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Land Tenure Perspectives of Ester Boserup's Works 
by Karin Haldrup, Denmark

Personalities: Natalia Filippovich, Belarus

Land Tenure Perspectives of Ester Boserup's Works

Ester Boserup, 1910-1999

by Karin Haldrup

In the latest review of the World Bank, "Land Policy and Administration - Lessons learned and new challenges for the Bank's development agenda", 2001, edited by Klaus Deininger, there is included a comprehensive list of references on land tenure issues, most of which are rather re-cent works. One of the older ones, from 1965, "The economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure", by Ester Boserup, arose my interest both due to its title, age and not the least its author. She was a Danish economist, who qualifies for further interest by land surveyors for a number of reasons: She was an economist with an attentive eye on land tenure systems - one could say as a forerunner for Hernando de Soto - and for the role of women in development.

The present paper intends to present highlights from her works, which include a substantial contribution to understanding of the development of land tenure systems and the role of women in development. It appears to me that she had an ability to analyse, concentrate and present complex issues in a clear form. She was broadly oriented professionally and had a creative multidisciplinary approach. Due to this clarity and the classical themes of her papers, there are reasons to believe that her works can still be inspiring and relevant.


Let Ester Boserup (EB) present herself (ref. 4, page 7):

"I was born in Copenhagen in 1910. My professional life started in 1929 with studies at the University of Copenhagen, from which I graduated in 1935 as "cand. polit.". This discipline placed its main emphasis on theoretical economics, but allowed the students a choice of other subjects. So I also attended lectures on sociology and agricultural policy.

After graduating, I spent more than two decades as a civil servant, first a decade in the economic administration in Denmark, and doing research in the United Nations and its agencies. The rest of my career I worked as a consultant and independent researcher. In my work for the United Nations, I had benefited from cooperating with representatives of many disciplines, and I continued to have many contacts with non-economists, and was invited to many multi-disciplinary international meetings. 

My own research focused on the interplay of economic and non-economic factors in the process of social change, both today and in the past, viewing human societies as dynamic relationships between natural, economic, cultural, and political structures, instead of trying to explain them within the framework of one or a few disciplines. "

Perhaps I should add, that EB lived in Geneva 1947-57, where she worked for United Nations' Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), in India from 1957-60 and 1964-65 in Senegal. Furthermore, she has travelled /worked extensively in Southeast Asia and in Africa as a consultant and researcher for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and international organisations. She was married to Mogens Boserup, also an economist, with whom she had three children. It is easy to get an overview of her works, as she wrote a handy description and index herself at the mature age of 88, ref. 4 "My professional life and publications 1929-1998", 62 pp., which was published the same year as she died, in 1999.

In the following there will be selected extracts of these books spiced with a few comments to give the reader an idea of her thinking.

Ref. 1. "The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure." 1965

Ester Boserup made observations concerning more or less intensive, agricultural systems in Asia and Europe, ranging from long fallow-systems to multi-cropping-systems, which were also used in Latin America and Africa. She argued that they were adaptations not to differences in environment and culture, but to differences in population densities. Considering the massive changes in population experienced currently through migration, diseases (HIV/AIDS) and disasters, the inter-linking of tenure systems into this broader context is relevant.

Ref. 4, page 20:

"When seen in world perspective, the process of agricultural intensification under population pressure consists in the taking into use of much more effective techniques that come into existence through a gradual change of the environment: a forested landscape becomes a landscape of fields with shorter and shorter fallow, dry land becomes irrigated, hilly land terraced, etc. etc. The larger population need not go hungry, as the classical economists assumed and with them the Neo-Malthusians. Instead, the increasing population gradually transformed the environment, and this led to a different diet and new techniques of cultivation, which often led to structural change and affected property rights in land and the whole social system.

As a consequence of these observations I wrote my book on "The conditions of Agricultural Growth", which focuses on the interrelationship between persistent population growth, property rights and social systems. In a model of population growth (or decline) and agricultural change, both technology and property rights should be considered endogenous factors, and the marginal product of labour should not be considered zero, but positive. The implication is that even if output per man-hour declines with persistent population growth, that does not, as in Malthusian theory, imply a decline of per capita food supply, since that can be prevented by additional use of family (or paid) labour, ……"

In the FAO-paper (Topuzis/du Guerny, SDWP, Nov. 1995) on "Gender, rural fertility/mortality and land tenure" there can be found an overview of arguments on the interplay between demographic factors and the land tenure system, which confirm and provide further elaboration of these general observations made by Ester Boserup.

What we as surveyors will notice in particular is her contribution to the understanding of traditional land tenure systems and their transformation into modern tenure systems, which constitutes a major part of the book, as can be seen from the index, see insert.

As an example, in Chapter 10, Contest over property rights, Page 91-92, EB presents the following observations, where she appears to be observing with the eyes of a land tenure specialist:

"…. Those who wish, under the western influence, to break away from the traditional pattern will seek to introduce private ownership of land in order to create security for individual investments, and this may create problems with already established feudal landlords or with nomadic tribes, who want to reserve grazing land as private or tribal property. But these are not the only problems or even the most difficult ones. The greatest difficulty lies in the conflicts among the cultivators themselves, which are inevitable as soon as private ownership of land emerges in communities, which continue to apply long-fallow systems.

Such conflicts among the cultivators are likely to appear when natural population growth or concentration of population near urban centres has been so rapid that the problem of ownership of land has presented itself while the general right to clearing of plots in common land is still a living reality and before the individual cultivator families have got permanent attachment to particular plots of land. If gradual shortening of fallow has led a cultivator family to cultivate the same land for many generations, there is little doubt about the land distribution among the cultivator families; only the problem of elimination of feudal intermediaries may be at issue. But where the cultivator families are still moving their cultivation from one plot to another, or did so until recently, it may be impossible even for the disinterested expert to disentangle the property rights in a given plot.

The difficulty should be apparent from what was said in the preceding chapter about the difference between the general right to clear plots, which is unlimited in time, and the special right to a particular plot which is limited in time, but may be kept alive by pledging. Such pledging may be difficult to distinguish from modern lease on one hand and sale of land on the other. In communities where all these types co-exist and some or all of the partners in transactions concerning land are illiterate and have many different ideas of the type of contracts they are making, the inevitable result is a confused legal situation which is difficult to handle for the honest judge and easy to misuse for the most clever among the partners to the transactions."

One can notice that she is free from the Marxist vocabulary of the époque, which is prevalent in some other contributions on land reform during the sixties-seventies, where many discussions suffer under being put into a framework of class, exploitation, capitalists, collectivisation, etc. inhibiting the professional understanding of the complexities of land tenure systems. She takes the classical issues as a point of departure for her book, by arguing that the three basic structures defined by classical economists: land, labour and capital, have to be reformed to take account of structural change (ref. 4, page 58-59).

From agriculture EB changed her focus to women issues in her next book:

REF. 2 " Woman's Role in Economic Development", 1970; 2. Edition 1986.

In the first edition of the book EB wrote:

"In the vast and ever-growing literature on economic development, reflections on the particular problems of women are few and far between. This book will show, I hope, that this is a serious omission. "

This remark had been overtaken by events in 1986 (2. edition), at what time there had been a rapid improvement in the attention to the issue, which was evident e.g., from the UN activities on improvement of the role of women.

Like in the book on agricultural growth, she also covers the theme of the woman's role in development in a straightforward (perhaps simplified) and clear fashion. Her ability to concentrate the essence in a clear yet comprehensive way is demonstrated by the quotation below, which de-scribes an all too well known phenomena.

(From ref. 2, Preface to the Gower edition (1986)):

"The characteristic features of economic development are increasing specialization of labour, increasing quantity and quality of equipment and infrastructure, and better and better education and training of the labour force. Gradually, as economic development proceeds, more and more processes and services cease to be performed within the family household and become supplied by specialized enterprises or public institutions. As a result, a larger and larger share of the population is transferred from production within the household for family needs to wage labour or management jobs in private enterprises and public institutions. During this process, the need arises for better education and training not only of men, but also of women, if the society is to function efficiently.

The process of increasing specialization of labour is accompanied both by an in-creasing hierarchization of the labour force and a gradual adaptation of the sex distribution of work, both in the family and in the labour force, to the new conditions. Since men are decision-makers both in the family and in the labour market, are better educated and trained than women, and are less burdened with family obligations, they are much more likely to draw benefit from these changes than women, who tend to end up at the bottom of the labour market hierarchy. The confinement of all or most of the female labour force to unskilled routine jobs or low productivity work with primitive equipment is a wasteful use of labour, which helps to slow down the rate of economic development. ….."

On the aspects of women and land tenure, there are not too many direct references in this book, but she covers the role of women in agricultural production (female and male farming systems) and what she calls "Woman in a men's world". By small extracts her arguments can be followed starting with the structure of traditional agriculture to the urban problems of urbanisation and industrialisation:

p. 16:

"Africa is the region of female farming par excellence. In many African tribes, nearly all the tasks connected with food production continue to be left to women. In most of these tribal communities, the agricultural system is that of shifting cultivation: small pieces of land are cultivated for a few years only, until the natural fertility of the soil diminishes. …"

p. 24:

"… In the regions of plough cultivation, agricultural work is distributed between the two sexes in a very different way. The main farming instrument in those regions, the plough, is used by men helped by draught animals, and only the hand operations - or some of them - are left for women to perform. .."


