Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 64 | Octubre 1986



Río San Juan: Territory Free of Landless Peasants

Envío team

On October 13, 1986, the department of Río San Juan was declared "territory free of landless peasants." It is the first region in Nicaragua—or the rest of Central America—in which there are no marginalized peasants, in which the land belongs to those who work it. At the end of the 1980 Literacy Crusade, if the student teachers had accomplished the educational goal in their area, it was declared "territory free of illiteracy." When the agrarian reform initiated by the revolution in 1981 celebrated its fifth anniversary this October, it reframed that expression, declaring Río San Juan a territory free of peasants dispossessed of their land.

Region with a changing face

The department of Río San Juan—called Special Zone III for administrative purposes—extends along the southeastern end of Nicaragua. It is bordered by Costa Rica along 200 kilometers of the San Juan River, which connects the Caribbean with Lake Nicaragua, called "the gentle sea" by the Spanish conquistadors.

With 5% of Nicaragua's land mass (6,418 square kilometers) and only 1% of its population (31,000 inhabitants) Río San Juan has the lowest population density in the country (5 inhabitants per kilometer). San Carlos, with a population of 3,500, is the departmental capital. The economy, as in the rest of the country, is agricultural: rice, basic grains, African Palm oil, avocado, lumber and cattle. But the face of the region has been changing in the last years. The agrarian reform has played an essential role in this transformation.

On October 16, 1981, the revolution granted the very first agrarian reform land titles in Wiwilí, in the northern department of Jinotega—a historic location because it was there that General Sandino created the first farming cooperatives in 1933. The October date coincided with World Food Day, symbolically demonstrating the connection between agrarian reform, agricultural development and the satisfaction of people's basic needs. Owning land, developing the country and eating are three objectives that Nicaragua seeks to bring together.

These interrelated objectives are becoming a reality in Río San Juan, despite its isolation, the limitations inherited from the past and the counterrevolutionary war waged by ARDE in this area for several years (now virtually under control). Río San Juan has become self-sufficient in feeding its population and is laying the foundations for future agricultural development.

"The river of our history"

This isolated region was Nicaragua's door on the world for over three centuries. It was along the San Juan River that the Spanish galleons loaded with gold from Peru and Mexico set off for Spain. It was also along this river that Captain Nelson arrived in the 18th century to attack the fort at El Castillo, a Spanish outpost protecting San Carlos, or, when they could, the English pirates hit Granada on the northwestern coast of Lake Nicaragua. And it was along this river that Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Transit Company steamships traveled in the 1840s—it was by then the gold rush, and the simplest and cheapest route between New York and California was through Nicaragua. After the gold rush came William Walker and his band and then the Marines...

Because of its strategic geographic location, the Río San Juan was for centuries the natural route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. This advantageous and accessible route quickly came to the attention of those interested in actually building a canal to connect the two oceans.

At the beginning of the 19th century the first Liberal Party President of Nicaragua, General José Santos Zelaya, sought international cooperation from countries other than the United States for the construction of a real canal. This audacity on the part of a country that the US already considered its "backyard" provoked the historic Knox Memo and the end of the Zelaya government; the President found himself forced to resign. In 1914, the US government signed the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty with Nicaragua’s new Conservative government, thus in effect acquiring, for the meager sum of $3 million, control over this strategic frontier territory. The treaty assured that no one could ever again consider the possibility of an inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua that would compete with the Panama Canal.

Once the "owners of the backyard" decided to open the canal through Panama, the flourishing and lively department of Río San Juan was increasingly abandoned. Zelaya's resignation and the signing of the treaty threw Nicaragua into a long political crisis, paving the way first for direct intervention by the Marines and then for armed resistance, initially by Benjamín Zeledón and later by General Sandino.

Río San Juan entered an era of oblivion and San Carlos became García Márquez's "Macondo" of Nicaragua. It was no longer necessary to guard the river from the fort at El Castillo because no one was on the river. San Juan del Norte (also known as Greytown), at the mouth of the river, once one of the principal Caribbean ports with consulates and embassies of several countries, fell into complete abandon. At the time of the revolutionary triumph in 1979, it had only 250 inhabitants, mostly very poor fishermen. The tropical jungle had swallowed up many kilometers of railroad track that ran from San Juan del Norte inland along the river.

Somoza—biggest landlord in the area"

The Somoza dictatorship took advantage of this situation. On the one hand, Somoza became the principal landholder in the region, orienting his business around extensive cattle raising and relatively highly mechanized rice operations. At the time of the triumph, large landholders owned more than 80% of the land in Río San Juan, foremost among them Somoza.

On the other hand, as the land in the west began to be given over largely to cotton growing, Río San Juan became the refuge of thousands of the peasants expelled from their lands and pushed toward the "agricultural frontier." The colonizing of these lands in the middle of the jungle was extremely difficult. The peasants unavoidably fell into debt and had no other way out than to relinquish their crops to the landholders with whom they had entered into various tenant farmer schemes, or to relinquish the land itself, if they had been lucky enough to find a plot not already claimed.

One datum in particular sums up the region’s backwardness: at the time of the triumph only 4 out of every 100 people in the department knew how to read and write. The health system as well was almost nonexistent. Moreover, the only means of communication with the country's capital—much less with any other cities—were a few old, extremely slow and uncomfortable boats that crossed the lake between Granada and San Carlos. With no access roads or highways, this "territory free of asphalt" had the lowest socioeconomic indicators in the country.

The revolutionary government’s very first decrees in 1979—confiscating Somoza and Somocista lands—formed the basis for the agrarian transformation. With one pen stroke 67% of the region's land became state sector or Areas of People's Property (APPs).

The peasant movement itself took longer to develop, starting only in 1982-83. By 1985 land tenure patterns began to undergo significant changes (see Table I). The cooperative sector grew steadily, increasing from 0 to 4% by 1983 and to 21% by 1986. The state holdings decreased to 57% of the farmland—calculated at about 210,000 hectares—with 14% of the farms now belonging to small and medium producers and only 7.5% in the hands of large private producers.

In May 1986, before Río San Juan was declared "territory free of landless peasants," the Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform Ministry (MIDINRA) did a regional census of the number of peasants, forms of land tenure, land delimitations, etc. (There is still no such national census.) It was found that there were 930 private producers and about 1,400 cooperative members, in total including some 400 more peasants than had been previously estimated.

Of the nearly 70,000 hectares given out in land titles since 1979, 46,500 have gone to some 1,300 cooperative members and the remainder to 400 medium and small private producers. This leaves something over 600 families, according to the above census. In October 1986, titles to an additional 14,000 hectares were granted, benefiting approximately 500 more families. Of the remaining 100 families, some are private producers who already had their own land and others are already organized into cooperatives or work collectives. (See Table II.)

Resettling 8,000 war displaced

The region has continued its traditional production of rice, wood and cattle, but thanks to the development of the cooperative movement, concrete steps have also been taken toward the reconstruction of the deteriorated peasant economy once hard-hit by ARDE. One of the major blows provoked by the war was the destruction of traditional commercial ties to northern Costa Rica and the displacement of peasants from isolated war zones to new resettlements.*
*See envío No. 48, June 1985, for a discussion of peasant resettlements for war displaced.

In May 1984, 15 of these new settlements were created for some 8,000 internal refugees. While any separation from one's traditional home base is painful, even when it’s for protection against the dangers of war, three factors alleviated that pain somewhat in the case of Río San Juan. They also help explain the relative success that the resettlement policy achieved.

First, the extreme poverty of these peasants in the "agricultural frontier" must be taken into consideration. They came to these marginally fertile lands not of their own free will, and for a long time lacked any tools, inputs or credits. To go from these already poor conditions to the poor conditions of the brand new resettlements didn’t imply much change. Although the initial phase of the move took place in very difficult circumstances—in the middle of a war without the possibility of creating even minimal living conditions beforehand—there are now substantial changes. Helped by other regions of the country, volunteer work brigades and international solidarity, housing is now up, children are eating in childcare dining halls, going to school and taking advantage of local health posts or can even be taken to the regional hospital of San Carlos or Granada on new roads, if necessary.

Second, a poll taken in the settlements has confirmed that the families there had only been in the region an average of ten years. They were not yet strongly tied to the land to which they had been pushed by the cotton boom then abandoned by the Somocista agrarian policy.

The third, and perhaps most important, aspect is that the region's peasant settlement plan was a comprehensive project already being drafted in 1982. As such, it attempted to link the region’s defense and production needs. The war came to be the determining factor that accelerated its implementation. In accord with this strategic project, the settlements have been built along the new roads and communications systems and on the most fertile lands. The goal, clearly, is to take agricultural development and the location of community social services into account.

