Towards a better distribution of land
The Holy See
back up



The Challenge of Agrarian Reform



The intent of the present document Towards a Better Distribution of Land: the Challenge of Agrarian Reform is to increase and quicken awareness of the dramatic human, social and ethical problems caused by the phenomenon of the concentration and misappropriation of land. These problems affect the dignity of millions of persons and deprive the world of the possibility of peace.

Because such situations are characterized by countless unacceptable injustices, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is offering this document for reflection and guidance in answer to a twofold request: that of the poor themselves and that of their pastors. They have asked that something be said, with evangelical courage, about the scandalous situations of property and land use, present on almost all continents.

Drawing its inspiration from the rich patrimony of the social doctrine of the Church, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace considers it a pressing duty to remind all, above all those with political and economic responsibilities, to undertake appropriate agrarian reforms in order to set in motion a period of growth and development.

There is not a moment to lose. The Great Jubilee of the year 2000, proclaimed by the Holy Father John Paul II in remembrance of our only Saviour, Jesus Christ, is a challenging call to conversion, including in the social and political fields, that will re-establish the right of the poor and marginalized to enjoy the use of the land and its goods that the Lord has given to all and to each one of his sons and daughters.


1. The development model of industrialized societies is capable of producing huge quantities of wealth, but also has serious shortcomings when it comes to the equitable redistribution of its fruits and the promotion of growth in less developed areas.

While developed economies are not immune to this contradiction, it reaches particularly alarming proportions in developing economies.

This can be seen in the persistence of the phenomenon of the misappropriation and concentration of land — that is that good which, given the predominantly agricultural nature of the economy of developing countries, constitutes the fundamental production factor, together with labour, and the chief source of national wealth.

This state of affairs is often one of the main causes of situations of hunger and want, and represents a concrete negation of the principle derived from our common origin and brotherhood in God (cf. Eph 4:6) that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.

2. On the eve of the third millennium of the Christian era, the Holy Father John Paul II calls the entire Church to "lay greater emphasis on the ... preferential option for the poor and the outcast," stating that "a commitment to justice and peace in a world like ours, marked by so many conflicts and intolerable social and economic inequalities, is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee."(1)

Against this background, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is issuing the present document in an attempt to confront the dramatic problem of the misappropriation and concentration of land in latifundia,(2) calling for a solution and indicating the spirit and objectives that should provide orientations.

The document briefly presents:

– a description of the process by which the ownership of land becomes concentrated in latifundia in regions where it is not fairly distributed;

– the principles that should inspire solutions to this highly problematic issue, based on the message of the Bible and the Church;

– a call for an effective agrarian reform, an indispensable condition for a future of greater justice.

The document is addressed to those who have the problems of the world of agriculture and general economic development at heart, especially those in national and international positions of responsibility. It calls their attention to problems of land ownership and spurs them to take the necessary increasingly urgent action. However, it is not a document of political intent, for that lies outside the Church's field of competence.

3. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace draws on the requests of many local Churches that are faced day after day with the problems treated here.

Numerous statements of both individual bishops and conferences of bishops on the subject of land and its equitable distribution(3) clearly show the Church's constant concern and attention for these subjects, and its explicit intention of building society under the gospel sign of justice and peace.

Although these statements may not be explicitly cited, they are constantly referred to. They constitute an extremely valuable and significant contribution, and are often expressions of deeply felt Christian witness borne in difficult and painful situations.

Our intention is to confirm the value of this witness and to encourage such commitment in the future.



The Mortgage of the Past in the Present Situation

4. The agrarian structure of developing countries is often characterized by a two-tier form of distribution, with a small number of large landowners possessing most of the arable land, while vast numbers of very small owners, tenants and settlers farm the remaining land, which is often of inferior quality. Large holdings are still a feature of many such countries' land systems.(4)

The historical origins of the process of land concentration vary from region to region. It is particularly relevant to our own reflections to note that, in areas that came under colonial rule, concentration of land in large holdings really started to develop in the second half of the nineteenth century, through gradual private appropriation of the land, favoured by laws which introduced serious distortions into the land market.(5)

The private appropriation of land not only led to the formation and consolidation of large holdings, but also had the diametrically opposite effect of fragmenting small holdings.

In the best of hypotheses, small farmers(6) could acquire a meager piece of land to work with their families. However, when the family grew, they were unable to increase their holding, unless they were prepared to move their family to less fertile and more isolated land which required proportionately more labour.

This produced the conditions for further fragmentation of the already small area of land owned and, in any case, further impoverishment of the farmers and their families.

5. This situation has basically not improved in recent decades and, in many cases, has steadily deteriorated, despite the fact that daily experience shows what a negative impact it has on economic growth and social development.(7)

Underlying all is the interaction of a whole series of particularly serious phenomena, which are very similar in the various countries despite some national variations.

The approaches to economic development chosen by different developing countries in past decades have often encouraged the process of concentration of landholdings. As a rule, this process seems to be the result of economic measures and structural constraints which cannot be changed overnight and which have economic, social and environmental costs.

A Critical Assessment of Economic Policy Choices

Industrialization at the Expense of Agriculture

6. Many developing countries have sought to modernize their economies as quickly as possible by basing themselves for the most part on the often unjustified belief that rapid industrialization can bring about an improvement in general economic well-being, even if agriculture suffers in the process.

They have thus adopted policies protecting domestic industrial production and manipulating the exchange rates of the national currency to the disadvantage of agriculture, policies of taxing exports of farm produce, and policies supporting the purchasing power of urban inhabitants, based on the control of food prices or other forms of intervention that alter the market distribution mechanism and that have therefore often led to a lowering of exchange rates for agricultural, as against industrial, production.

The resulting fall in farm income has affected small producers so badly that many have been forced to give up farming. All this has given added impetus to the process of concentration of landholdings.

Failures of Agrarian Reform

7. Agrarian reforms intended to ensure a more just division of land ownership and use have been implemented in many developing countries in recent decades, but have proved a deep disappointment, except in those few cases where they have fulfilled their aims.

One of the main errors has been the belief that agrarian reform consists essentially in the simple distribution and re-allocation of land.

Failure can be laid partly at the door of an erroneous interpretation of the needs of the agricultural sector as it moves from a subsistence phase to one of integration with the domestic and international markets, and partly at that of a lack of professional skill in planning, organizing and managing such reforms.(8)

Basically, efforts at agrarian reform have failed in their various aims of reducing the concentration of landholdings, of creating farm units capable of autonomous growth, and of preventing the expulsion of large masses of peasant farmers from the land and their migration to urban centers or to land that is still free, but which may be marginal and poor in social infrastructures.

8. In many cases, governments have not paid enough attention to providing areas subject to agrarian reform with the necessary infrastructures and social services, to setting up an efficient organization for technical assistance, to ensuring equitable access to credit at sustainable costs, to curbing distortions that favour large landholdings, and to fixing prices and forms of the farmers' payment for land that are compatible with what is needed for its development and with the living requirements of their families. Small farmers are often forced into debt. They then have to sell their rights and give up farming.

A second important cause of the failure of agrarian reforms is the scant attention paid to the history and cultural traditions of agricultural societies, which has often resulted in a bias in favour of a large-scale landholding system as against traditional forms of land tenure.

Two more factors have also tended to seriously destabilise the reform process: firstly, a scandalous series of forms of corruption, political subservience and collusion, leading to the granting of huge tracts of land to members of the ruling classes; and secondly, the presence of important foreign interests, concerned about the effects of any reform on their economic activities.

