Iraq Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform

Iraq Country Studies index

Iraq - Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform

Land tenure and agrarian reform

Iraq's system of land tenure and inefficient government implementation of land reform contributed to the low productivity of farmers and the slow growth of the agricultural sector. Land rights had evolved over many centuries, incorporating laws of many cultures and countries. The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 attempted to impose order by establishing categories of land and by requiring surveys and the registration of land holdings. By World War I, only limited registration had been accomplished and land titles were insecure, particularly under the system of tribal tenure through which the state retained ownership of the land although tribes used it.

By the early 1930s, large landowners became more interested in secure titles because a period of agricultural expansion was underway. In the north, urban merchants were investing in land development, and in the south tribes were installing pumps and were otherwise improving land. In response, the government promulgated a law in 1932 empowering it to settle title to land and to speed up the registration of titles. Under the law, a number of tribal leaders and village headmen were granted title to the land that had been worked by their communities. The effect, perhaps unintended, was to replace the semicommunal system with a system of ownership that increased the number of sharecroppers and tenants dramatically. A 1933 law provided that a sharecropper could not leave if he were indebted to the landowner. Because landowners were usually the sole source of credit and almost no sharecropper was free of debt, the law effectively bound many tenants to the land.

The land tenure system under the Ottomans, and as modified by subsequent Iraqi governments, provided little incentive to improve productivity. Most farming was conducted by sharecroppers and tenants who received only a portion--often only a small proportion--of the crop. Any increase in production favored owners disproportionately, which served as a disincentive to farmers to produce at more than subsistence level. For their part, absentee owners preferred to spend their money in acquiring more land, rather than to invest in improving the land they had already accumulated.

On the eve of the 1958 revolution, more than two-thirds of Iraq's cultivated land was concentrated in 2 percent of the holdings, while at the other extreme, 86 percent of the holdings covered less than 10 percent of the cultivated land. The prerevolutionary government was aware of the inequalities in the countryside and of the poor condition of most tenant farmers, but landlords constituted a strong political force during the monarchical era, and they were able to frustrate remedial legislation.

Because the promise of land reform kindled part of the popular enthusiasm for the 1958 revolution and because the powerful landlords posed a potential threat to the new regime, agrarian reform was high on the agenda of the new government, which started the process of land reform within three months of taking power. The 1958 law, modeled after Egypt's law, limited the maximum amount of land an individual owner could retain to 1,000 dunums (100 hectares) of irrigated land or twice that amount of rain-fed land. Holdings above the maximum were expropriated by the government. Compensation was to be paid in state bonds, but in 1969 the government absolved itself of all responsibility to recompense owners. The law provided for the expropriation of 75 percent of all privately owned arable land.

The expropriated land, in parcels of between seven and fifteen hectares of irrigated land or double that amount of rainfed land, was to be distributed to individuals. The recipient was to repay the government over a twenty-year period, and he was required to join a cooperative. The law also had temporary provisions maintaining the sharecropping system in the interim between expropriation and redistribution of the land. Landlords were required to continue the management of the land and to supply customary inputs to maintain production, but their share of the crop was reduced considerably. This provision grew in importance as land became expropriated much more rapidly than it was being distributed. By 1968, 10 years after agrarian reform was instituted, 1.7 million hectares had been expropriated, but fewer than 440,000 hectares of sequestered land had been distributed. A total of 645,000 hectares had been allocated to nearly 55,000 families, however, because several hundred thousand hectares of government land were included in the distribution. The situation in the countryside became chaotic because the government lacked the personnel, funds, and expertise to supply credit, seed, pumps, and marketing services--functions that had previously been performed by landlords. Landlords tended to cut their production, and even the best-intentioned landlords found it difficult to act as they had before the land reform because of hostility on all sides. Moreover, the farmers had little interest in cooperatives and joined them slowly and unwillingly. Rural-to- urban migration increased as agricultural production stagnated, and a prolonged drought coincided with these upheavals. Agricultural production fell steeply in the 1960s and never recovered fully.

In the 1970s, agrarian reform was carried further. Legislation in 1970 reduced the maximum size of holdings to between 10 and 150 hectares of irrigated land (depending on the type of land and crop) and to between 250 and 500 hectares of nonirrigated land. Holdings above the maximum were expropriated with compensation only for actual improvements such as buildings, pumps, and trees. The government also reserved the right of eminent domain in regard to lowering the holding ceiling and to dispossessing new or old landholders for a variety of reasons. In 1975 an additional reform law was enacted to break up the large estates of Kurdish tribal landowners. Additional expropriations such as these exacerbated the government's land management problems. Although Iraq claimed to have distributed nearly 2 million hectares by the late 1970s, independent observers regarded this figure as greatly exaggerated. The government continued to hold a large proportion of arable land, which, because it was not distributed, often lay fallow. Rural flight increased, and by the late 1970s, farm labor shortages had become so acute that Egyptian farmers were being invited into the country.

The original purpose of the land reform had been to break up the large estates and to establish many small owner-operated farms, but fragmentation of the farms made extensive mechanization and economies of scale difficult to achieve, despite the expansion of the cooperative system. Therefore, in the 1970s, the government turned to collectivization as a solution. By 1981 Iraq had established twenty-eight collective state farms that employed 1,346 people and cultivated about 180,000 hectares. In the 1980s, however, the government expressed disappointment at the slow pace of agricultural development, conceding that collectivized state farms were not profitable. In 1983 the government enacted a new law encouraging both local and foreign Arab companies or individuals to lease larger plots of land from the government. By 1984, more than 1,000 leases had been granted. As a further incentive to productivity, the government instituted a profit-sharing plan at state collective farms. By 1987, the wheel appeared to have turned full circle when the government announced plans to reprivatize agriculture by leasing or selling state farms to the private sector.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites: - Iraq - Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform in
Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform in Asia* - Panama - Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform
4 land Tenure and Agricultural Development - Springer
Land tenure and agrarian reform in East and Southeast Asia

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