In 1951, officers of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gathered in Rome to contemplate their founders’ mission: to serve the decolonizing nations of the world by helping peasants farm maintain control over their own land. That same year, the organization had relocated away from its previous headquarters in Washington, D.C.: a move away from the halls of power, but toward the emerging power centers of New Delhi, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, Jakarta, and Manila—and symbolically, at least, toward Mexico City, Santiago, Antigua, and Lima.
Eight years earlier, international delegates had assembled in Hot Springs, Virginia, to spell out the work of the future United Nations. That same year, British, American, and Indian soldiers clashed with the soldiers of the Third Reich, whose land settlement policies were framed against the philosophy of lebensraum, or “living space”—the conceit that a growing German population would require more land, the subjugation of other peoples, and the creation of farms in colonized territory where German peasants would settle. Meanwhile, millions of Bengalis were starving in the latest of the famines that had plagued the subcontinent under British rule; up to three million perished in 1943.
F.D.R had recently declared a worldwide “freedom from want” as an American value, and the designers of the United Nations would try to imagine a world of plenty, where Indians ate as well as Britons—even if it meant that Britons would be required to make sacrifices. Indeed, advocates of redistribution at the UN’s FAO would labor to create something unique in history to sustain that vision: an international organization largely concerned with land, invested with an unprecedented power to advise governments around the world and with the authority to construct grand plans for centering land as a resource for the world’s people. Embodying this remarkable mandate, the FAO was given the Latin motto Fiat Panis, or “Let There Be Bread.”
What made such a radical conversation possible? Many of the delegates who congregated in the 1943 FAO Quebec conferences had participated in a wide-ranging wartime debate in Britain about hunger, agriculture, racism, and opportunity. Social scientists such as Doreen Warriner argued that political stability would emerge only when empires agreed to surrender their land. Warriner and her colleagues would spend the years immediately after the war pressing for a global government of land; the FAO enshrined their ideas. At the time, China’s Communist Party had already begun an era of land redistribution focused on creating family farms; Guatemala and Egypt would soon pass land redistribution schemes modeled on those in Ireland, whereby landlords would be compensated for land turned over to peasant farmers.
Because of the United Nations’ obligation to support member nations in the developing world, administrators at the FAO based their strategy on the historical arc of peasant struggles for territory, not on a commitment to capitalism, economic growth, or some other abstraction (even while those abstractions sometimes entered discussions about the consequences of land redistribution). Later, the Washington Consensus would dominate world affairs, but in 1951, the conversation that mattered most in many parts of the world was taking shape in Rome.
To many midcentury observers, world events since 1881—from the rent strikes and related events in Ireland, India, and Britain, and their corollaries in Mexico, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe—had united the distant corners of the decaying British Empire into a single march for justice. There had been peasant uprisings in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, where peasant-led rebellions turned over haciendas—the colonial ranches of the aristocracy—to indigenous peoples and rural laborers; in the Philippines, where the United States presided over a land redistribution to break up ancient estates and create small plots of land; in Soviet Russia, where the state seized large and medium-scale farms in the name of the peasant; and in Taiwan, Japan, and countless other nations.
Land redistribution was a central focus of peasant movements in Ireland, India, and other places where racial underclasses had been denied the possibility of owning land for centuries, laboring as underpaid, uneducated tenants or sharecroppers. Wherever these movements erupted into organized revolutions, redistribution of land was a primary demand. If decolonization succeeded, the descendants of enslaved persons and sharecroppers and tenants might thus become landowners in their own right.
Administrators at the FAO came to believe that their institution might guide the coming revolution in land toward the most efficient and rational outcome possible. In their view, the FAO would house a new kind of bureaucracy—an international government charged with challenging the traditional elites of the world. Civil servants and social scientists would become the servants of peasant revolution.
When the FAO’s Edmundo Flores visited farmers in a remote village in the Bolivian Andes in 1952, he found peasants there quoting the slogans associated with Mexico: “Viva Zapata! Land and Freedom! Death to the landlords!” At first, Flores thought the slogans were evidence of Marxism, but eventually, he discovered another answer: tiny movie houses had started up in the villages, and among the favorite films were Hollywood reels that retold the story of the Mexican Revolution. Cast in the role of Emiliano Zapata, Marlon Brando took up the cause of the native rights that should have belonged to peasants, battling evil landlords along the way.