"But there is an additional and very important difference between the distribution of work in African shifting cultivation ad in Asian plough cultivation. The plough is used in regions with private ownership of land and with a comparatively numerous class of landless families in rural population."

Why it remains important how the traditional systems were, is explained by the fact that the pat-tern is carried along to the urban sector:

p. 175:

"Thus, the activity pattern of immigrant women in the town is determined primarily by the customary pattern of female employment in the village, and especially by the extent to which women participate in non-agricultural activities in the village. Therefore, we must now summarize our findings concerning female activities in these non-agricultural occupations at village level. For brevity, we shall refer to this sphere as the bazaar and service occupations so as to distinguish it from agriculture on the one hand and from modern occupations on the other. .."

p. 178:

"When a country is moving from a primitive to a more advanced stage of economic evolution, bazaar and service occupations play the peculiar role of an intermediate step between agriculture and the modern occupations. …"

There is a quite interesting and simple illustration of how the bazaar economy normally functions as an intermediate stage to the modern sector (p.179).

"When development is rapid, a considerable number may move directly from subsistence agriculture to employment in the modern sector without a temporary stop-over in the bazaar and service sector. Normally, however, employers in the modern sector prefer to recruit people who were previously employed in the bazaar and service sector, or their children, thus vacating the less attractive jobs in the bazaar and service occupations for new entrants who come direct from the agricultural sector."

"We have been viewing economic development as a gradual movement of the population from village to town, accompanied by a fundamental change in the domestic activities of women. But economic development can also be seen as a gradual movement of the population from agricultural to non-agricultural occupations. It is important for a correct understanding of the process of economic development and its implications for the status of women to bear in mind that these two major shifts - the geographical migration from village to town and the occupational migration from agricultural to non-agricultural activities - are just two different manifestations of the same process of change."

There is data and discussions on the growing complexity of the distribution of labour between the sexes during impact of colonisation and the urbanisation. None of these is very encouraging seen from a female perspective. Women are generally loosing out. She points to the introduction of cash-cropping with its attendant emphasis upon male-controlled agricultural intensification as a primary determinant of women's loss of status and power in African agriculture.

Jean Davison discusses EB's analysis and conclusions in the book "Agriculture, Women and Land, - the African Experience, 1988, edited by Jean Davison, saying (pp. 7-8) that while there is no question that colonial capitalism dramatically transformed the political economy of gender relations in many African societies, the impact has not been uniform and there are notable exemptions. Also there is a need to include the significance of women's procreative labour in addition to the productive labour, as a factor of social exchange in society, it is argued.

The focus of EB's book is very much on occupational patterns and women's participation in production, whereas the question on ownership of land and property is more withdrawn in this context. This shortcoming is made up by more recent development.

Ref. 3 "Economic and demographic relationships in development"

In the paper "Population, the Status of Women, and Rural Development", 1990, ref. 3, pp. 161-174, she presents how women's status varies under three types of family organization and land tenure arrangements prevalent in rural areas, and argues that the response of rural populations to economic and demographic change is more or less flexible depending on the type of family organization. She elaborates on three cases:

  • Men and Women Farming Common Land
  • Men farming with Women Assisting on Private Land
  • Men Farming while Women Remain Secluded.

An interesting discussion in respect to land tenure is her explanation on the gradual intensification of production on common land and the transition to individual land tenure, where she sharpens her views compared to (ref. 1):

"Growing population density and increasing cash-crop production cause a gradual change from common land tenure to private ownership of land. Men who plant trees or intensive cash crops on common land are likely to register this land as their property as the amount of uncultivated land in the area is reduced. …….. With few exceptions, privatisation of land leads to a deterioration in the status of rural women. Under the system of common tenure, both male and female community members had the right to use the land for cultivation either by simply farming it or by having it assigned to them by the village chief. But only in exceptional cases is land registered as the property of female cultivators. The right of ownership becomes vested in the husband, as head of the family.

As mentioned earlier, common land tenure encourages large family size, because women and children represent free labour; the more of them a man has, the more land his family can cultivate. This advantage disappears, of course, when women lose their cultivation rights through privatisation. A larger family no longer confers a right to additional land. Moreover, a private landowner can mortgage or sell land to weather emergencies and support his old age, while cultivators of common land have no such recourse, but must rely on help from adult children. Thus, private tenure provides less inducement to large family size than does common tenure.