The Management of Agricultural Exports

9. In many developing countries, the ways in which agrarian policies have managed the export of agricultural production have often further encouraged the process of the concentration of land in the hands of the few.

Price control policies have been adopted for certain products, favouring large agro-industrial concerns and export growers, but penalizing small growers producing traditional farm products.(9) Other policies have meant that the whole infrastructure and service system tends to be run in the interests of large farmers. In yet other cases, tax policies concerning agriculture have worked to the profit of certain landowners (individual physical persons or companies), allowing them to recoup fixed investments in a relatively short time, either by not envisaging progressive taxes or in some way facilitating tax evasion. Lastly, certain policies facilitating loans to the agricultural sector have distorted price relations between land and work.

All this has encouraged a process of accumulation based on investment in land, with small farmers, who are often on the sidelines of the land market, being excluded from the process.

The rise in land prices and the fall in the supply of jobs owing to agricultural mechanization have made access to credit, and hence the acquisition of land, difficult for small farmers if they are not grouped in associations.

10. The aim of reducing international debt through exports can lead to a fall in the standard of living of small farmers, who often do not produce export items.

The lack of a public service of agricultural training prevents such farmers, who of necessity engage in a predominantly subsistence-style farming using traditional techniques, from acquiring the necessary technical training for a correct use of the cultivation techniques required by new products. They are poorly integrated into the market, and their difficulties in gaining access to credit curtail their power to purchase the inputs required by new techniques. Poor knowledge of the market means that they can neither keep abreast of trends in product prices nor reach the quality required for export.

If the market prompts small farmers to grow export crops, this often takes place at the expense of production intended mainly for their own consumption, thus putting farming families at considerable risk. Unfavourable climatic or market conditions can lead to a vicious circle of hunger, so that such families contract debts that then force them to give up ownership of their land.

Expropriation of the Land of Indigenous Populations

11. In recent decades, various forms of economic activity based on the use of natural resources have steadily expanded into land traditionally occupied by indigenous populations.

In most cases, the rights of the indigenous inhabitants have been ignored when the expansion of large-scale agricultural concerns, the establishment of hydroelectric plants and the exploitation of mineral resources, and of oil and timber in areas of expanding agricultural frontiers have been decided, planned and implemented.(10)

The law is respected while all this is taking place. However, the property rights upheld by the law are in conflict with the right of use of the soil deriving from an occupation and ownership of the land the origins of which are lost in memory.

In the culture and spirituality of indigenous populations, land is seen as the basis of every value and as the unifying factor that nourishes their identity. However, when the first great landholdings were formed, these peoples lost the legal right to ownership of land on which they had lived for centuries, which means that they can now be dispossessed without warning whenever the old or new holders of legal title to the property want to take physical possession, even if they have shown no interest in it for dozens of years.

Indigenous populations can also run the absurd but very real risk of being seen as "invaders" of their own land.

The only ways they can avoid expulsion from their own land is by agreeing to work for the large companies or by emigrating. In any case, they are deprived of their land and their culture.

Violence and Complicity

12. The history of many rural areas has often been marked by conflict, social injustice and uncontrolled forms of violence.

The landowning élite and the large companies involved in exploiting mineral and forest resources have, on many occasions, not hesitated to establish a climate of terror in order to suppress the protests of workers who are forced to work at an inhuman pace for wages that often do not cover their travel and living expenses. Similar tactics have been used in order to overcome conflicts with small farmers who have been farming State or other land for a long time, or in order to take possession of land occupied by indigenous populations.

In these conflicts, intimidation and illegal arrests are used, and, in extreme cases, armed groups are hired to destroy possessions and harvests, deprive community leaders of power, and eliminate people, including those who take up the defence of the weak, among whom many Church leaders.

The representatives of the public authorities are often direct accomplices in such violence. The executors and instigators of the crimes are guaranteed impunity by weaknesses in the administration of justice and the indifference of many States to international juridical instruments concerning respect for human rights.

Institutional and Structural Problems to Be Solved

13. Developing countries can effectively counter the present process under which land ownership is being concentrated in a few hands if they face up to certain situations that constitute real structural problems, for example legislative deficiencies and delays regarding both recognition of land titles and in relation to the credit market, a lack of concern over agricultural research and training, and neglect of social services and infrastructures in rural areas.

Legal Recognition of Ownership Rights

14. In many countries, the inadequate normative framework and the fragile bases of such administrative institutions as land registers often make it even harder for small farmers to obtain legal recognition of ownership rights over land that they have been farming for a long time and of which they are de facto owners. They are often stripped of their land because it falls by law into the hands of those whose greater financial means and access to information enable them to obtain recognition of ownership rights.

Small farmers lose out in every case: uncertainty over ownership of the land is a major disincentive to investment, increases risks for farmers if they expand their farms, and reduces the possibility of access to credit for which land is used as a guarantee. This uncertainty also encourages over-exploitation of natural resources without concern for environmental sustainability or without considering the intergenerational continuity of family property.

The Credit Market

15. Traditional regulations governing the credit market help to produce the effects described above. Small farmers find it very difficult to gain access to the credit needed to improve production techniques, to expand their holdings and cope with adversities, because of the role given to land as a guarantee, as well as the higher costs that small loans entail for credit institutions.(11)

In rural areas, there is often no legal credit market, so that small farmers have to turn to money-lenders if they need loans, thus exposing themselves to risks that can lead to the partial or even total loss of their land — for property speculation is usually the real focus of such moneylenders' operations. This results in a raking in of smaller properties, swelling both the ranks of the landless and the size of the holdings of large landowners, richer farmers or local traders.

Basically, in poor economies, access to long-term credit tends to be directly proportionate to ownership of production inputs, particularly land, and therefore to be the exclusive prerogative of major landowners.

Agricultural Research and Training

16. Other major deficiencies concern agricultural research and training,(12) that is the study and development of new and appropriate production techniques for different situations, and extension work to inform farmers of the existence of such techniques and how to use them to best advantage.

In many developing countries, there is very often little financial commitment to setting up research structures and centres, so that those in charge of training are ill-prepared for their task.

This creates conditions for two closely linked phenomena of particular economic and social importance:

– the spread of techniques that are the fruit of private research and development activities which focus on large-scale concerns for market reasons;

– insufficient attention to the compatibility of new techniques with local farming features, and especially with local socio-economic conditions. In such cases, there is a major danger that the spread of such new techniques will have negative effects on the standard of living of small farmers and the very survival of their farms.

The Lack of Infrastructures and Social Services

17. Neglect of the infrastructures and social services so indispensable in rural areas is having very marked effects.

The serious deficiencies in both quantity and quality in the school system in these areas mean that young people do not receive the tools for developing their personal potential and becoming aware of their dignity as human beings and their rights and duties.

Similarly, the scarcity and poor quality of health services is often translated into what amounts to a denial of the right to health for the rural poor, with all the inevitable consequences for their lives.

Apart from making access to the other social services difficult, deficiencies in transport systems tend to reduce considerably the profitability of farming for small farmers. The lack or poor maintenance of roads and the scarcity of public transportation increase the cost of inputs, thus reducing any incentive to improve production techniques.

The most serious effect of deficiencies in the various infrastructures is that small farmers are forced to depend on local markets to sell their produce. These markets are not in a condition to provide the necessary information to ensure that the quality of production meets the requirements of demand. They are also dominated by traders whose monopolistic position means that farmers are forced to accept the price offered if they want to sell their produce.

