Land Tenure and Land Policy

Dominican Republic Table of Contents

The uneven distribution of arable land continued to be a fundamental obstacle to the economic development of the Dominican Republic in the 1980s. Despite active attempts to reform land tenure patterns, the basic dichotomy of latifundio and minifundio continued to be the predominant feature of rural life. According to the 1981 agricultural census, 2 percent of the nation's farms occupied 55 percent of total farmland. By contrast, landholdings averaging under 20 hectares, which represented 82 percent of all farms (314,665 units), covered only 12 percent of the land under cultivation. Land distribution on both extremes was notably worse. Some 161 farms, 0.1 percent of all farms, occupied 23 percent of all productive land, whereas tens of thousands of peasants possessed only a few tareas. (The tarea, the most common measurement of land on the island, equalled one-sixteenth of a hectare.)

The government was the largest landholder. The CEA and the Dominican Agrarian Institute (Instituto Agrario Dominicano--IAD), the national land reform agency, controlled the overwhelming share of public-sector land, most of which was derived from Trujillo's estate. The two major sugar producers in the private sector, Central Romana and Casa Vicini, along with several large cattle ranches, represented the largest private landholdings.

Data from the 1981 census displayed a land tenure structure that was essentially the same as that reflected in the 1971 census. The total number of farms in the 1981 survey was 385,000, up from 305,000 a decade earlier.While the number of farms had increased substantially, the amount of cultivated land had actually decreased slightly, from 2.74 million hectares in 1971 to 2.67 million hectares in 1981. The greater number of farms had resulted from agrarian reform measures and population growth, whereas the decrease in land cultivated had been caused by erosion, development, urbanization, the decline of the sugar market, and other factors. The size of the average farm shrank from 1,439 hectares in 1971 to 698 hectares in 1981, an indication of some minor success in land reform. Types of ownership were not so well documented, but government surveys indicated that individuals owned 66 percent of all farms, families owned 16 percent, and other types of tenure, such as cooperative ownership, sharecropping, and renting, accounted for the remaining 18 percent.

The concentration of land in the Dominican Republic, although it could trace its roots back to Christopher Columbus's parceling of land, had resulted principally from the "latifundization" of land with the advent of commercial sugarcane production in the late nineteenth century. The concentration of arable land ownership increased after 1948, when Trujillo intensified his involvement in the sugar industry. Trujillo doubled the amount of land dedicated to sugarcane, in a little over a decade. The dictator and his cronies seized as much as 60 percent of the nation's arable land through colonization schemes, the physical eviction of peasants from their land, and the purchase of land through spurious means. In the aftermath of Trujillo's assassination in 1961, the government expropriated his family's landholdings by means of Decree 6988, thus setting the stage for contemporary land policy.

In 1962 the post-Trujillo Council of State created the IAD, to centralize agrarian reform and land policy, with a mandate to redistribute the ruler's former holdings to peasants. Agrarian reform was hindered by the country's stormy political transitions in the 1960s, but it was strengthened in 1972 by legislation that authorized the government to expropriate unused farms in excess of 31.4 hectares under certain conditions. During the 1970s and the 1980s, however, the IAD made slow and uneven progress in dividing up the government's huge new properties. IAD reforms provided individuals, cooperatives, and settlements (asentamientos) with parcels of land. A range of support services, including land- clearing, road construction, irrigation, agricultural extension services, and credit usually were also provided. By the end of 1987, the IAD and its predecessor agencies had redistributed more than 409,000 hectares of land. The redistribution included 454 projects that benefited 75,000 families, or 460,000 citizens. In the late 1980s, IADsponsored land yielded 40 percent of the national output of rice, 75 percent of tomatoes, 31 percent of corn, and 39 percent of bananas and plantains.

Despite the broad mandate for land reform, a cause strongly advocated by the Balaguer administration in the late 1980s, many criticized the IAD's overall lack of progress since 1962. The greatest progress on land reform occurred from 1966 to 1978, when the government redistributed approximately 174,000 hectares. Reform slowed considerably from 1978 to 1986, when only 66,000 hectares were redistributed. Making land available, however, is only one component of successful reform. Peasants criticized the IAD's sluggish performance in transferring land titles, its providing mainly marginal agricultural land, and the generally inadequate level of support services caused by the lack of funding and the ineffectual management of the IAD. Only 38 percent of IAD land was actually devoted to the cultivation of crops in the late 1980s; 9 percent was devoted to livestock and 53 percent to forestry or to other uses.

After decades of wrangling, the Dominican Republic completed the 1980s with the issue of land largely unresolved from the perspectives of both peasants and commercial farmers, a failure most evident in data demonstrating an ongoing pattern of skewed land ownership. Frequent spontaneous land seizures and invasions by peasants of underused land throughout the 1980s epitomized rural frustrations. On one end of the economic spectrum, numerous rural associations, disconcerted by the pace and the quality of land reform, participated in land seizures, demanding "land for those who work it," an approach that forced the land reform issue into the judiciary rather than into the legislature. On the other end of this spectrum, agribusinesses complained of the government's inconsistent policies with regard to the expropriation of land. Some analysts viewed such inconsistencies as a deterrent to new investment in agriculture and therefore as counterproductive to the republic's efforts to diversify its economy away from sugar. Poverty continued to be a largely rural phenomenon and land a sensitive political subject, indicating that agrarian reform would persist as an issue.

Land Use

An estimated 27,452 square kilometers, or 57 percent of the Dominican Republic's total territory of 48,442 square kilometers, was devoted to agriculture-related activities in the late 1980s. According to a soil survey conducted in 1985, 43 percent of the country's total area was moderately suited, or well-suited, for cultivation. The Cibao and the Vega Real regions, north and northeast of Santo Domingo, respectively, contained the republic's richest agricultural lands and produced most of the nation's food and cash crops, with the exception of sugar. Sugarcane cultivation centered on the coastal plains of the south and the east.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress