Salvadoran Peasants Fear Undoing of Land Reform

FELIX Lopez takes a break from sawing beams out of a laurel log to sit in the shade of a mango tree and tell how life has improved since his cooperative farm was expropriated from a landowner nine years ago. Orlando de Sola sits in a leather chair in a gleaming white mansion and laments that his land and hundreds of other big spreads were taken away and given to ``freeloaders.''

The two men exemplify a dilemma facing the month-old rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani: How to deal with a land reform program that is anathema to the right but is too deeply rooted to abolish.

Since 1980, the reform program has redistributed nearly 30 percent of El Salvador' arable acreage. About 120,000 peasant families have taken part in the program.

In all, 469 big farms were expropriated, with compensation that many landlords say was insufficient. The farms were organized into 320 cooperatives, of which about 50 have failed for economic reasons or because they were in conflict zones where leftist rebels are fighting government forces.

Agriculture Minister Antonio Cabrales says only 10 percent of the remaining coops are profitable. Critics of the reform program say the coops have reduced production and that peasants - who are not accustomed to managing large enterprises - have been unable to run the farms.

Although the reform's economic outcome is uncertain, it has been a political asset for the rightist ARENA government in its battle against the insurgents.

Peasant organizations, the centrist Christian Democrats, and leftists now contend the ARENA government plans to undo land reform without wanting to be seen as actually doing so.

Mr. Cristiani and Mr. Cabrales reject the accusations and say the intent is ``to reform the reform'' -- to improve production by letting peasant farmers themselves decide how they want to work the land.

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