Ecuadorians struggle for land reform and food sovereignty

August 23, 2015

Ecuadorian chapter of the The Latin American Coordination of Rural Organisations, which is calling for the creation of a Agrarian Council. Photo via TeleSUR Eglish.

More than 6000 people and 500 group have participated in public meetings on a proposed land law with the government of President Rafael Correa.

Social movements have long waited for meaningful and concrete progress towards land reform and food sovereignty in Ecuador. These movements are seeking the approval of the land law — a policy reform that would radically transform land tenure and property rights in Ecuador.

The new land law would replace the 1994 Agrarian Development Law. This was a neoliberal policy that liberalised land markets and favoured large-scale export-oriented agricultural production. It compromised the stability of small-scale farmers and the autonomy of indigenous communities.

The new law is rooted in food sovereignty, a concept based on small-scale farming and agroecology with the aim of producing all of Ecuador's food inside the country, national land reform policies and a new international trade regime. It is framed by an overriding commitment to social justice - including ethnic, racial, and gender equity.

Food sovereignty was proposed as an alternative concept to “food security” in 1996 at the World Food Summit by La Via Campesina, a transnational organisation made up of peasants, rural workers and indigenous groups.

Food sovereignty focuses on democratising access to and control over land and water resources. In Latin America, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have formally incorporated the concept of food sovereignty into their national constitutions.

In the new Ecuadorian constitution adopted in 2008, food sovereignty is defined as a right, a strategy and an obligation of the state to ensure that everyone can achieve self-sufficiency in healthy and culturally appropriate food.

The state also regulates the use of land to prohibit its concentration in a few hands and the privatisation of water.

Food sovereignty in Ecuador is central to attaining sumak kawsay (“living well”), an indigenous concept that offers an alternative model to neoliberal development.

However, the practice of food sovereignty in Ecuador remains elusive and contentious. Since the 2008 constitution, movements have waited for the promise of the agrarian revolution to be fulfilled.

The government has implemented programs and projects that redistribute land and provide aid to transition to agroecology, but not to the extent that movements believe would bring about a radical change in land tenure and property rights.

New land law

Nearly one-third of Ecuador's population live in rural areas. About 70% of the rural population work in agriculture, livestock or hunting. Rural areas have the highest rates of chronic malnutrition and poverty.

The concentration of land is incredibly unequal. Land holdings larger than 500 hectares represent less than 1% of all properties, yet account for 18% of land ownership in the highlands and in the coast, and 12% in the Amazon.

These landowners produce bananas, cacao, sugar cane and African palm oil for export. They are also the main beneficiaries of Ecuador’s new trade agreement with the European Union.

On the other hand, small and medium-scale farmers represent 84.5% of all farms but control only 20% of land. These farmers produce a variety of grains, vegetables and protein for internal consumption.

Social movements say the new land law should specifically address the problem of rural inequality by limiting the amount of land an individual can own. This would regulate the use and sale of lands to avoid the re-concentration of land and land grabbing, as well as regulate the exploration of oil and mining in indigenous and ancestral territories.

The issue in defining latifundios (excessively large land estates) is determining how much is too much land. The answer is far from straightforward, due to the heterogeneity in the productive, social, and cultural activities linked to land use across the country.

Movements are concerned with how the state will acquire land to redistribute to landless farmers. According to the proposed law, the government can acquire land that is not serving its social or environmental function - that is, regulating whether land is used efficiently, generating employment or conserving the environment.

Although movements praise the idea of the environmental function of land, they say the law is unclear over how land will be redistributed equitably. In other words, they are concerned about what land, to whom and at what price.

Lastly, movements demand the land law not only protect existing communal land rights, but also speed up the process of attaining and securing communal land rights.

Regardless of land use, for most individuals and communities, formal recognition of land provides a sense of security, enabling them to work their land without fear of being displaced. With land titles, farmers can also gain access to credits, subsidies and other types of support mechanisms.

Although these issues have been taken into consideration by the National Assembly, the law remains to be approved.

Social movement role

Social movements have played a small, but key role in advancing food sovereignty-related policies in Ecuador.

Specifically, movements pushed for the creation of the Plurinational and Inter-cultural Conference on Food Sovereignty (COPISA). This state institution is responsible for writing nine laws addressing a range of issues - from the redistribution of land and the granting of territorial rights to conserving mangrove fisheries and artisanal fishing.

In 2012, COPISA and the Red Agraria — a coalition of civil-society groups — introduced a proposal for a new land law into the National Assembly by strategically using a constitutional provision for popular initiatives.

The proposal was drafted with a variety of civil society groups representing small and medium-scale farmers, labour unions, fisherfolk, women and indigenous groups.

The proposal was reviewed but never passed into law. Rather, the Committee for Food Sovereignty decided to incorporate select articles of the COPISA proposal into one of their own draft versions of a land law - the one that is now under review.

The draft law has endured several revisions, particularly with the series of public consultations the Committee for Food Sovereignty has hosted. The consultations are part of a process whereby historically excluded communities - indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Montubios (an ethnic minority group from the coast) - are consulted on their views over specific aspects of the law.

Pre-legislative consultation adheres to the International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) 169 — ratified by Ecuador in 1998 — that binds governments to “consult” peoples or communities when there is a given legislation or administrative measure that may affect them directly.

The final draft of the law — which in theory should compile the recommendations of the forums — is scheduled to be ready for a vote next month. Will the law reflect the demands of movements? Only time will tell.

What now?

Although the government has tried to be inclusive and participatory in the policy-making process, movements question whether their engagement will produce positive results or end in co-optation by the government.

This is particularly true for the historically powerful indigenous group CONAIE — or at least its leaders. It has adopted a more adversarial relationship with Correa's administration - and has boycotted the land law’s consultations.

More so, with the national strike against Correa supported by some indigenous groups, how and what social movements and the government will concede to legislate land reform and food sovereignty in Ecuador remains unclear.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English. Karla Pena is a doctoral student in Development Sociology at Cornell University. Her work focuses on agrarian change and state-society relations in Ecuador.]

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