Consequences of Economic Policies Concerning Land Tenure

Economic Consequences

18. Imbalances in the division of land ownership and the policies giving rise to and sustaining them are the source of serious obstacles to economic development.

Such imbalances and policies can have economic consequences which affect the majority of the population. At least five of these can be listed:

a) distortions in the land market: political interventions in the market often directly or indirectly favour large landholdings through indirect subsidies, advantageous taxation and credit facilities. Such advantages lead to further investment in land, and hence a rise in its price. As a result, small farmers see their purchasing power for land eroded, and hence their possibility of improving the efficiency and equity of the land market through normal trading operations;

b) a reduction in the country's overall agricultural production: in countries with a less developed agricultural economy, there is usually an inverse relation between farm-size and productivity. The production per land-unit of small landowners is higher than that of large landowners. The production of the large landowners, who own the greater part of the land, is less, with the consequent reduction of the overall agricultural production of the country;

c) the pegging of farm wages at low levels: this pegging is a result of the simultaneous rise in supply and fall in demand for farm labour and of the absence of conditions that would allow workers to negotiate their terms of employment on a collective or individual basis;

d) the lower profitability of small farms: when the profitability of small farms is reduced, this makes the investments necessary for their development difficult, thus creating a vicious circle;

e) the draining of savings accumulated in the agricultural sector, which are not used productively for investment in infrastructures and technology useful to agriculture, but are taken out and used for consumption or in other sectors of the economy.

Social and Political Consequences

19. The social consequences are heavy and high. The agricultural sector is enmeshed in a process that increases and spreads poverty.(13) Whenever this process has the upper hand and there is no social security or old-age pension, parents see children as a guarantee for their own future. Increases in population levels are therefore very high, while education and health needs are inadequately met.

The traditional balance in the distribution of population is upset in rural communities by processes of destructuration, which cause a migratory movement to the outskirts of the large cities, which are increasingly becoming megacities, and where social conflict, violence and criminality are growing worse.

Constant pressure is put on indigenous populations in an effort to force them off their land. They have to look on as their economic, social, political and cultural institutions disintegrate and the environmental balance of their land is destroyed.

20. For many countries, even those rich in land and natural resources, hunger and malnutrition still constitute the main problem.(14) Today, hunger is a growing phenomenon, caused not only by famine, but also by political choices that do not improve families' capacities to gain access to resources. Defence of the privileges of a minority often hinders or in fact prevents — albeit not legally — the development of agricultural production. While the use of land for export production reduces food costs in countries with developed economies, it can have very negative effects on most of the families who live from farming. No thinking mind or conscience can countenance this paradoxical situation.

As economic and social problems mount up, political problems become ever more complex, causing instability and conflict, which in turn curb democratic development. All this works to the detriment of agriculture and represents a major obstacle for any programme of economic growth.

Environmental Consequences

21. Lastly, inequalities in the distribution of land ownership set in motion a process of environmental degradation that is hard to reverse.(15) Soil degradation and reduced soil fertility, high risks of flooding, lowering of water-tables, siltation of rivers and lakes, and other environmental problems also contribute to this process.

Deforestation of large areas is often encouraged with tax and credit facilities in order to make way for forms of extensive ranching or mining activities or to exploit the resulting timber, but plans for environmental rehabilitation are either non-existent or not implemented.

Poverty is also linked to environmental degradation in a vicious circle when small farmers suffer expropriation by major landowners and the landless poor are forced to search for new land, therefore occupying structurally fragile areas such as slopes, and further eroding the forest heritage in order to clear a space to farm.



The Message of the Bible

The Care of Creation

22. The first page of the Bible tells of the creation of the world and of the human person: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). Solemn words describe the task that God entrusts to them: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen 1:28).

The first task that God gives them — clearly a fundamental one — concerns the attitude that they should have toward the earth and all creatures. "Subdue" and "have dominion" are two easily misunderstood concepts and can, in fact, seem to justify the type of despotic and unbridled domination that takes no care of the earth and its fruit, but despoils it for personal advantage. However, in biblical language, they are used to describe the rule of a wise king who cares for the well-being of all of his subjects.

Man and woman must care for creation, so that it will serve them and remain at the disposition of all, not just a few.

23. The underlying nature of creation is that of being a gift of God, a gift for all, and God wants it to remain so. God's first command is therefore to preserve the earth in its nature as gift and blessing, not to transform it into an instrument of power or motive for division.

The right and duty of the human being to have dominion over the earth is derived from being the image of God: all, and not just a few, are responsibile for creation. In Egypt and Babylonia, this prerogative was attributed to a few, whereas in the biblical text, dominion belongs to the human person as such, and hence to all. Indeed, it is humanity in its entirety which must shoulder responsibility for creation.

Man is placed in the garden to till it and keep it (cf. Gen 2:15), so that he can nourish himself of its fruit. In Egypt and Babylonia, work was a harsh necessity imposed on men for the benefit of the gods — which in fact meant the benefit of the king, officials, priests and major property-owners — whereas in the biblical account, work is for the realization of the person.

The Earth Is God's and He Gives It to All His Children

24. Israelites had the right to ownership of the earth, which the law protected in many ways. The Ten Commandments state: "You shall not desire your neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour's" (Deut 5:21).

It can be said that an Israelite felt truly free and fully Israelite only when he had his own plot of land. However, the Old Testament insists that the earth is God's and that God has given it as a heritage to all the children of Israel. It is therefore to be shared among all the tribes, clans and families. Man is not the true master of his land, but rather an administrator. God is the true master. Thus the book of Leviticus states: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me" (25:23).

In Egypt, the land belonged to the Pharaoh, with the peasants as his servants and property, while in Babylonia there was a feudal structure, with the king granting land in exchange for fidelity and services. Things were very different in Israel: the earth is God's, and God gives it to all his children.

25. This has some specific consequences. On the one hand, nobody has the right to deprive the person who has the use of land of its possession, for this would violate a divine right, and even the king cannot do that.(16) On the other hand, any form of absolute and arbitrary possession exclusively for one's own advantage is forbidden: we cannot do whatever we want with the goods that God has given to all.

It is on this basis that, as need arises — always under the pressure of some specific situation — the law introduces numerous limitations to the right of ownership, for example the ban on picking the fruit of a tree during its first four years (cf. Lev 19:23-25), the call not to reap right to the edges of the field, and the prohibition on gathering up fruit and ears that have been forgotten or fallen on the ground, since they belong to the poor (cf. Lev 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut 24:19-22).

This view of property explains the severity of the Bible's moral judgment on the abuses of the rich who force the poor and small farmers to give up their family holdings. The Prophets are particularly energetic in their condemnation of such abuses: "Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field" cries Isaiah (5:8), while his contemporary Micah says: "They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance" (2:2).

The Jubilee Perspective of Freedom

26. The parallel efforts to bind the ownership of land to its possessor in perpetuity and also to distribute land equitably among all the families of Israel gave rise to one of the most striking social institutions of that people: the Jubilee (cf. Lev 25).(17) This institution translates God's lordship directly onto the social and economic planes, and seeks to affirm or defend three types of freedom.

The first freedom concerns fields and houses, which must return to their original owners in a Jubilee year. Fields and houses can be sold, but this sale is simply a transfer of rights of use and does not affect the right to the property of the owner (or a relative) who can redeem it at any time. In any case, such transferred properties return to the original families every fifty years.

