stability and development of sustainable economic systems and that it undermines the health of democracies (OECD, 2014; Stevans, 2012; Stiglitz, 2012; Easterly, 2007). Land inequality is no exception. Land inequality, along with other forms of inequality, leads to the concentration of political power, driving further wealth accumulation and jeopardising equitable and inclusive socio-economic development (Giridharadas, 2018; Guereña, 2016).
Land inequality sits at the heart of other forms of inequality. It is fundamentally related and often central to broader inequalities, such as wealth inequality, political inequality, social inequality, gender inequality, environmental inequality, and spatial inequality, in particular in agrarian societies.
Land inequality also underlies contemporary global crises and trends, as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It can worsen democratic decline (SDG 16), climate and environmental crises (SDGs 13, 15), the risk of pandemic diseases (SDGs 3, 6), mass migration (SDG 10), unemployment (SDG 8), and intergenerational injustice (SDG 16). Land inequality affects well-being, livelihoods, and opportunities for all of us, and it further jeopardises the stewardship role that equitable land distribution can play with regard to these broader global trends and crises. Furthermore, land inequality is core to almost every SDG.
Figure 1: Land and land equality are core to achieving the SDGs
Without addressing land inequality, it will not be possible to achieve inclusive and sustainable development that “leaves no one behind”.
What the available evidence tells us, however, is that land inequality is rising in most countries in the world. Worse, in addition to this increase, new measures of land inequality developed in the framework of this Land Inequality Initiative indicate that land concentration is on average 41% higher than previously reported. They find that the wealthiest 10% of the rural population across sampled countries capture 60% of agricultural land value, while the poorest 50% of the rural population, who are generally more dependent on agriculture, control only 3% of land value (Bauluz et al., 2020). Land inequality also manifests itself in numerous hidden forms – not only as direct land accumulation, but also through other mechanisms allowing control over land and the appropriation of value from the land and activities on it (Wegerif and Anseeuw, 2020). Land inequality is therefore not only more opaque and difficult to monitor; it is also more concentrated than we previously thought.
Small producers, peasants, and indigenous peoples – who generally produce more net value per unit area than large companies, and whose land use practices also tend to support biodiversity, healthier soils, forests, and water supplies – should be central to equitable and sustainable development, yet are increasingly excluded while global trends favour land concentration. The worsening state of land inequality causes conflict and further jeopardises access to land, land rights, control over land, decision-making capacity regarding land, and, subsequently, the living conditions of those who live and depend on the land. These people are often the most vulnerable, such as small-scale farmers, pastoralists, indigenous people, women and girls, the landless, the elderly, and the young (De Schutter, 2011). Many of them depend (or depended) on collective land rights for their livelihoods.
Land inequality cannot be ignored. The importance of secure and equitable land rights is broadly acknowledged, including in international frameworks and declarations such as the SDGs, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs), the Framework and Guidelines (F&Gs) on Land Policy in Africa, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and others. The current trends in land inequality, however, underscore the need to go beyond the mechanisms that historically have enabled human societies to control the development of these inequalities.
A rethinking of land redistribution, land taxation, market regulations, and investor accountability, together with innovative and inclusive development models, will be necessary in light of contemporary circumstances for more resilient, sustainable, and equitable societies overall.
The challenge is to bring about real change, and to do that requires far more information, quality data, and transparency. To contribute to charting a new path, members and partners of the International Land Coalition (ILC) have launched the Land Inequality Initiative. Its aims are to develop more reliable data on land inequality among agrarian populations worldwide; to provide evidence and analysis that allow us to better understand land inequality and its complex and inter-related linkages with wider inequalities; and to equip those working for a fairer distribution of land with the concepts and tools to do so more effectively.
This report is a synthesis of the main findings of the research phase of the Land Inequality Initiative and it aims to offer insights, data, and tools to understand and measure land inequality, and to better respond to the challenges it poses on the ground.
Land inequality and the International Land Coalition
ILC is a global alliance of civil society and intergovernmental organisations. Among its 270 members, strongly held and diverse perspectives exist on land inequality and its implications. However, ILC’s members share a common aim of promoting secure and equitable access to and control over land for all, particularly for poor women and men. ILC members, including organisations that play a lead role within the multilateral system on land governance and broader sustainability, agree on a common vision:
“We will work towards encouraging models of investment in agriculture and other rural land-based activities that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and that reduce poverty and hunger. We will contribute towards strengthening the capacities of local land-users, indigenous peoples, agricultural workers and their organisations, and creating incentives for more investments in and by small-scale producers rather than large-scale land transfers or concessions. We believe that such investments and the fight against poverty must go hand in hand, and must be closely linked to secure and equitable land rights for small-scale producers, who should be recognised as the main investors in land and agriculture.” See ILC’s goals here
A focus on rural inequality
Land inequality is related to poverty, inequitable economic growth, food insecurity, climate change, gender injustice, and social conflict in both rural and urban settings. With an awareness of the links between land and the urban dimensions of inequality, ILC and the Land Inequality Initiative focus mainly on rural land, as the Coalition is accountable primarily to the people who live on and from the land. An important and growing proportion of ILC’s membership directly represents family farmers, rural women, and indigenous peoples.
The Land Inequality Initiative was launched in 2019, by a broad consortium coordinated by ILC. An initial Framing Document was developed by experts, based on a review of relevant literature, and enacted by a reference group of internationally renowned specialists on issues related to land inequality. The Framework outlined the main trends and drivers of land inequality, identified and discussed the main challenges and gaps in its measurement, and developed the future orientation and methodology of the project.
In line with the methodological framework, papers were commissioned on a range of topics, supported by eight case studies, a data paper, a data methodology paper, and five papers focused on solutions to land inequality (see list at the back of the report). These papers were researched and written by institutions and authors identified through an open call, and were aimed at upscaling and disseminating both existing and innovative work on land inequality and promoting experiences, knowledge, and research from the field developed by experts and by grassroots organisations.
Figure 2: The Land Inequality research framework
This synthesis report captures the main findings from these studies, complemented by a range of key resources, mainly academic literature and publications from international organisations and civil society, highlighting the gravity of the current situation and the necessary attention that land inequality and inequality overall deserve (for example, Oxfam, 2020a; 2020b; 2019; 2017; UNDESA, 2020; UNDP, 2019, besides many others).
The new knowledge coming from the ILC Land Inequality Initiative will inform future advocacy and campaigning actions and the establishment of a longer-term facility to measure and monitor land inequality globally.