DOCUMENTS . Towards a better Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform

"The world is given
to all and not only to the rich"
(Saint Ambrose)


The recent paper by the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council against rich landowners takes a courageous stand, re-proposing the substance of Tradition

by Gianni Valente


Facing, a Bangladesh fieldworker. Above, The Pilgrimage, by the Brazilian artist Josť Tiago

     "You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all and not only to the rich". It was 1967 when Paul VI, in his encyclical Populorum progressio, repeated the words of the saint who had been his predecessor in the cathedra of Milan. He was condemning the theft of land, a primeval form of oppression of the poor that, as all Church Tradition teaches, "cries to God for vengeance". More than 30 years later, a document produced by a Vatican office, revisits some of the issues addressed in Paul VI's great social encyclical.
     Towards a better Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform. This is the title of the text, fruit of three years of preparation by the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council. It was presented on January 13 by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, President of this Vatican office responsible for social questions. It is a condemnation of unscrupulous land ownership, the cause of the growing impoverishment of large sections of the populations in developing countries. It follows similar papers released by numerous Latin American Episcopates where the agrarian question, which raised its head halfway through last century, is still the fundamental coordinate of social exploitation.
     The new Vatican declaration is structured according to the see-judge-act formula inaugurated in France by the Christian Working Youth (JOC) organization in the 1930s and borrowed in recent decades by the Latin American Churches in addressing social, economic and political questions.
     The first part is a cogent, realistic description of the mechanisms of land ownership monopolies. It outlines the structures of exploitation, the links with political and economic power, the human, environmental and economic costs of the phenomenon. The paper offers a critical assessment of economic policy choices, such as industrialization and urbanization pursued according to forced plans at the expense of agriculture in the illusion that national economies will be thus "modernized". The paper takes care to cite "the presence of important foreign interests, concerned about the effects of any reform on their economic activities" as one of the reasons for the failure and subsequent abortion of so many agrarian reforms.
     Moreover, agri-export policies, geared to the interests of large-scale agro-industries, are also described as a cause of the penalization of small-scale farmers and subsistence economies mainly designed for self-consumption and shattered by the pitiless mechanisms of economic globalization.
     In this first section, the most explicit and incisive passages are concentrated in the paragraph on the expropriation of the lands of indigenous populations. The paper depicts scenarios of tragic actuality in Latin American current affairs. "In most cases", paragraph 11 states, "the rights of the indigenous inhabitants have been ignored when the expansion of large-scale agricultural concerns, the establishment of hydro-electric plants and the exploitation of mineral resources, and of oil and timber in areas of expanding agricultural frontiers have been decided, planned and implemented". Paragraph 12 denounces the violence which indigenous peoples continue to endure in land accumulation processes: "The landowning elite and the large companies involved in exploiting 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 defence of the weak, among whom 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". The Vatican document is dated November 23 1997, Feast of Christ the King. On the following December 22, a gang of paramilitaries in the pay of local power lobbies massacred 45 Catholics in the Chiapas village of Acteal. They were gathered in a hut to recite the Rosary and they were the confirmation with the grace of martyrdom of the words underwritten a month before by Cardinal Etchegaray in the offices of the Pontifical Council in San Calisto Square in the Trastevere quarter of Rome.

