e-mail us
Latin church finds document timely as it fights to defend landless poor


Land and life. Their absolute interdependence is calling into question many an economic and/or development theory that came out of other times. The Catholic church and the whole Judeo-Christian biblical tradition is also beginning to recover the best of its own social ethics on the theme.

A notable but little-noticed commentary on the new world priorities of wedding economics, ecology and ethics to land and life is the fine teaching instrument “For a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform,” published Nov. 23, 1997, by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace under the leadership of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.

This commission has been a beacon of light on contemporary ethical problems, such as the plight of poor indebted nations and the inadequate solutions offered by banks and international lending institutions. Unfortunately, the excellent analysis and suggested changes given in the commission’s occasional documents have not filtered down to the faithful in parishes and schools.

The irony is that world financial and business leaders take these documents quite seriously, as a number of major international conferences and meetings sponsored by the commission attest.

For Latin America and all the Americas the recent document is urgently necessary. It treats land and land reforms throughout the world. But it is a most timely résumé of Catholic social teaching for a Latin American church desperately defending the poor and landless whose story is not being told in northern latitudes -- latitudes whose food supply and distribution converge directly with decisions about land and food in the South.

North Americans are led by advertising and ignorance of other cultures to think the world revolves around them. Their appetites and needs ought to have instant gratification, and they have a right to be at the top of the food chain. They may fear the caricature of “Montezuma’s Revenge” (“don’t eat the salads or unpeeled vegetable while traveling in Mexico”), but the reality is that most U.S. winter vegetables come from Mexico, grown on Mexican land usually owned by North American or transnational food conglomerates.

Transnational food production, land ownership, the huge energy costs of food transportation and the acquisitive companies now dictating the rules of the game about human food supply all come under the serious and balanced judgment of the Vatican’s ethical commentary.

Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle’s, ConAgra -- the list of familiar and unfamiliar brand names is a long one, but the production and distribution of food by these mega-companies is little understood. In fact, a small number of people and companies determine the food supply for the people of the United States. Supplying sufficient nutrition and energy for human work and play is now a complicated process. We have come a long way from being hunters and gatherers. Living off the land has a far different meaning today than it did even a hundred years ago.

Who owns the earth?

Thus the ethical concern of the Catholic church about the supply of food and water for human and planetary life. Who owns the earth and its lands? Who determines its use? What is the human responsibility for planetary survival and its inseparable and mutual correlative of human survival? Earth is us. And we are the earth, as Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, among many other recent authors, Christian and non-Christian, have told us.

The Vatican document picks up on all of these threads and tries to make ethical and scientific sense out of what’s happening.

Humankind is embarked on a great new project of the globalization of human communication and contact. The mythical symbol of the Tower of Babel must be replaced by the Pentecostal paradigm of global mutual understanding and interdependence.

Bluntly, a universal ethics of survival now in motion forces us to see that all of us survive, or none of us survive.

Ownership of land and production of human food supplies developed slowly over centuries of human experience. And much of humanity’s ethical concern about that development can be found in the communal practices of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the codes of most of the world’s religions, including the naturalism and animism of Native American indigenous peoples, North and South.

It is from the best of the tradition that the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace wishes to focus our attention for solving the complex problems of the earth and its people and their future.

The Industrial Revolution, just now arriving in developing countries, brought demographic change to the United States and Europe. Cities grew around factories, and peasant farmers left the land. In the United States a century ago, half the population owned and cultivated the land for private use and the commercial food and forestry needs of the city. Now barely 5 percent of the population is rural. Land and food are increasingly owned and produced by an ever-reduced group of mega-suppliers (often through mega-distribution outlets). Some of these are heavily subsidized by national and local taxes or land and water rights to keep the system going.

The same system works in Europe, although the Common Market coming on stream next year is straining the rules for the subsidy and protection of national production.

In Latin America, new production methods were not allowed to evolve over centuries, as they evolved in the North. Instead, they were force-fed over the past 40 years. Millions of peasants were forced off lands they had worked for centuries but to which they held no legal titles. They had nowhere to go but to the new megalopolises of Mexico City; Caracas, Venezuela; Bogotá, Colombia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; São Paulo, Brazil; Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina, and counting ...

Army of unemployed

Bolivia, one of the latest countries to experience this shift, had a model Agrarian Reform in 1952. It sought to redistribute the land in an underpopulated country (8 people per square kilometer), giving native people land titles and the right to vote. At that time almost 80 percent of the population was rural. Now 40 percent is rural, and the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz have doubled their populations without commensurate urban industrial development -- thus creating an army of unemployed and uneducated urban dwellers.

Santiago, Chile, is home to half of the country’s 11 million people. Lima is the urban pole for a third of Peru’s 22 million people. Rural migrations are tied directly to land use and economic survival.

