land reform

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

The changing of systems of land tenure, usually at government initiative. Systems of land tenure vary considerably, and have great importance for the social and political structure of a society. Land may be held corporately by lineages, in small individual plots, or by a tiny number of wealthy landowners. Land reform has varied purposes and takes different forms: it may aim to create a more equal society by abolishing feudalism, winning the support of peasants, and giving them a greater stake in society; it may also aim to increase economic efficiency by creating a pattern of landholding which maximizes investment and productivity; or it may seek to impose a socialist pattern of ownership, where individual land ownership is not in general permitted. Reforms have varied from the redistribution of land, to the imposition of land ceilings (so that no single owner controls more than a certain area), and from the complete abolition of private ownership, to attempts to alter the terms under which tenants work private owners' land, such as the terms of sharecropping agreements. In modern times, the first land redistribution was that in France following the Revolution (1789), which established the pattern of small family farms that continues today. In Britain there have not been any reforms initiated by the government, but the Enclosures movement (16th to 19th centuries) pushed many peasants off the land into the towns and led to the development of industry and of large‐scale farming. In Russia, limited land reform giving the land to the peasants accompanied the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, but the land was taken away again from 1918 with the abolition of private ownership of land and extensive collectivization. A similar process occurred in much of Eastern Europe after 1945 but the individual right to own land was reintroduced in the early 1990s. In countries that espouse communism, such as China, Cuba, and Vietnam, there has also been extensive collectivization, while in Mozambique and Ethiopia all land title was declared the nation's and the rights of the tillers of the land and their descendants guaranteed. Some land reforms in Asia have been very effective in increasing land ownership among peasants, including those in Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia, where a system of cooperative land settlement, resembling the Israeli use of kibbutzim, has been employed. In Latin America, attempts at reform have often been impeded by such factors as the high level of foreign ownership, prevalence of very large plantations, and opposition from politically powerful landowners. In the Middle East, a successful reform in Egypt in 1952 has been the model for reforms elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. State compensation to landowners whose land is expropriated often takes the form of state bonds; a noteworthy exception being in Taiwan, where shares in public industry were given in compensation. This illustrates the need for industrialization to provide employment in countries where rapid population growth means that the land, however equitably distributed, cannot provide a living for all. The redistribution of land from large estates into small peasant farms has nearly always had the effect of raising productivity and reducing poverty; however, this is contradicted by the experience of Zimbabwe from 2000, where the expropriation of White‐owned commercial farms contributed to a grave economic crisis. See also agriculture.


Subjects: World History.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.