Land Tenure as a Modern Problem
In modern times land tenure has been a vexing economic and political issue throughout the world; it has given impetus to nationalism and to revolution, especially in largely agrarian Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the 19th and 20th cent. there has been wide demand for small farmer ownership and for secure tenure for tenants.
The end of feudalism and of serfdom in Europe and elsewhere left small holders in an insecure position. After the French Revolution, security of tenure was provided for French cultivators, but elsewhere in Europe, where servile obligations were generally abolished by 1860, most of the land was possessed by nobles and other wealthy classes; tenant cultivators were subject to high rents, easy ejection, and no allowance for improvements. Thus there arose the demand for peasant proprietorship through the purchase or appropriation of land by the government, which would then resell small parcels to the peasantry on easy terms.
Also, agitation began for legislation favorable to tenants regarding rent, sale, lease, land improvement, and absentee landlordism. Since the late 19th cent. such programs have been established in most countries of Europe, Ireland (see Irish Land Question) and the Scandinavian countries being among the first. Most recently in Europe, especially where the long establishment of secure tenure has led to minute subdivision, government activity has tended to favor some consolidation of holdings, as in the Netherlands.
In the 19th cent. the spacious lands of Australia, Canada, and the United States enabled the governments of those countries to grant substantial holdings cheaply to farmers, who thus became owners rather than tenants. However, problems did develop, notably in the struggle of the sheep or cattle ranchers, who desired secure tenure for the vast lands they required, against the small farmers, who in turn wanted the right to settle and own parts of these tracts.
These difficulties, particularly prominent in Australia, were resolved in the several nations by the early 20th cent., generally in favor of the small farmers. Legislation was also passed in the 20th cent. to provide secure tenure and easy farm purchase for the body of tenants who had by this time emerged. The fundamental purchase enactment in the United States was the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (1937). In Latin America, however, the tenure problem remains widespread, and in many countries a few owners still hold most of the land, while the majority of the cultivators are squatters.
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