Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 97 | Agosto 1989



Backward or Forward?

Envío team

—Members of the Subtiava indigenous community in León, Nicaragua, sue in court for the return of a 700-acre private farm that they claim as part of their historic lands. The Supreme Court rules against them. Outraged, they take over the farm and begin to prepare the ground for planting. The landowner insists on his legal right to the property.

—After three years of efforts to acquire land through the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, 25 women in the community of Mocorón, north of Chinandega, seize a parcel of state land and occupy it for eight days. They say their wages as agricultural workers are not enough to feed their children.

—In March, Orlando López Quintero, former landowner and Somocista official, is released from prison along with nearly 2,000 others in a Sandinista move aimed at strengthening the peace process. A few months later he goes to court to demand the return of his land south of Managua, now being farmed by a cooperative. Three thousand angry peasants show up to support the current occupants of the land who vow López will never return.

—The government expropriates 123 acres belonging to major rice grower Mario Hanon near the town of Nandaime and gives it to a group of landless peasants. As compensation, he is given a piece of land belonging to a cooperative outside Managua. Activists of the small farmers' organization, UNAG, protest that the cooperative is making productive use of the land.

Ten years of agrarian reform

The 1979 Sandinista triumph brought to power a government committed to putting land in the hands of those who work it. Ironically, in 1989, after a decade of social transformation in agriculture, the Sandinistas are faced with intensified and conflicting pressures for land. Though limited to certain areas, these conflicts reflect the ongoing struggle between different social and economic groups within the Sandinistas' model of a mixed economy. On the one hand, the largely war-induced economic crisis has increased demands from landless peasants and the unemployed for a means of survival. On the other, some former landowners, encouraged by recent government economic and political concessions, are seeking to reclaim their confiscated property.

The agrarian reform began in 1979 with the confiscation of the 2,000 modern agroexport farms—20% of the country’s arable land—that belonged to Somoza and his close associates. Believing that large-scale production was the most advanced form and that agroexports must be preserved, the new government turned this land into state farms and invested in technology-based projects. Conditions for agricultural workers were improved and exploitive forms of land rent were abolished.

In 1981, as the peasantry began to organize and demand land, the emphasis began to shift toward smaller-scale production. A relatively mild agrarian reform law was passed that struck at the oligarchy with abandoned or idle holdings over 875 acres. Much of this land was distributed to peasants organized in cooperatives. Eligio Fonseca, a former landless worker, described how he felt when he received land. "Like when you're dirty and exhausted and you take a bath... We felt like new! And now no one tells us what to do. We do it ourselves."

But, as the contra war intensified, the Sandinistas sought an alliance with the private sector against aggression. Expropriations slowed between 1983 and 1985. The land being given away came primarily from inefficient state farms or government purchases of private land. Meanwhile, in remote mountain areas, the contras were winning sympathy among peasants who had not yet seen many benefits of the revolution but were already feeling the effects of the draft and the economic crisis. Contra claims that the Sandinistas planned to take away peasant land struck fear into many hearts.

In 1983, the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA) responded with a sweeping program to give titles to peasants who had land but had never had secure ownership. Five years later, 31,000 families had benefited from this plan. Another policy shift in 1985 was aimed at winning rural support, particularly in the war zones. In that year, three times as much land was turned over to individual owners as had been given in that form in all previous years.

While these measures helped undermine contra support in the mountains, pressure for land on the densely populated Pacific coast was building again, and in 1986 a more stringent agrarian reform law was passed. The law eliminated lower limits on the size of landholdings that could be expropriated and allowed the state to take idle as well as abandoned land without compensation. It represented a choice to favor peasants and efficient farmers over reactionary sectors of the landholding class who showed no commitment to the country's economic development.

