An important component of all land reform programmes in history has been the award of legal land titles and in certain situation recognizing common use rights over land by communities. Over time, land titling programmes of various kinds has been propagated, including those like market-assisted land reforms, a model which has been gaining hegemony under the leadership of World Bank and with the rise in the dominance of neo-liberalism in policy circles across the globe. The central argument that has backed vigorous market-led land-titling ventures in developing countries is that legal titles provide a better opportunity to small holders to negotiate with market forces and thereby provides an inclusive framework for integration of petty land owners in to the market system with benefits accruing to all parties.
This crucial role envisaged to be played by land titles in facilitating a better bargain for smallholders have been questioned in the academia and the wider arena of peasant movements. The major concern expressed is whether land titles alone can protect the interest of land-holders irrespective of the power relations existing within the social structure. Also in certain cases, it has been observed that land titles actually facilitate the market forces to resort to ‘land grabbing’ and place the smallholders at a disadvantage. The sacrosanct view that large investments coming in through institutional arrangements like lease-terms or contract farming are always beneficial to the small holders through a ‘trickle down’ is also not above scrutiny.
A study by Rosselynn Cruz (the paper can be read here) delves into these questions based on a field work done in the Isabela province in Northern Philippines. The field work was conducted between June and August in 2011 in this province where 15000 hectares of land has been subsumed for ethanol production from sugarcane. Structured interviews of two groups of farmers, with and without land titles, and of local government officials and ECOFUEL (ethanol producing company) functionaries are used for uncovering the real rationale behind the land titling drive in the province.
The study interrogates whether land tiles in certain situations lead to ‘Adverse Incorporation’ of small holders into the market system causing outcomes which do not augment their well-being neither facilitates empowerment of peasant groups. ‘Adverse incorporation’ would typically be a case where individuals who find themselves incorporated into the market under unfavourable conditions not only remain poor but may even face deeper poverty. For the sake of receiving short-term benefit from market investments, smallholders end up sacrificing long-term goals like preserving worker rights and control over assets like land.
The intervention of market forces in small-scale agricultural production often create a large pool of surplus labour (often through displacement and alienation of land tenures) from which capital draws labour at favourable terms and conditions. Comparisons of wage rates with the returns to agriculture prior to such intervention may not always reveal a true picture of improvement or deterioration if small-scale cultivation is already in a crisis due to unfavourable policy prescriptions. Under the usual neoliberal economic regimes, subsidy withdrawals or reduction of protection from competition by large players in the external markets are common examples of policies that are unsupportive of smallholder and petty production in agriculture and has led to the emergence of agrarian crisis across the developing world.
In the case of land, there are two kinds of loss of control that occurs. First, through an adverse incorporation, the land holder loses control over the terms of transfer of the land itself, like on the terms of ‘sale’ or ‘lease’. Additionally, there is a loss of control over the cultivation and management of landholdings.
The trend for expansion of bio-fuels production is being supported strongly by the Philippine government. The new guidelines (Guidelines Governing the Bio-fuel Feedstocks Production and Bio-fuels and Bio-fuel Blends Production, Distribution and Sale, 2008) issued for how lands can be transferred for bio-fuel production stipulates that any land holding under 25 hectares can be used for bio-ethanol without requiring any approval or certificate from the authorities. This essentially facilitates large investors to acquire land directly from farmers for the purpose of ethanol production. Thus, while on one hand, the Philippine land policy Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) gives constitutional rights to smallholders regarding land ownership, the new guidelines facilitates the big private players and investors to indulge in ‘grabbing’ farmland from the poor and small peasants. This schizophrenic land policy in Philippines can be summarized by the following phrase: The constitution Giveth, the market Taketh away.
Interview with government officials reveal that the objective of the ethanol land conversion guidelines is to identify ‘choke-points’ for investors and eliminate them. One such major ‘choke-point’ that has been located is the ‘noisy opposition from those who do not understand the issue’. Dissent and assertion of rights are inimical to this model of capitalism. It is also evident from the discussion with the officials that private investments are essentially held as instrumental in putting money in people’s hands and teaching new technology to them and even short-term sacrifices by smallholders are legitimate according to this narrative of capitalism.
The field data reveals that the terms of lease are no different between the two groups of farmers. In fact, the group with no legal land titles have better contracts in terms of the money paid for the 5 or 6 year leases under which ECOFUEL uses their land. Other than social context and the uneven asymmetrical relationship within the peasant societies, the nearness of one’s land to the highway was identified as a causal factor behind the terms of lease. Apparently it seems that the lands closer to the highway get higher lease money even if proper land titles are absent.
In reality, it is the underlying power and class relations that exist within the peasant society that ensure that the ruling sections of the peasantry secure better deals from ECOFUEL while the rest submit helplessly to the stringent and exploitative terms that the company offers and dictates. Consequently, the group with legal land titles could not avoid the discount that ECOFUEL officials asked from them due to their location at the wrong end of the class hierarchy existing in the region.
Both groups of farmers are well aware that the amount of lease money paid for their lands is a miniscule share of the massive profits that ethanol commands in the world markets. The social and economic constraints however coerce the farmers to enter into such unequal contracts with ECOFUEL. At the other pole, the ECOFUEL officials are quite enthusiastic about granting land titles to the smallholders as they perceive that legal land titles help them greatly in acquiring their land for ethanol production seamlessly.
Thus land titles, while being a crucial requirement for smallholders, can be realistically helpful for them only when the power structure in the society also alters favourably for the vulnerable peasant groups, whereby supportive policies are also adopted for non-capitalist models of agriculture. A cocktail of market assisted land titles and corporate investments for agricultural production acts as a genuine enemy of small farmers. The asymmetrical power relations between large investors and landholders can even lead to the former using these legal rights to their advantage through the mechanism of ‘adverse incorporation. The evidence from the bio-fuel expansion in Northern Philippines vindicates this argument.