Celebrating the Life and Work of Peter Bloch (1944-2015)

Peter C. Bloch, who died on May 27, 2015, is remembered by his friends and colleagues for his commitment to international research and consulting on land reform. Bloch was a UW-Madison Senior Research Scientist and a CREECA Faculty Associate. Bloch came to UW-Madison in 1983 as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Economics and worked with a range of UW departments until his retirement in 2010.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bloch taught in the Department of Economics and the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology but did his most significant work through UW-Madison’s Land Tenure Center (LTC), which promotes equitable and sustainable land stewardship around the world. “The ethic that animated the Land Tenure Center was the rights of smallholders,” explains Jim Delehanty, a friend and colleague of Bloch at LTC, and currently the Executive Director of UW-Madison’s Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS).

Bloch’s early academic work focused on development and labor policies in Latin America. He taught at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and at Grinnell College before relocating to UW-Madison to join his wife, Marianne (Mimi) Bloch, now Professor Emerita of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education. After arriving in Madison, Peter quickly transitioned from a labor economist to a land economist focused on development, joining LTC in 1984.

By the 1980s, LTC was expanding its work from Latin American to Africa. Bloch first worked with LTC on projects in French West Africa, where he was able to apply his B.A. in French Literature from Harvard University.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, attention to land access issues shifted to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the 1990s. “As the former Soviet Union opened up, Peter, who had an adventurous spirit anyway, got very interested and was perfectly willing to be involved in writing up proposals to work in Central Asia, and then to go over and do the work,” Delehanty recalls. Bloch worked in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Albania throughout the 1990s.

Along with Delehanty and others from LTC, Bloch mediated among competing land interests that emerged during the transition from state-owned land to private ownership following the collapse of the Soviet Union. LTC researchers worked with funders such as the World Bank, government officials in each country, land managers and surveyors, and local farmers to determine feasible and equitable systems for parceling and distributing large plots of land that had been state-owned. Navigating competing interests and behind-the-scenes politics was not easy work by any means.

“It’s a complicated kind of work, and each county presents its own complications,” Delehanty explains, elaborating on the unique context of Central Asia. “One of the most interesting challenges in the former Soviet Union that Peter hadn’t encountered in Africa or anywhere else was the scale of operation. For example, you had a tractor that’s designed to efficiently plow 1,000 acres of land. You didn’t have a whole bunch of small tractors that smallholders could use to plow 10 acres of land. The supply chains were all designed for massive state and collective farms.”

It was also difficult to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens. Mimi remembers, “There were many, many ways of subverting the process. The people with the least power to control the process were generally not given the best land.” In spite of myriad obstacles, “Peter was always determined to fight the good fight,” Delehanty emphasizes. Mimi adds, “I don’t think his principles wavered. He would do his very best to represent the data and also make sure that the interests of those with the least power would be reflected in the research.”

More recently, Bloch contributed to the UW-Madison Partnership with Nazarbayev University, part of an effort to establish a world-class, English-language research university in Kazakhstan. Sharing his expertise, Bloch helped plan a curriculum for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and lectured students on the importance of a liberal arts education.

Uli Schamiloglu, professor of Turkic and Central Eurasian Studies at UW-Madison, worked with Bloch and traveled with him to Kazakhstan in 2011.

“Peter was urbane, witty, wise, and a charming travel companion,” Schamiloglu remembers. “When he decided to pursue a law degree in his retirement, I also understood his passion for social justice. Peter will be sorely missed.”

Courtesy UW African Studies Program
Courtesy UW African Studies Program

To celebrate and carry forward Bloch’s work, Jim Delehanty, Mimi Bloch and Malcolm Childress (another friend and colleague of Peter) organized “Land Resource Challenges around the World: A Workshop in Memory of Peter Bloch.” The Workshop took place September 25, 2015 and was jointly sponsored by IRIS and the Bloch family. Seventy-one people attended the Workshop, which hosted lectures about contemporary issues in land resource management.

The organizers hoped the Bloch Memorial Workshop would revive the types of public-private partnerships that LTC has managed. “The Workshop was meant to have some memories of Peter, but also be an academic conference that looked forward to remark on the continuing and major importance of these issues, and the long history of this type of work on campus,” Mimi explains. She continues, “UW-Madison has a ton of expertise and history in these areas. The Workshop was meant to rebuild research connections and magnify what has been done so that we could revitalize some interest.”

Issues discussed at the Bloch Memorial Workshop included the impact of global warming on land economics; new developments in land registration systems and technology; women’s access to land; the tensions between parks and agriculture and between biome diversity and food production; the impact of urbanization on rural lands; and agricultural advances in breeding, herbicides and insecticides.

The organizers were pleased with the range of land resources research represented at the Workshop. “They’re doing really good work and many of them on the sorts of themes that were dear to Peter,” Delehanty says of the people attending. He echoes Mimi’s hope that the Bloch Memorial Workshop will reinvigorate Peter’s brand of interdisciplinary land tenure research at UW-Madison. “They’re not doing research in the kind of institutional setting that the Land Tenure Center presented. But the time for that may come again. The point is to keep the spirit alive and to keep the work going, and I think the Workshop at least got people familiar with the history of land tenure research on our campus,” Delehanty says.

Ultimately, Peter Bloch possessed the combination of idealism and pragmatism required for work in social justice. Delehanty summarizes, “Peter was earnest in his commitment to land reform and to solving land problems, in the Third World especially and in the former Soviet Union. But he was not at all naive. He was realistic and sometimes cynical. He was a person with a great sense of humor, and his humor came off sardonically often. He knew sometimes that things were happening behind the scenes that were likely to get in the way of proper implementation of his work, but he was principled enough to do his work as best he could and hope that something good would come.”

CREECA extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Peter Bloch. Peter’s obituary can be found here.