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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Iniciativas Campesinas y la Sostenibilidad de los Resultados de las Reformas Agrarias en América Central

The agrarian reforms considered in this study—in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua—took place during the great expansion in agricultural exports (cotton, sugar cane, African palm, coffee, bananas and cattle) from Central America between the 1950s and the late 1970s. Permanent or seasonal agricultural workers constituted the main social groups exerting pressure for reform.
The agrarian transformations propelled by reform were concentrated in export-related activities. As a result, new forms of organization of the labour process emerged: state-owned enterprises with some degree of direct and participatory management by the workers, or associations based on co-operative property and management.
The governmental coalitions that launched agrarian reforms had heterogeneous goals, including control of rural unrest; decrease of the power of landed elites; and creation of an agrarian basis for the transition to socialism supported by socialist countries. In all cases, workers’ and farmers’ initiatives depended upon other social groups, in spite of their own capacity to exert pressure and mobilize people.
According to data from the mid-1990s, one fourth of rural families and one third of total land area were affected by land reform in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In Honduras, reform had an impact on a smaller proportion of the population, but some of the initiatives originating there—relating to the production of bananas and African palm, in particular—constituted the most striking examples of associative enterprises in agrarian reforms in Latin America.

By the mid-1980s, agrarian reforms implemented in the 1970s and early 1980s were being affected by structural adjustment policies and an increased role for market mechanisms—the formation of land markets in particular. Furthermore, the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s were marked by deep political changes from which emerged subsequent revolutionary processes.
Following civil war in the 1990s, both El Salvador and Nicaragua gave land to insurgents and demobilized soldiers. Simultaneously, beneficiaries of earlier reforms lost control of their land; physical capital (machinery, irrigation equipment, etc.) deteriorated rapidly; and access to bank credit for development and technical assistance fell significantly.
In response to this unfavourable situation, diverse strategies were pursued at the national, regional, departmental and local levels. Many of the strategies adopted revealed the weaknesses of the land reform processes, such as the lack of participation of beneficiaries in the management of production units and the predominance of paid rural workers rather than self-managed entrepreneurs.
The first strategy used in the three countries studied was to allow total or partial sale of land by beneficiaries. In the case of El Salvador, this resulted from strong pressure to use the land for urban development. In Honduras, a large number of beneficiaries sold the land and infrastructure they had obtained as a result of land reform to transnational banana producers at the beginning of the 1990s. After 1990 in Nicaragua, especially in the North-Pacific region, many co-operatives, as well as demobilized soldiers, ceded their land to the growing number of landlords engaged in coffee production, cattle raising and non-traditional crop cultivation. Other farmers preferred to reduce their agrarian or bank debts by selling or leasing part of their land while continuing to work what they retained. In the three countries, some beneficiaries leased their land because they lacked the capital to exploit it. Many of the initial achievements of agrarian reform were thus mitigated in the medium term.
The second strategy observed, especially in Nicaragua, was the individualization and division of land that was previously collectively exploited. It is estimated that nearly 90 per cent of Nicaraguan co-operatives totally or partially parcelled out their land. As a result, land was individually exploited but machinery, irrigation, agro-industrial equipment, commercialization and access to credit were used co-operatively.
A third important strategy was a radical change in production systems and techniques, shifting from schemes of specialized production, inspired by the “first” Green Revolution, to schemes where agriculture, cattle and forestry-related activities were combined for both commercial purposes and family consumption.
A fourth strategy, observed mostly in Honduras, was co-investment by reform beneficiaries in agro-industries, which facilitated access to credit, as well as processing and marketing of products. This occurred in the most prominent valleys of the country for sugar cane and commercial vegetable crops, together with basic grains commercial activities.
A fifth strategy, promoted by trade unions representing reform beneficiaries, consisted in taking up activities such as marketing of farm products and financing of production, particularly in exports (as was the case, for example, of CONFRAS in El Salvador, UNAG/ECODEPA in Nicaragua and palm co-operatives in Honduras.) In general, this strategy has not been as successful as expected 10 years ago.

The results of these strategies has been highly unstable. On one hand, it is evident that land has been ceded by reform beneficiaries to other sectors. On the other hand, beneficiaries have also pursued strategies of consolidation and resistance, generally when flexible mechanisms for business organization have been established (such as combining individual and collective management of production). Factors that have contributed to success of these strategies have been the growing recourse to vegetable gardens for self-consumption, the combination of agricultural, cattle and forest activities, and the use of more sustainable production techniques. Furthermore, beneficiaries of earlier reforms continue to seek alliances with the private sector, both national and multinational. But doing so entails risk of losing their property, as agri-businesses constantly seek to increase their own holdings.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD