Land and People: The Eco-Justice Connection

by Joseph C. Hough

Dr. Hough was dean and professor of Christian Ethics at the School of Theology at Claremont (California), Dean of the School of Theology at Vanderbilt University, then Dean of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

This article is based on research funded by the Lincoln Foundation. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 1, 1980, pp. 910-914. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The greatest strain on the environment and, hence, one of the major factors in the growth of world poverty, is the still-increasing rate of consumption and environmental degradation taking place in the rich countries of the north.

Conferences during the early days of the environmental movement were often punctuated by sharp exchanges between environmentalists and the advocates of justice for the poor. The environmentalists argued that without a strenuous attempt to contain growth there was no future for anyone. The advocates of justice for the poor accused the environmentalists of being elitists who were more concerned about national parks than about people. They were convinced that those who would be most immediately hurt by the no-growth policies which the environmentalists were championing would be the poor.

In fact, however, these two concerns need not be so far apart, especially as regards the most desperately poor. Actually, both the concern for the natural world and the concerns for just distribution -- combined in the concept of "eco-development" -- point in similar directions for the formulation of development policies.

Attacking Rural Poverty

Recently, various organizations have shifted their aid policies from a primary focus on the development of urban-based industry to a focus on the desperate need of the rural poor. As Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania, pointed out in a speech at the recent World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, held in Rome, the officials of multilateral and some national aid agencies are turning to a "basic needs" approach -- i.e., shifting to rural development as the major focus for aid.

Right now at least 800 million people are in the throes of absolute poverty -- poverty so severe that the basics of human survival are simply not available to them -- according to the Independent Commission on International Development, chaired by former West German chancellor Willy Brandt. A report by the World Conference on Agrarian Reform indicates that approximately an additional 450 million are seriously poor; with incomes of less than $200 per year. Together these two groups constitute more than half of the world’s population. More than 85 per cent of these poverty victims are rural residents, whose sole hope lies in the development of widespread subsistence farming. Only this strategy can stem the flow of hopeless people from the land into the floating sea of the permanently unemployed who are edging relentlessly toward the slums of the great urban centers of the Third World. There no conceivable industrial development can absorb them.

Given the Brandt Commission’s emphasis on rural poverty, it is disappointing to discover that the solution it offers is primarily the transfer of modern technology. I am disappointed because the recent research which I did at the U.N. Environmental Program in Nairobi has convinced me that there are serious difficulties involved in agricultural technology -- difficulties which not only complicate the problem of just distribution, but pose both sociopolitical and technical threats to the land itself. Since land is the scarcest resource in the world and the most essential element in any effort to restore subsistence farming, the combination of political and environmental issues attending certain types of development raises serious ethical questions. The concerns of environmentalists and of social-justice advocates need not be in conflict when it comes to the attack on absolute rural poverty. On the contrary, there is a clear and vital connection between the impact of development strategies on questions of equity and on local ecological systems.

Nonrevolutionary Revolution

The most widely publicized attempt at agricultural technological transfer during recent decades was the so-called "green revolution," the strategy of which is well known. Research institutions successfully developed new varieties of rice and wheat which were capable of much higher yields per acre than any of the then-known varieties. Though these new "miracle seeds" did require much more fertilizer and were often less resistant to diseases, it was claimed that gains in agricultural output were spectacular in India, Pakistan and Mexico. (The major impact was really limited to these three countries, though the Philippines was also affected significantly.)

What really happened in these countries has been analyzed by a number of persons, including Keith Griffin (in The Political Economy of Agrarian Change) and the staff at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (cf. Andrew Pearse’s Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want). The conclusions they reach are, to say the least, disturbing. For one thing, the "green revolution" was hardly a revolution in any real sense of the word. Though the yields of the new varieties were greater in some areas than the yields of traditional seeds, the extravagant claims by those responsible for developing and marketing the new seeds have been hotly disputed.

In addition, what was termed a revolution was really an attempt to raise output without a revolution. Loosely, the term "green revolution" refers to the hope that by the substitution of modern agricultural methods and technology for essentially traditional ones, the problem of poverty may be solved without any serious disruption of the prevailing economic and political systems. While it is true, so the theory goes, that there will be continuing -- sometimes worsening -- disparities between the richest and poorest in a given society, the increases in production and the resulting increase in income all around will, over a period of time, lift the general level of economic well-being. When this has gone on for a while, the "pull" of increasing production in the form of new jobs, greater availability of materials to meet basic needs and more money for investment will lift the bottom line of poverty above destitution and eliminate the worst ravages of hunger, disease and deprivation generally. In this way, it is thought, the needs of the most destitute can be met without creating any serious political disruption.

