Impact of Agrarian Reform

Impact of Agrarian Reform

One of the most significant achievements of the fundamentally urban-based revolutionary regime of Abd al Karim Qasim (1958-63) was the proclamation and partial implementation of a radical agrarian reform program. The scope of the program and the drastic shortage of an administrative cadre to implement it, coupled with political struggles within the Qasim regime and its successors, limited the immediate impact of the program to the expropriation stage. The largest estates were easily confiscated, but distribution lagged owing to administrative problems and the wasted, saline character of much of the land expropriated. Moreover, landlords could choose the best of the lands to keep for themselves.

The impact of the reforms on the lives of the rural masses can only be surmised on the basis of uncertain official statistics and rare observations and reports by outsiders, such as officials of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The development of cooperatives, especially in their capacity as marketing agents, was one of the most obvious failures of the program, although isolated instances of success did emerge. In some of these instances, traditional elders were mobilized to serve as cooperative directors, and former sirkals, clan leaders who functioned as foremen for the shaykhs, could bring a working knowledge of local irrigation needs and practices to the cooperative.

The continued impoverishment of the rural masses was evident, however, in the tremendous migration that continued through the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s from rural to urban areas. According to the Ministry of Planning, the average rate of internal migration from the countryside increased from 19,600 a year in the mid-1950s to 40,000 a year in the 1958 to 1962 period. A study of 110 villages in the Nineveh and Babylon governorates concluded that depressed rural conditions and other variables--rather than job opportunities in the modern sector-- accounted for most of the migration.

There was little doubt that this massive migration and the land reform reduced the number of landless peasants. The most recent comprehensive tenurial statistics available before the war broke out--the Agricultural Census of 1971--put the total farmland (probably meaning cultivable land, rather than land under cultivation) at over 5.7 million hectares, of which more than 98.2 percent was held by "civil persons." About 30 percent of this had been distributed under the agrarian reform. The average size of the holdings was about 9.7 hectares; but 60 percent of the holdings were smaller than 7.5 hectares, accounting for less than 14 percent of the total area. At the other end of the scale, 0.2 percent of the holdings were 250 hectares or larger, amounting to more than 14 percent of the total. Fifty-two percent of the total was owner-operated, 41 percent was farmed under rental agreements, 4.8 percent was worked by squatters, and only 0.6 percent was sharecropped. The status of the remaining 1.6 percent was uncertain. On the basis of limited statistics released by the government in 1985, the amount of land distributed since the inception of the reform program totaled 2,271,250 hectares.

Political instability throughout the 1960s hindered the implementation of the agrarian reform program, but after seizing power in 1968 the Baath regime made a considerable effort to reactivate it. Law 117 (1970) further limited the maximum size of holdings, eliminated compensation to the landowner, and abolished payments by beneficiaries, thus acknowledging the extremity of peasant indebtedness and poverty.

The reform created a large number of small holdings. Given the experience of similar efforts in other countries, foreign observers surmised that a new stratification has emerged in the countryside, characterized by the rise of middle-level peasants who, directly or through their leadership in the cooperatives, control much of the agricultural machinery and its use. Membership in the ruling Baath Party is an additional means of securing access to and control over such resources. Prior to the war, the party seemed to have few roots in the countryside, but after the ascent of Saddam Husayn to the presidency in 1979 a determined effort was made to build bridges between the party cadre in the capital and the provinces. It is noteworthy that practically all party officials promoted to the second echelon of leadership at the 1982 party congress had distinguished themselves by mobilizing party support in the provinces.

Even before the war, migration posed a serious threat of labor shortages. In the 1980s, with the war driving whole communities to seek refuge in the capital, this shortage has been exacerbated and was particularly serious in areas intensively employing mechanized agricultural methods. The government has attempted to compensate for this shortage by importing turnkey projects with foreign professionals. But in the Kurdish areas of the north--and to a degree in the southern region infested by deserters--the safety of foreign personnel was difficult to guarantee; therefore many projects have had to be temporarily abandoned. Another government strategy for coping with the labor shortage caused by the war has been to import Egyptian workers. It has been estimated that as many as 1.5 million Egyptians have found employment in Iraq since the war began.

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