At the beginning the settlements had no capacity to produce basic foodstuffs; the state, using international donations and assigning special national resources, gave them basic grains, soap, oil, shoes, clothes and tools. With this relatively short initial phase behind them, they are now not only self-sufficient in rice, corn and bean production, but are producing a surplus that is sold to the rest of the region. An estimated 60% of the settlements’ production is dedicated to self-consumption and the other 40% is distributed regionally. This important step toward regional self-sufficiency has helped improve food supply levels in the rest of the country as well, since Río San Juan is less of a drain on national supply.

Contras seize on Supply problems

In the first years of the war, the Nicaraguan counterrevolution took advantage of the difficulties, limitations and failures of the Sandinista agrarian policy to gain a social base among the peasantry. In Río San Juan, the difficulties they found most useful for this purpose were related to supply. This spark ignited brushfires of mistrust toward the revolution.

How did this happen? At first, the peasants sold their production to the state, receiving vouchers in exchange. Due to bureaucratic bottlenecks at the central level, the regional institutions as late as 1983 did not have enough funds at their disposal to exchange these vouchers for either money or bank credits, despite the decentralization that was supposed to come with the regionalization of government decreed in 1982.

By 1985, this crisis had been overcome. Plans began to be drawn up with sufficient lead time not only to permit a disbursement program but also to take advantage of grain transport and storage. Today the flow of peasant production toward the supply centers operates with a healthy rhythm.

In the first phases of the regional agrarian reform the contras fed another doubt among the peasantry, this time regarding the property titles that MIDINRA was giving out. "This isn’t good for anything; it's only a piece of paper," said the contras. "This land belongs to somebody else and you can't use it." This ploy failed, too, however, illustrated by the fact that not a single peasant in the whole region who received a title turned it back. The only problems have been those related to boundary conflicts between neighbors.

From "agricultural frontier" to "productive frontier""

With the new settlements, the agricultural frontier scheme was undermined in practice, since the issue was no longer that of a peasantry condemned to marginalization and isolation. In this regard, one can point to the development in the region of a powerful branch of UNAG (National Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers), which today represents some 65% of the small and medium farmers in the zone.

Support for the revolution is also evident in the 1984 elections. The highest percentage of votes for the FSLN in the whole country—75%—was reached in Río San Juan. In many settlements the figure was more than 90%.*
*See envío No. 46, April 1985.

The counterrevolutionaries have often attacked the Río San Juan settlements, located at strategic points in the region and organized both for production and military self-defense, but they have been unable to occupy, destroy or forcibly recruit in any of them. "The peasants," said Manuel Aburto, Agrarian Reform delegate in Río San Joan, "have been able not only to defend the territory assigned them but also to make it produce."

Thus the agricultural frontier has become a productive frontier. If the centerpiece of the development project is food self-sufficiency at the moment, there are other, broader strategic development projects on the horizon, such as the African Palm project in El Castillo.

This project is a response to the need to increase the quantity of cooking oil the country produces for domestic consumption. Some 400 acres of the young palms have already been planted, and the 1986 goal was 162 acres more. That goal was reached this month, two months early. By 1987 the processing plant should be installed—it’s already in the country—so it can begin to process oil from the palm fruit by 1988. At that time, 100 more workers will be incorporated into the project.

A new reality is that such development perspectives for this traditionally marginalized region are encouraging a still small but nonetheless significant migratory movement under the slogan "family reunification." Peasants are now calling for their relatives to come live in a region that promises to be prosperous and can welcome hitherto divided families.

The African Palm project has been based from the beginning on a cooperative structure. Initially there were three cooperatives tending then transplanting the baby palms. Now there are five, with 120 members. In the project’s first stages, 90% of the labor force came from other regions, particularly the Pacific. Today, 60% of the workers, both in the cooperatives and among the wage laborers, are from Río San Juan itself. The rest are mainly technical-administrative workers and skilled laborers from the Pacific. Given the scarcity of educated workers in Río San Juan, it’s unlikely that this balance will change much more in the near future.

Another cooperative-based development project for the region is the cultivation of medicinal raicilla, or Ipacec, as it is known scientifically. Some 100 people organized into four cooperatives are tending about 59,000 square meters of the plant in the Buena Vista settlement, part of a 112,600-square-meter regional project. Yet another project, still in experimental stages but potentially strategic in economic terms, is cacao. Only 10 hectares have been planted so far, to measure the plant's acclimatization capacity to the soil and weather conditions.

Cattle raising, meanwhile, continues to be the main productive activity, with 7,000 head in the region. A number of the new settlements—Los Chiles, La Azcucena, Esperanza 1, Laurel Galán, Nueva Aporta (the latter named for a UNAG leader killed by the contras)—are based principally on raising cattle for meat, but seven cooperatives are now dedicated to dairy production.

