Land reform and bulletproof vests

Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman might, on first glance, suggest a kindly hobbit.

The retired UW law professor is a friendly, gentle and small (in stature) man who hardly looks like a radical social reformer who could bring on death threats.

Prosterman’s non-profit organization, now called Landesa (formerly RDI, Rural Development Institute), sounds like another group doing something nice, and boring.

But land reform, as it turns out, is hardly boring.

“I remember when we had to wear bulletproof vests when we were working on projects in El Salvador,” said Tim Hanstad, current president and CEO of Landesa (the new name change intended to signify “land” and “destiny” … and to get away from sounding like a USDA extension project.)

Prosterman, left, and Hanstad, right, in El Salvador

That was in the early 1980s, Hanstad said, after three of Prosterman’s colleagues working on land reform were assassinated by right-wing death squads at a cafe in San Salvador.

“Roy got death threats whenever he went there,” said Hanstad.

Back home, Prosterman was criticized by both the right and the left.

Conservatives called him a “socialist” for trying to help peasant farmers gain land ownership. The left, however, regarded his earlier work in the 1960s and 1970s helping Vietnamese peasants gain land rights as suspect for different reasons. Liberal critics saw him as a tool of the CIA and the Nixon Administration’s efforts in the Cold War.

Tim Hanstad

“Yeah, it’s not quite as controversial these days,” said Hanstad. But improvements in land rights are just as important and needed now, he said, and not without controversy.

For example, there is a land rush in the developing world — especially in Africa, as reported recently by the New York Times — as foreign investors and corporations seek places to more cheaply grow food. As the NYTimes reports:

Organizations like the United Nations and World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations.

Hanstad said Landesa thinks foreign investment can be a force for good, but only if investors and governments recognize that the rights of individual farmers must be preserved in order for this trend to succeed.

Here is a Landesa position paper on foreign investment in arable land, a case Hanstad intends to make next week at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Landesa, as RDI, has over the past 40 years helped an estimated 100 million people gain land rights in many of the poorest countries of the world. But they estimate a billion more are in need of these legal protections as a variety of economic and political dynamics threaten to push them off land they have farmed for generations.

In addition to the name change, Landesa has grown in size — to something like 100 people worldwide — and in terms of its financial clout. Thanks in large part to support from the Gates Foundation that goes back to the late 1990s, Hanstad said they now operate with a $10 million annual budget.

“That’s still small, given the need,” said Hanstad. “But we’re starting to aim higher and hope to leverage our successes.”


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.