Agrarian Reform in Latin America

agrarian reform

agrarian reform, redistribution of the agricultural resources of a country. Traditionally, agrarian, or land, reform is confined to the redistribution of land; in a broader sense it includes related changes in agricultural institutions, including credit, taxation, rents, and cooperatives. Although agrarian reform can result in lower agricultural productivity, especially if it includes collectivization, it may increase productivity when land is redistributed to the tiller. Pressure for modern land reform is most powerful in the underdeveloped nations. See also collective farm.


Agrarian reform has been a recurrent theme in history. The Greek and Roman eras were filled with violent struggles between landowners and the landless. The land reform issue was a major factor in the Gracchian agrarian laws. During the Middle Ages, demands for land reform triggered peasant rebellions, including the Peasants' Revolt in England led by John Ball and Wat Tyler in 1381 and the German Peasants' War of 1524–26.


In the 20th cent. the Russian Revolution added a new dimension to agrarian reform—the socialization of agriculture (i.e., the collective ownership of all land partly through state farming, but mainly through collective farming under state control) as a prerequisite for attaining communism. Driven in part by the peasant's desire for land, Lenin, shortly after assuming power, decreed (1917) all land as state property. Landed estates were seized by peasants, resulting in approximately 25 million peasant holdings. His government's promotion of voluntary collectivization was ineffective, however, and after 1929 Stalin forced collectivization at an estimated cost of ten million lives. After World War II, the Eastern European nations under Communist rule implemented agrarian reforms following the Soviet model. Since the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe (1989–90) and the disintegration of the Soviet Union (1991) there has been movement, sometimes successful, sometimes fitful, toward privatization of agriculture in the former republics of the USSR.


China's Communist revolution in 1949 led, after the wholesale transfer of land to small peasants, to the amalgation of peasant cooperatives into larger communes (1958). An attempt to establish socialist agriculture prior to mechanization, the communes were much criticized by the Soviet Union. They proved inefficient, causing stagnation in agricultural productivity, and China later abolished them. By 1980 China was rapidly returning land to individual smallholders and promoting market-oriented agriculture with marked success.

In Other Parts of the World

In Asia, especially in such densely populated areas as the Indian subcontinent, agitation has been mainly for redistribution among landless laborers; for security of tenure; and for the elimination of middlemen, oppressive rents, and usurious interest. Agrarian reforms began in Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), when feudal fiefs and stipends were abolished. After World War II, U.S. occupation forces supervised further land reform. As a result, by 1949 over 80% of Japan's tenanted land had been transferred from absentee landlords to tenant cultivators. In India and Pakistan similar programs of agrarian reform were attempted, with less success (see Bhave, Vinoba).

In S Africa, where racial policies resulted in discriminatory land policies in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, majority rule in the late 20th cent. led to pressure for land redistribution. In Zimbabwe, wholesale land redistribution at the end of the 1900s resulted in near collapse of the country's commercial agriculture when land was transferred from white farmers to blacks who had little farming experience and inadequate equipment. Land reform has proceeded more gradually in Namibia and South Africa, resulting in greater frustration on the part of the landless but less significant decreases in agricultural production.

Latin America and Africa

In South America land reform is a major problem because enormous tracts of land (latifundios) are concentrated in very few hands with laborers no better off than serfs. Although the revolution in Mexico resulted in land reform (1917), the program of redistribution of land is still only partially completed. A land reform law also followed the Bolivian revolution of 1952, but by 1970 only 45% of the peasant families had received titles to land. One of the most complete agrarian reforms in Latin America has taken place in Cuba, where land reform was one of the main platforms of the revolution of 1959. Large holdings were expropriated by the National Institute for Land Reform (INRA), but most is managed by government officials and has not been redistributed. The remaining agricultural land is limited to a ceiling with tenants gaining ownership rights. Nicaragua's agrarian reform under the Sandinistas resulted in expropriation of some large holdings (1979), which after initial collectivization has been progressively redistributed to individual farmers, including returning Contras after 1989. Chile's land reform (1970–73) was reversed when Socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown.

African agrarian reforms have included distribution of excess land (Algeria, 1971); nationalization of all land (Ethiopia, 1974); and abolition of all land titles to be replaced by rights of occupancy (Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria). Tanzania promoted farming collectives (ujamaa) with limited success.


See D. Ghai and S. Radwan, ed., Agrarian Policies and Rural Poverty in Africa (1983); C. C. Geisler and F. J. Popper, ed., Land Reform, American Style (1984); M. R. Ghonemy, Studies in Agrarian Reform and Rural Poverty (1984); J. D. Montgomery, International Dimensions of Land Reform (1984); J. P. Polwelson, The Story of Land (1987) and The Present Betrayed (1989); J. M. Reidinger, Land Reform and Democratic Development (1987); D. Christodoulou, The Unpromised Land (1989); W. Hinton, The Great Reversal: Privatization of China (1990).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino
William C. Thiesenhusen.
Westview Press, 1995
Agrarian Reform in Latin America
Robert J. Alexander.
Macmillan, 1974
Land, Power, and Poverty: Agrarian Transformation and Political Conflict in Central America
Charles D. Brockett.
Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
Latin American Peasants
Tom Brass.
Frank Cass, 2003
Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954
Jim Handy.
University of North Carolina Press, 1994
Guatemala's 1952 Agrarian Reform Law: A Critical Reassessment
Trefzger, Douglas W.
International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Peasant Struggle, Political Opportunities, and the Unfinished Agrarian Reform in El Salvador *
Kowalchuk, Lisa.
Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The War of the Dispossessed: Honduras and El Salvador, 1969
Thomas P. Anderson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1981
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Land Reform and Expulsion"
Harvesting Change: Labor and Agrarian Reform in Nicaragua, 1979-1990
Laura J. Enríquez.
University of North Carolina Press, 1991
Agrarian Reform and Class Consciousness in Nicaragua
Laura J. Enríquez.
University Press of Florida, 1997
The Mexican Revolution and the Limits of Agrarian Reform, 1915-1946
Dana Markiewicz.
Lynne Rienner, 1993
Land, Labor & Capital in Modern Yucatan: Essays in Regional History and Political Economy
Jeffery T. Brannon; Gilbert M. Joseph.
University of Alabama Press, 1991
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