LAC Main Seminar Series: Democracy and Land Redistribution: Urban elites in the making of agrarian politics in Brazil and beyond

Convener: David Doyle, University of Oxford

Speaker: Matias López, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID)


This study shows how land reforms in democratic polities result from distributive games played mainly by urban actors pursuing their own interests. With urbanization, the poor pose multiple threats to elites: they can organize politically, strengthen Left-wing parties, foster criminality and revolt. All the former represent important social and political externalities to urban elites. I argue that conservative parties that cater to these elites have incentives to endorse land reforms under such redistributive pressures because distributing rural land is a less costly alternative compared to investing in welfare measures targeted to the urban poor. By implementing land reform, urban elites outsource the costs of redistribution to landed elites. I demonstrate these motivations and the process of elite decision making in the case of land reform in Brazil (1985-2022) using data from archives, interviews, and surveys with elites. Relying on these data, my identification strategy applies a Fisherian p-value framework to process tracing. The design estimates the frequency of observations under different null-hypotheses. I then assess the external validity of the argument by focusing on the land reforms of Chile (1962-1973) and South Africa (1994-2022).

Paper: Democracy and Land Redistribution: urban elites, parties and the poor in the making of agrarian politics 


matias lopez

Matias López is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID), with previous postdoc appointments at Uppsala and Lund in Sweden and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (2019). His research focuses on democratic survival in contexts of high inequality, how elites' perceptions of and reactions to the externalities of inequality affects distributive outcomes; and the politics of land reform, with focus on Latin America and South Africa.