The second freedom concerns people who must return free to their families and properties in a Jubilee year.

The third freedom concerns the land, which must be allowed to rest for a year during Jubilee and sabbatical years.

The basis for these three freedoms is particularly interesting: "... for I am the Lord your God" (Lev 25:17) and "... the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me" (25:23). The underlying reason is thus God's lordship, a lordship seen in the gift to men: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God" (25:38).

Ownership of Land in the Social Teaching of the Church

27. Continuing on the path indicated by Sacred Scripture, the Church has developed its social doctrine over the centuries, issuing authoritative and fundamental documents illustrating its fundamental criteria for judgment and discernment, as well as orientations and instructions to guide choices.

In the social teaching of the Church, the process of the concentration of landholdings is judged a scandal because it clearly goes against God's will and salvific plan, inasmuch as it deprives a large part of humanity of the benefit of the fruits of the earth.

Perverse inequalities in the distribution of common goods and in each person's opportunities for development, as well as the dehumanizing imbalances in individual and collective relationships brought about by such a concentration, are the cause of conflicts that undermine the very life of society, leading to the break-up of the social fabric and the degradation of the natural environment.

The Universal Destination of Goods and Private Property

28. The effects of the present disordered situation confirm the need for all of human society to be constantly reminded of the principles of justice, especially that of the universal destination of goods.

As regards property, the social teaching of the Church bases the ethics of the relationship between the human person and the goods of the earth on the biblical view of the earth as God's gift to all human beings: "God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity .... We must never lose sight of this universal destination of earthly goods."(18)

The right to the use of earthly goods is a natural and primary right with universal application, referring to every human being. It cannot be overridden by any other economic right,(19) but must be upheld and implemented through laws and institutions.

29. While the social teaching of the Church affirms the need to ensure that all persons always and in every circumstance enjoy the goods of the earth, it also upholds the natural right to individual appropriation of these goods.(20)

All persons can put the goods of the earth that have been placed at their service to good use, making them bear fruit and hence affirming themselves, if they are in a position to have free use of these goods, having acquired their ownership.(21)

Such ownership is a condition and protection of freedom and the presupposition and guarantee of human dignity. "Private property or some form of ownership of external goods assures a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom. Lastly, in stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty."(22)

As history and experience show, if the right to private ownership of goods — including productive goods — is not recognized, this leads to a concentration of power, bureaucratization of the various sectors of society's life, social discontent, and the suppression or stifling of "the fundamental manifestations of freedom."(23)

30. The right to private property is not, however, unconditional, according to the magisterium of the Church, but entails some very precise obligations.

Whatever concrete forms private property may take as a result of varying institutional and juridical approaches, it is basically an instrument to implement the principle of the universal destination of material goods, and hence a means and not an end.(24)

The right to private property, which is of itself valid and necessary, must be circumscribed within the limits of the fundamental social function of property. Every owner must, therefore, always bear in mind the social mortgage on private property: "In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself."(25)

31. The social function directly and naturally inherent in goods and their destination means that the social teaching of the Church can state: "When a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others."(26) The right of every person to the use of the goods needed in order to live sets a limit on the right of private property.

This doctrine was expounded by St Thomas Aquinas,(27) and it helps in evaluating some complex situations of major socio-ethical importance, such as the expulsion of peasant farmers from land they have been farming, without guaranteeing their right to receive a portion necessary to sustain life; or, again, cases of occupation of uncultivated land on the part of peasant farmers who are not its owners and who live in conditions of dire poverty.

Condemnation of Latifundia

32. The social teaching of the Church takes the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods as its basis in analyzing the exercise of the right to ownership of the earth as productive land, and in condemning latifundia as intrinsically illegitimate.

Such large landholdings are often poorly cultivated, or simply left uncultivated for speculation, while agricultural production should, in fact, be increased in order to satisfy the growing food needs of the majority of the population who have too little or no land to farm.

In the social teaching of the Church, such latifundia go against the principle that "the world is given to all, and not only to the rich," so that "no one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities."(28)

Latifundia deprive a vast number of people of the right to take part in the process of production through their own labour and to take care of their own needs, and those of their families, the community and nation to which they belong.(29)

The privileges ensured to latifundia give rise to scandalous inequalities and situations of dependence and oppression on both national and international levels.

33. The social teaching of the Church also condemns the intolerable injustices caused by the misappropriation of land by large landholders or national or international companies, at times with the support of State institutions, which trample every acquired right — sometimes even legal title to possession — in order to deprive small farmers and indigenous populations of their land.

These are particularly serious forms of misappropriation, because they not only increase inequalities in the distribution of the goods of the earth, but usually lead to the destruction of a part of these same goods, impoverishing the whole of humanity. They bring about ways of exploiting the land that upset balances between the human person and the environment that have been built up over centuries, thus causing major environmental degradation.

This should be seen as a sign of man's disobedience to God's command to act as guardian and wise administrator of creation (cf. Gen 2:15; Wis 9:2-3). Such sinful disobedience has a very high price, for it causes a particularly shameful lack of human solidarity, striking the weakest and future generations.(30) is no longer under man's control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family": Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, no. 21. Rather, man has to work, knowing that "he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history": John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 16.]

34. The social teaching of the Church condemns not only latifundia and misappropriation of land as contrary to the principle that earthly goods are meant for everyone, but also various forms of exploitation of human labour, especially when it is rewarded with wages or other forms of payment that are unworthy of human dignity.

Unjust remuneration for work performed and other forms of exploitation deny workers the "practical means whereby the vast majority of people can have access to those goods which are intended for common use: both the goods of nature and manufactured goods."(31)

Agrarian Reform: Guidelines

Implementing an Effective, Equitable and Efficient Agrarian Reform

35. It often happens that policies intended to promote a proper use of the right to private ownership of land are unable to prevent its continued use in vast areas as an absolute right without any limitations coming from the corresponding social obligations.

The social teaching of the Church is very clear on this point, stating that agrarian reform is one of the most urgent reforms and cannot be delayed: "In many situations radical and urgent changes are therefore needed in order to restore to agriculture — and to rural people — their just value as the basis for a healthy economy, within the social community's development as a whole."(32)

John Paul II launched a particularly dramatic appeal to members of the government and large landowners in Oaxaca, Mexico: "...leaders of the people, powerful classes which sometimes keep unproductive lands that hide the bread that so many families lack, human conscience, the conscience of peoples, the cry of the destitute, and above all, the voice of God, the voice of the Church, repeat to you with me: It is not just, it is not human, it is not Christian to continue with certain situations that are clearly unjust. It is necessary to carry out real, effective measures — at the local, national and international levels — along the broad line marked by the encyclical Mater et Magistra (Part three). It is clear that those who must collaborate most in this, are those who can do the most."(33)

36. The social teaching of the Church repeats several times that the greatest possible realisation of agricultural productive potential must be guaranteed where a high percentage of the population is dependent on work on the land. When large landholdings are insufficiently used, this justifies expropriation of land — with adequate compensation to the owners(34) — so that it can be allocated to those who have none or not enough.(35)

However, it must be emphasized that according to the social teaching, agrarian reform cannot be confined simply to redistribution of the ownership of land.

