Land Tenure

Turkey Table of Contents

From the time of Atatürk, it has been generally recognized that land reform would speed rural development. Most attention focused on land redistribution--a highly charged political issue. People who favored land reform pointed to the higher yield achieved by owner-operators and attacked absentee landlords. Opponents pointed out that land reform would not solve the difficulties of the rural population because there was insufficient land to establish farms large enough to support families. Whatever the merits of land reform proposals, large landowners effectively blocked most action, and governments often lacked the will to implement those measures that were enacted. Moreover, landless peasants continued to migrate to the cities in sufficient numbers to reduce the pressure for reform.

Historically, Turkey has been a land inhabited by independent peasants. The Ottoman state restricted the growth of a landowning class; and in the early years of Ottoman rule, the central government retained ownership of most of the land, which was leased to farmers under relatively secure tenure arrangements. To maintain farms large enough to support a family and a pair of oxen, the Ottomans exempted land from Muslim inheritance policy, a practice subsequently reversed as the state reinstituted Islamic inheritance practices, sold land to gain revenues, and authorized land transfers. These changes favored the growth of a class of large landowners during the latter decades of the empire. By 1923 landownership had shifted in favor of a small group with large holdings. However, during the republican period land concentration declined, a development that perhaps reflected the effects of division through inheritance or the attraction of alternative investments. At the same time, the opening of new areas to cultivation made land available to those farmers without holdings.

Because no comprehensive cadastral surveys have been carried out, landownership data are still poor in the mid-1990s, but a general picture of ownership patterns emerges. According to the 1980 agricultural census, about 78 percent of the farms consisted of five hectares or less and together accounted for 60 percent of farmland. About 23 percent of the farms were between five and twenty hectares in size, accounting for another 18 percent of the land. Fewer than 4 percent of the farms covered more than twenty hectares, although these occupied more than 15 percent of the farmland. Few farms exceeded 100 hectares. Although experts believed that landownership was more concentrated than data on farm size implied, it was clear that Turkey had more equal distribution of land than did many other developing countries.

Some observers estimate that, despite widespread leasing and sharecropping, a majority of farms are owner operated. However, tenure patterns vary significantly among regions, reflecting different geographical conditions and historical developments. In general, Islamic inheritance practices, which establish set shares for each male and female child, cause fragmented holdings and make leasing and sharecropping extensive. Joint ownership of land is common, and even very small farms normally consist of several noncontiguous plots. Farmers often rent out some of their own land while leasing or sharecropping other plots in order to till areas reasonably close together and large enough to support their families. Owners of small plots may rent out their land and work on other farms or in town. Owners of large holdings, sometimes whole villages, usually rent out all or most of their land. Between one-tenth and one-fifth of farmers lease or sharecrop the land they till, and landless rural families also work as farm laborers.

Tenancy arrangements are many and complex. Some leaseholds can be inherited, but many tenants lack sufficient security to make a long-term commitment to the soil they till. Sharecroppers generally receive about half of the crop, with the owner supplying inputs such as seed and fertilizer. Grazing rights are often held by groups rather than individuals. Many villages have common pastures open to the village herd. Cultivated areas have expanded as individuals appropriate village pastureland to grow grains, a process that not only has caused village strife but also has worsened erosion.

After 1950 the commercialization of agriculture accelerated changes in land-use and tenure patterns. Many of the large holdings on the coastal plains of the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean Sea were converted to modern farms, often benefiting from irrigation projects and specializing in high-value fruits, or industrial crops. Landless families supplied the labor for such modern farms, while sharecroppers and owners of small farms tilled the adjacent land. In these more fertile areas, a five-hectare farm might produce as much income as a twenty-hectare farm in the semiarid central Anatolian Plateau. Southeastern Anatolia, one of the poorest regions of Turkey, included feudal-style landlords who controlled entire villages and many landless families.

Although Atatürk had stressed the need for upper and lower limits on landownership, the latter to halt the fragmentation process, little in the way of effective land reform had been carried out by the early 1990s. Nevertheless, more than 3 million hectares had been distributed to landless farmers between the 1920s and 1970, most of it state land.

The problems of land tenure remain, and some have worsened. Many farms are too small to support a family and too fragmented for efficient cultivation. Tenancy arrangements foster neither long-term soil productivity nor the welfare of tenants. In many areas, the rural poor are becoming poorer while land better suited to grazing continues to be converted to grain fields. At the same time, however, many large landholdings have been turned into productive modern farms that contribute to the country's improved agricultural performance. Major irrigation projects in the Euphrates River Valley and elsewhere offer the prospect of increasing the supply of productive land. The declining population growth rate has reduced the pressure for land reform, and industrialization offers an alternative for landless farm workers, who prefer city life to that of rural areas.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress