Fresh calls have been made by a Swiss non-governmental agency (NGO) working in Nepal for urgent land reforms to help poor families stave off hunger and boost agricultural production. Nepal is the poorest country in Asia and the 15th poorest globally. It is also one of the most unequal, with poverty among the lowest ethnic groups double the national average.
One of the key causes of this poverty is the continuing culture of feudalism, which allows landless tenant farmers to be exploited. Of the estimated 4.2 million farming families in Nepal, 1.3 million do not own the land they work. Assuming each family consists of at least four people, this would make over 5 million people, or around one fifth of the population of 28 million, landless.
Nepal introduced its first Land Act in 1964, but even after six amendments, tenants have limited rights. Instead of a half share in any harvests, tenant labourers receive one-third or as little as one-tenth of the earnings. And land owners, many of whom live far away from the villages they control, are usually able to thwart attempts by anyone to purchase land from them. Over a third of cultivated land in Nepal is owned by less than 8% of households and an even larger proportion of general land is owned by private estates or the government, with significant areas lying idle.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which donated 58 million pounds to projects in Nepal during 2008-9, funded a study entitled ‘Land Reform in Nepal’ which was published last year. The report’s main author, Liz Wily, a land tenure specialist, concluded that while legislative improvements could be pursued at government level, this was unlikely to lead to the necessary change. Instead, the report recommended ‘democratising’ reform at a local level, by empowering each community to take control of its area. A network of around 4,000 collectively-governed community schemes would then be able to utilise and divide land resources more fairly.
The problem of land reform is not unique to Nepal; other Asian countries such as China, Vietnam and South Korea have managed to undertake the process with a high degree of success. Agriculture accounts for a third of Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product and yet farming has become one of the hardest ways to survive. The DFID-sponsored report concludes that reform is absolutely essential to advance growth and economic transformation in Nepal. With large sections of society increasingly disillusioned with government and some groups occupying public land illegally, “the risks of not doing so are high”.