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La Via Campesina:
Peasant-led agrarian reform and food sovereignty

by Faustino Torrez
Managua, Nicaragua

The origins of agrarian reform

Throughout history, the struggle for land, space and territory has included the need to secure access to and control of natural resources. Agrarian reform dates back to the end of the eighteenth century. There have been two dominant modes of agrarian reform: the capitalist agrarian reform, which created internal markets for national industrial development and transformed landless farmers into independent entrepreneurs. Second, the socialist agrarian reform which redistributed land to farmers in the context of changes to the capitalist mode of production and included the nationalization and collectivization of land and the means of production.

Both modes of agrarian reform programme had specific characteristics determined by the historical conditions of the countries and the degree of organizing among their peasantry leading to diverse experiences in democratization of land, poverty reduction and levels of rural inequalities.

In the developing countries, with rare exceptions, there has not been true agrarian reform due to the number of poor people and the clash between different models of agrarian reform. It is important to broaden our concept of agrarian reform so that our understanding of territory includes fishing, forests and pastoralism. La Via Campesina sees agrarian reform as a concern for all of humanity and searches for new ways of understanding agriculture based on peasant perspectives with indigenous visions of the cosmos.

The World Bank (WB) and agrarian reform

For decades, the WB ignored the subject of unjust land distribution and the need to implement integrated agrarian reform in many countries of the South. However, in the mid-1990s, the WB announced a change in its policies to prioritize poverty reduction and redistributive land reform through the market known as 'negotiated' or 'market-assisted agrarian reform'.

This approach, while it opens up certain opportunities, fails to guarantee integral and broad agrarian reform that affirms the right of peasant families to access land and other productive resources. Furthermore, the manner in which the Bank is applying this model not only ignores peasant land struggles but also threatens to reverse the gains these social forces have achieved in the name of agrarian reform.

Since the implementation of structural adjustment programmes and the spread of economic globalization, governments have implemented models of agrarian reform based on the Bank’s ‘market-assisted agrarian reform’ with which it hopes to substitute traditional models where the state has the direct responsibility of carrying out agrarian reform, through expropriation.

In many countries, the reforms promoted by the WB resulted in the privatization of lands and other natural resources, and new waves of concentration of land ownership. The policies create markets where land is bought and sold, and where peasants are hurt both ways. Under economic conditions inimical to small farmers, there are massive distress sales to the wealthy. And under programmes to give credit to the poor to buy land from the wealthy, peasants incur heavy debt burdens for the purchase of low quality land at inflated prices. Thus ‘market assisted agrarian reform’ results in a spiral of land loss and debt for peasants, who finally are expelled into misery.

An alternative view promoted by La Via Campesina is that agrarian reform is not only about (re)distributing land but should also have a strong connection with broad-based human development, employment generation and food sovereignty.

Agrarian reform for world poverty reduction

The failure to implement integral agrarian reform is a problem of all society. Most urban and migration problems are a direct consequence of the failure of agricultural reform. An integral agrarian reform would achieve food production, job creation, and especially, social stability ^ and thus true peace.

Current agrarian reform has led to the impoverishment of peasants and indigenous peoples. The ‘failure’of development banks and the destruction of natural resources is not the fault of the people who live on the land but of government policies that have led to the current environmental and economic disaster. Small land owners have to be understood as the subjects and protagonists of their own development.

The global campaign for agrarian reform

The Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform (GCAR) was launched in 1999 by La Via Campesina and Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) (; more recently the Land Research Action Network ( has joined the campaign, in order to jointly reinforce the struggle for agrarian reform and access to land as a prerequisite to realizing the landless peasant families’ right to adequate food. Agrarian reform implies a long-term commitment since land reform aims to change central institutions of society as well as the relationship among its different actors.

The leadership of the Campaign for Global Agrarian Reform has been recognized by various sectors such as peasant organizations, researchers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), donor agencies, certain levels of governments and international agencies such as FAO and the WB as the principal network of civil society that has monitored and lobbied for land issues. The GCAR is a network of organizations dedicated to land-related issues, for the purpose of making agrarian reform a priority in the agenda of social movements, NGOs, government agencies, and governments. The GCAR has gathered valuable knowledge and experience to support local and national struggles for agrarian reform.

The Emergency Network and Investigative Missions have turned out to be essential tools for denouncing human rights violations related to the struggle for land and the defense of territory. The letters of support and visits have been highly appreciated. In some cases, the interventions have had immediate positive effects for the peasants involved. In most cases, concrete change requires long-term support but the exchange of information and experiences has been extremely successful in developing forms of action and reinforcing the global movement for agrarian reform.

The agrarian reform required

Genuine and integral agrarian reform would be based on a hybrid cosmovision that incorporates space, territory, water and biodiversity; an agrarian reform that begins with a wide process of distribution of land and/or the defense of territory. The possession and use of land should be subordinated to the principal that rights to land accrue only to those who work it, depend on it and reside on it with their family. Agrarian reform should enable the reinsertion of peasants onto their lands; this would also serve to regulate rural-urban and international migration. The principle of land as social property and not individual property needs to be defended. Land speculation must be prohibited and capitalist corporations (industrial, commercial and financial) should be prevented from acquiring large extensions of land, especially through land grabbing.

