Land and inequality in Latin America: a harsh reality unearthed

Blog post by Stephanie Burgos

Oxfam America, Government Affairs Associate Director for Latin America, Land Rights and Trade
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Land rights are at the heart of the inequality crisis

The ownership and control of land by rich elites at the expense of ordinary people is fundamental to understanding the inequality crisis that has engulfed the world. Latin America is a prime example, where extreme concentration of land has been central to its very high levels of inequality. Oxfam’s new report reveals that in recent years this has actually gotten worse. Amazingly, across the Latin American continent, one percent of farms now cover more productive land than all other farms put together.  

Conflicts over land have been erupting around the world with more frequency. Increasingly, some are attracting media attention, though many more are likely known only to those communities of small farmers and indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are under threat or directly uprooted.

More and more communities are organizing and defending their rights, even when they face violence and repression as a result. Local and international support has helped them win some victories and secure their rights to land and natural resources. But as important as such wins are to those directly affected, it still seems like we are addressing a global pandemic with a limited treatment regime that is only effective in some cases.

Unequal land distribution is a systemic problem.

It’s time to get to the core of the matter and address access to and control over land as a systemic problem that is intimately tied to the way the economy is organized. Equitable access, rights to land and its redistribution to ordinary people and communities are essential in order to foster inclusive and sustainable development rather than simply to promote economic growth that benefits a few.

This is a global challenge, which is clearly illustrated by the situation in Latin America – the region of the world where both income and land are most unequally distributed. Last year Oxfam released the report Privileges that Deny Rights highlighting the extreme concentration of wealth in Latin America, where the 32 richest people have accumulated as much wealth as 300 million of the region’s poorest citizens.

Our new report, Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, argues that combating inequality in Latin America requires addressing the extreme concentration in access to and control over land, as well as in the distribution of benefits from its use.

New data from national agricultural censuses across the region reveal the extent of the problem and the staggering fact that one percent of farms, the largest, in the region occupy more productive land than the remaining 99 percent. These mega-farms are rapidly expanding across Latin America. Soy, oil palm and sugar cane production have set new records each year for increased land use in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Timber plantations alone are expanding by more than half-a-million hectares each year across the continent, especially in Chile, Mexico and Brazil. Huge cattle ranches in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia are now causing the highest rates of deforestation in the world, threatening the very survival of indigenous peoples and contributing to climate change.

Women are particularly marginalized in terms of access to land.

While women have equal rights to men under the law in all Latin American countries, the reality in practice is very different as women have less land than men, of worse quality, and under less secure tenure. This historical exclusion, the result of deep-rooted cultural and institutional barriers, limits women’s economic independence and hinders their ability to exercise their rights.

In addition to growth of large-scale monoculture, mining and oil concessions are proliferating across vast areas of the region, particularly in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. To cite one example, 31 percent of land in the Peruvian Amazon has been offered by the government for oil and gas concessions.

The concentration of land distribution is even worse now in Latin America than it was half a century ago when several countries undertook agrarian reform programs, which for the most part failed to achieve the objective of land redistribution. A combination of factors, in particular the lack of comprehensive measures to foster family farming, subsequent policy reforms that favored deregulation, and corruption and cronyism, paved the way for re-concentration of land fueled by expansion of large-scale production based on natural resource exploitation.

Latin America’s economies have become highly dependent on the use of land to extract natural resource wealth. This rise of “extractivism” has helped drive economic growth in the region and improve public services in countries that took advantage of the commodities price boom to increase social investment. But this dependence also has downsides arising from international market volatility and high environmental and social costs. Across Latin America, extractivism is driving greater concentration of land, wealth and economic and political power, thus leading to increased inequality.

Those who own, reap the profits.

Those who control vast swaths of land also control its natural resource wealth and reap the profits it generates. And they may not even own the land, but simply control its use via long-term concessions, rentals or contract farming, arrangements that enable them to avoid assuming the risks related to production or the responsibilities of land stewardship. Beyond control over the land, they also increasingly concentrate control over the infrastructure that enables easy access to global markets for the commodities produced.

These investors and corporations exercise their power to influence policy and regulatory decisions for their own benefit. It is no coincidence that governments have provided extensive incentives and tax breaks to attract investment, which diverts public resources to maximize private gain and thus further fuels inequality. This “political capture” is illustrated well in Peru where corporations involved in the extractives industry orchestrated the adoption of several laws for their direct benefit.  

While policies have favored the economic elites who control much of the land and its natural resource wealth, governments have all but abandoned public investment in family farming, leaving small farmer communities without adequate services, technical assistance, access to credit or access to markets. Furthermore, governments have not only failed to protect the rights of those who defend their land, water and forests, but in some cases are complicit in the persecution and criminalization of women, indigenous peoples and small farmer communities. Increasing conflicts over land are generating more violence, leading to a virtual human rights crisis in Latin America.

Time to turn the tide toward greater equality.

It’s time to turn the tide and reverse the trend toward greater concentration of land in Latin America and beyond. To this end, all institutions engaged in development in the region should place land back at the center of the political debate.

Oxfam is calling on all actors in the region to join forces so that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those concerning secure and equitable access to ownership and control over land, do not remain merely words on paper.

Governments must take bold actions to end the practices that foster inequality with regard to land, eliminating the privileges of economic elites and strengthening the rights of all people and communities.

A new redistribution of land is needed, which requires overcoming the “political capture” that has obstructed past land redistribution efforts and prioritizing access to and control over land for all the people and communities that depend on it, along with ensuring access to the resources necessary to develop decent and sustainable livelihoods.

The entry posted by Stephanie Burgos, Oxfam's Economic Justice Policy Manager, on 30 November 2016.

Photo: Farming in Bolivia. Credit: Oxfam

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