Expropriation of land and its redistribution are only one aspect — and not the most complex one — of an equitable and effective policy of agrarian reform.(36)

Promoting a Wider Distribution of Private Propert

37. The social teaching of the Church sees agrarian reform as an instrument capable of extending private ownership of land as long as public authorities follow three distinct but complementary lines of action:

a) in juridical terms, in order to ensure the adoption of laws to uphold and protect the effective distribution of private property;(37)

b) in terms of economic policies, in order to facilitate "an increased distribution of private ownership and of durable consumer goods, of homes, of farms, of one's own equipment in artisan enterprises and farms of family size, of shares in middle-size and large firms";(38)

c) in terms of tax policies, in order to ensure continuity of ownership of material goods within the context of the family.(39)

Promoting Development of Family-Sized Farms

38. The social teaching of the Church condemns both latifundia as the expression of a socially irresponsible use of the right to property and as a serious obstacle to social mobility, and also State ownership of land as leading to a depersonalization of civil society. While it is aware that "it is not possible to determine a priori what the structure of farm life should be,"(40) it suggests that family-owned and farmed enterprises should be actively promoted.(41)

Farm units of the size intended here use family labour for the most part, but can tap into the external labour market by taking on paid workers.

Such farms should be large enough to allow the family sufficient earning, to retain possession of the farm, to have access to the land credit market, and to ensure sustainability of the rural environment also through appropriate use of inputs.

The efficiency of its management and the social wealth thus produced mean that such a farm can create new opportunities for work and the human growth of all.

It can make a very positive contribution not only to development of an efficient agrarian structure, but also to the implementation of the very principle that material goods should be used for all.

Respect for the Community Property of Indigenous Populations

39. The social teaching of the Church does not consider individual property the only legitimate form of land ownership, but also holds common property, which is a feature of the social structure of many indigenous populations, in particular consideration.

This form of ownership plays such an important part in the economic, cultural and political life of these peoples that it constitutes a fundamental element for their survival and well-being, while making an equally basic contribution to the protection of natural resources.(42)

Defence and development of community ownership ought not to blind us to the fact that this type of ownership is bound to change. Any action aimed purely at guaranteeing its preservation would run the risk of binding it to the past and thus destroying it.(43)

Following a Just Labour Policy

40. Protection of the human rights which derive from labour is another fundamental line of action offered by the social teaching of the Church in order to ensure a correct exercise of the right to private ownership of land. The close links between work and property mean that the former represents a crucial instrument for ensuring that material goods are used for all.

Public authorities therefore have the duty(44) of acting to ensure that these rights are respected and fulfilled, following three basic lines of action:

a) promotion of conditions that ensure the right to work;(45)

b) guarantee of the right to just remuneration for work;(46)

c) protection and promotion of workers' rights to form associations in order to safeguard their rights;(47) the right of association is a necessary condition for achieving a balance in bargaining power between workers and employers, and hence for guaranteeing the development of a correct dialectic between the social parties.

Establishing an Educational System Capable of Bringing about the People's Effective Cultural and Professional Growth

41. The increasingly decisive factor in gaining access to the goods of the earth is no longer possession of land, but possession of the whole complex of know-how that people can accumulate. John Paul II has stated: "In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill."(48)

The more farmers know about the productive capacities of the land and other inputs, and the various possible ways of satisfying the needs of those for whom the fruit of their work is intended, the more fruitful this work will be, especially as a means of personal fulfillment through the use of their own intelligence and freedom.

Priority must therefore be given to setting up a system capable of providing the broadest possible range of knowledge and technical and scientific skills on the various educational levels.



Agrarian Reform: A Necessary Instrument ...

42. An agricultural structure marked by the misappropriation and concentration of land in latifundia acts as a major obstacle to a country's economic and social development. In the short term, it inhibits growth of agricultural production and employment, while in the long term, it causes poverty and waste, which tend to be self-perpetuating and to increase.

In the face of such a situation, if the economy and society are to develop harmoniously, a major focus of concern should be an agricultural reform that ensures a different land distribution.

The quality and success of development programmes draw substantial benefits, in fact, from the mobility of a country's internal resources and their distribution among the various sectors and social groupings. This is the aim of an agrarian reform that ensures access to land, its efficient use and increased employment.

43. It is increasingly clear that an agrarian reform of this type is a vital, necessary and imperative element of development policy.

A developing agriculture raises farmers' incomes, increases the demand for the goods and services produced by industry and the service sector, and also strengthens the purchasing power of those living in rural areas but not engaged in agriculture.

An important effect of this development is that it stems the migratory push to the cities and the movement of the work force towards other sectors with the consequent effects on urbanization and the level of salaries.

Increased agricultural productivity would guarantee food security for the population and favour growth in both the quality and quantity of foodstuffs through accessible prices.

Experience has also shown that a growth in agriculture leads to an expansion in the industrial and service sectors, and hence to overall economic growth.

Lastly, it should be noted that an agrarian reform which creates family-sized farms contributes considerably to strengthening the family by developing its members' capacities and sense of responsibility.

44. In situations of injustice and poverty, agrarian reform is not only an instrument of distributive justice and economic growth, but is also an act of great political wisdom.

It represents the only truly effective and possible response — that of the law — to the problem of land occupation. Such occupation is a complex and varied phenomenon, but even when situations of dire need provoke it,(49) it is always an act contrary to the values and rules of a truly civil social organisation. The climate of collective emotion generated can easily lead to a series of actions and reactions that can get out of hand, while the various forms of instrumentalisation which can so easily occur have very little to do with the issue of land.

Land occupation is often an expression of an intolerable and morally indefensible state of affairs, and is an alarm bell calling for the implementation of effective and equitable solutions on the social and political level. Governments have a special responsibility here, for their will and determination must ensure that no time is lost in providing these solutions. Delays in, or the postponing of, agrarian reform deprive their condemnation and repression of land occupation of any credibility.

... but a Particularly Complex and Delicate Instrument

45. The benefits of such a reform will not be forthcoming, however, unless its programmes are correctly formulated. Their success must not be compromised by the error of thinking that agrarian reform refers simply to expropriation of large landholdings, their division into productive units compatible with the working capacity of individual families, and distribution of this land to those who have been accorded title to it.

An agrarian reform programme must certainly have short-term objectives so that it can have immediate results, given the serious nature of the social problems involved. It must therefore ensure that access to land fully meets these objectives. In the medium and long term, however, if agrarian reform is confined simply to land redistribution, the struggle against poverty and under-development will not be won.

The commitment to ensuring access to land constitutes merely the first part of the programme if agrarian reform is to offer a practical and sustainable response to the serious economic and social problems of the agricultural sector in developing countries. The programme must continue to be developed over time and encompass actions that will ensure access both to the inputs and infrastructures that allow for a steady improvement in agricultural productivity and the marketing of such produce, as well as the enjoyment of the social services that improve people's quality of life and capacity for self-development, and consequently respect for indigenous populations. A final factor indispensable for the success of an agrarian reform is that it should be in full accord with national policies and those of international bodies.

An Adequate Offer of Appropriate Technology and Rural Infrastructures

46. Research is an essential component of any truly effective and efficient agrarian reform, since it allows for the pursuit of three essential aims: the supply of appropriate technology, growth of production and protection of the environment. Today, there is no longer need for any conflict between the use of techniques suited to small farms, the requirement of the latter to intensify production and the need to conserve natural resources. There is now a whole series of concrete examples demonstrating that relatively simple but innovative techniques are generally the most efficient, not only in increasing the productivity of soil and labour, but also in terms of their environmental compatibility.

Such examples also show that efficiency and compatibility are fairly closely linked to innovations in tilling methods and soil use, which tend to be strongly conditioned by the specific physical environment and local economy.

