Since 2003, a community-led, non-violent peasant's movement has engaged thousands of land-deprived peasants to dialogue, negotiate, and advocate for policy change in favour of land rights and livelihoods.
Problems and Purpose
In Nepal, peasants have been tilling land for generations as tenants*, but have been deprived of the legal right to till land since 1964. As per the Department of Land Reform and Management Report (2013), 1,547,000 tillers submitted applications claiming the tenancy rights out of which 318,500 received tenancy certificates. One of the surveys conducted by the Ministry of Land Reform (1972) estimated that 40% of the tenants were left out during the identification process and they have since been tilling land as unregistered (informal) tenants. Since then, the livelihoods of the landless, tenants, and smallholders have depended on landlords and they have been deprived of government services such as access to citizenship cards, potable water, and collateral in bank for bank loan.
In 2004, a land and agrarian rights campaign was initiated to strengthen peasants' organisations to participate, mobilize, and negotiate policy processes and practices that affect them. The purpose of the campaign was to educate, empower, and organise peasants to generate power from the ground up, to change the policy and practices through their own meaningful participation, and to improve their economic situation.
Background History and Context
Prior to 1950, land in Nepal was considered individual property by the ruling elite, and was distributed to henchmen, supporters, and relatives, which created a privileged “absentee landed” social class. After the restoration of democracy in 1950, political parties mobilized peasants across the Nepal for democracy and pro-poor land reform under the slogan "land to the tiller." Land distribution was connected with democratization and has remained a major political and economic agenda since 1950. In 1964, the King promulgated the Land Reform Act to provide tenancy rights and regulate the rent system. However, the Act contained many loopholes in favour of landowners**. As a result, over 25% of tillers are recorded as landless or squatters, and over 50% of peasants are informal tenants and insecure in their livelihoods.
A contributing factor to this situation was the lack of peasants' mobilization and organisation. A power nexus between landlords, policymakers, and bureaucrats meant that only a negligent number of tenants received tenancy for tilling land. With no legal rights, a large number of these tenants were facing evictions, becoming landless or engaging in wage labour.
Further, land certificates are linked to government services, including citizenship certificates. Landless tenants, who have neither land certificates nor citizenship certificates, become disenfranchised and lack access government services. Because a land certificate is also required for water, electricity, bank loans, birth registrations, and marriage certificates, many tenants are also deprived of basic public services. Finally, a legal connection to land is considered property and associated with dignity, social prestige, means of investment, power, and security of livelihood and housing.
In this context, there was an urgency for peasants' organisations to mobilize and engage in dialogue and negotiation with the Government of Nepal and policymakers. Since land is a political issue, this would not be resolved without the participation of peasants.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
While not a discrete project or programme, this peasant-led social campaign attracted resource contributions from international organisations such as Action Aid Nepal, Danida HUGOU, International Land Coalition (ILC), CARE Nepal, and Oxfam. The campaign itself did not receive financial resources directly from these sources, but a Nepali civil society organisation called the Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) has been facilitating and supporting resource generation for the campaign.
The campaign itself has generated over 30% of its resources locally and in kind. Each Village Land Right Forum (VLRF), District Land Right Forum (DLRF), and National Land Right Forum (NLRF) have movement funds generated locally and mostly in kind. For larger mobilizations, they use this campaign fund with CSRC support. CSRC played the role of secretariat of the campaign, which was limited to one district in 2003, but by 2018, had grown to 59 districts. It has expanded due to the participation and active role of peasants, not the funds of supporting organisations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Rather than selecting participants for the different levels of engagement in programmes, the campaign developed criteria alongside its participants and organized itself in “Forums.” Since land is a political issue, strong peasant mobilization, empowerment, and participation in policy processes and practice was necessary to effectively advance a land reform agenda and the rights of peasants. Drawing from international experiences, it was felt that strong people's or peasants’ organisation were required to pressure the different levels of government to deliver on peasants’ rights. In this context, a people's organisation called National Land Rights Forum (NLRF) was established in December 2004. Beginning in 2005, a number of Village Land Rights Forum (VLRF) and District Land Rights Forum (DLRF) were established at the community and district levels, respectively.
In terms of governance, one male and one female representative from each VLRF make up the DLRF council, while the central NLRF council is made up of 50 members of VLRFs (one male, one female from each). CSRC facilitated the capacity building and leadership of VLRF, DLRF, and NLRF related to campaign development and participation in policy process. Because of ongoing conflict, the perception of NGOs was negative in 2004, and CSRC realized that their role was only as facilitator. As a people's organisation, the NLRF would lead the campaign, as it can build more power with the people and the government.
Methods and Tools Used
The campaign adopted many innovative, creative, and collective participatory actions called Community-led Non-violent Transformative Mobilization to influence government and political parties.
