Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 3 | Agosto 1981



The Agrarian Reform Law In Nicaragua

On July 19th the Coordinator of the Governing Junta, Comandante Daniel Ortega, announced the new Agrarian Reform Law before 500 thousand persons. The need for this reform is obvious.

Envío team

On July 19, 1981, Daniel Ortega, Junta Coordinator, announced the new Agrarian Reform law before half a million people who had gathered in the Plaza to celebrate the Revolution’s second anniversary.

The need for new agrarian reform measures is obvious. In Nicaragua, 1.2% of the population still owns 47.1% of the land, while 30% of the rural farming population either have no land or work as tenant farmers. In the last several months, constant land seizures by campesinos who find themselves surrounded by large extensions of idle lands, abandoned farms and neglected crops have dramatized the need for reforms that grant land to those who will produce.

The new law will distribute land to over 100,000 campesinos while protecting the property rights of large landholders who are producing. The law does not place a limit on the extension of land that one person may hold. Rather it expropriates abandoned, idle and under-used lands. The law also intends to do away with pre-capitalist forms of production and exploitation such as the tenant farmer system.

According to first estimates, the new law could effect up to 2,326,561 manzanas* which now lie idle and which represent 30% of Nicaragua’s arable land. The law has now been passed by the Council of State and approved by the Junta. It will take effect as soon as it is published in the Gaceta, the official government publication. (*Note: 1 manzana equals 1.7 acres.)

The nature of the new law can best be understood with a view towards the socio-economic formation which it is trying to change. We will present a brief description of Nicaragua’s agricultural sector before and after July 19, 1979, an outline of the law and a brief account of how the law intends to affect the various sectors of Nicaragua’s rural population.

Nicaragua’s Agricultural Sector

In the last three decades Nicaragua’s agro-exporting sector has expanded rapidly, due to the introduction of cotton in the 1950’s and to the expansion of sugar, coffee and meat production in the 1960’s. The growth of this export sector required a cheap seasonal labor force. The agro-export businesses were able to secure 50% of the rural labor force while holding only 10% of the land.

Nicaragua has abundant land for its population (7.2 manzanas per person). Yet the existence of large landholders insured that the campesinos did not have access to the land on the Pacific coast where agriculture predominates. They thus were forced to work as seasonal wage earners for the new sector of agricultural capitalists. In off-season months, the landholders hired campesinos to clear the land, providing them with a means of survival and controlling their labor. The repression by the dictatorship and its National Guard prevented the campesinos from organizing into unions or creating a social movement to represent their interests. The lack of infra-structure, especially roads, prevented the campesinos from migrating to uncultivated lands.

July 19, 1979

On July 19, 1979, Nicaragua inherited an economy in ruins. Yet its agricultural sector could not be said to be stagnant. The July 19th victory brought about immediate changes which had their effects on the agricultural sector. First the Somoza dictatorship and its National Guard were removed, eliminating a major factor which had forced the campesino to comply with the existing situation. Organized in the Farm Workers Association, ATC, campesinos began to make a series of demands for land redistribution. Land seizures became a common occurrence and could not be controlled. Popular support, rather than brute military force, formed the power base of the new government. The government had to listen to the campesinos who now constituted an important political voice.

With the victory Somoza’s lands were expropriated and became the APP (Peoples Property), now administered by the Agrarian Reform Institute. Nicaragua’s lands were now distributed among government, business and campesino sectors in the following manner;

The business sector continued to hold considerable economic power, especially in the production of key export crops such as cotton. Therefore the success of the mixed economy would depend in large part upon the response of the private sector. Although constituting a small minority in number, the business sector remained an important element in Nicaragua’s political life due to their economic power.

The creation of the APP marked the first stage of the Agrarian Reform program. Yet this stage could not solve the problem of the landless campesino. The APP inherited the landholdings of Somoza and his cohorts which were modern plantations with agro-industrial installations that could not be divided and parceled out. Spread unevenly throughout the country, Somoza’s lands could not provide the basis for a comprehensive agrarian reform program. The APP sector continued to hire a large number of agricultural and industrial workers. Yet given the country’s economic difficulties and the need to reinvest profits, the government businesses could barely provide sufficient wages to keep up with inflation.

Since the victory, credits and technical assistance have been redistributed, benefiting especially the middle income and wealthy campesinos who have both the infrastructure and experience to make good use of the assistance.

Many of the campesinos who have benefited from this credit are now members of UNAG, a small and medium producers union which has become an active political force working within the revolutionary process.

A Brief Sketch of the Law

The Agrarian Reform Law, announced on July 19th, is divided into the following parts: 1) justifications, 2) those who will have their land expropriated, 3) those who will receive land, 4) implementation procedures, and 5) organisms.

