Albion Monitor /News

Latin America Debt Destroying Decades of Land Reforms

by Maricel Sequeira

Land ownership returning to the privileged few
(IPS) SAN JOSE -- Rural workers organizations in Central America said the land reform process imposed to defuse explosive social situations is failing, with land ownership returning to the privileged few.

In El Salvador, debt has the growers in a stranglehold, forcing them to sell their land, said Ana Guadelupe Castillo, and a similar situation is occuring in Nicaragua, said Jorge Martinez.

Consuelo Cabrera, from the National Co-ordination of Small and Medium-Sized Producers (Conampro) of Guatemala, said 98 percent of the rural population of the country has no land or cultivable soil, while two percent of the population has large quantities of land.

Rural people are excluded from regional economic reform
Martinez, director of an agricultural co-operative and opposition Sandinista deputy in the National Assembly said that from 1980 to 1990 this party, which was then in power, awarded 2.3 million hectares to 120,000 rural families.

In order to carry out the reform, the Sandinista government ousted hundreds of large landowners, generating ownership conflicts which have still not been resolved.

During Violeta Chamorro's term in government (1990-1997) another 400,000 hectares were handed over to demobilized soldiers and "contra" rebels.

But now, said the Sandinista deputy, a process is underway whereby the previous owners are buying back the land they lost, as the new owners have debt problems. At least 650,000 hectares have gone this way in recent years.

More than 200,000 hectares were returned to their old owners under the Chamorro government, as were 200 industrial companies.

Martinez said his party supported a proposal made by the Carter Centre and the InterAmerican Development Bank, calling for fair compensation for the former proprietors, but stating the lands should not be returned.

He stated the Sandinista reform had left 40 percent of the property in the hands of the rural population, but that this figure could now oscillate at around 32 percent of the total farming land for small producers.

The main complaint of the Central American rural workers' organizations is that political liberalization has not been accompanied by economic liberalization for the poor rural sector of the population, which still has no access to credit, technology and the markets.

Ana Guadelupe Castillo, of the National Association of Agricultural Workers of El Salvador, said the rural people are basically excluded from regional economic reform.

"Many of those who have land cannot work it, because they have no credit, nor technology, and must pay for costly supplies, which, as production is expensive, turns out to be uncompetitive," he said.

This situation of ever-increasing costs, along with the paralysis of the small producers because of a shortage of basic tools, are blamed by the leaders for the fact the region's imports have increased five-fold in only six years -- now importing more than 600,000 tons of basic produce a year.

Castillo said 450,000 rural families in El Salvador have no land of their own -- some 57 percent of the rural population.

"Central America is shot right through by the centuries-old problem of the right to land"
The problem is also serious in Guatemala. According to Cabrera, 98 percent of the rural population here have no workable land. This country, which finally ended a 35-year civil war in 1996 has a poverty index of 70 percent.

Given this situation, the rural workers' organizations have started invading unworked rural estates in order to force the government into buying them and sharing them out between small- holders. Cabrera said there were some 300 occupied estates in the country, each more than a thousand hectares in size.

This strategy, however, has not been very successful, for only six of the estates were bought up in 1996, she said.

Apart from fighting for land on which to make a living, the Guatemalan rural population, mostly of indigenous extraction, are looking for ways to get their voices heard in the power structure, working to build the multilingual and pluricultural State specified in the peace agreements signed last December.

"Central America is shot right through by the centuries-old problem of the right to land," said a publication issued by the Association of Central American Rural Workers Organizations.

In Honduras, 300,000 families are in need of land. In Panama the problems are mainly due to the lack of infrastructure to support production, and the high costs of supplies and marketing.

In Costa Rica, according to the leaders of the Rural People's Board, the greatest problem is not in land ownership but in putting the farms into production, for the same problems of costs and marketing faced throughout the region.

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Albion Monitor June 17, 1997 (

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