New Internationalist

Back To The Land

Issue 99

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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] Approaches to land reform

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Back to the land
The unequal ownership and control of farmland is at the very centre of peasant unrest in Central America. But the solution land reform, is itself a knot of controversy. Liberals embrace it as inevitable conservatives brand it communist and guerrilla insurgents dismiss it as too little too late. Laurence Simon contrasts the success of land reform in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

THE ROOTS OF REBELLION in Central America are deeply embedded in the region's loose volcanic soil. In the late nineteenth century, burgeoning coffee production shifted control of land to a few wealthy landowners who used the power of the State to pass Agrarian Reform laws dissolving the Indians communal ownership. Peasants too poor to purchase individual plots, or those without formal titles to land, were dispossessed.

The enormous concentration of land and wealth and the growing class of landless labourers led to rebellions throughout the area in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In El Salvador a popular uprising ended in the massacre of 30,000 peasants. In Nicaragua, General Augusto Sandino led a peasant revolt against US forces that had intervened to support the rule of landed elites. After Sandino's execution in 1934, the new Somoza dynasty quickly crushed peasant dissidents.

In Guatemala, where most of the coffee and banana production was in foreign hands, the economic collapse of 1929 undercut the power of the large landowners. So by 1950 Jacobo Arbenz could be elected on a tough agrarian reform platform. The program was to be controlled by peasant committees, and was intended to give the poor a real measure of power. But the big landowners and the mayor foreign investor, United Fruit Company were not convinced. With CIA help they engineered a coup to smother the Arbenz threat.

Since then the maldistribution of land in Guatemala has increased sharply. More and more peasants are forced to migrate seasonally to seek wages on coffee, cattle and sugar estates in the lowlands.

Today, even the scarce, eroded plots of land scratched by the Indians of the Altiplano are coveted for their potential mineral wealth. But the descendents of the Maya people, the majority in Guatemala, are beginning to fight back. The seizure of their 'sacred lands' has prompted thousands of Indian youth to join the ranks of guerrilla forces.

In El Salvador, a much-touted land reform was begun in March. 1980. Backed by more than $60 million from US AID and $40 million from the Interamerican Development Bank, the reform has generated a storm of controversy from agrarian experts in the US and El Salvador.

The peasants the program is supposed to benefit had absolutely nothing to do with designing it. Not surprisingly this top-down approach to land reform has passed over the real needs of most peasants. In effect, permanent hacienda workers and peasants who rent or share-crop small holdings are the only ones to benefit. The majority, the growing number of landless farm workers, are excluded and condemned to remain landless.

The small farmers the reform is intended to benefit have tiny plots between a quarter and one hectare. The soil is so poor they cannot provide full subsistence for their families or even produce basic grains from one year to the next.

One US AID report notes 'about 83 per cent of El Salvador's farms are too small to provide the families who work them sufficient income to raise them above the absolute poverty level - even when off farm income is counted.' Yet the reform institutionalises this system of 'minifundia' - locking well over 100,000 peasant families into perpetual poverty.

On the large haciendas, permanent workers who have not been killed or run off by the National Guard are in a more favourable position because the land is at least productive. However, most of the land expropriated so far is either pasture, mountain or forest.

The impact on export crops has been limited. Most sugar and cotton production still remains in the hands of wealthy landowners. Plans to extend the reform to the remaining estates have now been postponed indefinitely.

The small advances achieved under the present reform have been frustrated by the widespread political violence. According to one US AID analyst, the atmosphere in the countryside is 'saturated with fear, uncertainty and doubt. While innocent campesinos are being hit from both sides of the political spectrum, there is a good deal of evidence that much of the violence is being carried out by government security forces.'

On March 6, 1980 the day the land reform was decreed, the military declared a 'State of Siege'. The increasing and unrelenting violence that followed prompted one of the reform's most ardent proponents, Under Secretary of Agriculture Jorge Villacorte, to resign.

'From the first moment the agrarian reform began,' Villacorte said, 'we saw a sharp increase in official violence against the very peasants who were the supposed "beneficiaries" of the process.'

Examples of this 'official violence' are not hard to find. Hours before dawn, on May 29 1980, the National Guard rolled an armoured truck into the entrance of San Francisco Guajoyo, one of the few large haciendas under government control.

