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Land inequality is worsening and fueling other social ills, report says

Farmers cut grass and shrub fodder for their livestock. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese for Mongabay.

Farmers cut grass and shrub fodder for their livestock. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese for Mongabay.

  • A new report shows that global land inequality is much more severe than previously estimated, with control of vast swaths of the planet increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few.
  • According to the report, the top 10% of the rural population captures 60% of agricultural land value, while the bottom 50% only control 3% of land value.
  • The authors of the report say that tackling land inequality is a fundamental part of dismantling other social and environmental ills, from climate change and democratic decline to global health crises.
  • To do this will require pushing back against the economic model of resource commodification and yield maximization, and embracing the culture and rights of women, Indigenous peoples, and small farmers, the report says.

Smallholders and family farms, Indigenous people, rural women, youth, and landless rural communities are being squeezed into increasingly smaller parcels of land or forced out entirely as global land inequality grows around the world, according to a new report.

The report, led by the International Land Coalition in collaboration with Oxfam, found that the wealthiest 10% of rural populations across the countries sampled own 60% of the land value, while the poorest 50% of rural populations, who are generally more dependent on agriculture, only own 3% of the land value.

About 84% of farms are smaller than 2 hectares (5 acres) in size, but they operate only about 12% of total farmland by area.

This land inequality threatens the livelihoods of an estimated 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder agriculture, and marks an increase in equality of 41% from previous estimates.

Ward Anseeuw, a co-author of the report and coordinator of the initiative, said the problem isn’t just that land equality has been underestimated and is growing, but also that the “research shows as well that all of these are worse than we think.”

The number of smallholders under threat from this growing inequality is significantly higher than previously estimated because researchers historically relied on traditional census data and the Gini coefficient to quantify land inequality. This method, however, excludes vital pieces of information, such as the value of land, multiple ownership, and landlessness, as well as the control a person or an entity has over it.

To correct for these, the researchers behind the new report implemented a new methodology for measuring land inequality by using various additional data sources to take into account indicators like tenure, quality of land, endowment, and assets.

Another new system was also developed to assess land inequality based on land owned by a household and land values, and also accounts for the landless.

Using these new methods, the researchers found that from the early 20th century through to the 1960s and 1970s, land inequality had declined steadily, albeit slowly, due to the implementation of agrarian policies with a focus on small-scale producers and family farmers and land redistribution programs.

From the 1980s onward, however, the trend reversed, with land inequality increasing steadily. The researchers attributed this to the proliferation of large-scale industrial farming models supported by market-led policies and open economies prioritizing agricultural exports and driven by the logic of return on large-scale investments through economies of scale.

The researchers also cited increased corporate and financial sector investments in food and agriculture, and the weakness of existing institutions and mechanisms to resist growing land concentration, as other reasons for why land inequality has grown.

“This is related mainly to the engagement of corporate and financial actors that in the last 10-20 years have engaged more and more in agriculture and in land, and which are not covered by census data and by survey data,” Anseeuw said in a recent online discussion for the launch of the report.

As a result, more and more land is concentrated in fewer hands, mainly serving the interests of corporate agribusiness and distant investors, using industrial models of production that employ fewer and fewer people.

The researchers also pointed out that there’s a growing rush for land trend, starting in 2000, that has primarily affected agrarian economies in Africa and Asia.

“Lands that in the early 2000s were of marginal investment interest were suddenly sought out, mainly by international investors, with demand peaking in 2010,” the researchers wrote in the report.

By 2018, the global land monitoring initiative Land Matrix had identified around 1,000 large-scale agricultural land deals covering 26.7 million hectares (66 million acres) around the globe. Africa accounts for 42% of these deals and about 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of land, an area the size of Iceland.

“Even though the global land rush has slowed, new acquisitions are still being recorded, contributing to growing pressures on rural people and their land,” the report says.

Farmers working on a rice field in West Java, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Yopi Priyatna/Flickr.

Concentration of ownership

According to the report, Latin America is the region with the highest level of land inequality in the world, with the top 10% of landowners controlling up to 75% of agricultural land and the bottom 50% owning less than 2%.

However, land inequalities in Asia and Africa have increased at a proportionally higher rate.

In the case of Asia, the report linked the increasing land inequality in the region to the “Asian Green Revolution,” in which less-industrialized countries expanded their use of fertilizers, irrigation and high-yielding crop varieties. This led to a significant number of large-scale land acquisitions for agriculture and other sectors (including mining, infrastructure and tourism), and a growing landless population.

While Asia as a region saw a significant increase in land inequality, the nominally communist societies of China and Vietnam saw the lowest levels of inequality.

In Africa, extreme land concentration has been recorded in South Africa, where only 0.28% of farms are estimated to produce around 80% of the value of agricultural production in the country.

“This is taking place in Africa’s most industrialized and urbanized country, which is still not able to provide non-farm jobs for its adult population, leaving 30.1% of them unemployed,” the report says.

If the issue of land inequality in Africa is left unaddressed, it’s going to be a ticking time bomb, according to the researchers. They note that about 375 million people will reach working age over the next 15 years — a population that’s the combined size of the U.S. and Canada’s today.

“How will the continent’s economies absorb their booming labor forces and, specifically, deal with youth employment?” the researchers wrote in the report. “This question is all the more important in the context of increasing land inequality and the promotion and proliferation of large-scale agricultural development models which are capital-intensive, liberating — not absorbing — and even displacing labor forces.”

Even as the researchers found significantly higher land inequality than previously recorded, they said the true level of inequality is likely to be even higher as they hadn’t take into account corporate ownership in measuring land inequality.

“A look at the operations of corporate entities and investment funds reveals a number that are buying and controlling large amounts of land across different countries,” the report says. “This is a form of concentration of ownership that is currently completely missed by all surveys, and is very hard to quantify as not all investment funds are transparent about their investments.”

And even if companies aren’t acquiring land directly, they can still control the land and reap its benefits indirectly through contractual arrangements and control over value chains, all through financial instruments. This allows companies to acquire parts of farms and agricultural enterprise.

“You do not have to buy land to control land and to control the benefits of this land,” Anseeuw said. “So what we see is huge enterprises are developing in agriculture and in the land sector, controlling entire value chain, from seeds, production to retail, from pesticides, to plate that we are getting every night for dinner. This has huge implications for land. Although they don’t buy it, or might not buy it, it will define how they use land, how they control land, and how they distribute the benefits of this land.”

Image of a farmer harvesting coffee in the coffee triangle region of Colombia. Photo by Maria del Pilar Ruiz (CC BY 2.0).

Impacts of land inequality

This increasing land inequality has fueled other forms of inequality, such as economic, environmental, political, social, and spatial inequalities, according to the researchers.

“It’s not only an issue for these smallholders and for family farmers,” Anseeuw said. “These extreme land inequalities are an issue for all of us. It affects all of us in every facet of our lives.”

With land inequality at the core of many other form of inequalities, it is fundamentally linked to contemporary global crises of democratic decline, climate change, global health security and pandemic, mass migration, unemployment, and intergenerational injustice, Anseeuw said.

“Today it is clear that inequality, and especially land inequality, is detrimental to the stability of our society,” he said.

The researchers say that overcoming wider inequalities is impossible without first addressing land inequality. But doing so can strengthen democracies by establishing a broader base for decision-making among landed populations, with greater participation and transparency, they add.

It can also help in achieving environmental sustainability, improving global biodiversity, and achieving spatial and social justice — all necessary to combat climate change and health crises.

“All of the above are stepping-stones towards more resilient, stable, and sustainable societies, where no one is left behind,” the researchers wrote in the report.

Contrary to the popular notion that large-scale investments in land and agriculture will yield better results, giving greater land access to small farmers and Indigenous communities will actually result in more net value per unit area than large companies, said Michel Merlet, director of the French nonprofit AGTER, which advocates for improved governance of land and natural resources.

“Because they preserve biodiversity, soils, forests … and because their decisions respond to a logic of heritage and not to a logic of maximizing short-term profits, it is in everyone’s interest not to allow an explosion of land inequalities,” Merlet said as quoted in the report.

Farmer, Mount Elgon, Uganda. Image by Kate Holt/DFAT via Flickr (CC BY-2.0)
A farmer in Mount Elgon, Uganda. Image by Kate Holt/DFAT via Flickr (CC BY-2.0).

Calls for action

With land inequality already rising to such an extreme level and at the core of a number of global crises, there is an urgent need to act, according to the report.

The report says the current global order — legal, corporate, and financial — is highly unlikely to stop or slow the rate of growing land inequality. But the power imbalance must be addressed and more equitable relations between people and the land must be supported, advocates say.

“Give the economic and the political power to the people, to the rights holders, to the small farmers, to those that are feeding the world, to those that are sustainably managing our resources,” says Joan Carling, co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for SDGs, Philippines. “The imbalance of power needs to change.”

She calls for achieving equity in the use and management of land and inclusive development through “respecting the culture and rights of women, Indigenous peoples, [and] small farmers.”

The current lack of respect and recognition of Indigenous and human rights is prevalent in agricultural societies, including in Guatemala, says Ana María Mendez, the country director of Oxfam, who calls it “a discriminating country.”

“It’s a country that only sees Indigenous peoples and peasants as cheap labor, and they are very cheap labor,” she says. “[This is] because we have a captured state where those economic elites control it all.”

Mendez calls for a robust agrarian law that is implemented effectively to tackle land inequality.

“Making the rule of law happen is absolutely essential,” she says. “We don’t even have an agrarian law. Since we do not have that, everything is criminalized. People are just criminalized and killed. Not only defenders, but ordinary people are killed for just sustaining their claim of their land.”

There also needs to be pushback against elite- and corporate-driven growth, commodification of land and natural resources, and the drive for greater productivity and ever greater returns on investment in the agrifood sector, says Truong Quoc Can of the Vietnamese NGO Consultative Institute for Socio-Economic Development of Rural and Mountainous Areas (CISDOMA).

“Collective action strategies for inclusive food chains can challenge the drivers of land inequality,” he says. “By building direct linkages to processing enterprises or by owning processing facilities, primary producers can earn the same amount of income on less land, as they capture the added value from processing.”

This means that strategies of accumulating larger landholdings become less important for economic sufficiency and well-being in competitive settings, Truong adds.

And the need to act is more urgent than ever as policymakers might be tempted to kick off programs that focus on fast economic gain to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Michael Taylor, director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat.

“As we move towards a post-COVID world, we will see increased pressure for fast economic gain at the expense of people and nature,” he says. “There is always, however, a more inclusive path to rebuilding our economies, that emphasizes sustainable use of natural resources, respects human rights and addresses systemic causes of inequality.”


Anseeuw, W., & Baldinelli, G. M. (2020). Uneven ground: Land inequality at the heart of unequal societies. Retrieved from


Banner image: Farmers cut grass and shrub fodder for their livestock. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese for Mongabay.


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