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Land Reform in the Time of Neoliberalism: A Many-Splendored Thing

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Over the past 20 years, land reform – defined here as the redistribution of land from large to small properties – has emerged as an important political issue in the Global South. Actors with widely differing ideological perspectives have claimed land reform as central to their political, social and economic platforms. In this paper, I compare reforms championed under the neoliberal auspices of the World Bank (the so-called Market Led Agrarian Reforms) with those supported by popular grassroots actors such as the Movement of Landless Workers (the MST) in Brazil. I argue that although these two approaches to land reform are often considered antithetical to one another, they share a common theoretical foundation. Both are rooted in a labor theory of property that attributes the fruits of one's labor to the laborer. Where the two differ is in their interpretation of the “original sin” through which land and labor came to be misaligned: neoliberal actors see the state as the key source of land-related inefficiency while popular grassroots actors identify the market as the key source. I analyze case material from northeastern Brazil and suggest that the institutionalization of the labor theory of property (across civil society, state and market in the region) has generated insecurities for new land reform beneficiaries who must protect their property rights with visible evidence of their productivity.

Keywords: Brazil; John Locke; commodification; labor; land reform; property

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, UNC Chapel Hill, 204 Saunders Hall, CB 3220, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3220;, Email:

Publication date: 2007-06-01

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