Opinion

Want global security from terrorists? Give land to Pakistan's poor.

Distributing house-and-garden microplots as part of flood recovery would help Pakistan's landless poor build better lives for themselves, and fend off Taliban recruiters who prey on their grievances.

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Now that the floodwaters in Pakistan are receding, officials from Islamabad to Washington are faced with a great possibility.

This disaster that swept so much away may actually provide an opportunity to sweep away the biggest roadblock to improving Pakistan's stability, furthering its economic growth, and lessening its threat to global security: the widespread lack of landownership by the rural poor.

The landless poor have no meaningful stake in rural society, and it is often the Taliban who step in to use their grievances as grounds for recruitment.

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For the poor, owning at least some land of one's own is a lifeline to survival – a basic source of nutrition, income, status, and security. Grossly mistreated by landowners, the landless poor in country after country have supported severe civil unrest and outright revolution.

The state of Pakistan's rural poor

Pakistan's land-tenure problems are more severe and have been more persistently ignored than nearly any others found on the planet. Though the flood altered Pakistan's landscape, it did not alter the fact that the vast majority of land in Pakistan is owned by a very small number of landlords – chiefly by 300 families of "feudals" who have ruled the Pakistani countryside for generations.

Their workers make up nearly half of the rural population, own no land, and toil as sharecroppers, day laborers, or under debt bondage. For generations, the only land most of them have been able to call their own is the plot for their grave.

A solution model in India

But solutions exist. In neighboring India, a number of individual states are now granting cost-free ownership of house-and-garden plots of about a tenth of an acre (slightly bigger than a tennis court) to the landless poor. Last year, India's central government, eager to make further progress on the issue of landlessness and to undermine a persisting Marxist rebel movement, pledged $200 million to help buy lands – earmarked to become another 2 million microplots – at market price.

In some Indian states, existing public land can meet much of the need. Just one acre of land can decisively supplement the livelihoods of 10 landless families, give them status, and end their dependence on local landlords for a house site.

In Pakistan itself, Sindh Province has distributed 43,000 acres of government-owned land since 2008, mostly to poor rural women. That distribution has been of much larger plots (about 10 acres), but the same quantity of land could reach more than 400,000 landless families using the smaller house-and-garden plot model. Indeed, Punjab Province, Pakistan's most populous, is now distributing one-quarter-acre plots to an initial 1,500 landless families, using government land.

Giving house-and-garden microplots

The house-and-garden small-plot model reduces the amount of land required, allowing the government to acquire the land voluntarily, at market price, or use underutilized public land.

As the floodwaters that covered one-fifth of Pakistan recede, it is clear that new grain crops on landlords' fields may not grow successfully for up to a year. But fast-maturing vegetable crops on newly allocated micro-plots could come much sooner, and on a repeating basis.

An area equal to 5 percent of the inundated lands would be sufficient to give 1/10th-of-an-acre plots to all of Pakistan's landless.

Huge amounts of assistance are now flowing into Pakistan from the world community, some for immediate relief, but some for the longer term. Islamabad and the provinces, with the support of the international community, should embrace giving microplots to the landless to ensure that the laborers who didn't drown in their landlord's fields are afforded a chance to build better lives for themselves, creating greater stability in Pakistan, and in turn furthering global security.

Roy Prosterman is the founder and chair emeritus of the Rural Development Institute and professor emeritus of law at the University of Washington. Mr. Prosterman has been nominated for The World Food Prize, the Hilton Humanitarian Award, the Alcan Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

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