Genuine and integral agrarian reform has democratized agrarian structures and changed the relations of economic and political power that causes land concentration. Such an agrarian reform should prohibit the commoditization of the right to produce and should (re)introduce control of overproduction, limiting exports and dumping, and should guarantee food sovereignty.

Redistributive policy implies, above all, the expropriation of private lands that serve no social purpose. The goal should be to redistribute land and power, altering the relations of power in society in favour of farmers and the coalitions that support them. Such an agrarian reform cannot be carried out through market mechanisms. Past agrarian reforms had favoured one sector over the others. Future agrarian reforms must balance the needs of peasants and family farmers with those of fisherfolk, indigenous people, the landless, pastoralists and other rural peoples, and must be true agrarian reform that guarantees these peoples’ total access to and control over the land and its resources. It must be an agrarian reform that gives legal guarantees to peasants who have occupied lands to survive; an agrarian reform that guarantees communal land ownership and that is designed to resist the threat of counter-agrarian reform.

Toward a new focus for agrarian reform

To transcend classical agrarian reform, land has to be understood as more than a means of production, and should incorporate notions of space, territory and cosmovision. Rural development should not come from the city with its production systems led by multinational corporations. Rural communities need their own model of agriculture, based on a different vision. The countryside cannot keep looking toward the city; it is not sustainable for all people to live a city lifestyle. It is important to face the damage of consumerist culture and lifestyles.

An integral agrarian reform would incorporate the best of peasant life, including both the traditional and modern practices in ways that make the leadership of rural women and youth more visible. A practical vision requires that we understand what is happening today, so that we can project into tomorrow. Currently, there are contradictory trends towards decreasing peasant agriculture in many places because of the territorial logic of agribusiness and increased peasantry in other areas because of migration. There is a farm crisis due to loss of young people in the countryside and the advancing age of farmers.

The neo-liberal economic system has made peasant and family farm agriculture unviable. Peasant families have had to combine multiple activities, with men selling their labour and the women assuming the role of sustaining agriculture. Women take a lead in the fight to preserve the peasant roots as the first step towards recovering our autonomy and building food sovereignty. It is important to defend a model of peasant, family and indigenous production that combats the commoditization of life.

When the WB and most governments speak of agrarian reform, they do not support peasant land occupations but the credit schemes to buy land. This reinforces the private property paradigm and inevitably leads to the concentration of land in the hands of capitalist ownership and disastrous consequences for peasants and nature. Breaking out of the disastrous neo-liberal model requires rethinking the entire property regime of any country. La Via Campesina has held a collective reflection to rethink agrarian reform. (See Table 1 -- the table will appear in a separate brwoser window for easier reference.)

Land grabbing

With land grabbing there is a return to a colonial style scheme of using large tracts of lands for agribusiness, mining, multinational plantations, etc. They concentrate huge amounts of land, many of which could be used in agrarian reform and food production, for these capitalist endeavours. This exacerbates the poor distribution of land and the process of reconcentration in the hands of the few, in this case, multinational corporations which promote monoculture of soy, sugar cane and eucalyptus in Brazil, African oil palm in Colombia and Indonesia, jatropha, and grain for export in many countries etc. These corporations displace and evict poor families, pollute rivers and privatize the access to water, putting the life and livelihoods of peasants at risk. The corporations are buying and invading communal and family lands historically used for food production. Thus, land grabbing is an aggravating cause of the food crisis, along with speculation and the results of the application of the technology of the Green Revolution (degrading the productive capacity of farm land) and the policies of commercial agriculture at the world level.

Criminalization of struggle

For decades, peasants and indigenous people of the world have been united to struggle for agrarian reform, and to recover and defend their territories and have been imprisoned or outlawed. This criminalization and repression of the struggle for agrarian reform, involving the police, the army, and the private security of corporations, translates into assassinations, judicial persecution. There is a high level of impunity because nothing is investigated nor are the responsible parties punished despite evidence. Such is the case in Brazil, Indonesia, Honduras, Bangladesh etc. In Guatemala in October 2010, two community leaders were assassinated, Adolfo Ichich Chaman and Orlando Boror Set, and the human rights lawyer and defender of indigenous communities, Fausto Otzin Poyon was killed by multinational mining companies.


La Vía Campesina has been an important space of struggle in which peasants, family farmers, the landless, and indigenous peoples have encountered each others’ cosmovisions. From this space, they are evolving a new concept of integral agrarian reform and the defense and sharing of territories. In this struggle, they confront land grabbing, neoliberal policies such as market-assisted land reform, and the criminalization of social protest. In the process, they are forging a unified struggle for true agrarian reform as a pillar in the construction of food sovereignty.

*Translated from Spanish by Ronald Nigh.

Previously published by the
Society for International Development.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 27, 2011.

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