Research and experimental activities make it possible to determine the precise innovations to be adopted in each individual case.

47. Technical assistance is equally essential for an effective reform. Such a service represents the necessary complement to research and experimental activities, for the results of the latter cannot be introduced into everyday practice unless farmers are informed of their existence and convinced of their effectiveness.

On-going information and educational activities are therefore needed in order to provide farmers with sufficient professional know-how to meet the demands of agrarian reform.

A technical assistance service is especially vital in order to teach farmers how to join forces and face the market together, for this is the only approach that can give them effective market power and provide informed guidance for their production choices.

48. Agrarian reform programmes must also budget for the development of rural infrastructures, a third focus of action, and one decisive for the success of any reform.

A developing agriculture brings about a constant increase in demands for energy, roads, telecommunications and irrigation water. The offer of such services must be adapted to the demand.

After setting up the necessary infrastructures, attention must also be paid to their correct management. Especially in the case of irrigation water, there is often the problem of reorganizing users and of adopting mechanisms to ensure a correct distribution of this resource so as to avoid misuse.

Removal of Obstacles Preventing Access to Credit

49. Concrete access to legal credit is another issue to be met and solved by agrarian reform programmes. Those who have received land must be guaranteed the possibility of obtaining modern inputs at reasonable prices.

The beneficiaries of land redistribution do not usually have sufficient savings to purchase such inputs, and therefore have to resort to loans. However, the high administrative cost of loans to small borrowers means that credit institutions are reluctant to grant them. The only alternative for such farmers is, therefore, recourse to the informal credit sector, with all the costs and risks entailed. With a view to avoiding such risks, initiatives that promote the establishment of local co-operative banks should be encouraged.

Programmes for an effective agrarian reform need to include support for the credit demands of the new farm units born of the reform. Steps should be envisaged that encourage the offer of complementary forms of guarantee and reduce the handling costs of credit operations.

Credit must be facilitated and encouraged for the various forms of association of the ventures born of the reform in view of the joint management of production services, joint purchase of inputs and joint marketing of produce.

Investment in Public Services and Infrastructures

50. Alongside the establishment of services and infrastructures of direct interest for farm production, agrarian reform programmes must also envisage large-scale investment in health, education, public transportation and the supply of drinking-water.

In the rural areas of poor countries, these social services and infrastructures are seriously deficient in both quantity and quality. Their development prospects are poor owing to the fact that the population of these areas has little ability to influence political choices and that a major part of the costs would have to be met either directly or indirectly — in other words, through some kind of taxation — by large landowners.

These services are fundamental for a modern way of life, and are also an indispensable component and factor in the growth of material well-being. They are therefore a key factor in sustainable development.

Their utility is not confined to farmers and their families, but benefits the entire population by creating the conditions for a differentiation in production activities, a growth in overall locallyproduced income, and a consequent stemming of the rural exodus.

The dependable provision of these services is therefore a necessary condition for the battle against rural poverty and for containing the economic and social costs of urbanization. In the context of agrarian reform, every effort must therefore be made to ensure that public services and infrastructures of public utility in the rural areas are as accessible, available, acceptable and economic as possible.

This applies particularly to health: access to basic health structures and hospitals, widespread health education and availability of simple, inexpensive remedies are vital in order to reduce mortality and morbidity.

51. With regard to services, maximum priority must be given to steps aimed at guaranteeing equal access to elementary schooling and the extension of education to secondary and higher levels for both young men and women.

Under such conditions, education and professional training would not only offer each individual the means for maximum development of his or her own potential, but also become determining factors in bringing about the change in attitudes and behaviour needed to face the complexity of the modern-day world without excessive costs. The idea that education is a purely consumer expense and not a social investment would thus be overcome.

Special Concern for Women's Role

52. Policies intended to facilitate access to modern technology and public services must pay special attention to the crucial position of women in farm production and the food economies of developing countries.

While there are considerable variations from place to place, women in these countries supply over half the labour used in agriculture. Moreover, full responsibility for producing the food needed to support the family usually falls on their shoulders.(50)

Despite this, they are widely marginalised by severe forms of economic and social injustice. Even agrarian reform programmes consider women in terms of their domestic work and not as agents of productive action. Laws favour men in conferring the right to land ownership, and the educational system tends to emphasize boys' training rather than that of girls.

In view of this situation, if agrarian reform programmes are to be successful, it is vital to ensure women of an effective right to land, with concrete attention to their needs on the part of technical assistance services, fuller and better schooling and easier access to credit. This will improve the quality of their work, reduce their vulnerability to changes in technology, in the economy and in society, and increase alternative opportunities for employment.(51)

Practical Support for Concerted Action

53. Agrarian reform programmes must pay close attention to the decisive role of concerted action in the launching and development of the farm units created by redistribution of land.

These farms are faced with complex problems, especially as concerns marketing. The fact that large numbers of people fulfill the necessary conditions to aspire to the allocation of land means that the vast majority of the units will be too small to allow the profitable use of certain techniques, for example those that make tilling less burdensome. Such farms also find it hard to obtain the main inputs needed, because there is often no local outlet, and when such items are available, they are very expensive. However, their worst problems are related to the marketing of their produce. In most cases, sales are controlled by a few local traders, or are in fact impossible — as is the case with new products, especially those intended for processing — because there is no on-the-spot demand.

54. In such a situation, co-operation is an instrument of solidarity capable of offering effective solutions. Depending on needs, its various forms — service, purchasing, processing and marketing co-operatives — allow a fuller use of machinery and an effective concentration of the demand for inputs and the supply of produce to the market. This in turn gives rise to small-scale economies and forms of market power that make the associated farms more competitive and can also open up new outlets for their produce.

Co-operation represents a precious instrument to allow both private and co-operative enterprises born of the reform to change the composition of their own production, and in particular to produce items for export without harming the local economy.

It is also very necessary for any agrarian reform to include the promotion and support for the establishment of local co-operative banks intended to grant loans to low-income families and women in order to support farming, craft activities and even consumption. Considerable experience shows that such small-scale banks can be an effective instrument in strengthening the new enterprises and in the struggle against poverty.

Respect for the Rights of Indigenous Populations

55. Agrarian reform not only helps to solve the problem of latifundia, but is also very valuable in supporting policies which ensure that the rights of indigenous populations are recognized and respected.

The very close relationship between land and the models of culture, development and spirituality of these populations means that agrarian reform is a decisive component of the systematic and co-ordinated plan of action that governments must draw up in order to protect the rights of indigenous populations and guarantee respect for their specific identity.

An agrarian reform must allow for the identification of equitable and rational ways of dealing with the problem of restoring land traditionally occupied by indigenous populations to them, especially that taken away through various forms of violence or discrimination, sometimes very recently. In this case, the reform has to lay down criteria for recognizing the lands they occupied and exactly how their use is to be restored to them, guaranteeing effective protection for their rights of ownership and possession.

The reform must ensure their access to production and social services, thus giving them the means for pursuing the development of their land and benefitting from treatment equal to that received by other sectors of the population.

In a word, the agrarian reform must help indigenous communities in various ways: to protect and reconstruct the natural resources and ecosystems on which their survival and well-being depend; to preserve and develop their identity, culture and interests; to uphold their aspirations for social justice; and to ensure an environment that allows for active participation in the social, economic and political life of the country.

