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Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. For a Greater Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (Excerpts)

The social teaching of the Church is very clear … that agrarian reform is one of the most urgent reforms and cannot be delayed,” the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace said in a document it made public Jan. 13, 1998. The council said that “in situations of injustice and poverty, agrarian reform is not only an instrument of distributive justice and economic growth but is also an act of great political widsom.” But the council stressed that if the term “agrarian reform” is “confined only to land redistribution, the struggle against povety and underdevelopment will not be won. The commitment to ensuring access to land constitutes merely the first part of the program if agrarian reform is to offer a practical and sustainable response to the serious economic and social problems of the agricultural sector in developing countries.” The document examines the problem of latifundia (“large land holdings, often belonging to absentee owners, where the land is worked by hired labor, using outdate farming techniques” and where “the resources of the land are also generally underutilized.”) In discussing latifundia, it also turns attention to the right to private property, saying: “If the right ot private ownership … is not recognized, this leads to a concentration of power, bureaucratization of the various sectors of society’s life, social discontent and the suppression or stifling of ‘the fundamental manifestations of freedom.'” The document adds that the right to private property is not “unconditional, according to the magisterium of the Church, but entails some very precise obligations.” The document discusses the rights of indigenous peoples, credit availability for small farmers, education for the professional development of farmers, the position of women in farm production and food economies, the role of government in agrarian reform and numerous other concerns.

Excerpts from the Vatican’s English text follow:


The intent of the present document is to increase and quicken awareness of the dramatic human, social and ethical problems caused by the phenomenon of the concentration and misappropriation of land. These problems affect the dignity of millions of persons and deprive the world of the possibility of peace.

There is not a moment to lose. The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, proclaimed by the Holy Father John Paul II in remembrance of our only Savior, Jesus Christ, is a challenging call to conversion, including in the social and political fields, that will re-establish the right of the poor and marginalized to enjoy the use of the land and its goods that the Lord has given to all and to each one of his sons and daughters.
Problems Connected with Concentration of Landholdings

The agrarian structure of developing countries is often characterized by a two-tier form of distribution, with a small number of large landowners possessing most of the arable land while vast numbers of very small owners, tenants and settlers farm the remaining land, which is often of inferior quality. Large holdings are still a feature of many such countries”land systems.

The historical origins of the process of land concentration vary from region to region. It is particularly relevant t our own reflections to note that in areas that came under colonial rule concentration of land in large holdings really started to develop in the second half o the 19th century through gradual private appropriation of the land, favored by laws which introduced serious distortions into the land market.

The private appropriation of land not only led to the formation and consolidation of large holdings, but also had the diametrically opposite effect of fragmenting small holdings.

Many developing countries have sought to modernize their economies as quickly as possible by basing themselves for the most part on the often unjustified belief that rapid industrialization can bring about an improvement in general economic well-being, even if agriculture suffers in the process.

They have thus adopted policies protecting domestic industrial production and manipulating the exchange rates of the national currency to the disadavantage of agriculture, policies of taxing exports of farm produce and policies supporting the purchasing power of urban inhabitants based on the control of food prices or other forms of intervention that alter the market distribution mechanism and that have therefore often led to a lowering of exchange rates for agricultural, as against industrial, production.

The resulting fall in farm income has affected small producers so badly that many have been forced to give up farming. All this has given added impetus to the process of concentration of landholdings.

Violence and Complicity

The history of many rural areas has often been marked by conflict, social injustice and uncontrolled forms of violence.

The landowning elite and the large companies involved in exploting mineral and forest resources have on many occasions not hesitated to establish a climate of terror in order to suppress the protests of workers who are forced to work at an inhuman pace for wages that often do not cover their travel and living expenses. Similar tactics have been used in order to overcome conflicts with small farmers who have been farming state or other land for a long time, or in order to take possession of land occupied by indigenous populations.

In these conflicts intimidation and illegal arrests are used, and in extreme cases armed groups are hired to destroy possessions and harvests, deprive community leaders of power and eliminate people, including those who take up the defense of the weak, among whom are many church leaders.

The representatives of the public authorities are often direct accomplices in such violence. The executors and instigators of the crimes are guaranteed impunity by weaknesses in the administration of justice and the indifference of many states to international juridical instruments concerning respect for human rights.

