Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Salvadorans Face off over Land Reform Issue El Salvador's Civil War Is over, but an Old Clash between Wealthy Landowners and the Landless Poor Is Threatening the Infant Peace

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Salvadorans Face off over Land Reform Issue El Salvador's Civil War Is over, but an Old Clash between Wealthy Landowners and the Landless Poor Is Threatening the Infant Peace

Article excerpt

HIS sweaty torso covered in sawdust, Carlos Jeronimo Pineda labors in the midday sun to put a roof over the heads of his eight children. About a month ago, Mr. Pineda, his brother, and two other families moved into this derelict, crumbling farmhouse, known as Finca San Felipe.

"The people who stayed and endured the hardships of the war deserve this land," says Pineda. "The Bible says the land is of God. It doesn't say it belongs to the rich."

El Salvador is one of the most densely populated countries in the hemisphere. And the disparity between wealthy landholders and landless peasants was a root cause of the 12-year civil war. Now, the same conflict threatens to sabotage the peace accords signed last month.

"Regrettably, the entire treaty rests on the land issue. And our government has a problem, a very big problem," says Ramon Aparicio, president of the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation.

Many of the coffee plantation owners in this eastern province, for example, were forced to abandon their farms in the early 1980s when the area became a hotbed of guerrilla activity.

Now they want their land back. But many of the old plantations are inhabited or are being occupied by peasants backed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), coffee growers say.

"They're occupying land the guerrillas used as a transit corridor and saying they've always held it. That's not in the spirit of the accords," says Jorge Mayorga of the El Salvador Coffee Growers Association.

Last Friday, President Alfredo Cristiani vowed to take "drastic measures" if the land invasions continued. The FMLN denies fomenting illegal land takeovers.

But FMLN leader and peace commission member Joaquin Villalobos told reporters the "stability of the nation lies fundamentally in the countryside. If landowners adopt a policy of trying to recuperate their landholdings, it will bring conflict.... If they don't understand that then we have accomplished nothing."

The peace treaty does address land ownership, building on land reform programs of the 1980s that have distributed land to about 25 percent of the rural population.

The peace pact requires property owners with more than 245 hectares (605 acres) to sell off the excess. Current estimates show some 80 to 85 properties are over the limit. State-owned agricultural land (except forest reserves) must be made available. And owners of land occupied during the war can "voluntarily" sell that land at "market prices" or have the current occupants relocated to available land in the "same area," the treaty states.

The Land Bank, which began operation last November with $3.75 million in United States aid, is acting as broker and financier for government and private properties. Landowners list their property at the bank. Campesinos and ex-soldiers (from both sides) will be given first preference. …

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