français | español | english
Online Knowledge Base
Natural Resource Governance around the World

Regulating land markets is handing power back to rural populations. (Ed # 48)

Newsletter AGTER. December 2020

Almost 20 years ago to the day, the first World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre (Brazil). Along with the Peasant Farming and Globalisation network (APM), we had the privilege of organising 4 half-day workshops on the topic of “Agrarian reforms and land policies”, supported by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind and the CONTAG, the powerful Brazilian confederation of workers and small producer organisations. It was at this moment that AGTER’s project came into being. The signatories of this editorial participated in the Nicaraguan agrarian reform in the 1980’s, and were witnesses in the fast return to land inequality in the years that followed. Working in those times for a French non-for-profit consultancy group, we realised that this trend was repeating itself in other countries, even in regions where mass land redistribution had taken place, often after decades of struggle and the loss of thousands of lives. Although Latin American land reforms put an end to the haciendas and their pre-capitalist social relations, they also contributed to the development of land markets, which are primarily responsible for the re-concentrating of land in the hands of few.

The workshops brought together more than 60 people, with the participation of a number of recognised specialists from different continents such as Marcel Mazoyer (professor at the National Agronomy Institute of Paris-Grignon), Jacques Chonchol (former minister of agriculture under the Allende government in Chili), Dao The Thuan (former director of the Institute of agronomic sciences of Vietnam), who became later honorary members of AGTER, Dacian Ciolos, Romanian agronomist who went on to become European commissioner for Agriculture, and important peasant organisation leaders such as Alberto Broch (CONTAG) and José Bové (Confédération Paysanne, France). Leaders of peasant organisations from Poland, the Philippines, Indonesia, Southern Africa, Mexico, and Colombia, among others, were also present. Different issues were covered, and the workshop explored different mechanisms that would allow rural populations to take back control over the use of their lands. José Bové requested that Marie-Christine Etelin, lawyer for his farmers’ union, present the experiences of the French SAFER, an interesting attempt at direct intervention on the land market to encourage the installation of more young farmers, but which was marred by numerous un-democratic governance issues. Christan Roqueyrol (Confédération Paysanne) presented the experience of the Société Civile des Terres de Larzac, an innovative form of land management which resulted from the struggle of smallhold farmers against the expansion of a military base, and which was based on smallhold farms and communal governance by the inhabitants.

Smaller workshops were also organised for the following two WSF. The 2002 workshop, co-organised with the Via Campesina (LVC), allowed us to present and discuss the main points of the [Land Policies and Agrarian Reform Proposal Paper]. A Guatemalan activist, and future co-founder of AGTER, Patricia Castillo, participated in this workshop. In 2003 we were invited by the CONTAG to partake in a number of different activities and in particular a round table meeting with Alberto Broch, Marcel Mazoyer, and Samir Amin. It was in a small workshop to follow up on our activities at the 2003 FSM that Vicent Garcés (CERAI) first launched the idea of a World Forum on Agrarian Reform (WFAR), after the WSF proved to be insufficient in deepening the debate surrounding the question of land reform. The WFAR was held in Valencia (Spain) in 2004, and attended by numerous civil society and peasant organisations, such as the Via Campesina (LVC) and some governmental organisations. A large Brazilian delegation, led by the minister for agricultural development Miguel Rosseto, was also present. The FAO sent the editor-in-chief of their review “Agrarian Reform, colonisation and agriculture cooperatives” Paolo Groppo, who went on to become a member of AGTER. A few months later, the Brazilian government formally requested that the FAO organise another international conference on agrarian reform and rural development (ICARRD). This conference took place in 2006 in Porto Alegre (Brazil), 27 years after the last such conference was held. AGTER, officially created a few months before, was invited to prepare one of the 5 scoping papers for the conference (see this document). The issue of land policy was back on the international agenda.

In 2002, we returned to and developed the theories of the Hungarian economist and anthropologist Karl Polanyi, who very clearly explained what changed with the advent of neoliberalism: The market no longer concerned only produced goods specifically made to be sold and traded, but now also land/nature, work, and money. These new commodities differ from ordinary goods in that their specific markets cannot self regulate. This radical transformation, that Polanyi compared to the work of the “Satanic mills”, would have devastating consequences and contribute to some of the major catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century. Due to the unique characteristics of land and natural resources, land markets are always exclusive and concentrative.

We continued to develop this thinking further afterwards by specifying that the “neoliberal turning point” was based on three pillars:

  • 1/ The sanctification of the market and separation of the economy from society by abandoning the original meaning of the term Ĺ“conomie (from oikos) or management of our common house, leading to dramatic environmental, social and political consequences.