1. Justifications: The Agrarian Reform law emerges from the historical experience of Sandinismo. Sandino began to implement an agrarian reform program, forming cooperatives among the campesinos in 1932. Agrarian Reform continued to be an important component of the Sandinista movement. In 1979 the Sandinistas announced their government program, promising agrarian reform and land redistribution. Likewise, in the San José Pact between business people and the Sandinistas, agrarian reform was also included as a major aspect of the new Nicaragua. In the countryside, social justice signifies agrarian reform.

Finally, the development of Nicaragua’s agricultural sector demands better organizational structures of production and the elimination of pre-capitalist forms such as tenant farming which both exploit the campesino and are highly inefficient.

2. Lands Subject to Expropriation: Under the new law, the following lands could be expropriated: 1) All abandoned land regardless of extension, 2) lands still used for tenant farming of at least 50 manzanas on the Pacific Coast and 100 manzanas in the rest of the country, 3) idle or under-used lands of at least 500 manzanas on the pacific coast and 1000 manzanas in the rest of the country , and 4) lands rented out for profit of at least 500 manzanas on the Pacific coast and 1000 manzanas in the rest of the country.

In the case of underused lands, the law will be applied with flexibility. For instance, if a landholder has three production units and two are functioning well, only the one idle unit would be expropriated.

1. Pacific coast land include the following departments; Leon, Chinandega, Managua, Masaya, Granada, Rivas, Carazo, Jinotega and Matagalpa.

2. The law defines as idle all land that has not been cultivated in the last two years. Under-used lands refer to those farms where less than 75 of the land area is being used. Cattle lands are under-used if there is less than one head of cattle for every two manzanas on the Pacific coast and for every three manzanas in the rest of the country.

3. Recipients of the Agrarian Reform Land Titles

Land will be assigned in the following order of priority: 1) poor campesinos, tenant farmers and cooperatives who are already working the land when this law is published; 2) campesinos with insufficient land, especially those who organize in cooperatives; 3) individual producers, especially extended families. (Here preference will be given to families of heroes and martyrs and to those who fought in the war of liberation); 4) Agrarian Reform enterprises.

The exact amount of land which these various groups will receive has not yet been worked out in detail. The minimum would be sufficient land to yield an income equivalent to the legal minimum wage. The Agrarian Reform Title guarantees campesinos legal rights to their lands and the goods they produce. The land cannot be sold or donated. In the case of death, the family inherits the land, but cannot divide it among the children. Campesinos can transfer their land rights to cooperatives according to agreements that the cooperative establishes.

Implementation Procedures and Organisms

The National Agrarian Reform Council is the authority which ultimately decides which lands will be expropriated and to whom they will be reassigned. This Council is comprised of the Minister of Agrarian Reform, the directors of the technical and investigative divisions of this ministry, the director of the National Financial Corporation and representatives from the campesino and small and medium producers associations (ATC and UNAG). Each region of the country will also have an Agrarian Reform Council which will carry out the functions of the National Council on a regional level.

All decisions can be appealed to the Agrarian Reform tribunals. These tribunals are meant to resolve problems, irregularities and injustices that may arise in the administration of the law. Each tribunal will be composed of 3 members named by the National Reconstruction Junta. These decisions are final and cannot be appealed. This is meant to prevent appeal processes that last for years and could be used to obstruct completely the implementation of the Agrarian Reform program. In the case of confiscation, those whose lands are confiscated will receive an indemnization.

While some campesinos will begin to receive land immediately, the application of the law will proceed gradually, based on careful study. Landholdings exceeding 500 manzanas on the Pacific Coast and 1000 manzanas in the rest of the country will be studied to see if they are producing efficiently. The landholders will participate in this study, providing evidence of productivity. The implementation procedures will begin on a grass-roots level where the ATC an UNAG will study what lands are subject to expropriation and will organize the land distribution. All cases of land expropriation and assignment will be presented to the regional council who will study the different cases and develop a plan based on regional considerations. The National Council will develop an overall strategy in line with the country’s economic plan.

The specific regulations guiding implementation are still under study and will be debated and voted on by the Council of State. The Council has already approved general orientations for the application of the law. The Agrarian Reform Institute is authorized to implement the law according to general criteria until the regulations are approved.

The Atlantic Coast

The Agrarian Reform Law recognizes the just demands of the indigenous communities to possess the land. In the next few days, the government will publish a statement concerning Agrarian Reform in the Atlantic Coast. A commission is now being organized which will assign lands to the communities. The communities will also receive financial and technical assistance for agricultural production.

Prohibition against Land Seizures

The law prohibits all seizures of land. The Farm Workers Union, ATC, emphasizes the need to apply this clause with flexibility. They stress that land seizures constitute the campesinos’ form of protest and that the Revolution needs these protests on a grass roots level in order to continue responding to working people’s needs.

