"Drastic" land reforms that give more rights to poor families who labour on others' land are needed in Nepal to stave off hunger among the poorest and boost agricultural production, say analysts.
"No matter what technology you bring, agricultural problems will always persist if we don't address the land reform issue seriously," said Bishnu Upreti, from the South Asia office of the international NGO, Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research North-South (NCCR).
He added that a culture of feudalism, poorly enforced land distribution and an informal caste system have exploited landless tenants. The problem is most apparent in the Terai region below the Himalayas, populated mostly by Dalits, one of Nepal's poorest ethnic groups.
Landless in Terai
According to the most recent government census 1.3 million out of 4.2 million families in Nepal did not own land in 2001. With an estimated four members per family, the estimated landless population was 5.5 million people - out of a population of 21 million, or 26 percent - mostly members of the Dalit and other Terai communities.
According to local NGO Dalit Welfare Organization, 15 percent of Dalits living in the western hills of Nepal and 44 percent of those in Terai were landless, out of six million Dalits nationwide in 2009.
Almost all these families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and there is an "urgent" need to reform land laws, said Kailash Pyakhurel with the local NGO Consortium for Land Research and Policy Dialogue (COLARP) .
Small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers, and landless workers are the most vulnerable to hunger and poverty, according to COLARP. "The cost of not having land reform is very high. The agricultural productivity is not increasing," said Pyakhurel.
Until now most land decisions have been made on an ad-hoc basis with no registration, he added.
The country's first Land Act was introduced in 1964. Even after six rounds of amendments, it continues to favour landlords and does little to protect the rights of tenants, said Pyakhurel.
There is a need to replace the current land tenure system with one that constitutionally guarantees land reform - and gives the traditionally landless a chance to own the land they work; land management continues to remain highly centralized and even local government has little power to change the system, noted COLARP.
Since the introduction of a land tenure system in Nepal in 1951, laws have afforded tenants scant protection other than for those with money, according to a 2009 study funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
Under current land codes, tenant farmers should be able to purchase land they cultivate through cash and collateral, but owners have been able to thwart the system to hang on to land, wrote the author's report, Liz Alden Wily, a land tenure specialist based in Nairobi.
"This is not an experience unique to Nepal; although there have been successes, on the whole redistributive farmland reform has failed [in Nepal]," she said.
Successful redistribution could change the decades-old dynamics of land ownership.
"The most important difference it makes is to shift landless tenants and workers into a situation where they are shareholders in the farming economy, not just casual pawns or beneficiaries," explained Wily.
China, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea have undertaken successful land reforms in Asia, she noted, and change is overdue in Nepal. "This is an insult to the tenants and workers who have been working the same land for decades," Wily concluded.
According to the local NGO,Federation of Nepal, most of the country's land is controlled by the Nepalese elite. As absentee landlords, most do not even live in the villages where they legally own land, yet they reap most of the income.
With no legal claim to the land, or registration that even recognizes them as tenant farmers, instead of receiving a 50 percent share of the harvest, labourers get at most one-third and, more often, one-tenth of earnings.
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