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Originally published March 17, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 17, 2013 at 10:47 PM

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UW professor fights poverty one land plot at a time

For decades, Roy Prosterman has pushed to change land-ownership laws and practices in an effort to lift some of the world's poorest people out of poverty. Through Landesa, the Seattle organization he founded, he has helped millions of people across the globe gain rights to their own land.

Seattle Times business reporter


Roy Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor, almost single-handedly ran his organization from his UW office and his apartment at first. His vision gained steam, and now the nonprofit has 120 employees in four countries.

Seeds of hope, part 2

More from this series:

Part 1: Seattle nonprofit Landesa uses land ownership as a way to bring families in India out of poverty. Read story →

By the time a coconut plantation owner with a gun strapped to his leg came looking for Roy Prosterman, the University of Washington law professor's reputation was well established as a land-rights advocate for the poor.

It was 1987, two decades after Prosterman's work in land rights had begun, when a Manila newspaper reported he was in town.

The land owner "probably hadn't taken the trouble to realize we were not for confiscatory land reform and thought, 'It's another one of these Marxists,'" Prosterman surmised. "We left, decided it was not worth the risk."

Prosterman had reason to take the threat seriously.

Seven years earlier, three of his colleagues, including one of his former law students, were assassinated for similar reasons at a hotel coffee shop in El Salvador. Prosterman would have been with them, but he was on vacation in Canada.

His work sparks strong reactions.

On one hand are landholders who sometimes assume that giving land to the poor means stealing it from them. On another, communists have accused him of using land programs to help the U.S. government root out peasant leaders.

Then there are the people who fight poverty on a global scale, working to eradicate hunger, increase education and reduce overpopulation — people like Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which since 1997 has granted more than $17 million to Landesa, the nonprofit Prosterman founded.

"It's an important positive role the development of land rights around the world is going to have, and that's all a function of Roy Prosterman's work," Gates said.

Although other people — and governments — have tried land reforms, occasionally with success, Gates considers Prosterman the leader. "Nobody is in second place," Gates said.

“Nobody is in second place,” Gates said.

Paying market rates

Courtesy of Landesa

Roy Prosterman, center, speaks with a local farmer and a government official in the 1980s about land rights and productivity in Egypt.

Prosterman's aim beginning in the '60s was to elevate the world's poorest people without instigating violence.

Many governments recognize the political stability that comes with having fewer people in poverty. Some, including the central Chinese government, have invited Prosterman and others at Landesa to interview their poor people to learn how to improve land reform projects.

To avoid squabbles, Landesa advocates giving the poor land from the government or from landowners who have been paid market rates.

The nonprofit has found that even a small amount of land — about the size of a tennis court, including the green edges — significantly boosts families' nutrition and education efforts.

Land security also becomes an indirect form of population control because better conditions mean poor families have fewer babies as "insurance" against the ones expected to die from malnutrition.

With land ownership or decades-long leases, people take better care of their property and use it to produce income for the long term.

For example, under such terms, farmers have the incentive to terrace the land for irrigation, build greenhouses and trellises, plant orchards and dig fish ponds.

Prosterman met an Indian woman last year who recently received a microplot and already had planted a row of teakwood saplings.

"Her investment horizon has gone from essentially zero to multi-decades," Prosterman said.

Worries about Pakistan

Roy Prosterman

Landesa's founder arrived at the University of Washington in the '60s and quickly started lifelong work on land rights.

Childhood: Grew up an only child on the South Side of Chicago. Caught travel bug early, when his mother took him on summer trips to the Rockies and other dry locales to alleviate his hay fever.

Education: University of Chicago undergraduate, Harvard Law School.

Early career: As lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell in the '60s, worked on the "salad oil scandal," in which a borrower scammed banks into lending money against large stocks of salad oil that turned out to be water.

Move to Seattle: Visited Seattle during a cross-continent train trip (Prosterman does not drive). Met the head of the UW law school and became a law professor there within months.

Land rights: Hired by USAID after writing law review article advocating that land be bought — rather than taken — from landowners and given to the poor. The agency wanted him to try out his approach to land reform in Vietnam.

Science fiction: Published science-fiction short stories in the '70s related to international conflict.

Not a landowner: Prosterman has rented the same University District apartment since the '70s. "When I first came here, I looked at a large house on the shore of Lake Washington that was $25,000, so I sometimes regret it," he said.

Retirement: Although he has retired as Landesa's CEO, he continues to teach law at the UW and visit China, India and other countries to see government officials and work on Landesa's programs.

Now 77, Prosterman visits India at least once a year and China about three times. He focuses on countries with large numbers of the world's most impoverished people to maximize Landesa's impact.

"They're the worst off," the professor said. "They're the ones whose kids are most likely to die in infancy and childhood, and they're the ones, too, whose teenage sons are most likely to be embittered and angry and join some form of organization that gives them an outlet for their anger."

In India, Landesa has worked with governments to provide land and land rights to more than a million families since 2001.