The campaign used several different methods to mobilize communities at different levels. Tactics were developed collectively and creatively at the community level and strategies varied from district to district. These included cycle rallies, foot marches, using agriculture tools as symbols, using public places, using catchy slogans (including the campaign slogan: “Those who are deprived of land, lead the campaign”), organizing local sit-ins in public places, and producing leaflets and banners.
At the centre of the campaign was the question of how peasants could empower themselves to participate in, and influence policymaking and change processes in favour of land policies, programmes, and practices that would benefit them and other peasants. The campaign used encampment (i.e., large numbers of VLRF members trained locally who use public places and local materials) rather than room-based trainings and meetings.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Within the land and agrarian rights campaign, multiple activities take place simultaneously within the leadership of the VLRF, DLRF, and NLRF. While not always coordinating actions, there are strong linkages and synergies between levels and actions.
The campaign has developed land-deprived people themselves into change agents. This way, the movement remains in the hands of land rights activists and leaders. These people are not full-time jobholders, but rather facilitate the campaign work as part of their home lives and are locally hired or appointed by movement members, not by the CSRC.
The land and agrarian campaign operates at three levels: village, district, and national. The village- and district-level campaigns are mostly focused on claiming land rights, especially around tenancy, tilling, and land for housing. This includes legal procedures and national-level actions for policy change on behalf of land-deprived people.
So far, over 3,000 village-level land rights forums have been formed and organised involving more than 98,000 people. There, communities discuss the local context of exploitation and history of the land, and assess where power is strong, and where it needs to be balanced out. Participants in village forums also discuss possible avenues for action and mobilization and try to ensure equal participation from all members.
At the local forums, there is no single leader or facilitator, but discussion is shared among all members and consensus-based decision making applies. There is no logo of any supporting organisations, but rather a flag of the NLRF.
If the mobilization is aimed at the central level—in Kathmandu—it needs the active role of Members of Parliament (MPs) to lobby the Minister or Prime Minister. If the programme is at the district level, it needs the active role of local party leaders to influence MPs and government officials, social activists, or Chairs of local government bodies. The campaign has prepared a critical path for lobbying and influencing: local leaders influence at the district level; district leaders seek to influence MPs, senior leaders, and government officials from the Ministry of Land Reform and Management. For example, while there was a sit-in programme in Kathmandu in 2011, the media and MPs played an important role in the negotiations with the Prime Minister and Minister in charge of women's land rights and land reform issues in the new Constitution that was ratified in September 2015.
In 2011, the campaign brought 1,000 women to Kathmandu to pressure the government, MPs, and political parties. Tactics putting women at the centre were used in part because past experiences have shown that women have more power to influence policymakers and MPs, who are more sensitive to women rather than men. The campaign always tried to think creatively about what really generates power for change, including getting the media to pay more attention.
Until 2003, spaces for policy discussions were open by invitation to participate from CSOs such as CSRC, but not to land-deprived people directly. Establishing the NLRF in December 2004 created a space for policy dialogue and negotiation that did not previously exist for land-deprived people. This shift from invited to created spaces for policy dialogue also meant that participation was both committed and actionable. With this understanding, land-deprived people participated in the political process and mobilized in novel ways. Compelled to convene for dialogue and negotiations with the Government of Nepal, political parties, MPs, and high-level officials, peasants were able to claim their rights and influence policy around land rights.
Through this process of empowerment and direct participation, major events have marked the campaign since its inception in 2003. Among these tactics were:
- 2004: Landless people registered over 73,000 cases and encircled the Chief District Officers’ (CDOs) and District Land Revenue Officers’ (DLROs) offices to pressure action on the filed applications;
- 2006: A group of tenants, sharecroppers, and landless people led a five-day relay hunger strike and padlocked DLROs’ offices;
- 2007: The NLRF organised a sit-in at the offices of major political parties both at district and central levels, demanding the realisation of land rights for the land-poor;
- 2008: The NLRF organised a 13-day sit-in at Tudgikhel (an open theatre) in Kathmandu, demanding the immediate formation of a High-level Land Reform Commission (HLRC) to implement genuine land reform on behalf of landless and tenant farmers;
- 2009: Approximately 500 land-poor people organised and initiated a sit-in to demand land rights in Guthi land and tenancy rights in tilled lands belonging to landlords;
- 2010: Around 500 women marched to demand that land reform be incorporated into the Constitution;
- 2011: One thousand rural women gathered in Kathmandu on behalf of women farmers to demand land reform, the implementation of the HLRC’s reports, and the timely promulgation of the Constitution on behalf of those women farmers;
- 2012: Over 500 tenants and sharecroppers organised a sit-in, demanding land rights in Guthi land and tenancy rights in the tilled land;
- 2013: The NLRF leadership organised 14 large, mass demonstrations and gatherings, demanding that land reform issues be addressed in the new Constitution;
- 2014: Tenants, sharecroppers and smallholders submitted over 15,000 letters to Constitutional Assembly members, requesting that land reform be part of the new Constitution.
