C. America's stubborn roots of war. Skewed wealth, land distribution only worse after years of fighting

Mar'ia Leticia Corea, a young woman living in a makeshift shantytown here, will never forget Aug. 7, 1987. Not because it was the day five Central American Presidents signed their historic peace agreement.

``The peace plan is pure politics,'' says Mrs. Corea, stirring rice soup - her family's one meal for the day - over an open fire. ``Peace won't mean anything to us unless our problems are resolved.''

Her problems are manifold: living in a tent with her unemployed husband, making do without running water, electricity, and health care. And they are all the more obvious beside the swimming pools and cable TV antennae of her wealthy neighbors.

Corea remembers Aug. 7 for another reason: It was the day she gave birth to her only child, Ana.

During the past decade, millions of Central American children like Ana have grown up in a world of relentless war, poverty, and injustice - a world in which many of the roots of conflict seem more entrenched than ever.

A wide range of political analysts, international relief workers, and development specialists throughout Central America agree: The tap root of social turmoil is the region's highly skewed distribution of wealth, which in most nations has only worsened during eight years of violent conflict.

Very few people have grown richer since Central America's wars broke out. Millions have grown poorer, their numbers swelled by alarming population growth.

``If we don't resolve the distribution problem in Central America, we could soon be facing an even more explosive conflict,'' says H'ector Rosada, a political scientist with the Association of Investigation and Social Studies, a think tank in Guatemala City. And in a part of the world where agriculture employs nearly half the workforce and earns two thirds of export earnings, land ownership and use are the key issues.

Ever since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the land question has bred social tensions, which continued to fester even during the ``golden years'' of the region's economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Plantations of profitable export crops such as coffee, cotton, sugar, and bananas swallowed up land on which subsistence farmers had been growing beans and corn.

In El Salvador, for example, the region's smallest and most densely populated country, the proportion of peasants without land rose from 12 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 1975, according to a United Nations study.

The past few years have seen a wide variety of approaches to this problem - ranging from Guatemala, where there has been no land reform, to Nicaragua, where such reform is a central plank in revolutionary policy. By 1984, the Sandinistas had distributed nearly 3.5 million acres to 55,000 families, the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation, a Costa Rica-based research group, reports.

In between those extremes lie Honduras, where a cautious land-reform program has borne some fruit, and El Salvador. There, an ambitious 1980 law handed over the very largest farms to peasant cooperatives, but got no further in the face of fierce private-sector opposition. In these countries, some landless peasants seek new land, pressing into the hills, slashing and burning further into virgin forest each year as they exhaust the soil. That has had inevitable and disastrous environmental consequences, threatening the region's future capacity to grow enough food for its people.

In Guatemala's northern region of Huehuetenango, environmental degradation has already taken a human toll. Heavy rains in late September raced down deforested slopes, flooding low lying areas and drowning 12 people.

An even greater number of peasants have abandoned the countryside - pushed into bulging cities not only by a shortage of land, but by the violence that has racked rural areas in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Mar'ia Magdalena Fern'andez fled her home beneath the San Vicente volcano in El Salvador in 1979, when her husband, a rural cooperative organizer, was killed by the Army. Today, struggling to support two daughters and two orphaned nephews in the capital, she can only find one job: selling tortillas for $1.60 a day.

Between 1970 and 1985, the proportion of working-age Central Americans living in cities jumped from 41 percent to 51 percent according to the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), and their numbers are still growing.

They are growing partly because millions of babies like Ana Corea have been born over the last decade. Almost half the region's 24 million people are under 15 years old. Population growth has created fierce competition for scarce jobs, and prospects for future job seekers look bleak. Central America's working-age population leapt from 3.5 million in 1960 to 8 million today, says the IDB. It is expected to climb to more than 12 million by the end of the century.

Meanwhile, armed insurgencies have severely damaged the region's economic base, harming infrastucture, investment, and job creation. Without a massive infusion of carefully directed capital, the future seems to offer most of today's teenagers little more than continued poverty.

At the same time, there is little chance that while governments need to use such funds as they have to pay off foreign debts, they will be able to meet the rising demand for social services. From 1980 to 1985, despite rising demand, health-care spending as a percentage of gross national product dropped in all countries except in Nicaragua and Honduras.

Only in Nicaragua have illiteracy rates fallen significantly in recent years. While a Sandinista literacy campaign brought that rate down from 56 percent to around 20 percent, it remains at 60 percent in Guatemala. When a job-seeker is unable to read or write, the barriers of social stratification that have marked these societies are often nearly insurmountable.

First in a three-part series on the roots of conflict in Central America.

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