After ten years, the Sandinista land reform has given over 5,000,000 acres of land to 120,000 families, according to Alonso Porras, vice minister of MIDINRA. Large-scale private
landholdings have been reduced from 36% to 6.4% of arable land; the state sector has shrunk from a high of 24% to 11%; and the vast majority of the land is now in the hands of small and medium producers, over 50,000 of them cooperative members.

Yet pressure for land continues and has become more acute in 1989 than in recent years. According to Ramón Gutiérrez, regional director of MIDINRA, there are some 2,000 landless peasants in the Pacific region of León and Chinandega, where the pressure is greatest. The economic crisis has worsened the situation by putting 5,000 agricultural laborers from state and private farms in the region out of work. As elsewhere in the country, thousands of young peasants are now completing their military service and coming home in search of land or employment. Tensions have reached the point that peasants in this area have carried out about 20 spontaneous land takeovers in the last year, according to Gutiérrez.

Land reform policy today

How will MIDINRA resolve these tensions? What's the plan for land reform now and in the near future? "MIDINRA's rule of thumb is not to reform productive land," explains Gutiérrez. "If a farm is well developed, if its land is well used, we're going to respect it, no matter whether it's private or state owned." MIDINRA today strongly opposes land takeovers. "We don't solve anything by invading productive land. What this country needs is to produce more." Gutiérrez insists, however, that the ultimate goal of Nicaragua's agrarian reform is nothing less than "that there not be a single landless peasant."

Mireya Molina, National Director of MIDINRA's Land Tenure Department, spells out how MIDINRA will try to accommodate peasants without land. First, they will be encouraged to resettle areas abandoned during the war—some 700,000 acres of primarily coffee and cattle lands in the interior of the country. Second, idle lands—whether they are currently in state, cooperative or private hands—are being identified and form part of a "land bank" from which demands can be settled. Although the agrarian reform law permits expropriation of idle lands, most of these cases are negotiated in practice. Private owners receive cash settlements or alternative pieces of land, while cooperatives have the choice of incorporating new members so they can cultivate all their land or ceding a part of their property. In settling land demands, MIDINRA is giving priority now to those who are returning from fulfilling their military service, those wounded in the war, mothers of fallen combatants and peasants who have a long personal history of fighting for land.

Molina mentioned two long-term strategies that do not require affecting more land. MIDINRA eventually plans to open colonization projects on Nicaragua's agricultural frontier, where peasants would clear the land and receive title to it. This requires resources the country does not have now. A second long-term strategy—more intensive land use—is currently being promoted, with emphasis on nontraditional exports such as sesame, pineapple, melons, star fruit, ginger and peanuts. In areas like León and Chinandega, where there is growing unemployment, it is hoped that such a strategy will generate jobs as well as foreign exchange.

How disputes are resolved

But what happens when peasants who can't wait for some vision of a rosy future go ahead and take land? While MIDINRA disapproves of land takeovers, it tries to negotiate an alternative. This is far from what happened in the days of Somoza, when peasants who took land or tried to recover land that had been taken from them by large landowners often found themselves facing the guns of the National Guard. "Now we don't expect repression," said Subtiava leader Tomás Pérez, a veteran of many land struggles before July 1979 and currently involved in a new land takeover by his community. "That's why we fought and got rid of the Guard."

That does not mean there are always happy endings. In the Subtiava case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Icaza family, which had sued to remove the Subtiavans from their property. MIDINRA officials say they have to respect that ruling. "We were outraged at that," says Tomás Pérez, explaining that the Icaza family had taken the land from the Subtiava community many years ago. "The Court isn't acting in the interests of the people, it's acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie. I think the people at MIDINRA don't really understand that Subtiava isn't a neighborhood like any other—we've been organized for hundreds of years." MIDINRA did find land for some of those involved in the takeover, however. "We're going to have to respect the court's ruling, because we don't want to cause trouble for the government," said Pérez, a bit sadly.

