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Natural Resource Governance around the World

CENTRAL AMERICA: Fragilities and Limits of Agrarian Reforms


There are many similarities between the colonial and post-colonial agrarian histories of Nicaragua and Honduras. Both countries have been the theatre of ambitious agrarian reforms over the past decades, though carried out in very different political contexts. Their comparative study is very enriching. In the nineties, both countries were subject to structural adjustment policies and the agrarian reform programmes were put to a halt in favour of a return to market practices. In both cases, the accomplishments of the agrarian transformations 1 evaporated surprisingly quickly.

Given that the agrarian reforms were the fruit of a massive social revolt, which had involved heavy economic and human sacrifices, and were strongly supported by the State for many years, how come they turned out to be so very weak? The answer is not only of academic interest. The lessons to be learned from these two pieces of history should help to conceive of more efficient and sustainable land polices.

1 It might be more appropriate to say what were thought to be its accomplishments!

The limits of both agrarian reforms

Agrarian reforms were necessary because of serious inequalities in regards to land access, and they involved substantial government intervention. The examples of Honduras and Nicaragua show to what extent the return to market mechanisms can pose problems.

Far from preparing their beneficiaries for long-term land management, the way in which the agrarian reforms were carried out in fact speeded up the process of transforming land into merchandise despite intentions to do the contrary.

The flaws in the legal process for recognising tenure of expropriated land are often evoked as a main source of weakness in both countries’ agrarian reforms. Although they went a long way towards facilitating the issuing of property deeds later on, especially in Nicaragua, the real problems are elsewhere.

Even though international organisations stress the importance of issuing title deeds and allowing for a free-market system, these things alone are not sufficient for bringing about an optimal distribution of land resources.

  • Tenure security is not automatically related to holding a legal deed of ownership 1. Local social mechanisms that generally protect everyone’s rights are decidedly more effective.

  • History has shown that the region’s land markets 2 are imperfect, isolated and opaque.

The redistribution of a large proportion of a country’s arable land does not necessarily mean that an agrarian reform has attained its goals: in order to maintain what the agrarian reform had accomplished, it would be necessary to follow up by introducing certain mechanisms for regulating the land market. Yet this requires building a specific institutional framework, that will function better if it incorporates in one way or another the main actors directly involved, i.e. small farmers’ organisations.

Both of the agrarian reforms studied did not provide for such an institutional structuring of the farming sector. Likewise, they hindered the development of the necessary social capital.

The transformations were radical only on the surface. They were unable to alter the social relationships in the countryside or to shift the power struggle over land matters.

These two case studies also show that the debate between « total government control » and « free market », which is essentially an ideological one, fails to account for the full reality of the situation. In fact, such a debate shrouds the true roots of the problem while it hinders the possibility of weighing the real interests held by different social groups.

Several crucial elements in the failures or limitations of both agrarian reforms can be highlighted.

Rigid understanding of the individual and the community

Putting collective forms of production into place was a key element in both countries’ agrarian reforms.

Not realising that the individual and the collective are actually intertwined in a dialectical relationship and are thus inalienable, leads to the adoption of dogmatic positions that are not politically neutral.

In the two cases presented here, the most significant consequences of forced collective farming can be categorised into two types:

  • It prevented building realistic mechanisms and sustainable institutions for managing collective property, by imposing rigid and often irrational solutions;

  • It reduced the motivation of small individual farmers to fight for a more substantial agrarian reform.

Interventions that hampered change

Over generations, the structure of the family farming sector is in a constant state of change. For this reason, permanent mechanisms capable of adapting forms of land access to changing circumstances are needed, whether they take the form of inheritances, sales, leases, loans, or even through sharecropping.

By making most of these mechanisms illegal for the beneficiaries, the agrarian reforms actually disadvantaged them. In fact, they were forced to make the adjustments necessary for the survival of their crops in furtive, nearly or openly illegal, manners (selling plots, ceding land for sharecropping or rentals). It became almost impossible for people to take advantage of these experiments or their institutions.

Special treatment of the reformed sector and the authoritarian and interventionist role of the State in the reforms

In both countries, the reformed sector was under specific tenure regimes, for which the rules of the market did not apply, or not in the same way. The title deeds issued during the agrarian reforms were not genuine « deeds of ownership », rather they were « deeds of usufruct/use ». The land could not be sold or mortgaged; it could simply be conveyed through inheritance under certain conditions to descendants.

These limitations were established:

  • temporarily, as in Honduras, where after a certain number of years the title deeds from the agrarian reform became genuine deeds of ownership, once the beneficiary had fulfilled a certain number of conditions – using and improving the land, paying annual instalments for the acquisition of rights), or

  • definitively, as in Nicaragua before 1990.

It is true that this option avoided a new concentration of land ownership. However, the main reason why it was implemented was that it allowed governments to grease the political machine represented by the agrarian reforms and increased their short-term power and control over rural populations.

However, the uniqueness of the reformed sector was not only in terms of its tenure regime. It overlapped onto organisational aspects. The reformed sector’s farmers were urged to assemble themselves in a distinct manner, under the authority of the State, which provides certain sorts of aid. They cannot set up their own decision-making structures or intervene in the land market, because the reformed sector in which they work has been set apart from the regular land tenure system.

To conclude, in both Honduras and Nicaragua, it was the governments that direct agrarian change, leaving the farmers’ organisations to execute the models and ideologies it has generated. Farmers’ organisations are left out of the processes of conception and social experimentation. Consequently, the agrarian reforms are cut off from what the peasants were fighting for, namely seizing land.

The activities of farmers’ organisations are confined to:

  • putting pressure on the government so that it adopts agrarian reform bills, without objecting to its central and monopolistic role in land management nor demanding that their local decision-making bodies have more say in this process.

  • pressuring the government to hand over deeds for tenure originating in the agrarian reform, without discussing the nature of the rights conferred by these deeds,

  • disseminating ideological and political messages, what in Latin America is called conscientización, farmers’ « awareness”.

The farmers’ organisations of the reformed sector tended to be cut off from the abiding demands made by small farmers, which made them fragile and vulnerable, even though they could have wielded influence due to their ability to communicate with the central government. Neither did they play a role in resolving conflicts or in managing natural resources and land. Farmers’ organisations were transformed into executors of government-planned measures, and sometimes they internalised the State’s authoritarian practices and conceptions.

The divisions between the reformed sector and the non-reformed sector have hindered farmers from constructing a common vision. Likewise, the development of alliances has been made difficult. On the contrary, antagonism and contradiction have come to the fore. Pro-agrarian reform politics are stuck.

The agrarian reforms of Nicaragua and Honduras have taken place in such a way that the peasants who were supposed to benefit from them can in no way become a danger for the dominant classes.

1 In Honduras, the coffee producers developed without ownership deeds, and over the years have become the country’s leading exporters.

2 This is often the case, due to the very nature of the social relations that are forged around land thereby making it a saleable good unlike other types of merchandise.

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