Deal to End El Salvador War Threatened by Slow Reforms

Red tape hampers effort to sell land to peasants; US needs to step up its role

EL SALVADOR'S heralded but fragile peace is in disarray and threatens to collapse.

During the first four months of 1995, the time period for transfer of land expires and the United Nations peacekeeping force, ONUSAL, is due to begin departure from the country.

The three-year life of the negotiated settlement has been marked by a powerful tension between hopes for meaningful steps toward resolution of economic inequalities and government red tape and foot-dragging. War and peace hang in the balance. Yet the US government, which poured at least $4 billion of overt and covert aid into the Salvadoran government's war on its own people, is standing on the sidelines in this critical moment.

In 1992, El Salvador disappeared from public attention, its militarily unresolved war concluded by a historic negotiated settlement. The Salvadoran Peace Accords and their national reconstruction plan were heralded as the model for ending similar civil conflicts because of their provision for land transfers. Ex-combatants and displaced peasants would have access to low-interest loans to purchase land at fair prices from landholders. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged millions of dollars to establish the loan fund.

As 1995 begins, the land-transfer program has stagnated and threatens to fall short of even one-third of its goals before its April 30 cutoff. To date, only 21 percent of eligible beneficiaries have been able to purchase land. During the week before Christmas, 4,000 landless peasants and displaced persons converged on San Salvador, the country's capital, to demand speedier land transfers. They also want economic aid to integrate into national life former combatants from both sides of the civil war. They are anxious and becoming disenchanted with the accords' unfulfilled promise.

The Chalatenango example

The region of Chalatenango, and in particular the people of the village of San Jose Las Flores, provide a lens through which to understand what is going on - and what isn't. Five Boston-area cities and towns built sister-city partnerships with communities in the region and are witnessing the current deterioration and the potential chaos of a land-transfer process characterized by benign neglect.

Because of Chalatenango's isolation, marginal farmland, and poverty, land redistribution has strong support among the people. The region was a major theater of war during the 1980s. Some 50 percent of its population suffered damage to or loss of their homes. The Salvadoran Army forcibly depopulated San Jose Las Flores in 1983 in an attempt to clean out any pockets of support for the opposition group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In 1986, during the height of the war, refugees organized to repopulate Las Flores and other abandoned areas. Without electricity, roads, or water or waste systems, they re-entered a desolate landscape to reconstruct homes. They organized a collective agricultural program and a town council. They endured aerial bombardments and constant incursions by government armed forces. Yet the town, and dozens like it, survived the war and looked forward to the possibility of owning some of the land they had been occupying, defending, and developing.

The land-transfer program was designed to resolve conflicts between current tenants and former owners who fled areas such as Las Flores and now wanted compensation for the land. Nationally, eligible beneficiaries include 25,000 tenant-resettlers, 15,000 ex-combatants of the Army of El Salvador, and 7,500 ex-combatants of the FMLN. Thirty-year mortgage loans at 6 percent interest have been set up to finance ownership transfers.

The transfer process is cumbersome. It places on the current tenants the burden of locating owners and negotiating prices. Six of Las Flores's 1,200 residents are working full-time identifying and searching for landowners, then traveling to the capital or outlying regions to meet with them. This is a taxing project.

Hundreds of small parcels require official survey and certification in Chalatenango, but only two or three surveyors have been assigned to the entire region. Some owners who had abandoned property or had never lived on it to begin with were initially enthusiastic to sell, but withdrew offers or broke off negotiations when payment from the government land bank became unpredictable. Prices have risen with the delay, particularly with the possible introduction of electrical energy into Chalatenango's repopulated communities.

Peasants become pessimistic

Hopes for stability and peace among former foes are strained by government inaction. The residents of Las Flores are unable to plant subsistence crops on land they may not have access to by harvest time. They are becoming pessimistic about the ability of the peace accords to address land distribution - the fundamental issue of the war and of its settlement. A report by Hemisphere Initiatives warns, ``Given El Salvador's history of conflict over land ownership, it would be dangerous to underestimate the potential explosiveness of the situation if the transfer process remains bogged down.''

There is a strong role for the US to play in this crisis. USAID is the largest single funder of the land-transfer program. With its financial clout and organizational know-how, USAID has the ability to be effective. USAID must step into the process, insisting on more surveying and technical-assistance teams. A USAID study identified 50 steps required to complete a title transfer; USAID must intervene with the land bank to simplify that process. USAID must convey the US government's firm commitment to tying future economic aid to completion of the land-transfer program.

The European Community (EC), the second-largest funder, has entered actively into negotiations among landowners and tenants, facilitating timely agreements on price, often gaining the confidence of the seller. In the areas where the EC coordinates funding, it has hired its own topographer to survey land and has its own lawyer prepare the paperwork. Most significantly, the EC has pressed government ministries to remove regulatory obstacles.

It is sadly ironic that the US government, which throughout the 1980s eagerly beat a path to El Salvador with military hardware, has lapsed into passivity in the process of beating those swords into plowshares. We now have four months within which the US government can act. Sister-city citizens in the US are looking to Congress, the Clinton administration, and its agencies to do the right thin The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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