Salvador's sweeping land reform: threat to left?

The massive land-reform program just promulgated by El Salvador's military-civilian junta is so sweeping that it could take the wind out of the sails of Salvadorean leftists.

This is clearly one of the hopes of the embattled junta, which announced its second -- and most far-reaching -- stage of land reform April 27.

The reform package puts a good 50 percent of El Salvador's cultivable land immediately into the hands of more than a million landless peasants. More than a million acres is affected by the measure.

Its scale, given the miniscule land area of this overpopulated country, dwarfs all previous land-reform efforts in Latin America.

For the moment, many Salvadoreans admit to being stunned by the scope of the measure.

"We expected some land-tenure changes," comments a local businessman whose own 800 acres were farmed by tenants, "but we never expected the junta to go as far as it has gone. It is robbery! I admit we may have lived a charmed life under the old arrangements, but why should we be made to suffer so heavily just so a landless person can get his piece of land?"

In many ways, the program goes beyond the demands of the Salvadorean left, which has accused the centrist junta of being no better than rightist military governments of the past.

It may be just a coincidence, but the left has been planning May Day demonstrations this week against the junta. As in the past, it had been expected to call for land reform.

On previous occasions, the left drew huge crowds of peasants to demonstrations, trucking thousands from the countryside into San Salvador. But it is unlikely that many peasants, suddenly given their own land, will take part in this week's demonstrations.

In human terms, 185,000 peasant families are receiving land. Assuming six people per family (a conservative average), this means an estimated 1.1 million people, a quarter of El Salvador's 5 million population, benefit from the program. Before the transfer, only approximately 5,000 families owned land.

The immediate-ownership features of the program give it a unique touch among Latin-American land transfers.

The reform package is not regarded by the junta as confiscation, for it provides compensation to the previous owners. There are likely to be many court cases that challenge the transfers however.

Eventually the new title holder must pay for the land -- an amount equivalent to the sum the government pays the original owner. But the new owners' payments are not due in full for 30 years.

Salvadorean authorities say that although production could drop slightly due to land-title adjustments, there will be no serious upset, even in this first year of transition. Officials have assurances from many of the new landholders that they will produce at least as much as they did when they worked the land for others.

The program comes on the heels of a change in junta membership and the junta's announcement of a commitment to land reform just after the first of the year.

The first stage of the plan occurred March 5, when some 367 large landholdings making up 600,000 acres -- estates of 1,200 acres or more -- were transferred to the agricultural laborers who worked on them. The April 27 transfer was the second stage, in which some 400,000 acres, intensively farmed in small units, were passed immediately to tenant farmers and sharecroppers who had been working them.

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