Salvadorans Face Off Over Land Reform Issue

El Salvador's civil war is over, but an old clash between wealthy landowners and the landless poor is threatening the infant peace

HIS sweaty torso covered in sawdust, Carlos Jeronimo Pineda labors in the midday sun to put a roof over the heads of his eight children. About a month ago, Mr. Pineda, his brother, and two other families moved into this derelict, crumbling farmhouse, known as Finca San Felipe.

"The people who stayed and endured the hardships of the war deserve this land," says Pineda. "The Bible says the land is of God. It doesn't say it belongs to the rich."

El Salvador is one of the most densely populated countries in the hemisphere. And the disparity between wealthy landholders and landless peasants was a root cause of the 12-year civil war. Now, the same conflict threatens to sabotage the peace accords signed last month.

"Regrettably, the entire treaty rests on the land issue. And our government has a problem, a very big problem," says Ramon Aparicio, president of the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation.

Many of the coffee plantation owners in this eastern province, for example, were forced to abandon their farms in the early 1980s when the area became a hotbed of guerrilla activity.

Now they want their land back. But many of the old plantations are inhabited or are being occupied by peasants backed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), coffee growers say.

"They're occupying land the guerrillas used as a transit corridor and saying they've always held it. That's not in the spirit of the accords," says Jorge Mayorga of the El Salvador Coffee Growers Association.

Last Friday, President Alfredo Cristiani vowed to take "drastic measures" if the land invasions continued. The FMLN denies fomenting illegal land takeovers.

But FMLN leader and peace commission member Joaquin Villalobos told reporters the "stability of the nation lies fundamentally in the countryside. If landowners adopt a policy of trying to recuperate their landholdings, it will bring conflict.... If they don't understand that then we have accomplished nothing."

The peace treaty does address land ownership, building on land reform programs of the 1980s that have distributed land to about 25 percent of the rural population.

The peace pact requires property owners with more than 245 hectares (605 acres) to sell off the excess. Current estimates show some 80 to 85 properties are over the limit. State-owned agricultural land (except forest reserves) must be made available. And owners of land occupied during the war can "voluntarily" sell that land at "market prices" or have the current occupants relocated to available land in the "same area," the treaty states.

The Land Bank, which began operation last November with $3.75 million in United States aid, is acting as broker and financier for government and private properties. Landowners list their property at the bank. Campesinos and ex-soldiers (from both sides) will be given first preference. The bank offers what other Salvadoran lending institutions do not: a low down payment and 20-year loans at market rates.

But what looks reasonable on treaty parchment is already proving difficult to implement. Lack of funds is a major hang-up.

For example, the treaty says all ownership disputes in war zones should be cleared up by August. But money to finance surveys to confirm property sizes over 245 hectares is not yet available. And the Land Bank is counting on international aid donors to supply it with enough money for loans. It could be a year or more before those funds arrive, aid officials say.

Meanwhile, peace is bringing a boom in land prices - despite a 17-year low in the price of coffee, the main agricultural export. The average farm parcel price has jumped 20 percent in the last year. Higher land prices may limit how many loans the Land Bank can finance.

Gen. Mauricio Vargas, a member of the peace commission, told a Feb. 5 gathering of coffee growers anxious to recover their properties to "stay within the law. Present your case to the local judge. With the order to vacate, the armed forces can move to enforce the law."

But plantation owner Jaime Rivas Aberle was not consoled by General Vargas's counsel to rely on a notoriously slow judicial system. Three months ago, the family farm of some 40 years was taken over by peasants backed by the FMLN. He even received a letter of notification from them. Since then, he has been to three judges to get his land back.

"Nobody's done a thing," says Mr. Rivas. "Each judge passes the buck, saying, 'It's not my jurisdiction.' For years the war kept me from the farm. Now it's the legal system and that makes me even angrier."

The huge job of calming the roiled waters and making the peace accords work on a strict timetable falls to the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). This commission is composed of two top government officials, two FMLN leaders, and representatives of each political party. Land issue talks within COPAZ over the past week have been compared to the original peace negotiations: arduous and slow.

But perhaps part of the solution lies in reconciliation at the local level. The owner of the San Felipe farm, Guillermo Guandique, wonders if it is safe to return. "I haven't been back for six years. If General Vargas can't get them out, then we have to be realistic. We may have to sell."

Yet Pineda, the current resident of San Felipe, does not seem to mind if Mr. Guandique returns. "If he comes back and revives the plantation, it will mean there'll be work," says Pineda. He concedes his legal claim is a lot weaker than his moral claim. "We don't want a whole farm, just a little piece of land - something to grow some corn and beans for my family."

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