I recently read Susan Witt’s essay in The Essential Agrarian Reader (edited by Norman Wirzba). In it she mentions a movement in India, started by Vinoba Bhave, that came to be known as the Bhoodan Movement. Vinoba, who was a type of spiritual successor to Ghandi, walked across India bringing awareness to social injustice and the plight of the poor. One of the things he specifically emphasized was the inequity of large landholdings in few hands, while there were millions of landless peasants. Vinoba urged the rich to give their excess land to the poor. He was so persuasive that many Indian landowners agreed and began giving land to the poor.
This should be the beginning of a beautiful story. Unfortunately, ignorance and base human nature intevene to ruin it.
Instead of farming their newly acquired land, many of the recipients of these gifts sold it to other wealthy landowners. They just exchanged their free land for cash, which many soon squandered. Many ended back up in the landless povery they left. Those who gave away the land intending to benefit the poor lost it and saw it wind up in the hands of the wealthy who were less generous, and those who took advantage of the peasant-sellers (who couldn’t appreciate the value of the land) by buying the land for less than it was worth just further enriched themselves.
Because of this the movement eventually changed so that while the peasants were provided with farm to work, they didn’t get title to the land.
As I’ve studied the ineffectiveness of most foreign aid programs I’ve seen evidence of this kind of thing repeatedly. Haiti, for example, is notorious for squandering aid, accomplishing nothing, and biting the hands that feed it.
I recently read a report about an Episcopal church project to introduce laying hens to Haiti as a sustainable source of food. The aid workers and missionaries brought the hens and built coops. They taught the Haitians how to care for the hens and how to assure that they would have a steady supply of eggs. But as soon as they left the Haitians butchered and ate the hens and moved into the coops. After one big feast, they were starving again.
Sometimes, as with the Indian peasants who received the land and the Haitians who received the hens, a fundamental change in worldview is necessary. It is unreasonable, I suppose, to expect people who have lived for centuries without planning beyond a day, to suddenly understand the concept of sustainability. Maybe that kind of change can only bubble up from below, by changing the ways individuals think.
How to do that is probably the greatest challenge of our time.