56. Two conditions must be respected if agrarian reform programmes are to fulfil all these aims.

a) Adequate attention must be paid to the necessary but delicate balance between the need for the preservation of common ownership and that of land privatization. Traditional systems of land possession based on common ownership — a form of ownership unsuited to the use of modern inputs and technological innovation — tend gradually to shift to individual ownership as agriculture develops. There are valid reasons to expect a policy of individual assignment of land ownership to develop also in the case of indigenous peoples.(52)

b) The communities concerned must participate and co-operate in drawing up and implementing reform programmes. Agrarian reform must, on the one hand, guarantee indigenous communities access to productive and social services that they judge suited to their social organization and their view of environmental issues, and, on the other hand, provide a fresh orientation for economic and social factors that can otherwise be drawbacks.

The Institutional Commitment of the State

57. A major commitment is required of the State, for the reform entails changes in the bodies, institutions and regulations that often form the basis of a nation's political, economic and social organization. In most cases, this commitment is realised with the development of four main lines of action on the institutional level:

a) completion and updating of the juridical framework governing property rights and possession and use of land, taking particular care to provide support and stability to the family as the subject of rights and duties;

b) definition of policies and laws to protect fundamental human rights, and hence to guarantee the right of workers freely to negotiate their employment conditions both individually and collectively;

c) implementation of a process of administrative decentralization that will allow and promote active participation of local communities in the planning, implementation, financial management, supervision and evaluation of programmes regarding population, development and territory that concern them;

d) adoption of macro-economic policies which respect the principle that farmers' rights to enjoy the fruits of their labour are just as important as consumers' rights, especially as concerns taxation and monetary issues, and trade with other countries. If farmers' economic rights are not respected, this inevitably has adverse effects on market mechanisms and the whole economy.

The Responsibility of International Organizations

58. As an instrument of a developing agriculture, agrarian reform directly touches on the spheres of competence and responsibility of many international organizations. When these organizations define the development models they intend to promote, they must take care that such models are suited to the needs and problems of the various countries.

It is therefore important to make sure that concern for reducing international debt — often translated into the promotion of a predominantly export-oriented agriculture — does not lead developing countries to pursue policies that will cause serious deterioration in public services, especially education, and an increase in social problems.

59. Agrarian reform requires those organizations responsible for promoting international trade to pay special attention to relations among commercial policies, income distribution and the satisfaction of families' basic needs.

Development of trade usually has a positive effect on a country's economic growth, by expanding the market, stimulating efficiency, and producing new skills and know-how.

However, in certain situations it can also have detrimental effects on the living conditions of the economically disadvantaged. This happens, for example, if the increase in the production of foodstuffs for export leads to a reduction in the supply of food for domestic consumption and an increase in its price. This has a negative effect because the products exported are less labour-intensive than those consumed locally, with the result that employment is penalized.

It can happen that small farmers be penalized on two fronts. In the first place, the obstacles they run up against prevent their access to the necessary inputs to grow export crops, so that they cannot benefit from their advantages. In the second place, the development of exports brings about rises in certain costs of agricultural production and in the price of land, and such increases make the production of traditional crops less financially viable.

However, this series of effects is not due exclusively to the logic of commercial exchanges. They are also the direct result of a concentration of land in a few hands, of a widespread social inequality, and of the inadequacy of technico-administrative assistance services for small producers. International organizations obviously have to keep the overall situation carefully in mind when drawing up their own intervention strategies, because of its negative consequences on the fight against poverty and hunger.


60. The Church is preparing for the new millennium through a process of spiritual conversion that has its central inspiration in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. This exceptional ecclesial event should prompt all Christians to make a serious examination of conscience on their witness in the present and also to a fuller awareness of the sins of the past, "recalling those times in history when [Christians] ... indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal."(53)

In treating the subject of an equitable redistribution of land, central to the jubilee tradition in the Bible, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace wants to focus the attention of all on one of the most squalid and painful spectacles — that of the shared responsibility, including that of many Christians, for grave forms of injustice and exclusion, and the acquiescence of too many of them in the violation of fundamental human rights.(54)

61. In many contexts, acquiescence in evil, which is a troubling sign of spiritual and moral degeneration not for Christians alone, is producing a disturbing cultural and political void which makes people incapable of change and renewal. While social relations are not changing, and justice and solidarity remain absent and invisible, the doors of the future are closing, and the destiny of many peoples remain locked into an increasingly uncertain and precarious present.

The spirit of the Jubilee urges us to cry "Enough!" to the many individual and collective sins that bring about intolerable situations of dire poverty and injustice. By calling attention to the special and essential significance of justice in the biblical message — that of protection of the weak and of their right, as children of God, to the wealth of creation — we strongly hope that, as in the biblical experience, the jubilee year will help us today to restore social justice through a distribution of land ownership carried out in a spirit of solidarity in social relations.

62. The light of Christ — image of the invisible God whose fatherly heart urges him to go in search of all persons, his cherished possession — gives us strength and throws light on our difficult path.(55)

A deeper understanding and reasoned application of the guidelines of the Church will be of practical help to all humanity in creating the conditions for rejoicing in the salvation to which they are called by God's grace, and in addressing a great prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God.

Let us invoke the intercession of Mary, Mother of our Redeemer, and the Star who is a sure guide for the steps of all Christians who abandon the erroneous paths of evil and obey the promptings of the Spirit, who is leading them toward the Lord, so that they can share in the intimate life of God and be able to call him "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:6).

Rome, 23rd November 1997
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King

Roger Card. Etchegaray
President Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Most Rev. François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
Vice-President Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Diarmuid Martin
Secretary Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

(1) John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1994, no. 51.

(2) The meaning of latifundia in this document is large land holdings, often belonging to absentee owners where the land is worked by hired labour, using out-dated farming techniques. The resources of the land are also generally under-utilised.

(3) The many documents that Catholic Bishops, especially in Latin America, have devoted to the problems of agriculture in recent years are a clear reflection of this concern. Apart from the documents of the General Conferences of Latin American Bishops held in Rio de Janeiro (1955), Medellin (La Iglesia en la actual transformación de América Latina a la luz del Concilio, 1968), Puebla (La Evangelización en el presente y en el futuro de América Latina, 1979) and Santo Domingo (Nueva evangelización, promoción humana, cultura cristiana, 1992), see also the following: Episcopal Conference of Paraguay, La tierra, don de Dios para todos (Asunción, 12 June 1983); South Andean Bishops, La tierra, don de Dios - Derecho del pueblo (30 March 1986); Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, El clamor por la tierra (Guatemala de la Asunción, 29 February 1988); Apostolic Vicariate of Darien, Panama, Tierra de todos, tierra de paz (8 December 1988); Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica, Madre Tierra. Carta pastoral sobre la situación de los campesinos y indígenas (San José, 2 August 1994); Episcopal Conference of Honduras, Mensaje sobre algunos temas de interés nacional (Tegucigalpa, 28 August 1995). The National Episcopal Conference of Brazil, and particularly the Pastoral Commission for Land, have spoken out several times on the subject of agrarian reform: Manifesto pela terra e pela vita a CPT e a reforma agrária hoje (Goiânia, 1 August 1995); Pro-memória da Presidência e Comissão Episcopal de Pastoral da CNBB sobre as consequências do Decreto n. 1775 de 8 de Janeiro de 1996 (Brasília, 29 February 1996); Exigências Cristãs para a paz social (Itaici, 24 April 1996).

(4) This form of organization of the agricultural sector seems to be on the decline only where agrarian reforms have been implemented.

