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Sunday, May 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visionary's cure for global poverty rooted in the land

Seattle Times business reporter

Roy Prosterman


Age: 70

Title: Founder and chairman emeritus of the Rural Development Institute, professor and director of the postdoctoral program in Law of Sustainable International Development at the University of Washington Law School

Education: B.A., University of Chicago; J.D., Harvard Law School

Awards: Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gleitsman Foundation International Activist Award, Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership

Quote: "If you can find ways of providing land rights to some of the 900 million mostly landless rural poor, you can create new markets and also head off a lot of very serious instability."

Source: RDI

Here's a lesson in globalization: If poor rural farmers receive land rights, says Roy Prosterman, the whole world reaps what they sow.

Prosperous rural people not only create new markets for goods and services, but they also make countries more stable and less vulnerable to the influence of extremists, he said.

For more than three decades, Prosterman has fought to give the world's poorest people basic rights to own land and improve their lives. Under his guidance, a small nonprofit organization in Seattle has made a significant impact on reducing poverty throughout the world. Prosterman, founder of the Rural Development Institute (RDI) and professor of law at the University of Washington, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. On May 6, he received the first Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership by Claremont McKenna College.

International trade has made the world smaller, but many people in the world's most populous countries are missing out on the economic benefits.

"Of the 1.2 billion poorest people on the planet, people who live on less than $1 a day, 900 million of them live in rural areas and make their living from agriculture," Prosterman said.

"Most of them don't own land or have any equivalent security. Those people are currently not part of the global market."

An attorney by training, Prosterman has worked with governments of 40 countries to advise on legal and policy matters and to design land-purchase programs. RDI has field offices and staff in China, India and Indonesia, but also operates programs in Africa, Russia and Ukraine.

The institute is funded by organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and consults for the World Bank and USAID.

"He has been incredibly creative and bold," said Pamela Gann, president of Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, which introduced the prize this year to award innovative and effective leadership in the not-for-profit sector.

RDI's approach works with the legal system of the country, respecting its cultural characteristics and emphasizing market economics, she said.

"The sheer number of countries he's operating in and the millions of people who have become landowners in those countries proves this impact is sustainable," Gann said.

Donating $250,000 prize

Prosterman is giving his $250,000 in prize money to RDI.

The institute, which has just nine attorneys among a total staff of 23, is also the principal foreign adviser to China in the country's property-rights reform effort.

RDI has been involved in China since 1987. Based on its recommendations, Chinese authorities in 1993 began adopting a policy of granting farmers 30-year rights to use their land, which has gradually allowed them to make long-term investments and reap the benefits.

Previously, farmers' rights were not connected to any particular piece of land, because local government officials could shuffle farmers and reassign plots as often as every year, Prosterman said.

Yet as China's economy has boomed, massive development projects have swallowed land used for agriculture. Developers contact local officials to buy rights to build factories, for example, and negotiate a price for the land. Usually this transaction doesn't involve farmers at all.

"The first thing they're told is your land is going to be taken next week or next month," Prosterman said.

The local officials typically give farmers only 10 to 15 percent of the compensation paid by the developer, he said. The rest they spend themselves.

"Most of the money paid appears to stick to the fingers of local cadres and local officials," he said.

This has contributed to China's widening gap between rich and poor and enraged rural residents, who staged more than 80,000 protests during the past year.

Push for change in China

RDI is urging China's government to press local officials to issue proper documents to farmers that clarify their 30-year rights.

Under Chinese law, individual farmers can't own land, but if they have well-documented rights, they can usually obtain better compensation when the land is taken, Prosterman said.

The institute is also backing regulations that require the money go to farmers through a bank rather than through local officials.

In March, Prosterman led a group of top officials from China to the Skagit Valley, where farmland has been used to build schools and highways. "They wanted to see how we treated takings of agricultural land for nonagricultural purposes and how we kept our farmers from being unhappy with the results," he said.

The fate of rural farmers in China also connects to the Northwest, as companies here aim to sell airplanes, coffee, software and other products to China's enormous market.

Right now, only about 450 million people can afford such goods in that market, Prosterman said.

"If they want to serve the whole 1.3 billion people, and I think they all do, then it's going to require these rural reforms to make that possible," he said.

Despite his life's work to secure land for others, he owns no property of his own. He rents an apartment in the University District.

"I'm a landless laborer," he joked.

His grandparents lost their home to foreclosure during the Great Depression, and his parents rented an apartment during his childhood in Chicago.

"I was just very accustomed to the idea of renting and not owning," he said. "I travel constantly."

He did once consider buying real estate. In 1965, he looked at a penthouse condominium in Queen Anne that had a panoramic view and a price tag of $40,000, but he didn't bite.

"I sometimes regret that," he said.

At 70, he remains a lifelong bachelor and describes himself as "married to my work." What he enjoys most is talking directly with farmers in the field.

He sees the world's major conflicts throughout the 20th century rooted in rural issues: in Russia, Vietnam and Cuba.

Farmers who have secure rights, by contrast, are making investments on the land and earning money needed to educate their kids and eventually move from rural areas into urban centers.

After World War II, half of Japan's population was agricultural. But land reforms helped lay the groundwork for its postwar economic miracle, Prosterman said.

The experience of Taiwan also suggests the path for China's development.

Six years ago, RDI interviewed children and grandchildren of Taiwanese farmers who received land ownership following reform policies in the 1950s.

"Every one of those farm families had an automobile, everyone had a computer and everyone had flown off the island in a jet plane at least once," he said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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