In China, its advice led to 85 million farm families receiving long-term leases. Landesa hopes to add millions more families, which it believes would reduce China's high number of protests, riots and mass demonstrations.

But Prosterman worries most about Pakistan.

If young boys do not stop going to extremist training grounds there, he said, "we are absolutely during this generation or the next generation going to face some horrific consequences."

"We don't want this to be the last millennium during which human civilization is around in a meaningful way," he added.

He recently wrote a land-reform article at, an English-language news site for Pakistan. It garnered positive comments, but also a typical detractor, who wrote: "Feudal Power is not the problem. [I]f I own a piece of ancestral land, there is no way that I am going to give it to any one."

Started in Vietnam

Prosterman first heard about land reforms gone wrong at the University of Chicago, where he was an undergraduate in the early '50s and spent an extra year before he was old enough to attend Harvard Law School.

During that year — he was 19 at the time — Prosterman read mostly French literature and ancient history and learned about the Gracchi brothers during the decline of the Roman Republic.

The Gracchis tried to take land from the rich to help the poor, and died for their efforts.

"It gets into some very important and interesting issues about how you can effectively carry out a land-reform program that actually ends up with reform and not with civil war or major conflict," Prosterman said.

His first look at extreme poverty came in the '60s, when Sullivan & Cromwell, the high-powered New York law firm for which he worked, sent him to Liberia for a railroad project.

It was at Prosterman's next job, as a UW professor, that he became involved: He was in his 30s and had just made a splash by suggesting in a law-review article that confiscating land for the poor was a recipe for violence.

Prosterman suggested instead paying landowners market rates for their land, the way governments in the United States do when they build new roads and other public necessities.

The Vietnam War was on, and some people at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, D.C., thought providing land to tenant farmers in South Vietnam might quell the unrest.

The agency hired Prosterman to research whether his idea for land reform could work there, leading to a program that gave land to a million farmers. Rice production rose by 30 percent and Viet Cong recruiting dropped by 80 percent before Communists took South Vietnam, according to USAID.

Detractors say that while Prosterman worked on land reform in Vietnam, the U.S. government violently rooted out peasant leaders.

They suspect a connection between his land program and U.S. violence there, and later in the Philippines and El Salvador. One said Prosterman wrote the "legal basis" for the CIA's Phoenix Program, under which civilians suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong were reportedly tortured and murdered.

"I categorically deny those allegations," Prosterman said. "I can't believe this nonsense is still floating around."

Connections in high places

However, Prosterman does spend considerable time with people in power.

Over the decades, he has known Hubert Humphrey, been bowled over by Mother Teresa's "aura of holiness," worked on the nonprofit Hunger Project with singer John Denver, become disenchanted with Ferdinand Marcos and shared ideas with Nobel Peace Prize winner and microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus.

Prosterman has been nominated for the Nobel Prize so many times he loses count. Although the nominations are supposedly secret, and Prosterman does not want to know about them — or even talk about them when asked — he sometimes finds out.

"I see the chances of actually getting it as being probably one in a million," he said.

One reason Prosterman still travels so much, despite being semiretired from Landesa, is because he has close connections and long-running relationships with top government officials in China, India and elsewhere.

His first meeting with China's "father of rural reform," Du Runsheng, was meant to last an hour but stretched into 10 hours over two days.

"It's not all smooth sailing," Prosterman said. "We're quite sure he was going to provide long-term land rights," but the plan was derailed after the 1989 student demonstrations and killings at Tiananmen Square.

Now even departing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao says he favors land rights, but political corruption means peasants' property is taken for shopping malls and other projects — which helps fuel protests today.

Worked alone for decades

One major shift in Landesa's efforts involves women.

Prosterman said he is sorry he did not realize sooner that giving land to couples or women has a bigger impact than giving it to men.

"A husband controlling the same amount of resources, yes, much or most of it will go also for basic needs, but it will be net of money for cigarettes, gambling and Coca-Cola," Prosterman said.

Now Landesa works to put women on land titles with their husbands.

It also is designing programs in India and Kenya to raise awareness about women's rights.

In India, Landesa is wrapping up a pilot program funded by the Nike Foundation and a private donor that teaches adolescent girls how to garden. The goal is to make them financially attractive enough to their families that they will not be married off young or sold into prostitution. (See Sunday story.)

Although Landesa now has 120 employees in four countries, for two decades Prosterman worked almost single-handedly in his UW office and an apartment he has rented since 1979.

Laura Lee Grace, a longtime friend and supporter, remembers when she realized how much he was doing alone.

"There was no fundraising activity, no project-planning support, no sounding board and, furthermore, he paid partly out of his own pocket for his fieldwork trips to Asia and South America and beyond," she recalled. "What is worse, those trips were confined to his vacation dates. ... I was stunned."

She encouraged Prosterman to formalize parts of the organization, and she joined him for a trip to the Philippines. She is the one who decided they should leave after the coconut landlord turned up.

"I told Roy he had years of work ahead to do for the world, and that it was senseless to risk any harm," Grace said. "Roy grumbled a little, but agreed."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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