When an India-born, Spanish-speaking Chinese lawyer from Seattle starts an organization dedicated to enabling landless farmers in Central America (starting in Guatemala, no less!) to buy their own land and achieve economic stability, and then writes a book about it, as a rule that’s a book I’m going to read.
And read it I did. Now to share a few reflections on it. Before the book gets to his later work in Latin America, it begins with a brief autobiography of his childhood and young adult years. Li’s upbringing was an eventful one, with moves every few years between countries all over the world. Among those countries was Guatemala, where Li’s family lived from 1956 to 1959, when Li was a young boy. Many years later, in 1982, Li found himself returning to Guatemala as a Seattle-based lawyer haunted by a big, audacious idea that emerged after hearing a guest speaker at his church, a native of Argentina, who made a parenthetical comment about the spending habits of American churches and the needs of the landless poor in Central America. That audacious idea was this: finding a way for poor, landless farmers to buy their own land as a path out of poverty.
Central America was being ripped apart at that time with seemingly intractable civil wars largely over the issue of land rights. In Guatemala, the war had been underway for more than 20 years at that point, and would continue for 14 more. The Reagan administration had announced $300 million in arms support to the governments of Central America fighting against leftist guerrillas. Li, latching onto that parenthetical comment he’d heard, wanted to know if Christians in the U.S. could divert money away from church building projects and instead use that money – say, $300 million of it – to help poor, indigenous farmers buy their own land. This, the idea went, would sustainably meet the true needs of these farmers, would put the guerrillas out of business, and would render the need for $300 million in weapons unnecessary. Having researched the history of land rights in the region, and the conflicts and injustices stemming from the status quo, Li summarized his conclusion this way:
It all boiled down to this essential fact: farmers anywhere in the world would far prefer to own their land than to lease it. The motivation to work hard for one’s family will always be diluted by the insecurity of not owning one’s own farmland. Ownership was the key. The poor must be able to own the land. There must be a way to let them get on the land, work hard, and repay the price through their harvests.
This conclusion eventually gave rise to a nonprofit organization called Agros International. And the experiment – providing a way for landless farmers to buy their own land – seems to have worked.
As Li details in the book, Agros has since expanded beyond Guatemala and into El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua, providing loans to landless farmers, enabling them to purchase their own land. Agros’ agricultural experts also provide technical training, ensuring these new landowners can make the most of their land with concern for economic and environmental sustainability – both of which are essential for long-term stability. According to Agros’ annual report, in 2012 there were 139 families who completed their loan repayments, six communities that “graduated,” for a total of nearly 10,000 individuals served.
Li’s first trips to explore the feasibility of a private land ownership initiative took place right about the time I was born in Guatemala in late 1982. So it was really interesting to read his accounts of life in the country at that time, with its accompanying hopes, fears, and dreams. It was also fun to come across a number of familiar names and places that are part of Li’s inspiring story of how Agros came to be, and what it has become.
But there was one aspect of the book I found problematic, and though it’s not the main point of the book and it doesn’t discredit the rest of what’s commendable in the book, it bears mentioning in a bit of detail. During Li’s early days laying the groundwork for Agros, he developed close relationships with members of the administration (and church) of then-president Rios Montt, who was convicted of genocide in May of this year before the verdict was annulled. Montt was and is a controversial figure; some Guatemalans consider him a genocidal monster while others maintain he has simply been badly maligned.
In the book, Li writes about the murkiness and complexity of the war, and the fact that varying parties held (and continue to hold) diametrically opposed views of what actually occurred and the extent to which different parties were responsible for a series of well-documented massacres committed against civilians. For his part, Li considered Montt a trustworthy partner, though he admits Montt was likely interested in getting behind Agros because “he had needed an idea and a program like this to give his government credibility.”
Additionally, Li says he liked the idea of having the benefit of the government’s support – to build roads when they needed them, to transport them by military helicopter, to provide armed protection in guerrilla-controlled areas, and to cut through bureaucratic red tape. Anyone who has experience in a developing country – and especially in a war-torn one – will empathize with these desires. But anyone with this kind of experience must also recognize the tradeoffs. For one thing, such coziness could threaten to erode, if not destroy, the trust among those they’re seeking to serve. In the end, it seems Li opted not to partner with the government, though for reasons beyond his control. Before such a partnership could take shape, Montt had been removed from office the same way he assumed it – by coup d’etat – and Agros’ friends of goodwill were no longer in high places. (To its credit, Agros does seem to have learned valuable lessons through its early flirtations with political power; today one of the organization’s framing principles is to remain “apolitical.”)
Despite these concerns, what Li initiated was a daring, beautiful, seemingly impossible thing. In a protracted civil war fought largely over land rights, Li decided to go to one of the hottest spots of the war to address the problem at the heart of the conflict, but to do so through voluntary land purchase, not through bombing. That’s truly remarkable, and it’s to be commended. While we may second guess some of Li’s early decisions, it’s important to remember this was taking place during a confusing, tumultuous time. And the landless farmers he and his colleagues were committing to walk beside were precisely those caught in the crossfire between two armies.
The irony of Agros’ role in all of this is that like the guerrillas, they were intent on land reform – albeit privately and legally, without resorting to weapons. The end goal, you could say – indigenous farmers on their own land – was largely the same. Yet the different means threatened the guerrillas, who needed all the allies they could get for their supposedly “righteous” cause. The military, meanwhile, representing totalitarian governments that had long opposed meaningful land reform or redistribution of any kind, found themselves in favor of Agros’ work for precisely the reason their enemies opposed it – it provided a meaningful alternative for indigenous people to guerrilla warfare. The paradox of all this is instructive into the true nature of conflicts that on the surface appear to be clear-cut.
What I most appreciated about Buy This Land is Li’s willingness to invite us as readers into the mess of the process. Had he been intent on using this book merely to pat himself on the back for founding a remarkable, inspiring nonprofit, he would have been careful to omit a great many details of fumbling and missteps along the way. But he willingly included them, and the book is stronger for it – as is my appreciation and gratitude for the work of Agros. As Li writes, “Working with the rural poor in the world’s poorest countries will always require a new set of eyes and fresh thinking.” This kind of humility and teachability – two fruits of a deep and abiding love for God and neighbor – will go a long way, and may even cover, shall we say, a multitude of missteps.