Many Salvador peasants find only disappointment in land reform. Sharecroppers who scrimped for years to buy land wind up with eviction notices

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A few of the peasants were angry but most just looked shocked. The week before, the National Guard had delivered them eviction orders, saying that they had two weeks to clear off the small lots of land that they had been working for the last five years to pay off.

They unwrapped their carefully kept yearly payment receipts -- receipts the illiterate farmers were told had no legal validity in the absence of a formal written contract.

The 25 peasant families here will lose the land that they had thought they were buying. Their story is a common one in El Salvador.

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This is a rural country and much of the rural population owns no land. At the time of the last official census, which was taken in 1975, 40 percent of El Salvador's population was landless, and the ranks of landless peasants have expanded rapidly during the last three decades, according to one social scientist who has written extensively about the Salvadorean countryside.

These peasants formed a base for the revolutionary movement that organized in the early 1970s. They are viewed by analysts as a political time bomb -- one that the government tried to defuse in 1980 by enacting an agarian reform. But many peasants, like those in Metalio, were never benefited by the reform and have fallen between the cracks.

Five years ago, say the Metalio peasants, they had seen signs for the sale of lots of land. They had contacted the owner, Ricardo Gutierrez, and orally agreed on purchase terms. After an initial down payment of $75, each of the 25 peasant families paid an average of $65 a year -- a pittance by US standards, but a major investment for farm laborers who usually make between $1.50 and $2.00 a day during the four or five months when work is available on the large haciendas.

But Mr. Gutierrez had also used the land as security for a $7,500 loan that he did not pay back before moving to the United States. For this reason, the land passed to the lender, Luis Jacobo, who died shortly thereafter. Now Mr. Jacobo's children want to sell the land, part of their inheritance, and have started legal proceedings to evict the families.

``They're just going to throw us into the street,'' said one of the men. ``Where are we going to go? We have nowhere to go.''

Recently the group of families, holding their receipts wrapped in newspaper and cheap twine, looked like refugees. Their eyes had a numbed, far-away look. They had made the down payments for the land by selling off their chickens and pigs -- their version of savings accounts.

They had built shacks that kept the rain off their heads, although the walls were only cardboard. Most of the families had dug wells and planted fruit trees. They had used barbed wire to fence off the small plots of corn and beans that helped them survive the year. The cracked, sunbaked soil isn't very good, but for many of the families it was the only land they had ever owned.

For many, the situation had a feeling of d'ej`a vu. These people had come here five years ago when landowners kicked them off the land on which they had previously lived. It was 1980 and the government had just instituted an agrarian reform. The third phase of the reform permited peasants who were renting land to apply to purchase it. But the large landowners were frightened by the prospect of their renters and sharecroppers applying for their land.

The owner of the hacienda where Filoberto Torres lived with his wife and three children said he was going to sell.

``His lawyer came and said he wanted to clear us off the land so he could sell it,'' Mr. Torres said of his landlord. ``He threatened to bring the grosero [the National Guard].'' Torres said the owner eventually sold the plot and moved to the US.

His predicament fits a familiar pattern here.

``It happens all the time,'' says Orlando Arrevelo, the president of the Association of Integrated Agricultural Cooperatives, a federation of peasant cooperatives.

The roots of the problem go back to the 1870s, when coffee became profitable and the government, tending the interests of large landowners, abolished the traditional communal landholding system. Owners were allowed to push Indians off their land. That set the stage for the 1932 peasant uprising which was brutally surpressed by the landowners and military. By 1975 El Salvador had 1,800,000 landless people. The landless were starting to form a strong base for the leftist peasant movement that grew in the 1970s despite government repression. In 1980 the Christian Democratic government instituted an agrarian reform program, designed at least in part to take the land issue away from the poltitical left.

But now the 25 Metalio families look likely to join the ranks of the landless again.

Nevertheless, the families are better off than some. They are members of an organization of indigenous people that has helped publicize their case. Organizers counsel the families to remain on the land until they are forcibly removed. But they caution the families against physically confronting the National Guard, long one of the country's most feared military forces.

Still, people here say the guard ``seemed to sympathize'' when eviction orders were delivered.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the peasants is trying to work out a compromise with the owners, so that the families can remain on the land and pay rent or be reimbursed for the improvements and the payments they have already made.

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