(5) The following types of distortion deserve particular mention:

a) the constitution of reservations for indigenous populations, often in relatively unfertile areas, far from markets or poor in infrastructures; members of such groups were banned from purchasing, or even occupying, land outside these reservations;

b) the adoption of differentiated fiscal systems to the advantage of large landowners, and the imposition of discriminatory taxes on the produce of small indigenous farmers;

c) the establishment of market organizations and the adoption of pricing systems that work in favour of the produce of large estates, in some cases going so far as to ban the purchase of small farmers' produce;

d) the imposition of import barriers in order to protect the produce of large landholdings from international competition;

e) the provision of public services and subsidies from which only large landholdings could, in actual practice, benefit.

(6) The term "small farmer" refers, in this document, to an economic subject who operates on the margins of agricultural production and is involved in the process of fragmentation of land-holdings. This process is a counter-image and consequence of that of the concentration and misappropriation of land.

(7) Cf. FAO, Landlessness: A Growing Problem, Economic and Social Development Series, Rome 1984.

(8) On the various factors involved in such failure, see: FAO, Lessons from the Green Revolution Towards a New Green Revolution, Rome 1995, p. 8.

(9) For an analysis of these policies in support of agricultural exports and large-scale commercial farming, and their effects on poverty, see: World Bank, World Development Report 1990, Washington, D.C., pp. 58-60; World Bank, World Development Report 1991, Washington, D.C., p. 57.

(10) On this issue, see: Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Les peuples autochtones dans l'enseignement de Jean-Paul II, Vatican City 1993, p. 22.

(11) On the close interconnection in most traditional agrarian economies between land ownership, access to credit and distribution of wealth, see: World Bank, World Development Report 1991, pp. 65-66.

(12) There is more or less unanimous agreement on the very negative effort of shortcomings in agricultural training services on the poverty of the agricultural sector in many developing countries. See, for example: World Bank, World Development Report 1991, pp. 73-75.

(13) Cf. UNDP, World Human Development Report 1990, New York.

(14) Cf. John Paul II, Address to the World Food Summit organised by FAO, 13-17 November 1996, L'Ossservatore Romano, English ed., 20 November 1996; FAO, Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action, Rome 1996; Pontifical Council Cor Unum, World Hunger, A Challenge for All: Development in Solidarity, Vatican City 1996; FAO, Dimensions of Need: An Atlas of Food and Agriculture, Rome 1995, p. 16; World Bank, Poverty and Hunger, Washington, D.C., 1986.

(15) On relationships between concentration of landholdings, rural poverty and environmental degradation, see: World Bank, World Development Report 1990, pp. 71-73; World Bank, World Development Report 1992, Washington, D.C., pp. 134-138, 149-153; FAO, Sustainable Development and the Environment, FAO Policies and Actions, Rome 1992.

(16) The account of Naboth's vineyard is emblematic here (cf. 1 Kings 21).

(17) Cf. John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, nn. 12-13.

(18) Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 1965, no. 69.

(19) Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra, 1961, no. 69. In his Radio Message for Pentecost 1941, Pius XII spoke of the right to material goods: "Every man, as a living being endowed with the power of reason, has by nature the fundamental right to use the material goods of the earth, although it is left to human will and the specific legislation of different peoples to control the details of its practical implementation. This individual right cannot be in any way suppressed, even by other certain and undisputed rights over material goods": no. 13.

(20) This is a natural right because, according to the magisterium of the Church, it is based on the special nature of human work and the "ontological and finalistic priority of individual human beings as compared with society": John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 96.

(21) "And to be able through his work to make these resources bear fruit, man takes over ownership of small parts of the various riches of nature: those beneath the ground, those in the sea, on land, or in space. He takes all these things over by making them his workbench. He takes them over through work and for work": John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 1991, no. 12.

(22) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 71.

(23) John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 96.

(24) "Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone": John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 14.

(25) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 69.

(26) Ibid.

(27) Cf. Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 66, art. 7.

(28) Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 1967, no. 23.

(29) Ownership of the means of production in the agricultural sector "is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man": John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 1991, no. 43.

(30) Degradation of the material environment basically leads to degradation of "the human framework

(31) John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 19.

(32) Ibid., no. 21.

(33) John Paul II, Address to the Indios and Peasants of Mexico, Cuilapan-Oaxaca, 29 January 1979. The Holy Father John Paul II has spoken out on several occasions on the subject of agrarian reform: at Recife, Brazil, on 7 July 1980; at Cuzco, Peru, on 3 February 1985; at Iquitos, Peru, on 5 February 1985; at Lucutanga, Ecuador, on 31 January 1985; at Quito, Ecuador, on 30 January 1985; in his address to the Brazilian Bishops on their ad limina visit on 24 March 1990; at Aterro do Bacanga, São Luís, Brazil, on 14 October 1991; in his address to the Brazilian Bishops on their ad limina visit on 21 March 1995.

(34) Cf. Pius XII, Radio Message (1 September 1944), no. 13; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 71.

(35) "If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation": Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, no. 24. "Reforms are called for: ... estates insufficiently cultivated must even be divided up and given to those who will be able to make them productive": Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 71.

(36) Cf. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, nn. 110-157.

(37) "First and foremost is this: governments must by means of wise laws ensure private property": Leo XIII, Encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, 1891, no. 30.

(38) John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 102.

(39) Public authorities cannot arbitrarily use their right to define the duties of ownership if this violates the natural right to private property and its transmission by inheritance, and cannot "burden private property with such exorbitant taxes as to impoverish it": Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, no. 49.

(40) John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 128.

(41) "But if we hold to a human and Christian concept of man and the family, we are forced to consider as an ideal that community of persons operating on internal relations and whose structure is formed according to the demands of justice and the principles stated above, and still more, enterprises of family size. With these in mind we should exert every effort to realize one or the other, as far as circumstances permit": ibid.

(42) "In economically less developed societies it often happens that the common destination of goods is partly achieved by a system of community customs and traditions which guarantee a minimum of necessities to each one": Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 69.

(43) Cf. ibid.

(44) "... it is the State that must conduct a just labour policy": John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 17.

(45) The State has a duty to "act against unemployment, which in all cases is an evil, and which, when it reaches a certain level, can become a real social disaster": ibid., no. 18. With a view to making employment possible for all, the State must promote a proper organization of work through "a just and rational co-ordination, within the framework of which the initiative of individuals, free groups and local work centres and complexes must be safeguarded, keeping in mind what has been said above with regard to the subject character of human labour": ibid.

(46) Remuneration for work performed is just if, besides wages, the worker receives "various social benefits intended to ensure the life and health of workers and their families": ibid., no. 19.

(47) "The experience of history teaches that ... even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it": ibid., no. 20.

(48) John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 32.

(49) Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 69.

(50) On the important position of women in the production and processing of agricultural production in developing countries, see: FAO, Overall Socio-Political and Economic Environment for Food Security, Rome 1996, para 4.3.

(51) Cf. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 29 June 1995.

(52) However, the advantages of common ownership should not be underestimated, especially in the case of a relatively large population as compared with the amount of available land. In this case, common ownership guarantees access to land for all the members of the community, even the poorest; it encourages peasant farmers to preserve the productive capacity of the soil they till; and, unlike what very often happens in the case of individual ownership, it means that small farmers cannot be forced to sell their very modest plots of land. In other words, common ownership helps to avoid extreme poverty and the creation of a mass of landless people such as those often found in areas dominated by latifundia.

(53) John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 33.

(54) Cf. ibid., no. 36.

(55) Cf. ibid., no. 7.