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Rural Society

At the time of the Revolution there were about 68,000 villages in Iran. They varied from mere hamlets of a few families up to sizable settlements with populations of 5,000. Social organization in these villages was less stratified than in urban areas, but a hierarchy of political and social relationships and patterns of interaction could be identified. At the top of the village social structure was the largest landowner or owners. In the middle stratum were peasants owning medium to small farms. In the larger villages the middle stratum also included local merchants and artisans. The lowest level, which predominated in most villages, consisted of landless villagers.

Immediately before the Revolution in 1979, Iran's agriculturally productive land totaled about 16.6 million hectares. Approximately one- half of this land was owned by some 200,000 absentee landlords who resided in urban areas. Such owners were represented in the villages by agents who themselves were generally large landowners. The property of the large-scale owners tended to be among the most fertile in the country and generally was used for the production of such cash crops as cotton, sugar beets, fruit, and high-demand vegetables. Agricultural workers were recruited from among the landless villagers and were given either a share of the crop or a cash wage. In some cases, landlords contracted with small peasant owners to farm their fields in return for a share of the crop. Such agreements netted for the landlords from 20 to 70 percent of the harvest, depending upon the crop and the particular inputs provided by the respective parties.

In 1979 about 7 million hectares were divided among approximately 2 million peasant families, whose holdings ranged from less than 1 hectare up to 50. They had acquired ownership as a result of a land reform program implemented between 1962 and 1971. In a typical village a few families owned sufficient land--ten or more hectares--to engage in farming for profit. About 75 percent of the peasant owners, however, had less than 7 hectares, an amount generally insufficient for anything but subsistence agriculture.

Approximately 50 percent of all villagers owned no land. Within individual villages the landless population varied from as little as 10 percent of the total to more than 75 percent. The landless villagers were composed of three distinct social groups: village merchants, village artisans and service workers, and agricultural laborers. Village merchants were found primarily in the larger villages. Their interests tended to coincide with those of the peasant owners, and it was not uncommon for the better-off merchants to acquire agricultural landholdings. Village artisans included blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, and coppersmiths. The increasing availability of urban-manufactured goods throughout the 1960s and 1970s had caused a sharp decline in the numbers of village artisans, although carpenters were still important in the larger villages.

The largest group of landless villagers consisted of agricultural laborers who subsisted by contracting with landlords and larger peasant owners to work in their fields on a daily or seasonal basis. In return for their labor they received a wage, based upon the nature of the work performed, or, in some cases, a share of the crop. This group also provided many of the migrants from rural areas in the 1970s. In some areas the migration rate was so great that landlords were compelled to import foreign workers, primarily unskilled Afghans, to work their lands. The Afghan and other foreign workers were rounded up immediately after the Revolution and expelled from Iran.

Traditionally, in each village the kadkhuda (see Glossary)-- not to be confused with the head of the smallest tribal unit, a clan--was responsible for administering its affairs and for representing the village in relations with governmental authorities and other outsiders. Before land reform, landlords appointed the kadkhudas from among the peasants. Sometimes kadkhudas also served as the landlord's agent in the village, although the tendency was for these two positions to be filled by separate persons. After land reform, the office of kadkhuda became, at least in theory, elective. However, since the kadkhuda was the primary channel through which the government transacted its affairs with the villages, any villager desiring to be a kadkhuda had to demonstrate that he had sufficient political access to government officials in the nearest town to protect the interests of the village. In effect, this meant that kadkhudas were actually selected by government officials. In general, "elected" kadkhudas tended to be among the richest peasant landowners. The land reform and various rural development programs undertaken prior to the Revolution did not produce positive results for the majority of villagers. Economic conditions for most village families stagnated or deteriorated precisely at the time that manufacturing and construction were experiencing an economic boom in urban areas. Consequently, there was a significant increase in rural-to- urban migration. Between the 1966 and the 1976 censuses, a period when the population of the country as a whole was growing at the rate of 2.7 percent per year, most villages actually lost population, and the overall growth rate for the rural population was barely 0.5 percent annually. This migration was primarily of young villagers attracted to cities by the prospect of seasonal or permanent work opportunities. By the late 1970s, this migration had seriously depleted the labor force of many villages. This was an important factor in the relative decline in production of such basic food crops as cereals because many farming families were forced to sow their agricultural land with less labor-intensive crops.

The problems of rural stagnation and agricultural decline had already surfaced in public debate by the eve of the Revolution. During the immediate turmoil surrounding the fall of the monarchy, peasants in many villages took advantage of the unsettled conditions to complete the land redistribution begun under the shah, i.e., they expropriated the property of landlords whom they accused of being un-Islamic. In still other villages, former landlords who had lost property as a result of land reform tried to regain it by flaunting their commitment to Islam and their antagonism to the deposed shah.

Thus, from the beginning the republican government was compelled to tackle the land problem. This proved to be a difficult issue because of the differences among the political elite with respect to the role of private property under Islam. Some officials wanted to legitimize the peasant expropriations as a means of resolving the problem of inequitable land distribution resulting from the shah's land reform program. Such officials generally believed in the principle that the peasant who actually tilled the soil should also be the owner. In contrast, other officials opposed legitimizing land expropriations on the ground that private property is both sanctioned and protected by Islamic law. By 1987 no consensus had been reached, and the question of land redistribution remained unresolved.

The government, however, has demonstrated considerable interest in rural development. A new organization for rebuilding villages, the Crusade for Reconstruction (Jihad-e Sazandegi or Jihad), was created in 1979. It consisted of high-school-educated youth, largely from urban areas, who were charged with such village improvement tasks as providing electrification and piped water, building feeder roads, constructing mosques and bath houses, and repairing irrigation networks.

Data as of December 1987

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