1966

Roy Prosterman: Advocating Land Ownership for the World's Rural Poor


Table of Contents Previous Next

An estimated 13 to 18 million people in developing countries die each year as a consequence of not having sufficient food to eat. Some 100 million agricultural families work land owned by others and are among the planet's most disadvantaged citizens. Meanwhile, the population of the developing world continues to grow at a rate of nearly 2% per year, compared to 0.2% for the developed countries. This staggering growth rate creates political stresses and places strains on resources and the environment.

UW law professor Roy Prosterman believes that land reform holds the key to alleviating poverty and instability in developing countries. If ownership could be granted to the 100 million farmers who work the land but do not hold title to it, many problems currently plaguing the developing world could be solved.

"We would find ourselves with agricultural productivity on the planet up by 20 or 30 or 40 per cent," says Prosterman in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Moreover, birth and infant-mortality rates would drop, and political stability would increase.footnote 1

Prosterman has pursued that vision for the past three decades. His efforts in some 26 countries have benefited over 120 million people worldwide. His recommendations have been adopted by leaders around the world, including Boris Yeltsin, who restored land ownership rights in Russia, Chinese officials, and the leadership in South Vietnam, where a million tenant-farmer families became landowners.

In 1993, Prosterman was nominated by several members of Congress for the Nobel Peace Prize. In a letter to the Nobel Institute, Representative Jennifer Dunn (R-Washington) said that she and colleagues were nominating "a person of gentle manner and gentle voice [who] has, with the use of powerful ideas and energy, been able to lift the lives and hopes of tens of millions." Wallace D. Loh, former dean of the UW law school, calls Prosterman "one of those very unassuming, unpretentious souls whose goal in life is public service, and public service in a way that truly brings no aggrandizement to himself."footnote 1

Prosterman's work in rural development began in 1966, when he left the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell to join the UW law school. It was during that year that he read a law review article about the need for land reform in Latin America, which spurred him to further study and write about the issue of land reform. In 1967, Prosterman traveled to South Vietnam to explore whether some of the underlying social and economic causes of the Vietnam War might be addressed by redistributing land to poor tenant farmers and paying reasonable compensation to landlords.

Prosterman's efforts resulted in the "land-to-the-tiller" law which, over the period of 1970 to 1973, gave a million tenant farmers in South Vietnam title to lands. The New York Times called it "probably the most ambitious and progressive non-Communist land reform of the twentieth century."footnote 2

The reform in Vietnam "led to a 30% increase in rice production and an 80% decrease in Viet Cong recruitment where it was implemented. Later, when South Vietnam fell, these reforms made it difficult for the former North Vietnamese government to impose collective farming in that area," write Tim Hanstad and Robert Mitchell, attorneys with the Rural Development Institute (RDI), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization founded by Prosterman in 1981 to carry on the land reform work he initiated at the UW. Hanstad serves as executive director of RDI.

Over the years, Prosterman has enlisted the help of law students and others to work on land reform issues in countries throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The RDI has facilitated that effort. The fledgling operation began with only Prosterman, one other lawyer, a student research assistant, and a part-time administrator. In 1996, the staff comprised six lawyers, several law student research assistants, and an administrative staff. The organization receives funding from private foundation grants, contributions, and contracts with foreign-assistance agencies.

Prosterman and colleagues of the RDI believe that land rights that are secure and transferable are critically important to farmers for several reasons. First of all, land rights encourage farmers to make investments in land that enable them to maximize farm productivity and income. That, in turn, increases the purchasing power of farmers. Furthermore, land rights generate non-agricultural jobs as the increased purchasing power of farmers stimulates the rural consumer market. Land rights also anchor farmers to their communities and reduce migration to cities, and they create greater political stability by providing farmers with a more significant stake in their society.

Lawyers of the RDI work to provide these secure and transferable land rights for farmers. They also help develop measures to assist new landowners to gain access to credit, extension advice, and markets for their products. As a part of their work in a given country, RDI lawyers and research assistants may study the country's property laws, legal system, and political, economic, and social structures.

Reforms do not come easy--often they are controversial, sometimes even dangerous. In a recent article in the Washington State Bar News, Hanstad and Mitchell recount one incident in El Salvador:

Three of Prosterman's friends and colleagues, including a University of Washington School of Law graduate, were assassinated by right-wing gunmen while sitting in a cafe in El Salvador in 1980. Prosterman had been working with these colleagues and others to develop a "land-to-the-tiller" law that eventually provided land ownership to tens of thousands of tenant farmers and landless laborers. When Prosterman and one of the authors subsequently returned to El Salvador, their visit was heralded by a front-page article in the main right- wing newspaper denouncing Prosterman's presence. He and the author wore bullet- proof vests for the remainder of the trip.footnote 2

Within the UW School of Law, Prosterman founded the Law of Sustainable International Development Program in 1992 to prepare students for legal work on problems in international development. The program was founded on the premise that effective legal work in this arena would require substantive knowledge of transnational and international law and international environmental law, as well as a background in relevant economic, political, environmental, and administrative disciplines. The program is interdisciplinary, allowing students to draw on the UW's resources in economics, political science, international studies, sociology, public health, and environmental studies.

The Law of Sustainable International Development Program at the UW is the first graduate program at a U.S. law school to focus on international development law.


  1. "A Gentle but Tough-Minded Visionary," Peter Monaghan, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 16, 1995.
  2. "The Rural Development Institute," Tim Hanstad and Robert Mitchell, Washington State Bar News, February 1996, p. 16.
  3. For more information, contact the Rural Development Institute, 1100 N.E. Campus Parkway, Seattle, WA, 98105, (206) 528-5880, rdi@u.washington.edu

Table of Contents Previous Next