In policy shift, Nicaragua grants peasants ownership of land

Nicaragua's Sandinista government is accelerating a sweeping land reform program initiated earlier this year. The government announced an agrarian reform law in January that marks a dramatic departure from the Sandinistas' earlier efforts in 1981 to push collective farming on a largely reluctant peasantry.

The government is distributing individual parcels of land to thousands of landless peasants in the conflictive northern and central Nicaraguan highlands. According to government officials and independent economists, Nicaragua has distributed four times more individual land titles to peasants since mid-1985 than during the entire previous four years combined.

This move toward individual parcels represents a major shift away from the Sandinistas' earlier, more radical policies, which largely emphasized the creation of various types of collective agriculture units. Analysts say the shift is due to the low productivity of the collective units and the need to rally political support among peasants, who have long wanted their own land.

With an escalation of the rebel war on the horizon, the Sandinistas need to shore up support among the discontented peasants living in the war-torn countryside. Land distribution has been heaviest in Nicaragua's central and border areas most subject to Nicaraguan contra rebel attacks, and where rebels have formed their strongest social base among isolated peasants in the past few years.

The Sandinistas are also faced with the problem of the thousands of people displaced by the war. Many have gone to cities that cannot support them or to overcrowded relocation camps.

The move toward individual land ownership has been paralleled by a similar shift in pricing over the past year away from the socialist-oriented, state-controlled pricing system for domestic consumption of basic grains.

As a stimulus to producers, the state has lifted price controls on produce, such as corn and beans, thus backing away somewhat from an initial policy that favored providing cheap grain for urban workers. Basic food prices were kept low in the cities by government subsidies to farmers. But the subsidies resulted in intense black market activity by farmers and, in some cases, in a fall in food production.

The new land distribution and pricing policies reflect a re-thinking by the Sandinistas of their earlier efforts to move Nicaraguan society toward socialism. The changes implicitly recognize that Nicaraguans, by and large, appear to be motivated more by individual incentives than by appeals to the collective good.

At the same time, this year's agrarian reform law expands the government's authority to confiscate land from large landholders and reflects an increase of economic pressure on the upper classes.

The new law allows the government to take over any farm larger than 85 acres that it judges ``abandoned, idle, or underworked.'' Previously, the government only expropriated farms or ranches larger than 850 acres. The law also allows seizure of farms where the owners are not presently working the land or where they have rented the land to others. The former owners are reimbursed at a price decided by the government.

About half of the land comes from state properties expropriated from former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was overthrown in 1979. Other lands have been taken from larger private farms either because the land is needed for the public good or because the owner is ``unfriendly'' with the revolution.

Sandinista officials say they favor collective agricultural production in their efforts to build a ``new society'' of selfless, community-oriented citizens. But they now criticize their previous policies of 1981, which left many large private farms intact and mostly awarded government-held land of Somoza and his followers to peasants who agreed to collectivize.

``We made a mistake in not awarding individual titles before,'' said Orlando Nunez, investigator for a government-financed think tank on agrarian policy. But for people like Mr. Nunez the present decision is not a complete victory. He has been one of a small group of agriculture experts who, since 1979, have been pressing for a more creative solution to land reform. They have wanted new forms of land tenure, which would preserve the incentive of private ownership to produce but combine with it the economic advantages of large-scale common production.

But these plans have never been implemented because they did not receive political support from either the peasants, anxious for their own land, or Sandinista Marxist ideologues, who wanted collective farming.

The new program, which emphasizes the production of basic grains, coincides with government efforts to assure a minimal level of subsistence for the Nicaraguan population in the face of the increased hardships anticipated with the escalation of the rebel war.

Foreign experts say Nicaragua's large export crops that earn foreign currency will suffer to some degree as a result of the new land policy, because peasants will tend to cultivate basic grains rather than sugar or cotton.

Besides undercutting the rebels' support in the countryside, the program is, says an agrarian reform official, aimed at guaranteeing broad rural resistance to a possible US invasion. Along with land titles, the government is handing out rifles.

Political parties to the left of the Sandinistas decry what they call the creation of a new ``petty bourgeois class'' in the countryside. But the Sandinistas say that their program will eventually lead individual growers to seek collective solutions to their problems.

``We believe the peasants will want to move toward cooperatives,'' said Lucas Castro, a local official of the National Farmers and Cattlemen's Union. ``The work will be individual, but the peasants will have to organize and unite to obtain service and credit.''

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