A Wider Distribution of Private Property

The social teaching of the Church sees agrarian reform as an instrument capable of extending private ownership of land as long as public authorities follow three distinct but complementary lines of action:
(a) In juridical terms, in order to ensure the adoption of laws to uphold and protect the effective distribution of private property.
(b) In terms of economic policies, in order to facilitate “an increased distribution of private ownership and of durable consumer goods, of homes, of farms of one’s own equipment in artisan enterprises and farms of family size, of shares in middle-size and large firms.
(c) In terms of tax policies, in order to ensure continuity of ownership of material goods within the context of the family.

Promoting Family-Sized Farms

The social teaching of the Church condemns both latifundia as the expression of a socially irresponsible use of the right to property and as a serious obstacle to social mobility, and also state ownership of land as leading to a depersonalization of civil society. While it is aware that it is not possible to determine a priori what the structure of farm life should be, it suggests that family-owned and -farmed enterprises should be actively promoted.

Farm units of the size intended here use family labor for the most part, but can tap into the external labor market by taking on paid workers.

Such farms should be large enough to allow the family sufficient earning to retain possession of the farm, to have access to the land credit market and to ensure sustainability of the rural environment also through apropriate use of inputs.

The efficiency of its management and the social wealth thus produced mean that such a farm can create new opportunities for work and the human growth of all.

It can make a very postivie contribution not only to development of an agrarian structure, but also to the implementation of the very principle that material goods should be used for all.

An Educational System for Cultural and Professional Growth

The increasingly decisive factor in gaining access to the goods of the earth is no longer possession of land, but possession of the whole complex of know-how that people can accumulate. John Paul II has stated: “In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill.”

The more farmers know about the productive capacities of the land and other inputs, and the various possible ways of satisfying the needs of those for whom the fruit of their work is intended, the more fruitful this work will be, especially as a means of personal fulfillment through the use of their own intelligence and freedom.

Priority must therefore be given to setting up a system capable of providing the broadest possible range of knowledge and technical and scientific skills on the variou educational levels.

Special Concern for Women’s Role

Policies intended to facilitate access to modern technology and public services must pay special attention to the crucial position of women in farm production and the food economies of developing countries.

While there are considerable variations from place to place, women in these countries supply over half the labor used in agriculture. Moreover, full responsibility for producing the food needed to support the family usually falls on their shoulders.

Despite this, they are widely marginalized by severe forms of economic and social injustice. Even agrarian-reform programs consider women in terms of their domestic work and not as agents of productive action. Laws favor men in conferring theright to land ownership and the educational system tends to emphasize boys’ training rather than that of girls.

In view of this situation, if agrarian-reform programs are to be successful, it is vital to ensure women of an effective right to land, with concrete attention to their needs on the part of technical-assistance services, fuller and better schooling and easier access to credit. This will improve the quality of their work, reduce their vulnerability to changes in technology, in the economy and in society, and increase alternative opportunities for employment.


The Church is preparing for the new millenium through a process of spiritual conversion that has its central inspiration in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. This exceptional ecclesial event should prompt all christians to make a serious examination of conscience on their witness in the present and also to a fuller awareness of the sins of the past, recalling those times in history when Christians indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counterwitness and scandal.

In treating the subject of an equitable redistribution of land, central to the jubilee tradition in the Bible, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace wants to focus the attention of all on one of the most squalid and painful spectacles-that of the shared responsibility, including that of many Chrsitians, for grave forms of injustice and exclusion, and the acquiescence of too many of them in the violation of fundamental human rights.

In many contexts, acquiescence in evil, which is a troubling sign of spiritual and moral degeneration not for Christians alone, is producing a disturbing cultural and political void which makes people incapable of change and renewal. While social relations are not changing, and justice and solidarity remain absent and invisible, the doors of the future are closing, and the destiny of many peoples remains locked in an increasingly uncertain and precarious present.

The spirit of the jubilee urges us to cry, “Enough!” to the many individual and collective sins that bring about intolerable situations of dire poverty and injustice. By calling attention to the special and essential significance of justice in the biblical message-that of protection of the weak and of their right as children of God to the wealth of creation-we strongly hope that, as in the biblical experience, the jubilee year will help us today to restore social justice through a distribution of land ownership carried out in a spirit of solidarity in social relations.

Houston Catholic Worker, XVIII, No. 3, May-June 1998.