- 2015: Tenants, sharecroppers, and smallholders organised over 20 large demonstrations in different parts of the country to ensure the inclusion of land rights in the Constitution.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
People's participation has challenged the historic domination, exploitation, and oppression of large groups of land-deprived people. Peasants’ organisation have changed the social perception of peasants and demonstrated how collective mobilization can lead to major changes at the local and national levels. The NLRF is now seen as a powerful people's organisation in Nepal that can effectively challenge political parties, farmers' organisations, and political leaders in favour of land rights. In 2008, three NLRF leaders were appointed as MPs in proportion seats†. During the local elections of 2017, more than 150 NLRF members were elected to local bodies. All this was possible due to the mobilization and organisation power of the NLRF.
Beyond these results, the campaign achieved a number of other outcomes, such as the following:
- The 2015 Constitution included land reform and promoted peasants’ rights. This was a result of the immense pressure and mobilization from the NLRF, asserting themselves and their right to participate in national policy development.
- The Reconstruction Bill (2016) included provisions around the distribution of housing rights at the national level.
- The Land Reform Act (1964) was amended in 2016 and now allows for filing tenancy applications and cases.
- The Land Use Policy was amended and the Land Use Act, formulated in February 2019, was endorsed by Parliament.
- Between 2004 and 2017, over 45,000 landless peasants and tenants have received land certificates, and more than 5,000 landless people have access to public land for their livelihood.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While there are countless lessons learned emerging through the various levels of mobilization, a few reflections and learnings stand out:
The power of people-driven movements
To bring about widespread social change, NGO- or CSO-driven methods are not the only approach. It is important for people to come together, form their own organisation, and self-mobilize to build their strength and power from the ground up, leading to changes in policy and practices to the benefit of marginalized or land-deprived people. As the voice for those most affected by social issues, people's organisations—as opposed to independent or external NGOs and CSOs—tend to have more legitimacy, which can lead to empowered negotiations, dialogue, and pressure on the government and policymakers.
The value of locally-generated resources
When resources are locally generated, participants and decision makers take the initiative more seriously. The disbursement and management of project money is often less transparent, and people have less ownership over the mobilization when funds are donated by large NGOs or CSOs. People and decision-makers are more likely to respond positively to self-generated resources and efforts, as it reflects the strong determination of the collective citizenry.
Learning by doing
Encampments, mass demonstrations, foot marches, and other tactics involving mass participation generated local resources and built the capacity and leadership of NLRF members in ways that room-based training and workshops could not have. The movement built the membership’s capacity through hands-on experiences and direct action, rather than through trainings and workshops typical of community development approaches. Doing so reinforces that participants already have the capacity and power to act and will only improve these through experience and collective reflection and analysis.
Balancing external support with a peasant-focused agenda
One major challenge has been juggling self-generated resources with NGO support. At times it is difficult to sustain a collective and participatory campaign exclusively from local resources. On the other hand, project-based activities and campaigns are not as participatory, as they set predetermined targets and timeframes. To maintain a balance between operating a bottom-up, people-oriented movement and working with the support of large NGOs with project timelines, the movement has had to remain steadfast in keeping the campaign focus in the hands of landless peasants.
Dispersed leadership and multi-level engagement are effective strategies
What worked well was people using their own power and speaking for themselves to advocate for policy change, rather than having a leader of a campaign be their voice. Along the same line, local resource generation and a genuine people's agenda kept the focus and power within the campaign and enabled members to be innovative and creative. That way, what was captured by the media was the people’s agenda as it played out at the community and district levels, but also as it was directly linked to the national policy discussion. Having the campaign operating simultaneously at the three levels enabled changes to occur organically, synergistically, and harmoniously.
 Ministry of Land Reform and Management. (2013). Annual Progress Report of Land Reform and Management. Department of Land Reform and Management.
 Ministry of Land Reform and Management. (1972). Land Reform Survey Report. Ministry of Land Reform and Management.
 Uprety, L., Dhakal, S., & Basnet, J. (Eds.). (2018). Peasant studies in Nepal. Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra.
 Government of Nepal. (1964). Land Reform Act.
CSRC Nepal: http://csrcnepal.org/
National Land Rights Forum: http://www.nlrfnepal.org/
* A tenant is a peasant who tills another person’s land as tenancy.
** Loopholes included the right to distribute land among relatives, to put land in a company’s name, to make fake donations to educational institutions, and to evict tenants in the name of land degradation.
† These are seats reserved for particular groups or marginalized groups, who can appoint a representative based on a minimum number of votes.
This case was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of its staff, Julien Landry and Rachel Garbary.