Land inequality is significantly higher than previously thought and is rising in most countries, new research shows. The largest 1% of farms operate 70% of the world’s farmland, according to the report “Uneven Ground”. This trend directly threatens the livelihoods of up to 2.5 billion people worldwide involved in smallholder agriculture. The study published on Tuesday by the “International Land Coalition” (ILC) and Oxfam is based on 17 research papers as well as an analysis of existing data and literature. “In the framework of this project, a new way to measure land inequality was developed that goes beyond land size distribution captured through traditional agricultural census,” said Ward Anseeuw, co-author of the report and coordinator of the initiative. Land inequality is typically measured with the Gini coefficient for land distribution which is based on household surveys recording ownership and area of holdings by size. Although it provides a useful long-term perspective on land inequality, it does not take into account aspects such as the value of land, multiple ownership and landlessness, as well as the control a person or an entity has over it. These factors have now been considered, using a sample of 17 countries. “These findings radically alter our understanding of the extent and far reaching consequences land inequality has, proving that not only is it a bigger problem than we thought but it’s undermining the stability and development of sustainable societies,” Anseeuw added.
It is estimated that there are around 608 million farms in the world, and most are still family farms. However, the largest 1% of farms operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland and are integrated into the corporate food system, while over 80% are smallholdings of less than 2 hectares are generally excluded from global food chains. A very similar trend is seen in the EU where less than 3% of farms now account for more than half of the farmed land. The study finds 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. Compared with the traditional census data and Gini coefficient generally used, this is an increase in inequality of 41% if agricultural land value and landlessness are considered, and of 24% if only value is considered. In addition, there are large regional differences: If land value inequality and the landless population are considered, South Asia and Latin America exhibit the highest levels of inequality. The top 10% of landowners capture almost 75% of agricultural land in Latin America and close to 70% in South Asia, while the bottom 50% own less than 2%.
The growing land inequality is partly attributed to the increased interest from corporate and financial actors, such as investment funds, in agricultural land investments. “Land inequality and control over land are increasingly opaque,” the authors write. “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.” Yet the authors insist that land concentration is not inevitable. “What we’re seeing is that land inequality is fundamentally a product of elite control, corporate interests, and political choices. And although the importance of land inequality is widely accepted, the tools to address it remain weakly implemented and vested interests in existing land distribution patterns, hard to shift,” said co-author Giulia Baldinelli of ILC. Coordinated state action is needed to turn this situation around. If not addressed and the trend continues, increasing land inequality will have significant negative consequences for all societies, on economic and social development, on the environment and on democracy and peace. “There is always, however, a more inclusive path to re-building our economies, that emphasises sustainable use of natural resources, respects human rights and addresses systemic causes of inequality,” says Mike Taylor, Director of the ILC Secretariat. The report also includes a blueprint for action, recommending a number of meausures that can contribute to reducing land inequality. They call on governments and relevant decision-makers to democratise land governance, strengthen land-related regulation as well as transparency and monitoring of land holdings, invest in well-functioning land registries, and legally enforce responsible corporate practice – just to name few recommendations. (ab)