‘Tis the season when hope for peace runs high.
The season when I renew my commitment to creating a better world, based in large measure on the experiences of villagers across the globe, like the ones I met recently in Chillipoi, a tiny hamlet deep in one of the poorest corners of India.
For more than 40 years the people of Chillipoi lived without peace and security.
Their journey started 40 years ago in their distant and peaceful ancestral village when the government, without any warning, told the villagers they needed to move immediately. Their land was needed for a dam.
The entire village was summarily loaded onto trucks, driven with whatever household possessions they could hold in their hands to a spot in the jungle called Chillopoi, and left to fend for themselves.
In the years that followed, these displaced families of Chillipoi eked out a living from the modest plots they carved from the jungle. They lived in fear, however, that someone — either the government or other nearby villagers — would take their new land. With good reason, families from a nearby, more established village made frequent and sometimes successful attempts to usurp land from their poorer neighbors.
The residents of Chillipoi were without title or any formal right to their land, and therefore, without recourse.
Reluctant to make long-term investments in their land and further tempt fate, or their neighbors, the people of Chillipoi slipped into a persistent cycle of poverty.
And while the details of their story are unusual, their condition is not.
More than one billion poor people around the world live without legal rights to the land on which they depend.
Consider for just a moment their precarious circumstances: the ground they sleep on each night, the patches they till each day, and the plots where they bury their dead — none of it is truly theirs. It may be “government-owned” land they have occupied for generations without any title, or it may belong to a landlord. Regardless, these landless poor are without a meaningful stake in society, or a tangible way to climb out of poverty.
A quick look back at history and a simple math lesson help make clear what is at stake: when landless rural families make up 30 percent of a given country, there is significant risk for instability.
Landless peasants made up more than 60 percent of pre-revolutionary Mexico (1910) and Bolivia (1952). In pre-revolutionary Spain (1936), China (1941), Cuba (1959), and Russia (1917), the number of landless peasants was more than 30 percent.
In today’s Pakistan where approximately 300 families own almost all the land in the entire country, the Taliban is coopting and channeling frustration and desperation in the hopes of fomenting their own revolution. India’s Maoist Rebels and the Communist Party of the Philippines are also using the same playbook.
But as the good people of Chillipoi show, the path to peace can be right at our feet: land.
Thanks to an Indian government program that deserves attention and replication, the people of Chillipoi last year were granted legal rights to the land they’ve been living on and tilling.
On my recent visit to Chillipoi, the men told me that the security gained for these new micro-plot owners provided more than peace of mind.
Families there now adopt more long-term practices and have made sweat-equity and other investments on the land: irrigation channels and low-technology irrigation pumps to irrigate their micro-plots; compost pits; land leveling; fruit trees and fish ponds.
Perhaps more importantly, the families are now hopeful about the future and have a meaningful stake in the society. They talked to me about the many plans for their children, plans for a better life achieved through hard work and investment. They told me how they are now participating in community organizations and local government politics. Their lives are no longer characterized by fear, insecurity and fate.
All of the investments the people of Chillipoi are now making in their land and their children require confidence in long term security. Each pays dividends for families with regard to future nutrition, income and prosperity. Not to mention bringing our shared goal for global peace a little closer for us all.