  • 2/ To impose a singular vision of property as being exclusive and absolute, instead of recognising the existence of a “bundle” of diverse rights belonging to women, men, and the communities to which they belong.

  • 3/ To recognise only one legitimate level of governance, that of the State, resulting in the loss territorial autonomy, and the difficulty in creating legislation that are above the laws of the State, making the creation of truly democratic political mechanisms impossible.

If leaving land markets to develop independently of society doesn’t work, allowing states to have sole control over land access management isn’t a solution either, as shown by the experience of “real socialism”, which usually took on the form of “state capitalism”. In order to reduce land access inequalities and optimise land usage for the collective good, market regulatory mechanisms must be tailored to fit each specific situation. These can be supplemented, wherever possible, by redistributive agrarian reforms, but also new inheritance procedures and fiscal policies. Managing the different commons, the destruction of which would be catastrophic for everyone, will only be possible by developing governance arrangements that directly involve communities, and reflect the multitude of rights that are shared among the different community members.

The need to regulate land markets has not always been recognised on the international stage. For neoliberals, regulating markets is tantamount to heresy. On the other hand, among political organisations, unions, and intellectuals that consider themselves to be “left wing”, the market needs to disappear entirely. In believing this, they become allies to the supporters of 21st century financial capitalism and involuntary accomplices to the dispossessing of populations and the growing exploitation of workers around the world. In effect, land market regulation is often misunderstood. It’s not a question of bringing the market to areas that had up until now existed without it, such as communities that have kept a strong capacity to govern their own territory, but on the contrary to allow indigenous, rural and farming communities to take or retake control of the commercial exchange of land and resources that may have developed on their territory. Internationally, the 2016 World Forum on Access to Land (WFAL) was the first to include in its closing declaration a point on the necessity of regulating land markets. Since then, an enormous amount of work has been produced on human rights, without any real pledges from governments to apply the directives, which for the most part are still voluntary. Additionally, no new redistributive agrarian reforms have taken place 1. AGTER, despite its limited resources, has accumulated a vast amount of information concerning these different questions, and contributed to the first study ordered by the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) on rural land markets in West Africa and their regulatory tools 2.

While the climatic, environmental, social and political crises degenerate rapidly, land and natural resources are being gradually appropriated and concentrated in the hands of a minority. As a result land inequalities have exploded. The recent global study done by the International Land Coalition (ILC) gives a new illustration of this trend, by quantifying the acceleration of the phenomenon and emphasizing the importance of the hidden mechanisms of the concentration of user rights, which do not appear in official land ownership statistics.

In the following selection of articles below, we would like to bring your attention to two useful publications to further explore this thinking. For the moment they are only available in French, but will be translated to English soon.

  • 1. The Proposals Paper from the ILC workshop on “Regulating Land Markets and Land Use: Tools for Reducing Inequality”, illustrated with European examples.

  • 2. The collective work of the Comité Technique Foncier et Développement (CTFD), based on an 18-month research project, “Young people’s access to land. Proposals to improve the design and monitoring of future rural development interventions and policies”.

2020 has been a difficult year for us all. AGTER has been hit particularly hard, losing two of its members, the professor Etienne Le Roy, member of our association and founder of the CFTD, whose thinking and work is central to our reflections, and Benoit Maria, who worked for the Agronomists and veterinarians without borders (AVSF) and was a close collaborator of AGTER, tragically assassinated last August while working alongside indigenous Guatemalans. Their personal stories and their commitment stand as an example to us all, and it would be impossible to finish this editorial without paying them homage. We wish you all a very happy 2021, which we hope will be better in every possible way than the one that we have all just been through.

Michel Merlet and Denis Pommier are founding members of AGTER

1 With the exception of Cuba who, since 2008, has started to redistribute uncultivated land on State farms to small scale producers, under a usufruct system. See

2 See 2017 Newsletter editorial by Philippe Lavigne-Delville -


With this newsletter we will only be covering a few of the works produced over the last year. In 2020, in collaboration with the International Land Coalition, we developed an online training program in French, English and Spanish entitled In the face of land grabbing around the world: A toolbox to help identify, analyse, and implement change.

Due to the work that this required and various internal difficulties, we were not able to publish the newsletter at the usual rhythm. We apologize for this and will include in our future newsletters information on our activities and publications from 2020 that could not be included today.

You can also follow AGTER on facebook and now on LinkedIn as well!

Translation from french : Niels Zwarteveen

Find here the full text AGTER newsletter of Decembre 31, 2020