Economic Development Land Tenure Systems


Land tenure can be defined as the traditional or legal rights which individuals and groups have to land and the behavior characteristics which directly result from these rights. The above definition denotes social relationships manifested in the property rights which individuals and groups have to the land. Land tenure is a crucial factor in the operation of rural land markets, influencing the pace and direction of agricultural development. Since land tenure systems govern access to the means of production in agriculture, they have also been an intensely political subject in rural societies.

The first indication of tenure considerations is found among certain preliterate or primitive societies. Among these groups the appropriation of land has not assumed importance in and of itself and the land is viewed as free in total. But in some societies which have progressed no further than a hunting and fishing economy, exclusive claims sometimes are made on certain parcels of land.

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Some studies argue that tenure insecurity is correlated negatively with the quality of resource management. Over usage and degradation of natural resources, such as deforestation and soil erosion, are often characterized because of incomplete, inconsistent property rights, as the costs are borne by society as a whole, whereas benefits accrue to individuals. The relationship between customary tenure and land degradation indicates that customary tenure is partly responsible for land degradation. However the behavior that leads to land degradation by smallholder farmers under customary tenure cannot be linked to their lack of tenure security under customary tenure. Rather it is linked to other reasons such as lack of knowledge of conservation practices, use of traditional agricultural production practices that are not sustainable, and lack of inputs such as labor. In this regard, small farmers need extension methods that focus on relevant technologies that promote sustainable agricultural production. (Lynn Smith, 1953)

The concept of land reform is itself a controversial and semantically intriguing topic. Its narrowest and traditional meaning confines it to land distribution. A broader view includes in it other related changes in agricultural institutions, such as credit, taxation, rents, cooperatives, etc. It can also be interperated that these reforms are practically synonymous with all agricultural improvement measures — better seeds, price policies, irrigation, research, mechanization, etc.

The Land Tenure reforms to be found in any country appear to a great extent to be the function of government. They are closely related to the social and economic well-being of the people. The latter fact sets the stage for the discussion in this chapter. Its concern is the major forms or systems of land tenure and the distinct patterns of social and economic relationships characteristic of each. By way of illustration they point out, among other examples, that individualism and individual initiative are usually more developed in a community of individual farm-owners on small holdings than in a community where one or a few men own all the land and the workers are serfs, laborers, or non-managing tenants of one kind or another.

The extent to which the ownership and control of the land is concentrated in a few hands or widely distributed among those who live from farming is probably the most important single determinant of the welfare of the people on the land. Throughout the world wherever there is a widespread distribution of land ownership and control.

The implication of intense pressure of farm population on agricultural land inevitably results in a farm-tenure situation that is unsatisfactory from the point of view of working farm people. This is so because pressure of population on land drives down the marginal productivity of labor and the real return to labor as a factor of production. If farm land-tenure reforms are not accompanied by policies to reduce excessive pressure of farm population on agricultural land, such reforms are likely to be of little or no avail. Fortunately, the two recent programs to assist depressed rural areas to some degree reflect an awareness of this principle.

The term that is basic to land tenure theory and which helps to explain the usefulness of the interdisciplinary approach is distribution. According to economic theory, laying aside all qualifying statements for the sake of simplicity, the impersonal market distributes economic rewards according to merit. However, is too narrow a concept to explain fully the distribution principle even in a ” free ” market. (Alvin L. Bertrand, Floyd L. Corty 1962)

The reform or liberal position on the land question thus far had been to make the public-land system function in a democratic way by assuring the small man the right to acquire a piece of the national domain. Limitations were put in the Preemption, the Graduation, the Homestead Acts and their variations to make certain that only the small man could take advantage of them until the issue of the patent, but beyond that they had no effect. All such measures were therefore used by large interests acting through fake buyers to acquire lands they could not legally acquire otherwise.

Timber land in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Washington, grazing lands in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, and Idaho, wheat lands in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota passed into the hands of great lumber companies, cattle companies, and bonanza farm groups under laws that were designed to prevent large-scale accumulation. The unwillingness of Congress to experiment with restrictions on alienation made inevitable the concentration of ownership which grieved western agrarians. (Alvin L. Bertrand, Floyd L. Corty, 1962)

Evans, Greeley, George, and other radicals had failed to carry the mass of land reformers with them on the question of alienability. Americans found it easy to be radical or to favor reform when to do so did not impose any self limitation, but few were attracted to any idea that might restrict their right to accumulate property or to sell and gain the unearned increment.

The reforms which were being adopted at this late time were both ineffective and to some extent unwise. Since the desirable size for land-use units was increasing as population moved into the arid and semi-arid regions, the 320 acre limitation on the amount of government land persons could acquire compelled either evasion and abuse of the laws to acquire adequately sized units or the establishment of small grain farms in areas unsuited to cultivation. This pattern of evasion and abuse of the land laws and the establishment of small grain farms in areas better planned by nature for grazing carried well into the twentieth century. Not until 1934 were comprehensive and far-reaching reforms initiated to produce a desirable and constructive plan of land use.

The preponderant, almost the universal view of Americans until near the end of the nineteenth century was that the government should get out of the land business as rapidly as possible by selling or giving to settlers, donating for worthy purposes and ceding the lands to the states which should in turn pass them swiftly into private hands. No matter how badly owners abused their holdings through reckless cultivation, destructive and wasteful cutting of the timber, prodigal and careless mining for coal and drilling for oil, few questioned their right to subject their property to any form of use or abuse.

An extensive part of the fertile coastal plain and piedmont of the South and of the hill-farming area of the northeast could be cultivated in such a way as to reduce the land to barren, gullied, and eroded tracts no longer able to produce crops, to support families, and to carry their share of community costs, but few denied the right of the owners to do as they wished with their property or, more fundamentally, questioned the system of land distribution that seemed to invite such practices.

The shore line of the Atlantic, of bays and inlets, of inland lakes all near congested urban areas could be monopolized by a wealthy few, and still there were few complaints. Rich landlords, speculators, and corporations could buy unlimited amounts of land from the United States, or purchase from other owners who had acquired tracts from the state or federal government and keep their holdings from development for years, thereby blighting whole areas, delaying the introduction of schools and roads and doing immeasurable harm to neighboring residents.


Alvin L. Bertrand, Floyd L. Corty (1962) Rural Land Tenure in the United States: A Socio-

Economic Approach to Problems, Programs, and Trends. Southwest Land Tenure Research Committee  Louisiana State University Press. Place of Publication: Baton Rouge

Alvin L. Bertrand, ” The Social System as a Conceptual and Analytical Device in the Study of

Land Tenure,” Land Tenure Workshop Report, Chap. VII.

Lynn Smith, The Sociology of Rural Life (3d ed.; New York: Harper & Bros., 1953), 274.

Rawls John ( 1971) The Theory of Justice. Belknap Press.

Rawls J (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Roth Michael 2002) Integrating Land Issues and Land Policy with Poverty Reduction and

Roland R. Renne, Land Economics ( New York: Harper & Bros., 1947), 429.

William H. Nicholls, ” Southern Traditions and Regional Economic Progress,” Southern

Economic Journal, Vol. 26 ( January, 1960), 187-98; id., Southern Traditions and Regional Economic Progress ( Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1960).

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