The Holy See
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 (PORTO ALEGRE, 6-10 MARCH 2006)



1. The International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, organized in Porto Alegre by FAO together with the Brazilian Government, is an opportunity for attentive reflection on the situation of the rural world and for formulating adequate responses to the concern for justice and the desire for development of those who live there.  The topics under consideration are important for the human family and so they are of direct concern to the Holy See and the Catholic Church, which, according to their nature and mission, are called to support in every circumstance the cause of the human person.

Political leaders, heads of international organizations and representatives of civil society have a chance to take stock of commitments previously made and subsequent actions, and at the same time to provide directives for the future of over 900 million people, representing 75% of the worldÂ’s poor, who live in rural areas in conditions of extreme poverty. [1]   Their future appears increasingly uncertain, as indicated by the information offered for the consideration of the Conference, and it therefore requires necessary interventions both through the action of individual countries and through the various initiatives offered by international cooperation.

It is necessary to reinforce international solidarity in order to tackle directly the great challenge posed by the goal of the development of peoples and specifically by the commitment to guarantee effective food security for humanity; at the same time valid answers must also be given to the expectations of those who, as labourers, smallholders, craftsmen and their families, live and work long-term in the rural world.  The rural world is not to be treated as secondary or forgotten altogether, thereby putting at risk its positive characteristics in the social, economic and spiritual order.

2. The current situation of the rural world highlights the way that global interaction and interchange, modern technology and constant progress in research can lead to rapid increases in production and also in the indices of human development.  This cannot be overlooked or denied, but is to be accepted and valued, as long as it is recognized as a further instrument of creation offered to the human family, and not as a disruption of the natural order.  “There is likewise a need to recognize that technical progress, necessary as it is, is not everything.  True progress is that alone which integrally safeguards the dignity of the human being and which enables each people to share its own spiritual and material resources for the benefit of all.” [2]

The question is directly linked to the themes before the Conference, especially when, in contrast with the ideal of the common destination of goods, these are concentrated instead in the hands of a few, excluding those who are not in a position to enjoy them and who sadly find themselves thwarted in their deepest aspirations or even deprived of the essential condition of dignity.  In considering the numerous issues linked to agrarian reform and to rural development, it is helpful to recall the unchanging principle that “God destined the world and all it contains for all people and nations” [3] as an inspiring and foundational criterion of social and economic order involving and motivating every member of the human family.  On this basis, the ChurchÂ’s Social Doctrine has often expressed its condemnation of the latifundium as intrinsically illegitimate. [4]  

This criterion assumes greater importance when one considers the unequal distribution of goods within individual countries, giving rise especially in the rural areas of developing countries to conditions of life that fall far short of satisfying basic needs.  In the rural world, deprivation, exploitation, lack of access to the market and social exclusion become more acute in the absence of a context of guarantees protecting those who work on the land.  Such people experience precarious life conditions, since their work is affected by adverse climatic and natural factors, and also by a lack of resources for coping with the scarcity or loss of harvests, and the consequent gradual abandonment of agricultural activity for urban areas in the often illusory search for better alternatives to poverty.

The precarious situation in rural areas of developing countries is also affected by the tendency of industrialized countries to sustain and subsidize agricultural production, trade and the consumption of foodstuffs.  To introduce correctives to this situation means also to appeal to a concrete concept of justice capable of being implemented in policies, rules, norms and acts of solidarity.

3. Then there is a further element which conditions the future of rural areas related to the responsibility of present generations for the conservation and protection of nature and its resources, as well as the various ecosystems which belong to the rural world (agriculture, forestry, fauna, water sources, atmosphere).  Often the lack of a correct relation between the earth and those who cultivate it, uncertainty in the title or possession of property, impossibility of access to credit, as well as other situations which affect small farmers, are the cause of an excessive exploitation of natural resources with no other goal than immediate profit.  All of this compromises the fertility of the land, respect for the cycle of the seasons and hence the preservation of territory that could be cultivated for the use of future generations.

Experience thus for shows that the criterion of environmental sustainability alone, placed at the centre of development strategies in recent decades, cannot constitute an effective response unless it is based on an authentic human ecology which, while asserting the responsibility of the human person towards himself, others, creation and the Creator, recognizes that “man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue that involves past and future generations.” [5]  

4. “The first and fundamental structure for human ecology is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.” [6]   In rural areas, then, a firmly based and healthy concept of human relations has to include the importance of the family:  the rural family is in fact “called to manage with its work the little family enterprise, but also to transmit the idea of relations based on the exchange of mutual knowledge, values, ready assistance and respect”. [7]   When the family encounters difficulties or is no longer able to carry out its function, the entire rural community suffers the grave and painful consequences, such as when concepts of marriage and family life become detached from the values proper to them or when familial relations are influenced or even dominated by selfish, hedonistic or simply materialistic notions.

