Landlessness is the quality or state of being without land, access to land, or having private ownership of land. Although overlapping considerably, landlessness is not a necessary condition of poverty. In modern capitalist societies, individuals may not necessarily privately own land yet still possess the capital to obtain an excess of what is necessary to sustain themselves, such as wealthy who live in expensive high-rise apartments in major urban centers. As such, landlessness may not exist as an immediate threat to their survival or quality of life. This minority of landless individuals have sometimes been referred to as the "landless rich." However, for the majority of landless people, including the urban poor and those displaced into conditions of rural to urban migration, their condition of landlessness is also one of impoverishment, being without the capital to meet their basic necessities nor the land to grow their own food, keep animals, or sustain themselves. During times of economic prosperity in modern capitalist societies, the liabilities of landlessness may not be noticeable, especially to the wealthy, but during times of economic failure and rising unemployment, the liabilities of landlessness become more visible.
Landlessness has since been identified as "one of the main causes of poverty amongst Indigenous peoples, particularly Indigenous women, making land rights critical to the alleviation of Indigenous poverty." Indigenous people throughout the world have been displaced from their traditional lands as a result of settler colonialism, corporate imperialism, war, logging and mining, and even land conservation efforts, which has increased their social marginalization, lack of access to basic social services, and chronic poverty. According to colonial logics, Indigenous people were not able to exercise their territorial sovereignty. Indigenous peoples in the United States without a territory or a reservation, such as the Oklahoma Choctaws and the Winnemem Wintu, are nations without a land base, which affects their ability to assert sovereignty and self-determination while also leading directly to the loss of language, culture, and traditions. Māori in New Zealand have recognized how Indigenous homelessness is inextricably connected with landlessness as a result of the colonial acquisition of Indigenous resources to support European settlement.
[Developing countries] During the last decade, high concentration of land holdings continued in many developing countries, especially in Latin America, and was associated with a high degree of rural poverty despite a high level of per capita income. Some African countries, (Kenya and Malawi) which opted for freehold titles in land, experienced emergence of absentee ownership and landlessness. In the Near East, in Latin America, and in some countries of Southeast Asia, land settlements continue to be more prominent than redistribution of privately owned land. However, the land settlement programmes have been able to benefit only a small portion of tenants and landless workers. Also, the pattern of growth within agriculture in Latin America adversely affected the landless and marginal farmers.
Tenure reforms and parcelization of the erstwhile big landed estates of Asia and the Near East have resulted in wider diffusion of ownership; this has not only encouraged greater self-realization but also conferred the status of citizenship on those who were previously tenants, landless labourers or small farmers. Unfortunately, the individualization of tenure and the gradual transformation of land into a marketable commodity have been accompanied by a divorce between ownership of land and use of land (as witnessed in the case of tenancy), and divorce between management of land and labour on land. Many of these countries have therefore witnessed the phenomenon of a rising class of landless labourers and small farmers who are either forced to work for wages on the relatively big farms owned by rural, resident, non-cultivating landowners, or, in the absence of adequate opportunities for earning their livelihood, such resource-poor households must necessarily remain poor and are forced to overuse the environmental resource base in order to survive.
Rough estimates for 1981 indicate that out of the agricultural population of 1.3 billion in the developing countries (excluding China), 745 million were small farmers, another 167 million were landless labourers. Between 1970 and 1981 there was an estimated addition of 124 million to these two categories, under the assumption of unchanged proportions of small holders and landless to total agricultural population. The bulk of these additions were in the Far East (75 million). This has been due to the increasing scarcity of agricultural land, as a consequence of higher growth rates of agricultural population than that of area under arable and permanent crops. Between 1970 and 1980, land per person in agriculture declined by 12% in Africa, 11% in the Near East and 9% in the Far East; it increased in Latin America. It is in the context of increasing land scarcity and landlessness that effective implementation of agrarian reform measures, coupled with measures to increase land productivity of small holders and commitment of resources for meeting the employment needs of the landless and mini-farmers, assumes even more importance in the 1980s than in the 1970s.
With existing patterns of land distribution, the number of smallholders and landless households in developing countries is expected to increase by some 50 million to 220 million by the year 2000. These groups represent about 75% of the agricultural households in developing countries.