Saint Thomas
and the Farmers' Land
"Woe to you, who add house to house and join field to field", cries Isaiah. His contemporary, Micah, echoes: "Seizing the fields that they covet, they take over houses as well, owner and house they seize alike, the man himself as well as his inheritance". The invective of the prophets against the prevarication of the rich contains the ancient root of the Church's judgement of land owernship, the focus of the document's second part. The Old Testament, with the Jewish practice of the Jubilee, is already threaded with incessant appeals to acknowledge that the land is God's, that man is not its true owner but simply an administrator: "The land belongs to me and you are only strangers and guests of mine" (Leviticus 25, 23). In Christianity, the illegitimacy of large-scale land ownership is no longer just a fact of the order of Creation but is born of the preference for the poor, of that historical and real preference that all of Tradition acknowledges as inscribed in the mystery of Jesus Christ's own predilection for his own people. The most effective and realistic passages of the document are the passages that re-propose the substance and teaching of Tradition which, in the cry of the poor and oppressed, has always heard Jesus Christ's own cry on the cross. Paul VI's Populorum progressio is cited to reiterate that "the world is given to all and not only to the rich", so that, "no one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities". The criterion defined by Saint Thomas Aquinas and reiterated by the last Ecumenical Council is also re-proposed: "When a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others". In the light of these teachings, there is condemnation of "the intolerable injustices caused by the misappropriation of land by large landholders or national or international companies, at times with the support of State institutions, which trample every acquired right - sometimes even legal title to possession - in order to deprive small farmers and indigenous populations of their land".
     The new Vatican document expresses some socially courageous and interesting judgements and positions in precisely those passages which stop at re-proposing for today's scenarios, the substance and teachings of Tradition, the very same that were reaffirmed in documents under the previous Magisterium, such as Populorum progressio. By contrast, though perhaps to appear credible in the eyes of the economists and experts, the paragraphs that assume their same criteria of judgement, fatally scarred by today's hegemonious liberal ideology, prove timid and abstruse. As regards organizational forms of the economic system, for example, the Vatican document declares legitimate even collective methods of land exploitation such as community ownership, "which is a feature of the social structure of many indigenous populations". But it then withdraws and modifies this acknowledgement by adding that such models are destined to change: "There are valid reasons to expect a policy of individual assignment of land ownership to develop also in the case of indigenous peoples". This is a diplomatic way of saying that the indigenous communities must move on to individual ownership and open up to the free land market or be marginalized, doomed to poverty and failure in integrating within the neo-capitalist productive system.
     In the passages on private property, this step back from the positions expressed in Populorum progressio is even more marked. The social mortgage weighing on private property, affirmed as a principle, is just pure theory in the comparison with real cases. In Populorum progressio, Paul VI with Saint Ambrose had unhinged the dogma of "inviolable" private property, acknowledging the legitimacy of expropriations ("If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used ... the common good sometimes demands their expropriation").

The Challenge of Yes ... But
The new Vatican declaration also theoretically concedes the legitimacy of expropriations, "providing there is congruous compensation". But as regards the most controversial and urgent case - of land occupation which has been the mark of social conflict in Brazil and throughout Latin America for years between the fazendeiros and the masses of landless farmers, it substantially condemns the landless movements' methods but it does so in the sweetened ambiguous language of distinctions and sociological attenuations. From this point of view, this paper is also an indication of the changes underway in ecclesiastical declarations over the past two decades. The Catholic et ... et, by which the coherent application of a true principle induces us to consider all the factors at play, is being replaced by the yes ... but concept of the moderate hegemonious culture in the Church. According to this concept, as is the case here, the principle clearly expressed by Saint Ambrose and Saint Thomas and re-proposed by the Populorum progressio is emptied of substance. For, says the Vatican paper, the occupation of uncultivated lands, "even when situations of dire need provoke it, is always an act contrary to the values and rules of a truly civil social organization. The climate of collective emotion generated can easily lead to a series of actions and reactions that can get out of hand, while the various forms of instrumentalization which can so easily occur have very little to do with the issue of land". This closed position is followed by the observation that, in any case, land occupation "is an alarm bell calling for the implementation of effective and equitable solutions on the social and political level". Governments which allow such dangerous situations to fester are also judged co-responsible for the degeneration of social conflicts: "Delays in, or the postponing of, agrarian reform deprive their condemnation and repression of land occupation of any credibility".
     The document's last section reaffirms that overcoming the barrier represented by land ownership is only the start of any effective agrarian reform. For results to be effective and lasting, land redistribution must be supported with guaranteed access to bank credit and with the creation of infrastructures to optimize production and the subsequent marketing of produce. The myth that trade deregulation has miracle-like virtues is stripped away: "In certain situations, the development of trade can also have detrimental effects on the living conditions of the economically disadvantaged. This happens, for example, if the increase in the production of foodstuffs for export leads to a reduction in the supply of food for domestic consumption and an increase in its price"