In Mocorón, the 25 women who took over part of a state farm found a whole series of interests ranged against them. MIDINRA sent representatives to try to convince them to leave; the state farm wanted its land back; the Farm Workers' Association (ATC) threatened them, saying that land given away from a state farm meant workers' jobs were lost. "But we're staying," said Miriam Useda Galeano, president of the cooperative the women formed on the land. "We're not afraid." Finally the state permitted them to use 70 acres of land and gave them credit for planting, but they have not been promised any title to the land. A group of 25 men who took over another piece of the same state farm received the right to use 260 acres. "They just gave us a garden plot," said Miriam Useda. "It's pure machismo."

No rollback

In February of this year, MIDINRA Vice Minister Alonso Porras announced a new, more cautious stage of agrarian reform as part of the government's appeal to the private sector to collaborate with it in reactivating the economy. This in fact continues a trend begun earlier; expropriations of land have dropped from 460 in 1986 to 7 in 1988, and 3 so far in 1989. The three cases this year, of COSEP coffee growers, correspond more to a particular political challenge raised by COSEP rather than to any trend in land reform (see "The Month" and "A Setback to Reforms," this issue).

Some landowners whose farms had been confiscated previously interpreted this overture to the private sector as a chance to get theirs back—and showed up on their old lands or appealed to the courts. But they usually find that power is no longer on their side.

When newly pardoned National Guardsman Orlando López Quintero tried to get his land back in La Concepción, three thousand peasants gathered to support the current owners, former rural workers who now farm the land as the Heroes and Martyrs Cooperative. "I'd like to see the owners of this land come back," said coop member Julio Ampie Alemán, who sported a West Point Military Academy hat his brother had bought for him in Panama. "I used to work for one of the owners. He owes me two weeks' pay. He still owes me for the blood I spilled while working here," he went on, rolling up his pants leg to show scars from an accident on the job. "Yeah, I'd like to see him try to come back here. He owes me my youth."

The coop is awaiting the final court ruling on López Quintero's appeal, but they have no doubt that whatever the ruling, the end result will be in their favor. "We're standing firm here," says Luis González Busto, an intensely serious young coop leader. "The government has a promise to keep to the peasant movement. If the government gives in to López's claim, it's not López we'll have to take on. It's the government."

While it looks like the Heroes and Martyrs Cooperative will keep their land, in at least one case the government's attempt to reach out to the private sector has resulted in land being taken from a cooperative. In exchange for land expropriated in Region IV, where it was needed to distribute to landless peasants, rice grower Mario Hanon was compensated with land in Tipitapa, Region III. This land, which MIDINRA claims was not being fully used, belonged to a cattle cooperative. "They have very bad land, and what they gave to Hanon was the best part," said UNAG organizer Rubén Méndez. "They needed all of it." The decision to take the land appears to have been made in a top-down manner, made possible by the complications that arose because the case involved two regions and by the lack of a strong peasant movement in the Tipitapa area.

Land to the peasants

Land reform in 1989 is in a stage of consolidation. It is not moving dramatically forward, but it is certainly not being rolled back. MIDINRA is today juggling a complex set of considerations ranging from the goal of giving land to every landless peasants to the imperative of increasing production, from the need to address new problems of unemployment to an attempt to win the confidence of the nation's medium and large producers. But the Sandinista land reform will continue to be what it has been for the last ten years—a very flexible response to a dynamic situation. When asked what the next five years of land reform look like, MIDINRA's Ramón Gutiérrez admits, "Though our basic plan is to increase efficiency and productivity on the land as it is now distributed, I can't give you a single definition of the future, just as I can't give you a single definition of the last ten years. There are so many different demands to satisfy."

Nicaraguan peasants are going to keep a wary eye on their government to defend the lands they’ve won. But there’s no sign that the policy to give land to the tiller will be altered. As Julio César López, president of the Carlos Cruz Girón cooperative in Santa Teresa, says with confidence, "Not until the last Nicaraguan falls, until the FSLN itself falls, will they get their lands back."

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