Biodiversity and Land Reforms – A Neglected Linkage

By S. Faizi, Trivandrum – India.

[Faizi is a renowned ecologist specializing in international environmental policy.  In the wake of South Africa’s redistribution of land and agricultural policy redevelopment, this article can be an important guideline.] 

Agricultural biodiversity was a key item on the agenda of the just concluded meeting in Rome of the scientific and technical advisory body – Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Affairs (SBSTTA) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and yet this meeting too sidestepped the critical issue of reforming the agricultural land tenure as a means to enhance agrobiodiversity. Indeed land reforms, wherever undertaken with the necessary political will, have shown to have a triple environmental impact: improving the genetic and species base of crops, significantly mitigating rural poverty and reducing pressure on natural habitats.

Both the feudal concentration and the fast growing commercial acquisition of farmland play a significant role in the erosion of agrobiodiversity, just as the apartheid’s appropriation of farmlands. Large holdings cultivate an extremely limited number of species if not outright monocultures, more often than not cash crops meant for the export market. Small holdings on the other hand have a wide range of crops, mainly food crops for self and to meet local needs. Besides, the small holdings have a significantly higher productivity per unit as each of these holdings command the devoted attention of an entire family. The prevailing systemic denial of farmland to the landless and land-poor entrenches poverty on the one hand and on the other leaves these marginalized communities to increase the pressure on natural habitats for livelihood, in addition to contribution of the large holdings in narrowing the agrobiodiversity base.

Kerala, a state in India, is a good example of the biodiversity-land reform linkage where the state had a comprehensive land reform project in the early 70s supported by a farmland redistribution law, and this has been central to what has come to be called the Kerala model of development characterized by high social indices upon fairly low investment (but now increasingly under threat). Although the state has one of the highest population densities in the world, its small holdings maintain a high diversity of crops. Further, when the population pressure had prompted a migration to the upland forests in the 70s, its intensity was considerably reduced by the land reforms. However, such a reform will be unthinkable in most other parts of India or the rest of south Asia even today, as the resistance to change will be fierce.
The staggering 65 per cent of Japan’s- a high population density country- terrestrial area under forest cover owes it largely to the forced land reforms in the post world war two period, although the original intention of the occupying Americans was to wither the feudal support base of the king. Nicaragua’s land reforms initiated by President Daniel Ortega in the 80s -shelved later with the change in government- were followed by a reduction in forest encroachments. Cuba’s small holdings were central to shaping its success in expanding agro biodiversity and reducing the use of agrochemicals in the post Soviet period. On the other hand, apartheid’s appropriation of farmlands created the twin crises of accelerating rural poverty and biodiversity degradation in southern Africa. The land reform move initiated by the Soviet sponsored government in Afghanistan was at the core of the feudal resistance which was strategically utilized by the US to generate self perpetuating violence of formidable proportion. Had the land reforms been allowed to happen, the destiny of Afghanistan would have been starkly different- the ecology of its vastly degraded semi-arid lands too.

The recent establishment of  the National Land Reform Council in India for promoting a new land reform policy demonstrates the government’s recognition of the urgency of addressing the expanding land deprivation among the rural poor, though I doubt if such a half hearted move can bring about any tangible results. In addition to the feudal land tenure structure, there is the new and growing threat of corporate take-over of farmlands abetted by governments at various levels. No meaningful reform to provide access to land for the huge mass of landless poor can come about without the necessary political support, and that support is clearly lacking in all the mainstream political parties in the country today. An equitable redistribution of the farmlands will not only enhance the livelihood security of one third of the citizens but also strengthen the nation’s ecological security.

Unfortunately land tenure reform as a vital tool in biodiversity conservation has been kept off the agenda of the CBD process, and is yet to be given its rightful place in the biodiversity discourse itself. Few biodiversity-related studies mention this as an issue to be addressed. One exception is the Global Biodiversity Strategy (World Resources Institute et al) released on the eve of the Earth Summit. ILO had also done some empirical studies on the impact of land reforms on agrobiodiversity in the early 90s. The ubiquitous World Bank speaks about it too, but for them land reforms mean market-driven commercial accumulation of land which can only accentuate the biodiversity crisis. It is my fervent hope that this critical biodiversity issue, which will scare many a Southern government supported by feudal political formations, will soon find its way to the CBD agenda.