PEASANTS WITHOUT LAND: FUSE FOR REVOLUTION?

By , Richard Critchfield writes frequent columns from the developing world.

Consider this fact: In nine key countries that experienced 20th-century revolutions -- most of them Marxist -- the number of landless peasants had reached 30 percent or more of the countries' total populations.

This was true of Mexico in 1911 (62 percent of the people were landless), Russia in 1917 (32 to 47 percent landless), Spain in 1936 (about 40 percent), China in 1941 (35 to 45 percent in the rice-growing region), Bolivia in 1952 (60 percent), Cuba in 1959 (39 percent), South Vietnam in 1961 (42 to 58 percent), Ethiopia in 1975 (38 percent), and Nicaragua in 1979 (40 percent).

There are only five major countries left with over 30 percent landlessness: India (41 percent), Pakistan (38 percent), Bangladesh (54 percent), the Philippines (36 percent), and Indonesia (44 percent of Java, where two-thirds of the Indonesians live).

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Does this mean these countries face the threat of Marxist revolution?

The leading American authority on land reform predicts it does. Roy L. Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor, has helped draft land-redistribution legislation in 16 countries, including South Vietnam, the Philippines, and El Salvador.

In an interview, Dr. Prosterman, warned, "Unless the landless in India, Pakistan, Bandladesh, the Philippines, and Java are given more of a stake in technological revolution, there will be massive revolutionary violence in these five countries."

This can be avoided, he says, through the distribution of what he calls "microplots," or quarter-acres of irrigated land. Dr. Prosterman feels biological science will soon make it possible for a five- to six-member family to feed itself by multiple-cropping such a plot.

Meanwhile China, in its dash for scientific and economic freedom, is putting more and more cropland into private plots. Russia, where collective farming was invented 64 years ago, has been encouraging its farmers to expand their private food and livestock production.

The shaky economies of Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Vietnam are prime examples of how badly state-owned, state-run systems ago with agricultural and industrial modernization.

As the world's post-1800 technological revolution continues to work its way through every country, even the communists are coming to recognize the importance of private ownership.

US President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. have seized on this as evidence that communism is disintegrating.

But this would hold true only if there were sufficiently equitable ownership of private property in all the noncommunist countries. If too few people own the means of production -- which in the third world means a plot of land -- technical advance can dangerously widen the gap between rich and poor.

What gives weight to Dr. Prosterman's view is that he helped design South Vietnam's belated land redistribution program in 1970-74. Until then almost nothing had been done, although the Vietnamese communists had made "land to the tillers" their prime propaganda slogan of the war. From 1957 to 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem gave land to about 10 percent of South Vietnam's 1 million landless families. His successors in the next seven years did nothing. (Nguyen Cao Ky claimed in Guam in 1977 that he had redistributed 2 million acres. This was an outright, but widely reported, lie; Ky never transferred a single acre.)

In the 1970-74 redistribution, more than 50 percent of South Vietnam's 8.6 million acres of cultivated land were given out to about 900,000 tenant families , or close to 6 million people -- a majority of the country's rural population.

South Vietnam's range of landlessness fell from between 42 and 50 percent to between 7 and 18 percent. Viet Cong recruitment in the Mekong Delta dropped from an average of 7,000 per week to fewer than 1,000, and rice production rose 30 percent.

Had land been redistributed 10 years earlier, it is possible that Hanoi would have been defeated. As it was, it came too late -- by then American domestic political support for the war effort had almost completely eroded. But the result leaves Dr. Prosterman with the firm conviction -- which this writer shares -- that land reform is the best answer to Marx-ist revolution and probably the only one.

Take El Salvador. A country the size of Massachusetts, inhabited by only 4.8 million people. El Salvador had the lowest per capita gross national product -- (Only in northeastern Brazil, where there is low population density, is there a higher degree of landlessness.)

El Salvador's density was 581 per square mile, higher than India's 550. Its population was 60 percent rural. About 420,000 families cultivated 1.6 million acres, or about 3.8 acres each, 20 percent more than in India.

Until the 1980 land redistribution, 300,000 of the rural families were tenants, sharecroppers, or farm laborers. A few hundred families owned tens of thousands of acres of prime land. Most small-farm owners tilled tiny holdings on marginal soil, often on the sides of volcanoes, with no access to credit, extension, improved seed, or any of the new farming technology.

In 1980, Dr. Prosterman, funded by the AFL-CIO, helped to draft El Salvador's land redistribution. Almost 15 percent of the country's cropland was transferred to some 80,000 families of former employees in the first phase of the program. This meant about 480,000 people benefited. This was accomplished despite continual violence involving leftist guerrillas and rightist "death squads" -- violence that was responsible for more than 10,000 deaths. [Phase 2 of the redistribution program, however, has been shelved indefinitely, in part because of problems in management of Phase 1.]

Honduras, where 37 percent of the people are landless, badly needs land reform. Guatemala has only 15 percent landlessness; Costa Rica even less. Only about 10 percent of Mexico's people are landless peasants.

The 30 percent landlessness yardstick doesn't always work.

Iran's revolution came even though the Shah instituted land reform in the 1950s and reduced the number of landless peasants to about 20 percent of his people. Still, the landless were an important element in the street mobs that protested the Shah in the name of Islamic fundamentalism and that eventually led to his downfall.

Mexico suffers from too much land reform, if anything. After the 1910-17 revolution, some 2.3 million peasant families received plots of ejido land (which can pass from father to son, but in theory cannot be sold, rented, or given to others). Much of it is on the arid, badly eroded Mexican central highlands, where the plots are too small and unwatered to apply new technology. Indeed, Mexico's absolute population growth -- up from 18 million in 1940 to at least 72 million now -- has so outstripped its water and land resources that the rural poor's salvation can no longer come in agriculture but only in decentralized industry.

