Country people leaving a village due to enclosure in 18th Century England. Mary Evans Picture Library.

In the last five hundred years the land of small-scale farmers has been confiscated by elites frequently and forcefully. The rationale has been due to the negative characterization of the small scale farmer as “uncivilized”, stupid, unproductive, and backward. These have been the justifications for the elites – whether large landowners, government officials, educated professionals, or others – to seize the small-holder farms.

This began in England in the sixteenth century with the enclosure movement. Its climax was 1776 to 1825 when Parliament passed over four thousands Acts of Enclosure. The process of enclosure was often accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed and led to large numbers of landless people who became the exploited work force for the industrial revolution in England. Historian Raymond Williams summarized that the Enclosure Movement as “concentrated ownership of it [land] in a small minority of the population. These ‘lawful’ enclosures also dispossessed millions of citizens, swept away traditional ways of life, and forcibly introduced the new economy of industrialization, occupational specialties and large-scale production.”

A 1911 ad offering “allotted Indian land” for sale.

This also led to many English people migrating to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other places where the English created large estates by expropriation land from the original inhabitants. As is well know, but usually ignored, the English entered the eastern United States and dispossessed the Native American small-scale farmers of their land, pushing them farther and farther west as they continued to take over their lands.  

A family starves in their own yard. Ukraine, 1933. Wikimedia Commons picture. This is one of the rather less gruesome pictures in this collection.

There were also other massive expropriations of land. For example, Joseph Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture in Russia and Ukraine. The 1932-33 Ukrainian famine due to this collectivization policy led to the deaths of between 3.3 million to 7.5 million Ukrainians. Including the deaths in Russia itself, the total may have reached 12 million.

A starving peasant family, victims of the disastrous economic policies of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ leading to the ‘Great Famine’ (1958 – 1961).

Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1962 was another government sponsored policy to turn the small-holder Chinese farms into large collectives. This then led to a major famine in China which led to the deaths of between 18 million and 55.6 million people.


Sohail Khan, a farmer from Chitora village in Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Photo: Pankaj Tiwari). Is this what thickly populated India needs? A large field with a tractor with no houses, no people, and hardly any trees?

These attacks on the land and livelihood of small-scale farmers is not old history. They continue today, perhaps with less violent methods. The green revolution in India is a good example of the current means of forcing people off their land. The green revolution which began in the 1970s quickly increased yields in parts of India. This led to surpluses in food crops with a corresponding drop in the price of food. At the same time land became more valuable since it could grow the crops. Since only farmers with large land holdings qualified for loans for the expensive seeds, fertilizer, chemicals, and sometimes irrigation needed for the Green Revolution to succeed, the small holder farmers were unable to make ends meet. When they went into debt and couldn’t pay off the extremely high interest rates charged by the moneychangers, their farms were possessed for non-payment. Some estimates in the major growing areas of India calculate that 30% of the farmers were moved off their land. They could then live precariously as day laborers when work was available or move to the vastly over-crowded cities. Suicide among these farmers became a national epidemic. The idea was that this surplus labor, like in England during the enclosure movement, would produce the people power for industrialization. This did not happen so the cities and countryside are teeming with poverty-stricken destitute families.

Here is a map and chart of the major land grabbing happening in Africa as of 2007.

When land is grabbed in Africa, any people living on that land are moved off by the government involved. Sometimes the people are offered compensation, but even when this happens, it frequently never arrives. If a farmer and his family have been living on a piece of land for generations, what is the value of that land to him since any money he/she might receive is quickly used up? The family joins the long list of landless people eking out an existence with day labor.

If you have been reading my series on small-scale farming, you will realize that my observation is that the destruction of the small-scale farmer is counter-productive for adequately feeding the people in the world. If small-scale farmers were encouraged, given adequate support and backing, they would feed not only themselves but also the world.


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