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Former Wall Street Lawyer Works to Defend Poorest Farmers in China

Roy Prosterman

International media have reported recently on the plight of farmers in China, who are protesting land takings by local governments and developers. One local non-profit has been working with the Chinese government to develop new legislation to address the problem, especially the issue of state expropriation of farmland and compensation for the farmers. That non-profit is Landesa, which has grown over three decades through the tireless efforts of a Seattle law professor.

Landesa, formerly called the Rural Development Institute, was founded by Roy Prosterman in 1981. A Wall Street lawyer after Harvard, later a law professor at the University of Washington, Prosterman has since devoted his career to land rights in developing countries, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. With the motto “Securing land rights for the world’s poorest people,” Landesa now operates in more than 40 countries, promoting social justice and providing opportunities to rural families, especially women.

Landesa is also showing how rural livelihoods are connected to the protection of environmental resources. Next month, Keliang Zhu, an attorney on Landesa’s China team, will publish results of a new study on compensation for farmers and rural communities under China’s Natural Forest Protection Program. That study will be published by the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington D.C.

In China since 1987, Landesa has worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and other organizations to help secure land tenure for 86 million Chinese farming families. Landesa also works with Chinese universities, such as Renmin University in Beijing, organizations such as the All China Women’s Federation, and the World Bank. Its donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Skoll Foundation and Google. Wen Liu recently interviewed Prosterman about the organization’s work in China.

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Q:  You were a lawyer on Wall Street before coming to UW in 1965 to teach legal issues of land reform. How was your law practice related to land reforms?

A:  Actually, I first taught three courses: antitrust, foreign investment law, and first year property law. Later, in retrospect, I realized that some of my experiences in my Wall Street law practice (1959-mid-1965) had helped lay the ground work for my interest in the land rights of the rural poor, which first came into focus in 1966. In particular, as a young attorney I had traveled to Liberia on an International contracting matter, and seen deep rural poverty for the first time; and I had traveled to Puerto Rico on another contract matter and seen how that society had moved from less developed status in the 1930’s much closer to “developed” status by the early 1960’s, in part due (as I learned) to the distribution of house and garden plots to the landless rural poor as part of their “Operation Bootstrap.” (Later, and still today, I began to teach a Law School seminar that prominently features land reform issues.)

Q: As a land law consultant to the U.S. government, you worked in Vietnam during the war on a program called Land to the Tiller. Tell us about that program, please.

A:   I drafted the principal elements of the Land to the Tiller law, and advocated for the reform as crucially necessary for both development and conflict resolution purposes, both in South Vietnam and with a number of US constituencies. Ultimately, the Land to the Tiller program gave land ownership to one million families of tenant farmers in the South, resulting in a 30 percent increase in rice production and a 80 percent decrease in indigenous Vietcong recruitment in the South. Ultimately, after the conflict ended, the government in Hanoi, seeing the much higher productivity of the family farms in the south than of the collective farms in the north (and also seeing the Chinese break up their collective farms) decided to de-collectivize and establish family farms country wide, and invited us back to confirm independently that this had been accomplished and discuss the results. The team making that trip (in 1993) included myself, Tim Hanstad, who is now Landesa’s CEO, and Washington Lieutenant Governor Joel Pritchard, who had been a great supporter of the land reform program when he sat in Congress.

Roy Prosterman, right, with a farm family in rural China.

Q: Landesa began working in China in 1987. What event or project led Landesa there?

A:  Our work in China began in 1987, quite straightforwardly, because we saw initial publicity that China had broken up its collective farms and that agricultural production had substantially increased as a result. If this were true, we thought, it would be a striking instance of an erstwhile centrally planned economy of great size abandoning collective farming as a failure and replacing it as family farms, and we wanted to see it for ourselves. We did field work on this in 1987 (invited by the Foreign Affairs office of Sichuan province) and again, more extensively, in 1988 (invited by the Development Research Center of the State Council).

Q: In 2011, Landesa published its sixth land rights survey in China and identified a key problem: the majority of Chinese farming families lack good documentation of their land rights. Could you please explain that finding?

A:   Under the law, Chinese farm families are supposed to receive two documents confirming that they have 30 year rights to the small parcels of land that they farm: a contract issued and signed by the local, village authorities, and a certificate that is issued by county level or higher authorities. As of the latest, mid-2011 survey, we projected that only 37 percent of the approximately 200 million farm households appeared to have both of these documents, and 23 percent had still been issued neither of the two documents. Moreover, only one out of five of the issued contracts and two out of five of the issued certificates contained all of the important terms, such as an adequate map or description of the location of the household’s land parcels. Moreover, substantial majorities of the issued documents failed to record wives’ names.

Q: Why did you change the name Rural Development Institute to Landesa? What does Landesa mean?  I noticed that in Chinese media, it is still 美国农村发展研究所 (American Rural Development Institute).

A:   In January of 2011 we changed our name from the Rural Development Institute to Landesa (this has also been adapted in various local ways in countries where we work, outside of the US). There were several reasons for the change, including the fact that “Rural Development Institute” was a bit of a mouthful in English, and was often misheard as “World Development Institute.” There are a number of other organizations in countries where we work named Rural Development Institute, creating confusion. Landesa is not intended to have a specific meaning, although it is redolent of what the organization does: think “land” and “destiny,” as well as the fact that “desa” has meanings relating to village or land in local dialects in some of the places where we work. It was also thought that the pronunciation was suggestive of the importance of women’s land rights, which has been a major issue in our work since the late 1990s.

Published October 25th, 2012

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