Several dozen uniformed Guardsmen armed with 12 gauge shotguns, .45 pistols and machine guns ordered the workers out of their homes. They read off a list of names which included the co-operative's leadership and eight members of a local peasant's union. As their families watched in horror, the workers were ordered to lie face down, then shot.

Among the dead were two Agrarian Reform Institute (ISTA) employees, their government identification cards clutched in their hands.

The dissident ISTA worker who documented this tragedy added, 'the co-op had 160 members before that night of terror. When I arrived after dawn the remaining members were in a frenzy piling their belongings into a few vehicles and fleeing.'

The Salvadorean land reform is based on the assumption that once peasants are given land they will withdraw into parochial self interest and concentrate on growing corn rather than pressing for further changes.

Land reform designed to 'pacify' the peasants and take the wind out of the guerrilla's sails was originally applied in Vietnam. 'Land reform is an essential element of the pacification program,' a US House Committee on Government Operations stated in March 1968, 'and the resolution of the present conflict may very well hinge on the success of pacification.'

Thirty thousand Vietnamese peasants died at the hands of government and US forces under the 'Operation Phoenix' rural pacification program.

As in Vietnam, it's difficult to distinguish the pacification program from the repression in El Salvador. Dissident ISTA workers have documented at least 30 cases where peasant leaders have been elected on the expropriated haciendas only to be murdered by the National Guard.

So called 'beneficiaries' of the land reform are fleeing in droves - afraid to be spotlighted as easy targets for the police and the military.

In Nicaragua, when the recent civil war ended, the victorious Sandinista Liberation Front proclaimed a 'total agrarian reform'. But so far attempts to get the program moving have been cautious and restrained-with good reason.

To prevent a sudden economic collapse the Sandinistas encouraged the big farmers to keep growing the main export crops like coffee and cotton. However, the holdings of the Somoza family and their close associates were confiscated. The government together with smallholders and Co-operatives now control about 40 per cent of agricultural production. The private sector continues to control about 60 per cent.

Still, for the first time the landless in the countryside have been able to form farming co-operatives. More than 2,500 new ones have emerged since the Sandinista land reform was initiated-growing everything from wheat to rice and purchasing tools and seeds. For the first time there is also a strong farm workers union - independent of the government.

Production in 1981 is expected to approach the pre-war high of 1977. A huge harvest of basic grains is expected from small farmers and the new co-operatives. The country also expects to reach self-sufficiency in rice, beans and corn - the staples of the Nicaraguan diet.

Land reform is slowly changing the day-to-day lives of millions of peasants. On the large coffee estate of Chimorazo workers live in rickety, barn-like structures where entire families are crowded into small, low-ceilinged compartments lining both sides like doubledecker berths. Children play on the dirt floor. The only light comes from small bottles of kerosene with wicks, makeshift lanterns which threaten to send the whole tinderbox structure up in flames.

Yet despite the apparent hopelessness, the people believe their lives are changing. A new government shop has opened to supply soap, grain and personal items at prices far below commercial rates. A wood-hearth kitchen and dining area have also been built. But most impressive is the well-stocked clinic staffed by two nurses and, twice a week, a Nicaraguan doctor.

On the El Chaquiton coffee estate fresh yellow and orange paint glistens on the new buildings, blue-prints lie next to bags of concrete. Carpenters work amid wood shavings and sawdust to complete the new child care centre. Local women have been trained to run the centre, so mothers can work in the fields without worry.

The workers on the estate are now visited by the newly-trained 'health promoter' - one of more than of 900 new paramedics in Nicaragua. Twenty-year old Carmelo Rodriquez can administer first aid, follow doctor's orders in giving penicillin shots and take blood or saliva samples. He can also advise about latrines and clean water.

With agrarian reform based on the real needs of the country's citizens, Nicaragua offers what looks like the only model for successful and effective change in Central America. Here, the liberation is proven in revealing glimpses and portraits: Carmelo, for example, with four syringes stuck proudly in his shirt pocket as a symbol and a badge.

Laurence Simon is the director of Education and Issue Analysis at Oxfam-America and is co-author of the study, El Salvador Land Reform 1980-1981, Impact Audit


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