Tuesday, December 12, 2017

(THE ECONOMIST ASIA) For Asia, the path to prosperity starts with land reform

COMMENT - The Economist Magazine states the obvious, that land reform is extremely popular, and highly effective in fighting poverty. "And while smallholder agriculture is hugely labour-intensive, that makes sense when labour is abundant." I would add to that, that automation doesn't need to pass small farmers by. It just takes a different kind of machinery. What if UNZA had a department specializing in inventing/producing/patenting small farm tools? Example. - MrK

(THE ECONOMIST ASIA) For Asia, the path to prosperity starts with land reform
Countries that did it properly have grown fastest
Print edition | Asia
Oct 12th 2017

NEARLY as striking as Asia’s dynamism is how unevenly prosperity is spread—in contrast to Africa, Latin America or Europe. First-world Japan (with a GDP per person of $38,900) is in effect part of the same island chain as the Philippines ($2,950). Rich Singapore ($53,000) is little more than an hour’s flight from Myanmar ($1,275). On the Korean peninsula, the division is even starker. Two economies that started out in identical circumstances have diverged so wildly that South Koreans are between 3cm and 8cm taller than their North Korean counterparts on average, depending on their age, thanks to better nutrition.

A voluminous literature ponders the causes of the East Asian miracle, in which first Japan, then the four original “Asian tigers”—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—and then China sustained bounding growth for decades. Most studies point to market-friendly policies that encouraged exports of manufactures and the rapid accumulation of capital, including the human sort. Others emphasise the importance of institutions. Yet one crucial factor has been relatively underplayed: restructuring agriculture.

“Land reform” sounds innocuous but involves great upheaval: seizing land from those who have it and giving it to those who do not. Yet radical action may be necessary in countries with big, impoverished, rural populations. As Joe Studwell points out in “How Asia Works”, farm yields often stagnate in such places. As populations grow, making land scarce, landlords jack up rents and lend at extortionate rates. That leaves poor tenant farmers mired in debt, with no means to invest.

China provides a stark example. By the 1920s, a tenth of the population owned over seven-tenths of the arable land. Three-quarters of farming families had less than a hectare. Mao Zedong’s Communists reallocated land in every new territory they seized. After the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, they rolled out land reform nationwide. Landlords, some with scarcely more land than most, were blamed for everything. In the decade after 1945 millions of them were beaten to death or shot, or left to starve. Revolution, Mao said, was not a dinner party.

The effect was immediate. Grain output leapt by perhaps 70% in the decade after the war. When farmers can capture most of the value of their land, they have a powerful incentive to produce. And while smallholder agriculture is hugely labour-intensive, that makes sense when labour is abundant. (Only a few years later the Communists embarked on the madness of collectivisation. China emerged from that disaster in 1978, after Mao died. North Korea is starting to do so only now.)

China’s early success challenged Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. These countries, pressed by America to carry out land reform, showed that it does not require mass murder. By the war, half of Japan’s arable land was worked by tenant farmers, and rent was never less than half the crop. After the war, farm size was limited to three hectares. Land committees on which tenants outnumbered landlords oversaw a reapportionment that took land from 2m households and gave it to 4m others. Compensation fell short (and was gobbled up by inflation), but there was little violence among farmers. Perhaps it helped to be able to blame the occupiers when politely taking over someone’s paddy field. At any rate, agriculture boomed.

South Korea had the most unequal land ownership in the region, and resistance by the elites was strongest. Some landlords lost as much as 90% of their land. But Taiwan under the KMT shows the clearest benefits from land reform, which started with rent controls and reforms to tenancy. Sales of formerly Japanese-owned land followed. Then, in 1953, came appropriation. The share of land tilled by the owner rose from just over 30% in 1945 to 64% in 1960. Yields on sugar and rice leapt. New markets sprang up for exotic fruits and vegetables. Household farmers dominated early exports. Crucially, income inequality shrank thanks to the new farmer-capitalists. Less spent on imports of food, more money in Taiwanese pockets, a new entrepreneurialism: farming was the start of Taiwan’s economic miracle.

Cheap at half the price

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand could have followed Taiwan’s example, but didn’t.
Their economies have done far worse. With between 25% (Malaysia) and 48% (Thailand) of their populations still living in the countryside, land distribution matters. The state favours agribusiness and plantations over small farmers. There is a yawning gap in income between countryside and city.

The situation is worse in the Philippines, which had a similar income per person to Taiwan’s just after the war. Before independence in 1946, America auctioned off the Catholic church’s huge estates. Only the local elites could afford them. These became the hacienda class that thrives today, forming the basis of many political dynasties. Admittedly, after the People Power revolution (led by Cory Aquino, from one landed family, who married into another), political pressure for land redistribution culminated in a reform law passed in 1988. Nearly 30 years on the law, replete with loopholes, is still being implemented. The operations of many big estates have hardly been affected, while household farmers still lack technical and financial support. Many of those given plots have had to lease them back cheaply to the big planters, becoming wage labourers on their own land.

There are political consequences too. In South Korea and Taiwan inclusive agricultural growth prefigured the inclusive politics of today’s thriving democracies. In South-East Asia, by contrast, cronyism and inertia are consequences of an economy that is unfair to those at the bottom. The Philippines and Thailand have most clearly paid a price, in the form of insurgencies and rural unrest, for keeping poor people down. When weighed against the costs, land reform, done well, starts to look cheap.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Land to the tiller"

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