Land Reform: A (Very) Brief History

If history is cyclical, what can we learn from the repeating patterns of serfs "shaking off the burdens"?

Claire Gilmore

Land Reform | Farmers harvesting grain

Image: Fortepan via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history and around the world, land reforms have emphasized the need to improve peasants’ social conditions and status, to alleviate poverty, and to redistribute income and wealth in their favour. Historically, the most common proclaimed objective of land reform was to abolish feudalism.

Jump to the present, and the governance structures that reinforce trickle-up economics and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor are increasingly seen as a state of “neo-feudalism.”

One casualty of our tendency toward collective amnesia is our ability to imagine different social and legal structures around land ownership. Still, it’s hard to witness spiking property prices, widespread homelessness, and First Nations’ struggles to protect their traditional lands, alongside industry’s near-free use of “Crown Land” for private profit, without wondering if there might be some other way of doing things. The following is a very condensed history* of land reform. Think of it as food for the imagination.

Ancient Reforms

Seisachtheia: Land in ancient Athens was inalienable, but the right to use the land could be mortgaged. Thus, peasants could secure loans by surrendering their rights to the product of the land. The debtor then cultivated the land as hektēmor, or sixth partner, delivering five-sixths of the product to the creditor and keeping the rest. When Solon was elected archon, or chief magistrate, c. 594 BC, his reform law, known as the seisachtheia, or “shaking-off the burdens,” cancelled all debts, freed the hektēmoroi, and restored land to its constitutional holders.

Lex Agraria: The land reform law, or Lex Agraria, proposed by Roman tribune Tiberius was passed by popular support in 133 BC, against serious resistance by the nobility.  It applied only to former public land which had been usurped and concentrated in the hands of large landholders. Tiberius was killed in the year of its passage, but Gaius Gracchus, elected tribune a decade later, revived the reform and took it even further. Gaius was killed in 121 BC, and within a decade the reform was reversed and squatting on public land was prohibited.

Modern European Reforms

The French Revolution: On the eve of the Revolution, the majority of peasants were hereditary tenants – either censiers, who paid a fixed money rent, or mainmortables (serfs), who paid rent in the form of labour. The Revolution introduced land reform, which repealed feudal tenures, freed all persons from serfdom, abolished feudal courts, and cancelled all payments not based on real property, including tithes.

Scandinavia: Between 1827 and 1830, Sweden and Denmark pioneered by peacefully abolishing imposed labour service, consolidating the land, and dividing the commons among the peasants.

Western Europe: Only after the 1848 revolutions (aka the Peoples’ Spring, the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history) did Germany, Italy, and Spain free the peasants and redistribute the land. In the mid-1930s, Irish Free State tenants were subsidized to purchase the land.

Russia: The first major reform was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Other reforms followed in 1863, 1865, and 1905. In 1918, the Soviets abolished private ownership of land, made farming the sole basis of landholding, and declared collectivization a major policy objective.

Eastern Europe: In Hungary, the Decree of 1853 abolished forced labour and feudal dues, freed the serfs, liberalized land transaction, and encouraged consolidation. The Romanian reform of 1864 freed the serfs and distributed both the land and the redemption payments in proportion to the number of cows or oxen each peasant had. Reform came to Bulgaria in 1880, after independence. Each peasant, including sharecroppers and wage workers, who had worked the land for 10 years without interruption, was entitled to the land he had cultivated.

Mexico: The reform of 1915 dealt mainly with lands of Indian villages that had been illegally absorbed by neighbouring haciendas (plantations). A decree voided all land alienations that had taken place illegally since 1856 and provided for extracting land from haciendas to reestablish the collective Indian villages, or ejidos. Effective reform came only after passage of the Agrarian Code of 1934.

Reforms Since WWII

Recent decades have witnessed widespread, comprehensive reform programs aimed at reducing exorbitant rents, converting tenant farmers to owners, and reducing the concentration of land holding through redistribution. Reforms have often followed independence or revolution.

Many countries have emphasized the formation of co-operatives as a part of reform programs, such as Egypt, Cuba, Chile, Tanzania,  Iran, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Cuba expropriated land owned by foreign companies, Brazil taxed idle land and Costa Rica legalized squatter holdings. Ethiopia and Mozambique vested land title in the nation and abolished rent, sale, and absentee control of the land. Egypt paid unique attention to college graduates, providing them with parcels of up to 20 faddāns (one faddān = 1.038 acres). Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, the Phillipines, Peru, China, India, Pakistan are among the other nations that have instituted land reforms post-World War II.

The social and political contexts in which these reforms have occurred are as complex and diverse as the countries themselves, and they have met with varying degrees of success. Like the Lex Agraria, some modern reforms, such as Chile’s after the 1973 military coup, have been fully or partially clawed back. However, as long as human greed and the corporate profit motive exist, the idea and practice of land reform will not be relegated to the history books.

* adapted from, Wikipedia (various pages)

Brazil’s MST Faces Government Crackdown

The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST) is one of the largest movements in Latin America with an estimated membership of 1.5 million. It has been at the centre of the international peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina. The MST’s aims are to fight for general access to the land for poor workers through land reform in Brazil, land occupations, and activism around social issues related to land possession. The MST is facing escalating repression. In November 2016, Brazilian military and police used violent force to invade the MST’s National School (ENFF). On February 14, 2017, Guilherme Boulos, leader of an affiliate group, was arrested while resisting military police’s attempts to evict hundreds of homeless families occupying land in Sao Paulo.

Claire Gilmore is a musician, serf, yogi, and editorial assistant of the Watershed Sentinel. She lives in Comox, BC.


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