There are five state enterprises in the region. The biggest operation—a rice plantation called Juan Manuel Loreda Pravia—is one of the country’s largest rice producers. The plantation’s agroindustrialization phase should be completed by 1987, permitting local drying and threshing. In Solentiname 11.5 hectares of avocado trees are now producing some 220,000 avocados a year. Another 11 hectares will be planted in the next agricultural cycle.

More productivity and more production

With all this reordering of population and land, the state area has shrunk, as has the area under "extensive subsistence cultivation." The latter refers to the unfertile lands the peasants were forced to plant on before the relocation. Reducing the acreage dedicated to basic grains, however, has increased output per acre rather than reducing it.

This is particularly true in the case of corn and beans. While the area dedicated to beans was reduced from 1,750 hectares to 1,050, output has increased from 5 hundredweight (100 lbs.) per hectare to 7.7 hundredweight, mainly because of the introduction of a black bean that produces more abundantly. In the case of corn, there was a drop in output in the first harvest (1984-85), but the current production of 66,500 hundredweight is greater than the 1983-84 harvest by 15,000 hundredweight. Even though there has been a reduction in cultivated acreage, output has increased from 7.7 hundredweight to 11 hundredweight per hectare.

This productivity increase is also evident in rice production, where output per hectare has increased from 28 to 33 hundredweight. The area under cultivation has also increased from 3,150 to 3,710 hectares, and overall output from 176,000 to 233,000 hundredweight.

Food supply increases for region"

The productivity increase has obviously benefited the region's food supply, despite the survival economy at a national level, with its rationing and shortages. There are 38 retail food stores in the region as well as sales outlets in each of the settlements and large economic enterprises. A regional store also supplies the peasant farmers with agricultural inputs, tools and other work needs.

Grain prices have been freed up in the region, a policy that has substantially benefited producers. With a hundredweight of beans now at 1,200 córdobas, corn at 5,000 and rice at 4,000, there has been a relative accumulation process by small and medium producers—even if it is of "inflated" money. This makes these producers both desirable and reliable credit risks for the banks, which means they can be active investors at some level.

If the peasant grain producers can establish market prices for their surplus once their own daily food needs are assured, and thus gain greater economic leeway or, at worst, barter their grains for other needed goods, these options don’t exist for the agricultural workers. The terms of trade are much more difficult for them, as is trade for goods itself, since it’s based primarily on their wage. The state supplies subsidized, low-price clothes, shoes and food in what are called CATs (Workers' Supply Centers). But even in APP operations such as the rice enterprises, for example, the food subsidies and other compensations received by the 350 salaried agricultural workers (there are 1,200 such APP workers regionally) bring a minimum daily wage of 455 córdobas up only to 600 córdobas (a top tractor operator on the same farm, by comparison, earns a basic wage of 27,750 córdobas a month, plus bonus incentives and social wage). Adequate mechanisms to respond to wage workers' demands are still indisputably lacking.

Five achievements

The proclamation of Río San Juan as the "first territory free of landless peasants" concludes a political, military and organizational process that began with the revolutionary triumph and later experienced a marked acceleration as a product of the counterrevolutionary war. Three years afterward this experience can be synthesized into five points:

1. The ARDE forces, led by Edén Pastora, have been defeated. The ideological message of this pseudo-revolutionary, pseudo-Sandinista and populist group, with its strong religious overtones, had many opportunities to gain support among peasants as marginalized as those of this region. The message certainly had a better chance than that of the Somocista FDN. Nonetheless, this support no longer exists, and ARDE, now under different leadership and in another region—the department of Zelaya—has been reduced to small bands of cattle rustlers and highway bandits.

2. Sandinista hegemony in the region has been consolidated. It can be seen in the 1984 electoral results as well as in the sustained growth of all the revolutionary structures and organizations.

3. The territorial and population reordering plan to assure defense and guarantee development has basically been fulfilled through the creation of 15 new peasant settlements in strategic points of the zone.

4. Regional self-sufficiency has been substantially improved and, according to economic indicators, is still showing positive growth.

5. The first stage of agrarian transformation has been fulfilled through the growth of the cooperative movement, tied at least in part to strategic economic activities such as African Palm, and through the consolidation of state enterprises that are increasing production. Now, as well, there are no peasants without land.

These results have been achieved in very difficult conditions. "The most difficult stage comes now," said Manuel Aburto: "How to respond to the challenge posed by the US aggression with a survival economy—this is the most difficult, and this is where we are now."

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