Effects of the New Law on Nicaragua’s Rural Population

The following chart demonstrates the different sectors which comprise Nicaragua’s rural faming population:

How will the Agrarian Reform law affect each of these sectors? The law will grant land primarily to poor campesinos, part-time wage earners and seasonal farm workers, who together constitute 53.9 percent of the rural population.

Seasonal workers will receive Agrarian Reform titles allowing them to grow basic food stuffs during the months in which they are not working in the harvest. Jaime Wheelock, Minister of MID-INRA, explains that the government will try to come to an agreement with seasonal workers who receive land which would guarantee their participation in the harvests. The ATC reports that 60,000 seasonal farming families who now work approximately 4 months of the years on coffee, cotton and sugar cane plantations will benefit from the new law. The ATC is now organizing these landless families into “Seasonal Workers Committees.” These committees will report idle lands, organize workers to receive lands and insure that their members participate in the harvest. In the production of basic food stuffs, these families will have access to credits, but not to sophisticated technology. Using the limited tools and resources available, they will try to maximize the yield through mutual assistance.

The poor campesino, part-time wage earner, tenant farmer and colonist will receive lands which enable him/her to become a dignified producer. The law responds to a kind of spontaneous Agrarian Reform which has been underway in Nicaragua since 1975; that is the migration of campesinos and part-time wager earners to the agricultural frontier. This migration signifies a reverse in the trend that had existed since the 1950’s. The expansion of the agricultural export sector and confiscation had been changing the campesinos’ status from small landowners to wage laborers. With the migration to the agricultural frontier, a new sector of middle-income and wealthy campesinos began to emerge. This spontaneous agrarian reform has gained momentum with the revolution, partly due to the existence of new infra-structure, especially new roads, the elimination of the National Guard, the success stories of those who have gone to the frontier and the fact that the real wages of agricultural workers has not improved with the Revolution.

Yet it does not benefit the Revolution to continue creating conditions which encourage campesinos to move to frontiers where the Revolution cannot help them in economic terms, in technical assistance, in more advanced forms of organizing production; where the social benefits of the Revolution cannot reach; where there are no schools or health services; where the campesino is marginalized from the activities or the revolution.

The new agrarian reform law recognizes that this spontaneous agrarian reform is underway and rather than work against it, attempts to guide it, providing campesinos with access to land in the major agricultural sectors of the country, encouraging them to organize into cooperatives, and providing them with technical and financial assistance.

Finally the new law will reduce the domination of a sector of large landholders over Nicaragua’s farming land. Historically, the landholder’s domination over the lands enabled the agricultural capitalists to dominate a huge labor force, determining the economic relations between sectors of the countryside according to their own interests. The new law will protect agricultural capitalists who are producing, guaranteeing them property rights, financing, and a labor force at harvest time. Yet by confiscating idle lands, the law also curtails the power of the agro-export capitalists to dominate the economic activities of other sectors and control the socio-economic formation of Nicaragua’s countryside.


The nature of these reforms is determined both by Nicaragua’s need to develop its productive structures in a rational and efficient manner and by the demands and aspirations of the different sectors within Nicaragua, especially the campesinos. The new law attempts to increase the production of basic food stuffs while also increasing export production which brings in the foreign exchange so vital for Nicaragua. It responds to the campesino’s aspiration for land while protecting the property rights of small and large producers alike.

The way in which the law effect agricultural production, the campesinos’ living standard and Nicaragua’s national life will depend in large part on the campesinos’ response and also the way in which the law is interpreted and implemented. Campesinos will play a critical role in the Agrarian Reform program, reporting idle lands and organizing themselves to begin production on the lands and assigned to them. The Agrarian Reform Councils and Tribunals will hold the major responsibility in interpreting the law. Government functionaries and technical assistants responsible for implementation will also determine the effectiveness of the law. Clearly such a wide-scale program leaves room for errors and difficulties such as lack of efficiency, administrative abuse and bureaucratic stumbling blocks.

The Agrarian Reform law is one more expression of the kind of revolutionary process which is underway in Nicaragua. The law reflects both the revolution’s flexibility and its determination to gradually eliminate the domination that a small sector has held over the Nicaraguan people, creating more just and democratic structures not only in the political sphere, but also in the social and economic sphere.

Information sources for this article include the following:

Seminar on the Agrarian Reform Law sponsored by the Agrarian Reform Ministry, MID-INRA for its staff. July 31, 1981.

Press Conference given by Comandante Jaime Wheelock, August 3, 1981.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Dear Friends

The Ideological Struggle within the Catholic Church In Nicaragua

The Second Anniversary Of The Nicaraguan Revolution

The Agrarian Reform Law In Nicaragua

They Continue Being Priests and they continue in Government Positions

Theological Analysis Of The Crisis

Bishops grant exception Priests will continue in the government
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development