If these considerations are to be correctly applied to the demands of rural development, then it must be recognized that the family, like other primary social aggregates and structures, precedes the stateÂ’s institutional apparatus and is to be duly respected and valued in its essence and in its organization of property rights, of productive activity and of the use of labour techniques.

Examining the image that authentic family life can imprint on the social order, we rediscover an application of the principle of subsidiarity that is nowadays considered by the international community as an instrument for regulating every relation and therefore contributes to the definition of institutional forms and economic laws.  Through a proper subsidiarity, public authorities, from the local level to the most international dimension, can truly operate for the development of rural areas, at the same time promoting the common good, knowing however that this can only be achieved if proportionally more attention is given to those in greater need.  Peasant farmers without land and smallholders are thus the first who must receive attention within comprehensive programmes of cooperation, based on partnership with civil society, at the local and functional level, in guaranteeing a real development that respects their social, cultural, religious, economic and institutional identity.

5. The reflection that is asked of states taking part in the Conference includes, among other things, the question of land ownership, a matter of fundamental importance in economic and agrarian policies that can effectively promote rural development and at the same time guarantee social justice, political stability and peaceful coexistence.  It is well known, in fact, as numerous economic analyses have pointed out, that insecure access to land is one of the principal causes of rural poverty.

This is a complex matter that often implies the need for comprehensive agrarian reforms which cannot be reduced to a simple redivision and redistribution of land.  Instead they must form part of rural development strategies which, as well as seeing to the necessary investments in public infrastructure and social services, take note of the requirements of the agricultural sector, professionalism in planning, organizing and implementing the reforms.  The issue becomes even more acute when conflict situations, epidemics and forced migration cause the responsibility for the nuclear family to fall exclusively on the woman.  Traditional customs and rules often prevent the woman from having access to landed property rights, therefore necessitating measures aimed at granting due juridical recognition of her role and her capacity to the woman with family and social responsibilities.

The reduction in concentration of land ownership should be guided by certain fundamental criteria such as: “incomes must be raised, working conditions improved, security in employment assured, and personal incentives to work encouraged; insufficiently cultivated estates should be divided up and given to those who will be able to make them productive.” [8]   This may mean promoting certain forms of enterprise, especially family agricultural enterprise, cooperative structures that can operate autonomously and effectively, as well as access to credit for small farmers and, not least, formation in modern approaches to the use of appropriate technology and to agricultural production and business methods. [9]   In this way, negative repercussions on production levels and on movement of population can be avoided – all too often there is a drift away from the countryside and an excessive demographic pressure around great urban centres or towards areas that lack the necessary infrastructure. 

In this regard, it is important to sustain the uniqueness of indigenous communities which trace their identity, culture and spirituality to their ancestral relation with the land, and whose social structure sees use of the land as a consequence of common ownership.  All too often, as a result of economic activity, exploitation of natural resources or construction projects, this relation is weakened, inhibiting use of the land and leading to the loss of methods of production based on traditional knowledge.  All agrarian reform in favour of indigenous communities needs not only to guarantee effective protection of their rights to the land, but also to promote truly integral development, avoiding any discrimination against them in comparison with other sectors of the population.

6. The Holy See has always given particular attention to the rural world and its values, fully cognizant of the fact that its principal characteristics – its human dimension, direct knowledge of the order, harmony and beauty of nature, satisfaction of labour, generous exchange of services in correct individual conduct and relations with others, to name but a few – are constantly being rediscovered in every part of the world.  Moreover, the Holy See realizes how much importance rural society attaches to religion, present in individual and community life, in work and in family life, and above all as a source of moral principles capable of permeating society, providing stability and integrity in the face of the difficulties and setbacks of daily life.

The International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development offers an important opportunity for recognizing the rural worldÂ’s true identity and that of its inhabitants if every concern is centred on the human person, the protection of human dignity and the defence of the fundamental rights.  In this way, not only can the rural worldÂ’s values be safeguarded, avoiding approaches based on greed or on purely economic considerations, but suitable national policies can also be implemented, and international action can achieve the lasting efficacy that it seeks.  Technical solutions, however complex and useful, remain ineffective if they lack the necessary reference to the centrality of the human person.  It is the person, in an inseparable unity of the spiritual and the material, that must be the source and the goal of every decision and action taken by individual states and international institutions.

[1]   IFAD:  “Rural Poverty Report 2001”, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[2]   Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Participants in the XXXIII Conference of the FAO, Rome, 24 November 2005.

[3]   Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 69.

[4]   Cf. Paul VI:  Populorum Progressio (1967), 23;  Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:  “Towards a better distribution of land.  The challenge of agrarian reform” (1997) 32-34;  idem, “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”(2004) 300.

[5]   John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 49;  cf. also 38.

[6]   John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 39.

[7]   Address by the Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano on the occasion of the celebrations for the LX anniversary of FAO, Rome, 17 October 2005.

[8]   Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 71.

[9]   Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:  “Towards a better distribution of land.  The challenge of agrarian reform” (1997).