UW professor of law advocates property rights worldwide

Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman Photo by Matthew Toles

At the UW School of Law, the seminar Legal Problems of Economic Development is co-taught by an unassuming emeritus professor named Roy Prosterman.

His resume on the law school’s faculty page is extensive, reflecting decades of teaching and numerous publications. Within his biography, a startling fact emerges: Prosterman has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice for his global work in land reform aimed at alleviating poverty and other associated legal issues.

“I’m more in awe of him today than I was when I first met him in 1986,” said Tim Hanstad, long-time colleague and friend of Prosterman. “He’s humble, filled with integrity … and may be the best-kept secret at UW.”

Prosterman began his work more than 40 years ago. After attending the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School, Prosterman moved to Seattle in 1965 to teach at the UW. The next year saw the beginning of Prosterman’s endeavor.

“One of my law students … showed me a law review article … [that] argued Latin American land reform could be accomplished by tracing titles back, rather than paying compensation to landlords,” Prosterman said. “I thought, ‘Gee, it sounds as though that’s a recipe for civil war.’”

Prosterman’s notion was to treat land reform like eminent domain, where full compensation at market value was given to property owners before redistributing the land to poverty-stricken residents for higher social purposes. Such reform would be both peaceful and productive, substantially raising the standard of living. 

Prosterman published an article of his own, “Land Reform in Latin America Without a Revolution,” in the UW law review, and within a few months, he was in South Vietnam working as a land law consultant investigating land reform, though he had only brief exposures to rural issues and poverty.

“The South Vietnamese government wanted to redistribute formerly French-owned land they hadn’t done anything with,” Prosterman said.

The government provided nearly a million acres of land to six million people, and rice production went up by 30 percent, with Viet Cong recruitment falling by 80 percent in the redistributed area. Such results of increased production and greater social stability are common when land ownership is given to the poor, according to Prosterman, who points toward the fact that in the Soviet Union, private plots accounted for 3 percent of the land but were estimated to produce anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of the food. The success even went on after North Vietnam conquered the South.

“The government in Hanoi invited us back to look at decollectivization when family farms in the South outproduced collective farms in the North,” Prosterman said. “The regime became more pragmatic, decollectivized, and we spent five weeks traveling, seeing the countryside all over, and farmers were far happier.”

This initial venture in land reform coincided with development across the world in former colonies and young nations. Various countries began inviting Prosterman to aid them in their efforts at land reform. So, often armed only with a research associate, and at times using his vacation time and personal funds, he embarked across the globe.

For example, a Seattle organization with a sister city in China extended an invitation to him when China began decollectivizing between 1979 and 1984. Small, noncontiguous plots were divvied up between peasants, eventually resulting in 85 million families receiving land. 

“[What happens] often depends on what the government wants to do,” Prosterman said. “For instance, a center in India can provide funding and to some degree legislate, but the go-ahead has to come from individual states, so it’s a much more complicated process.”

The center Prosterman referenced is run by Landesa, the nonprofit he founded after two decades of working essentially solo. The difficulty in providing legal advice and aid as an individual became apparent, and now Landesa employs 120 people, with five offices in India, one in Beijing, and two others, with talk of opening an office in Nairobi, Prosterman said. Africa presents a unique challenge, but according to Prosterman, there are negotiations occurring over tribal lands in Kenya, and Landesa colleagues have performed field work in the area.

“The field work and research is one of the four main steps of the process Landesa undertakes,” Prosterman said. “The government also has to invite or at least tolerate us when we look for large concentrations of landless rural poor.”

The succeeding steps consist of advocating for reform measures to the government, conducting small pilot or larger programs, possibly receiving budget allocations, and drafting legislation and policies, before reaching implementation.

Prosterman retired as CEO of Landesa several years ago, and Hanstad, who first met Prosterman as a law student in 1986, took over as CEO. Prosterman still sits on the board of directors and is titled as chairman emeritus.

“Our priorities are to help governments create, change, and implement laws and policies that advance land rights for the poor and for women,” Hanstad said.

Renee Giovarelli, executive director of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, has worked with Prosterman for years, starting as his research assistant.

“It was really exciting and terrifying,” Giovarelli said, “as he’s quite the intellect and very intense about this stuff … but he always listens, and he himself isn’t intimidating and values ideas.”

Women’s rights began accelerating as a separate issue when the reality that land rights, when issued to a family, do not always translate into an improved standard of living. “Women’s rights tend to be ruled more by customs,” Giovarelli said. “There’s no real control over produce or income for that produce sometimes, even though women do most of the work.”

For example, Giovarelli spoke of the fact that women in Kyrgyzstan were hesitant to go to the village elders for arbitration, since the elders were all men. Installing women as elders could change that.

“Across the board, across culture and religion, there are a hundred barriers, and so our focus is on the key things and what matters,” Giovarelli said. 

Giovarelli said she’s seen improvement, but it’s a long road.

Such changes take a while as they aren’t welcomed by all, like much of Prosterman’s work. Several associates of his were killed by an irate landowner years ago, and he has received death threats. 

“He is not ideological, but rather pragmatic in his approach to providing opportunity for the world’s poorest people,” Hanstad said. “Just spend a week with him, let alone 27 years, and you’ll see that those who have labeled him as either a communist or a right-wing ideologue are completely misinformed.” 

Despite controversy, the original goal of land reform still motivates Prosterman to go abroad up to four times a year for weeks at a time. With a small amount of time spent teaching as professor emeritus at the UW, and the majority at Landesa, Prosterman devotes the remainder to doing fieldwork, even at the age of 77.

“I can’t imagine retiring,” Prosterman said. “I’m not a very good golfer.”

Reach reporter Garrett Black at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @garrettjblack

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