Destitution on the Increase

This set of ideas was also the general theoretical base for the overall development plans adopted by most of the poorer countries during the height of the 1960s United Nations Development Decade. It was also the economic theory underlying the development assistance programs of both multilateral and national development aid programs. The green revolution was simply a specific application -- to agriculture -- of the general development theory prevailing in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Did that overall theory work? On the basis of the most recent worldwide assessments, the answer seems to be a qualified No. The so-called "trickle-down" theory of development has been largely discredited in the poorest countries, and even the World Bank has noticeably shifted its basic Orientation. With respect to its particular application to agricultural and rural development, the theory’s inadequacies become most conspicuous.

Development efforts began in countries with an agricultural system characterized by the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the very few. In some countries, no more than 8 to 10 per cent of the people owned up to 50 per cent of the land. So the efforts at revolution by agricultural technological transfer were set in the context of an ethically intolerable pattern of land distribution to begin with. But instead of widening distribution, the green revolution actually resulted in further concentration of land ownership among the few. Poor subsistence farmers were driven into the landless labor market. In India, for example, after the transfer of modern technology to the rural sector, the number of landless farm workers jumped from 32 million to more than 50 million and is still increasing.

This result is understandable given the politico-economic conditions that prevail in most of the poorest Third World countries. The large landowners are more likely to be literate, to have access to credit, to have capital reserves and to wield influence with government officials. Thus they are more likely to be informed about markets and government programs. With this information and with capital, they will be more open to innovations and more capable of taking risks -- and more likely to take them -- than will small farmers. Moreover, if, as is usually the case, mechanization is part of the whole development scheme, these large landowners will be able to reduce labor costs considerably by converting to machines, usually purchased cheaply because of government subsidies.

Meanwhile, countless small landowners who have neither the capital nor the connections are put in an even less competitive position. The costs of technology are usually beyond their reach, and the frequency of crop failure due to unpredictable climate makes any additional risk very dangerous. And all this is to say nothing of the plight of the tenants. Conversion to modern agricultural methods and the introduction of new technology often makes old tenancy arrangements very unattractive to landlords.

It is not surprising then that after an exhaustive study of the impact of the green revolution in five countries, Keith Griffin concluded that the transfer of capital-intensive, market-oriented technology not only had little positive effect on malnutrition, but actually increased the range of inequality, wiped out many subsistence farmers (usually women in most of the poorer countries), and plunged them further into destitution.

This situation is symptomatic of the overall development picture. At the end of the United Nations Development Decade, almost all of the Third World countries had met their growth targets in terms of increased Gross National Product, but despite more than 35 years of "development," absolute poverty was on the increase. To be sure, one major source of this increase is the growth of population in general. But the point is that in addition to the obvious pressures of population growth, strategies of development that ignore existing injustice in patterns of wealth distribution enlarge the problems of severe poverty rather than mitigating them. Morally, then, we can no longer ignore the troublesome issues about the redistribution of wealth; plans for improvement without accompanying demands for social and political reform are a cruel hoax.

Pollution and Depletion of Water Supplies

Development policies affect not only the people but the land as well. Some of the same studies that describe the politico-economic impact of the transfer of modern agricultural technology also raise questions about the long-term environmental impact. The problem is extremely complex, but a few illustrations will give a clear indication of the potential destruction of land, a trend that directly compounds the problem of poverty.

In the first place, new varieties of seeds have required large applications of water -- which in most cases means widespread and intensive irrigation. The Brandt Commission found hope in the fact that vast irrigation schemes are being considered, especially in Africa, noting that such projects will enable the great rivers to become the means of transforming large areas of semiarid land into productive agricultural regions. However -- aside from the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, 80 per cent of all disease in the world is related to water supplies and that some diseases are significantly increased by irrigation -- the technology of irrigation is itself a tricky business. When water is repeatedly used for irrigation it accumulates land salts and its saline content is increased.

According to Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, Argentina alone has 4 million acres of irrigated land already damaged by salinization. In Peru, nearly half the irrigated agricultural land in the coastal desert is suffering similar damage. In one area of India, more than 20 square kilometers of soil have been lost to salinization, while in Pakistan nearly all the irrigated land is affected to some extent. Huge new projects like the Aswan Dam in Egypt have upset water balances in the soils and created new problems of salinity where none existed before.

And we do not have to look far from home to get some idea of the scope of this problem. Journalist James Risser says that at this moment the salt content of the Colorado River increases 2,000 per cent from its beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly owing to its use in irrigation projects. As a result, either we must abandon farmland in large areas of the west that are dependent on the waters of the Colorado or we must begin to plan for huge desalinization schemes which will be enormously expensive.

A related problem is waterlogging of the soil to the point that it is no longer capable of crop production. Faulty irrigation, particularly the failure to control drainage, can quickly transform promising farmland into wasteland. According to one estimate, more than 500,000 acres are lost each year to salinity and waterlogging together, so that today the amount of land ruined by irrigation probably equals all that can be made productive if irrigated.

In addition, too heavy reliance on irrigation, especially in arid and semiarid regions, threatens the supplies of underground water. Here again, a situation near at hand is illustrative. Risser says that in the western Plains states, the underground water supplies are being used ten times more quickly than they can be replenished. The problem also affects the rivers. In Nebraska, the Platte River and some of its tributaries seem to be drying up because of the heavy use of water -- 80 per cent of which is used for agriculture.

Another problem arises from the fact that modern agricultural technology is increasingly reliant on petrochemical insecticides and fertilizers. This usage becomes especially serious when the expansion of agricultural development is based largely on the new varieties of food grains which are more subject to pestilence and more dependent on fertilizer Inputs for successful maturation. Heavy concentration of these new varieties can result in rapid pollution of the soil and water supplies -- surface and underground -- complicating the already nearly insurmountable problems of providing an adequate and safe water supply to the poor. Erosion and the loss of soil fertility cause further complications, and as yields decline, more and more petrochemical fertilizers are applied to the soil, finding their way into already polluted water supplies.

Further cause for alarm is the introduction of heavy machinery into fragile soil systems -- cited by the United Nations Conference on Desertification as one of the factors in the loss of land to encroaching deserts. The expansion of farm size and the subsidies for purchase of equipment have given impetus to dramatic increases in the use of heavy tractors and other farm machinery in many of the Third World countries. But this machinery creates problems of soil impaction, destroying soil structure and creating impermeable surfaces, in turn inhibiting filtration and root development. Particularly vulnerable are the delicate soil systems of tropical and subtropical regions.

A Disastrous Loss of Cropland

Finally, the all-out emphasis on production that characterizes modern agricultural development policy has led to extended land use at the expense of soil conservation. In most Third World countries, very little attention has been given to soil-conservation education or the practice of conservation tech- niques -- a lack that has produced alarming results. Nepal now loses more than 240 million cubic meters of soil annually, while more than a billion tons of topsoil are lost from Ethiopia’s highlands and 426 million tons from Colombia.

This problem, too, exists close at hand. Since the sharp rise in demand for food grains occasioned by the Soviet purchases of the early 1970s, the amount of land under cultivation in the United States has increased rapidly, and the known techniques of conservation are being widely ignored. As a result, average yields are now declining and soil loss is increasing at a disastrous rate. In Iowa, for example, farmers are losing two bushels of soil for every bushel of corn they produce. This occurrence is serious enough in an area with relatively heavy layers of rich topsoil and good subsoil. But in the delicate arid and semiarid soils of the poorer countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the impact is immediate and disastrous. From year to year I have observed the loss of cropland in places like Niger and Kenya where the demands of relentless commercial cash-cropping with no regard for environmental conservation have left the land bare and, for the foreseeable future, useless for agricultural production. And the crops produced were primarily for export.

There are other long-range effects of the deployment of modern agricultural technology which reach beyond immediate effects on the land. For example, research scientist Anil Agarwal has warned of the serious consequences, both genetic and economic, of reliance on a few strains of seeds for agricultural production, and biologist Norman Myers has expanded that warning to the whole problem of the depletion of genetic stocks in the plant and animal biota. These problems could be at least as serious a consequence of modern agricultural technology as the direct impacts on land. In the words of a staff report released by the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development, "The large-scale interventions thought of as solutions . . . are already bearing bitter fruits." The escalating rate of damage to land and the loss of land which are in large measure attributable to the environmental impact of production-oriented modern agriculture are too great a price to pay for short-term gains.