However, if privatisation makes men less dependent on help from adult children, it renders women more dependent on both adult children and spouses. ……"

Ester Boserup makes strong statements as the following (ref. 3, pp 165-166):

"Because men are the decision makers, African societies tend to make progress in modernization through routes such as privatisation of land, where men win and women, lose, but they avoid forms of modernization that would be to the advantage of women - as demonstrated by the nearly total failure to modernize family legislation. Thus rural African women are more than ever dependent upon adult children for help in old age and in case of abandonment by the husband. For such women, voluntary restriction of fertility is a risky affair, given the persistence of high child mortality and widespread sub-fecundity in many regions (the latter due to a variety of sexually transmitted diseases)."

There arguments may suit conditions in other geographic regions, as well.

Recent developments

In line with the themes of Ester Boserup's works, the most recent UNFPA report, "The State of World Population 2001", covers those issues in its chapter 4: "Women and the environment", taking the arguments further. http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2001 

For the survey community in general it is remarkable how high on the agenda land tenure issues are in a report on population, and for the gender discussion in particular, that the references to land tenure are accentuated in Chapter 4: Women and the environment. A few statements will be cited in the following as an appetizer for reading the report:

Under the headline: Powerlessness and Its Impact:

"…. National law or local customs often effectively deny women the right to secure title or inherit land, which means they have no collateral on which to raise credit. Poverty, precarious land tenure and lack of expert support discourage women from investing in newer technologies or long-term strategies such as crop rotation, fallow periods, sustainable levels of cultivation or reforestation."

Women who lack rights to own and manage natural resources often lack rights in other aspects of their lives, reinforcing gender inequalities.

One legacy of high fertility, lower infant mortality and a limited supply of land is fragmentation.

Under the headline "Involving Women in Environmental and Health Decisions":

"Sustainable development demands recognition and value for the multitude of ways in which women's lives intertwine with environmental realities. Women's right to own and inherit land should be enforced; individual and communal security of land tenure should be guaranteed; women should have access to credit, and to agricultural ex-tension and resource management services, and they should be included in decisions about the services' organization and content."

If the FIG ever doubted about the importance of focusing on Gender issues, justification and support has come from this unexpected side.

Karin Haldrup, Chartered Surveyor
E-mail: karin.haldrup@mail.dk 
Tel. + 45 4369 1410
Fax +45 4369 2055
Mobile: + 45 2229 0880


Natalia Filippovich graduated in 1981 at the Belarussian Agricultural Academy, Land Use Planning Faculty, in Gorki, Mogilev Region. Then she started postgraduate studies at the Moscow Institute of Engineers of Land Use Planning (Russia). In 1987 Natalia graduated and received the academic degree of candidate of economic sciences.

After Natalia graduated in Moscow she moved to Minsk (the capital of the Republic of Belarus) the very same year. Her scientific career began at the Institute for Regional and Land Planning as a senior research fellow. At the same time she started to investigate the problems of urban land evaluation, a new problem for Belarus after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The method Natalia developed was successfully used in ten towns of Belarus and two cities in Russia. But, unfortunately, further realizations of this project were complicated because of missing legislation, financial problems of local governments and, the main thing, old consciousness.

In this context Natalia had to change a part of her activities and she worked three years for the European Humanities University as the deputy dean of the economics faculty. At the same time she finished courses of appraisers at the Institute of Privatization and Management (Minsk) and received a diploma of an expert in property appraisal.

Since 1998 Natalia has continued her career at the Institute of Economics of National Academy of Sciences of Belarus where she is working as an academic (scientific) secretary of the Institute and a senior research fellow. Fields of her research are the development of instruments and techniques of land policy at national, regional and local levels, evaluation and taxation of urban land, urban land tenure in the conditions of transition economy. All this problems are very relevant for reforming and developing land relations in Belarus. Natalia also participate in national and international research projects. Results of her researches are published in more then in 30 articles in scientific editions of Belarus and Russia.

In this connection Natalia, as well as many of Belarus scientists, tries to receive grants for researches abroad. In 2000 she was trained two months at the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm) as a scholarship holder of the Swedish Institute. The purposes of her research were study principles, methodological and methodical approach to land regulations and land management in European countries

Natalia is a member of one of the public organizations "Land reform", which is member of FIG. In May 2000 as a national delegate of FIG Commission 3 she participated at the FIG Working Week in Prague and gave the presentation "Land Cadastre in the Republic of Belarus".

Her personal interests include reading, theatre, learning English, meeting with friends and she likes animals very much. Unfortunately Natalia is a single.

Editor: Chair of the Task Force on Under-represented Groups in Surveying
Ms. Gabriele Dasse, Kleinfeld 22a, D-21149 Hamburg, Germany
Email g.dasse@gmx.de
Fax + 49 170 9620 453 
web site: http://www.fig.net/figtree/tf/underrep/tfunrep.htm

4/01, month of issue: December

© Copyright 2001 Gabriele Dasse.
Permission is granted to photocopy in limited quantity for educational purposes.
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