Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino

Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino

Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino

Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino


"Two defining features of agriculture in Latin America are unequal resource distribution and poverty among peasant farmers or campesinos. In this historical and analytical interpretation of agrarian reforms in six Latin American countries, William C. Thiesenhusen offers an examination of the accomplishments and failures of reform efforts. He argues that bold reform policies have frequently proved to be ineffectual or have been neutralized by other actions. He shows that although most campesinos received no land at all, those who did get land were unable to obtain the inputs needed to farm efficiently. In addition, inflation and unfavorable terms of trade have further eroded reform benefits." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


The purpose of this book is to introduce students and policymakers to the issues involved in granting access to agricultural land to the rural poor in Latin America. I summarize important aspects of rural poverty in the region and cite what scholars have written about agrarian reform in the recent past. The historical and social context is presented in subsequent case studies to aid readers in understanding some of the more significant agrarian reforms in Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Peru and Cuba could not be included because recent, reliable field data on these countries are lacking.

I conclude that agrarian reforms in the region have not done very well in ameliorating rural poverty, improving equity, or creating employment largely because of the multiplicity of their expected accomplishments and because they are vulnerable as policy instruments. Although the agricultural sector was more "modernized" after the reforms, most of the change occurred in the nonreformed sector and benefited those who were not peasants (of course, the reforms in Nicaragua and El Salvador are too new to be able to apply this judgment). The region's agrarian reforms, many of them limited to begin with, included built-in features that were inequitable. Furthermore, most reforms were not supported with much credit or technology transfer to beneficiaries. In other instances, they were neutralized by macroeconomic policies that channeled expenditures away from farming in the reformed sector and/or drove down prices for goods produced there. And the context of economic populism surrounding some agrarian reform efforts caused help for the poor to dissipate in bursts of inflation, which had an especially devastating impact on nonbeneficiaries. In general, government took away by stealth what it had given with a flourish.

In most countries of Latin America, the prevailing patterns of land ownership and land use are still wasteful and hard to justify. Modernization of farming, now proceeding at a rapid pace, has not solved the problem of extensive land use coexisting with substantial agricultural underemployment. Land reforms of the part are unraveling with neoliberalism and free trade; land reforms of the future must cope with rural-urban and international migration, pressure from indigenous groups, and protection of the environment, all of which complicate their mission even further.

As if to underline the importance of issues discussed here, on the very day this manuscript was sent to the publisher, an uprising by ethnic Indians took place . . .

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