East Asia's Confucian societies have led the way in land redistribution, whether Marxist or non-Marxist. Japan, China, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and North and South Vietnam have all undertaken redistribution programs. Besides communist countries, where the general goal is collectivization or making all land state property, only a small number of countries have adopted major land redistribution: Ireland, Greece, Mexico, pre-World War II Eastern Europe, Bolivia, Kenya, Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Venezuela, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Chile.

In 1946-53, the most genuine Asian land redistribution programs -- those of Japan. South Korea, and Taiwan -- involved 78 percent, 71 percent, and 66 percent of tenanted land, respectively, and gave ownership to 81 percent, 64 percent, and 60 percent of the tenants. It is no coincidence that these three nations now lead the world (including, in rice technology, the United States) in applying biological science to farm production.

In India, en extremely inequitable pattern of land ownership has delayed, though not stopped, what should be the world's most dramatic agricultural revolution. In terms of biological science, India has the world's greatest untapped resources of land, sun, water, hydroelectric potential, and fertilizer.

Progress has been stymied because 4 of every 10 Indians are landless peasants. That is 60 million landless rural families, a staggering number. About 80 percent of India's people live in villages; low-caste field workers account for nearly 60 percent of all village families and just over half of India's entire population. About two-thirds of these are landless and the rest own small holdings of one-tenth of an acre up to 2.5 acres.

But India's land ownership is so inequitable that income from rising productivity generated by new technology tends to flow to a higher-caste, landowning minority.

Just 15 percent of all India's village families own 75 percent of the land, account for 68 percent of all machinery sales, and own 64 percent of all tube wells and 78 percent of all irrigation systems.

The expansion of irrigated land from 91 million acres to 135 million over the past 15 years and the tripling of fertilizer consumption to 6 million tons has chiefly benefited this 15 percent. Moreover, power, water, and fertilizer are supplied at subsidized rates and the 15 percent pay no income tax. (India irrigates about 7 million more acres each year and could go up to 277 million irrigated acres, compared with just under 40 million in the US.)

These rural "halves" have become India's most powerful political lobby and have led agitations for higher farm prices in such states as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. New studies suggest that the poorest of the landless, lacking cash to pay for higher-priced food, are eating less than they were 10 to 15 years ago.

On the face of it, India seems to belong on Dr. Prosterman's list of countries that, without land reform, will face revolution. But there is evidence that landless laborers are prospering in the most prosperous rural states. These are laborers in Punjab, haryana, Rajasthan, and eastern Uttar Pradesh in the north, and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh in the south. Many get jobs in the booming small towns, and this in turn forces up field wages back in the villages.

Decentralized rural industry might stave off revolution in India. The same is true of Java, which, like Egypt and Mexico, already has too big a population for its available land and water. Some 30 to 50 percent of the Javanese own no land except their own house and yard, and another 10 to 20 percent own just a tiny plot.

But Java's "landlords" hold an average of less than an acre each. Java needs land reform to stop a recent trend by Chinese merchants or Army officers from the town from buying village land and cashing in on the new farm technology. But redistribution that would divide up the already tiny plots is no solution.

Like Java, which has 44 percent landlessness, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have alarmingly high numbers of land less peasants -- 54 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Yet both are fiercely Muslim. If we discount the little Marxist anarchy of South Yemen, no Muslim state has yet gone communist.

Landholdings in Bangladesh, as in Java, are fragmented and small; few are more than one or two acres. In Pakistan, however, inequitable land ownership has been a prime cause of the country's failure to realize its tremendous agricultural potential.

Of the last five countries with over 30 percent landlessness in Asia, the Philippines would most seem to qualify for what could be the 20th century's last Marxist revolution (assuming the Indians avert one).

President Ferdinand Marcos made land reform the justification for imposing martial law in 1972 and brought in Dr. Prosterman as a consultant. In two long interviews in 1972 and '74, Mr. Marcos analyzed the problem as well as anyone else. He told this writer that after 300 years of Spanish colonial rule and 42 years under the Americans, a good many peasants got educated, moved into middle-class occupations in nearby towns, and began collecting rent from less enterprising men left behind.

One result: The impoverished countryside is owned by the middle class of prospering small rural towns. This broadbased absentee ownership makes it extremely hard to modernize agriculture.

As Gurdev Khush, the chief plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, explained it: "Unless small absentee landlordism is eliminated, the Philippine farmers won't be able to afford the inputs they need to use the new technology. If the government moves in with enough irrigation, fertilizer, and credit, the farmers might prosper enough to buy their land if the townspeople found it profitable enough to sell it. But it's a very long shot."

Mr. Marcos promised in 1972 to give land to the country's 1 million tenant farming families. Between 1972 and 1975, he handed out "certificates of land transfer" to about 75,000 of them. But the landlords continue to collect rent from CLT holders until the land has been valued and the landlord paid by the Land Bank. As of July 1975, 30 months after land redistribution began, the actual beneficiaries numbered only 10,200 families.

This was 1 percent of the tenants, and little progress has been made since. Landless peasants still make up 35 percent of the Philippine people.

Like Vietnam and El Salvador, the Philippines is a country with high landlessness and a history of rebellions by landless peasantry. Like the Vietnamese leaders, Mr. Marcos promised, but failed, to carry out land reform.

El Salvador probably won't be another Vietnam, thanks at least in part to land reorganization. Nobody -- not leftist guerrillas nor right-wing terrorists -- can take the land back from the peasants now without bloodshed.

But the Philippines, unless President Marcos enacts land reform, could become another Vietnam.

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