It is obvious, then, that the futures of both the land and the people are inseparably bound. For the poorest half of the world’s people, the future is now -- a desperate struggle to survive. Having been driven off their previous holdings, they seek whatever land is left, most often land totally unsuited for cultivation. They plough the hillsides, strip the forests, crop the dry savannas. and -- too poor even to observe traditional following procedures and most often ignorant of even elementary conservation techniques -- proceed to destroy the land. If we are serious about the plight of the poor, the unity of ecological and distributional concerns is thrust upon us. The ethical connection is clear. No effort to help the poor has integrity apart from ecological concerns; conversely, it makes little sense to talk of ecology apart from justice when the plight of the poor has become a major contributing factor to the environmental crisis.

The Need for Land Reform

Can there be a single coherent set of policy instruments to achieve the goal of justice and sustainability? If there is such a total strategy, I am not aware of it. However, there is emerging a consensus about some necessary conditions for new policy directions. One agreed-on priority is the need for land reform. The Brandt Commission concedes this point, but its report gives no attention to the serious sociopolitical implications of the strategy -- and probably for an obvious reason. Land reform is the single most controversial political issue for many nations, particularly the poorer ones. As we have noted, the current distributional pattern characterized by gross concentration of land in the hands of the few is the basis for the concentration of both wealth and political power. It is to be expected, therefore, that the history of land-reform efforts is one of political chicanery, violence, subversion and only halfhearted implementation of even those policies that have been established by government action.

A series of United Nations reports on land reform during the past decade give little reason for hope that progress will be swift or easy. To be sure, there are some bright spots such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. With those exceptions, however, nations outside the socialist camp have effected little permanent change. Even Mexico, whose major land reforms were instituted more than 30 years ago, has witnessed the re-emergence of land concentration and a recent increase in the number of landless peasants.

Continuing efforts for land reform will inevitably be unsettling and will create temporary instability and conflict. American Christians should be especially resistant to the appeals of political jingoists, who hope to rally support for existing regimes in the name of fighting communism or defending the free world. That is usually not the case; when we take sides against popular political opposition to repressive regimes, what we are defending is intolerable injustice and the destruction of environment by the intervention of large corporate interests -- many of which are American. Their practice of contract farming more and more dictates the major patterns of land use.

In some countries, fragmentation of land is a worse problem than concentration of land. In those cases, land reform will take the direction of consolidating holdings to make them large enough to be viable subsistence farms. Furthermore, as economist John Mellor has argued (in The New Economics of Growth), those countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan which simply do not have enough land to go around must pursue development policies that focus on the building of labor-intensive rural industry to help absorb the growing number of landless laborers.

A second emerging consensus among concerned groups and individuals is that land reform is not enough. To be successful in addressing issues of justice, land reforms must be accompanied by the development of "infrastructures" such as credit for the poor, agricultural extension services, conservation education, and supportive industrial development. As Julius Nyerere has stressed, the fact that all development is rural development does not mean that no factories, roads or ports will be built, but that they will be built to benefit the rural sector.

None of these infrastructures and supporting industries for the rural areas of the world can be built without the backing of the donor nations and multilateral agencies. The aid for agrarian reform must be available in the form of grants, loans and technical advice. This need calls for a reorientation of research in major universities and institutes toward the social and technical problems of assistance to small subsistence farmers. It also requires the development of technology for small-scale, rural-based industry with particular attention to environmental monitoring.

These few suggestions do not constitute a strategy, but they do give an indication of new directions. The chief instrument of reform is most logically political change. Without it, in most cases, not much can happen. And in the context of the severe imbalances in power and wealth, political change may well require some sort of revolution.

The Necessity of Consumer Restraint

It should be clearly understood that no development strategies will succeed in the pursuit of eco-justice unless they are accompanied by serious restraint on the part of those who consume the most. The greatest strain on the environment and, hence, one of the major factors in the growth of world poverty is the still-increasing rate of consumption and environmental degradation in the rich countries of the north. For example, as we consume more oil, the prices rise. As the prices rise, more trees are cut down for fuel. When trees are cut down, the soil washes away and food production drops. Therefore, says Erik Eckholm, a writer for the Worldwatch Institute, "it is not so far-fetched as it might at first seem to say that today’s driving habits in Los Angeles . . . can influence how many tons of food are lost to floods."

That ecological connection in a thousand forms remains our most serious problem. We cannot without integrity espouse the eco-justice connection in the absence of strenuous individual and, corporate efforts. In the long run, it is not those who have too little who will destroy the land. It is those few who have too much.