Stable democracies are impossible with massive cities of the unemployed. Nor can urban populations be sustained without direct attention to land use and food production. History, it seems, and human socialization have already decided in favor of urban living from Bangladesh and Bombay to Bogotá and Buenos Aires. There seems to be no turning back.

But how to make this new globalized reality humanly valuable and viable? That is the ever-deeper concern of the church, which is in direct contact around the world with the poorest of the poor through its pastoral agents and missionaries doing hands-on social analysis.

The interesting presumption of the Justice and Peace document is to address these problems of the poor by presenting them “especially to those with the political and economic responsibility for making the appropriate reforms to initiate a new season of agrarian growth and development.” The church seeks once again to be the “voice of those who have no voice.” It’s pushing their case, and humanity’s case, before the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and in the executive suites and board rooms of a reduced number of transnational, globalizing food and forestry owners and producers.

Special French fries

An anecdotal but typical illustration of the problem: McDonald’s recently opened a new restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. Fast food -- fast anything -- is not a requisite of Bolivian culture or its economy. Bolivia has 800 varieties of potatoes. Latin America gave the potato plant to the world in Spanish colonial times. McDonald’s imports Canadian potatoes for its special French fries. The question is not customer tastes or quality control, of which McDonald’s is a master. The question is, is this sustainable development?

McDonald’s pays the minimum wage in the United States and in Bolivia. But the Bolivian minimum wage is about $50 a month. Still, McDonald’s charges stateside prices for all its products. Its chain stores, non-variable in golden-arch architecture and culture, target middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, as do Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC), Pizza-Hut and so on all over Latin America. Is fast-food culture really a viable U.S. export for a sustainable planetary future? It sustains Wall Street, highly pleased by all of the above chains, not to mention Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola and their other suppliers, but do the local people benefit?

And what is to be said for all the American tobacco companies, now happily seducing the young of the planet without revealing that their product is addictive? And without telling host governments what their future social costs will be to care for the addicted after the powerful advertising campaigns are over?

The ethical analysis from the Vatican of these realities puts serious questions before the governments and businesses of our globalized economy. Land and food are basic to human life and development. Their administration and use cannot be left to the vagaries of an unregulated free market. Private property always carries an ethical “social mortgage,” says the present pope, echoing the Catholic tradition. All of creation is for all of God’s creatures, and we humans are stewards, not final owners.

A partial failure

Land reform? It’s been partially tried and has partially failed in many countries. It is a very complex problem. But it now has to be an immediate priority for all democracies and all national development programs. This is especially the case in Latin America, where weak democracies have recently been shaken by massive campesino marches and protests, often violent, in almost every country from Mexico on south. They constantly reclaim their right to land and to life.

The Council for Justice and Peace offers some recommendations:

* adequate assistance of appropriate technologies and rural infrastructures;

* easier access to credit, especially micro-credit programs;

* social investment in roads, schools and rural infrastructure;

* legal and cultural attention to the social roles and economic contributions of women;

* respect for and legal protection for indigenous peoples, their land rights and cultures;

* national legislation to safeguard development and to end corruption in land sale and use;

* reduction of (or ending) national indebtedness and promotion of viable development programs.

The Catholic church does not pretend to have concrete economic and political solutions to these challenges. But it prophetically voices its concerns about globalization, which now seems irreversible. It forces the fundamental questioning of a free market for food through regional or global reorganization of land use for food, water and forestry. Is such a free market possible or will it necessarily be manipulated unless the regulatory power of the state intervenes?

The documentation of the Vatican’s proposal is impeccable. Over 50 years of church teachings on social ethics are cited ranging from the teachings of church councils to the teachings of regional and local bishops’ conferences. Data and development theories are cited from such sources as United Nations scientific studies and World Bank reports. Almost all international institutions concur with the social analysis of the Vatican.

The problems are enormous and the human learning curve is way behind the actual realities of human evolution and demographic development. Scientific analysis of and public ethical debate on possible human futures for land use and food supplies is long overdue.

Getting in on the debate

The highest authorities in the church, then, propose to bishops’ conferences, Catholic educators and local church pastors and pastoral agents that they get in on the debate. That, in this age of information, they inform themselves about the worldwide interrelation of economic and political realities on land and food and then responsibly and systematically explain the social ethics of the church.

The church proclaims itself as Catholic (that is, universal) with a worldwide mission and message. The Good News is our story of human solidarity because, we say, our God loves the world and all its created materiality. The world is destined from its creation to generate each human person in the image and likeness of God. If Catholics sought to put this prophetic vision into practice, our church would be what it is, and should be, the Sacrament of Globalization.

Fr. Michael J. Gillgannon is a priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph serving as the director of campus ministry in the La Paz, Bolivia, archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998