UNTIL some third-world countries ameliorate the harsh conditions under which their peasantry lives, their hardest-fought development efforts will come to naught. In the first place, the rural poor constitute a majority of the population and the largest poverty group in many countries. Its virtual exclusion from the domestic marketplace forces many countries to become overly dependent on fickle international markets for economic growth.
Second, rural poverty is usually associated with the landlessness that leads to underemployment. Lack of farm jobs gives impetus to migration to cities. Urban areas are already rife with unemployment and short on social services. At the same time, international jobs that once were safety valves for certain third-world countries are drying up. The new US Immigration Reform and Control Act may force countries such as Mexico to face its rural poverty problem more squarely than ever before; if the law works and more undocumented aliens are sent back home, enormous pressure will be placed on already overcrowded rural communities. For that reason, President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte of El Salvador, whose economy registers 50 percent of the work force as jobless or underemployed, appealed to President Reagan in April to give temporary immunity from the law to Salvadoreans living illegally in the United States.
Third, peasants are organizing to pressure governments for better conditions. This has much more to do with the demonstration effect coming from the developed countries and the awareness that the mass media provide than with falling dominoes set tumbling by the East bloc.
What peasants invariably demand is land reform, that is, breaking the land ``monopoly'' that historically placed property in the hands of a small, elite class which came to dominate the political and economic life. Often the US public forgets that it is this issue, and not left-wing extremism, that is the root of the wars in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador.
While politically difficult, land reform is consistent with a predominantly rural country's demands for economic growth. A thorough and complete land reform can expand the domestic market (poor farmers will have more income to add to savings and buy local products), boost employment, slow rural-urban migration until manufacturing can catch up, ameliorate an unstable climate so investors are stimulated to start business ventures, and respond to legitimate demands of a society's rural poor.
Recent reports from the Philippines on land reform are alternately pessimistic and upbeat on reform prospects. Business Day, an authoritative Manila daily, noted in early May that ``the agrarian reform program, scaled down and approved in principle by the Aquino cabinet ... has dim prospects of being accelerated.'' The Associated Press reported on May 28 that ``President Corazon Aquino is determined to issue a land reform decree before Congress convenes....''
While her actions indicate that she is ambivalent on rural reforms, when she is quoted President Aquino declares land reform to be so important that it cannot await the seating of Congress on July 27. She knows there will be recalcitrance from the new body, with its preponderance of landowners. Her original reform plan, issued in March, called for turning over about half of the farmland in the country to peasants over the next six years. That country's new Constitution promises to ``reduce social, economic, and political inequalities.'' Mrs. Aquino called land reform ``a long overdue measure of social justice that must be met head on.'' While her public statements are favorable to reform, she is wary of its technical difficulties; she also knows that some of her most powerful supporters are landlords and that the right wing of the military stands ready to back them up.
In the Philippines, land reform will be no mean feat; 70 percent of the 60 million Filipinos live in the countryside, and 35 percent are landless. The landed have traditionally run the country; Aquino's own family has a 15,000-acre sugar farm in Tarlac.
The Guatemalan Christian Democratic President, Vinicio Cerezo, who took power a year ago, is in a position similar to that of Mrs. Aquino. The peasantry, making up two-thirds of his country's population, much of it landless, wants land reform. While his country is smaller than the Philippines, most think the military he faces (and who permitted him to run for the presidency) is even more conservative. Consequently, Mr. Cerezo had to take office promising what one of his Cabinet members had to repledge recently: ``Categorically, there will be no agrarian reform.'' This brings the government to a standoff with the left-wing church. The Rev. Andr'es Gir'on's 75,000 followers have begun to occupy fallow tracts in the southern part of the country. The comment of Fr. Gir'on during a march of 15,000 peasants on the capital was striking: ``It is no longer possible to live in feudal times. ... It is time for the campesinos to become owners.''
In Brazil, the liberal church is also actively organizing for land reform. Originally, President Jos'e Sarney, who has had to worry more about the short-run economic health of the country and its international debt than about land reform, planned to settle 1.4 million landless families on 100 million acres by 1989. Only a paltry 15,000 families have received land to date; while pressure builds, prospects are that the country won't come close to its plan.
The litany of demands for solution to land problems in the third world seems endless, and this is hardly surprising. In the absence of entitlement programs and enough manufacturing jobs, peasants see land as their only access to resources and, hence, to better income and enhanced security. Years ago, a higher percentage had some access to land and could live, in subsistence fashion, relatively insulated from economic pressure. In these times, they are more buffeted by the same forces of the market economy that affect the middle class: inflation, austerity, joblessness, international prices, debt, and the exigencies of the business cycle. While their means have not increased much, their numbers and their voices have.
William C. Thiesenhusen is professor of agricultural economics in the Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison.