Ecuador Table of Contents

Until the early 1950s, peasant families formed the vast majority of the populace. Historically, these families were isolated from national society, a pattern reinforced by the nature of traditional rural social life. Social arrangements aimed at self-defense limited the intrusions of outsiders. The individual "nested" within the protective layers of family, kin, neighborhood, and village.

Peasant links to city, region, and nation were mediated through powerful outsiders, such as foremen, landowners, merchants, priests, or law enforcement officials. Such relations were typically exploitative to the peasant, but they were also multistranded--however uneven the exchange, the two parties were linked by more than just the naked self-interest of the powerful.

At the center of the peasant family's life and livelihood stood access to land. Landholding not only assured the family subsistence, but also defined its status within the community. Adult participation in village social life demanded land; nonholders remained peripheral to the most significant aspects of the community's social life, such as participation in justice.

Elite control over most land, however, left those at the bottom of the social pyramid with limited options and created the classic latifundio-minifundio (small landholding) complex. Large landholders monopolized the most desirable holdings and left marginal lands to peasants. Sierra haciendas extended from valley floor to mountain crest. The fertile valley bottoms were assigned to hacienda production whereas the steeper lands went to peons. Costa plantation owners reached the same end by controlling riverine land with ready access to markets.

Historically, the traditional Sierra hacienda engaged in mixed livestock and crop production and relied on a "captive" labor force. On the eve of land reform in the 1960s, about two-thirds of all farmers owned some land, but still remained dependent to varying degrees on haciendas. Haciendas regulated access to land mainly through the huasipungo system. The huasipunguero or concierto peon was a resident laborer who received a plot of land in return for labor on the hacienda and domestic service in the landlord's household. Although precise terms of tenure varied from valley to valley and from time to time, they were typically disadvantageous to the peon. The huasipunguero usually had to provide four days of work per week to the hacienda as well as domestic service--an especially onerous obligation that required both husband and wife to work full time at hacienda maintenance for a specified period. Finally, peons had to participate in collective work parties during planting and harvesting.

A variety of subsidiary arrangements provided an auxiliary supply of laborers. Peasants from neighboring free communities often negotiated for the use of hacienda firewood, water, and pastures. These peasants, known as yanaperos, typically worked one or two days per month and helped out at planting and harvest times. Other peasants worked hacienda lands through some type of sharecropping arrangement. Some casual wage laborers or skilled specialists were employed as production dictated, but these constituted a very minor part of the hacienda's total labor force.

The classic huasipungo system continued in use in the 1960s in relatively remote but well-populated valleys. Near towns, where other employment was available, smaller holdings and more diverse tenure arrangements typically prevailed. Merchants and other townsmen frequently owned small parcels of land, which peasants worked through sharecropping agreements. Typically, the sharecropper had lands of his own nearby; he provided labor, draft animals, tools, seed, and fertilizer. The landowner and sharecropper split the harvest.

Landowners who wished to exploit the growing urban market (especially for dairy products) found it more profitable to consolidate their holdings and sell the less desirable plots to their peons. This process of transferring marginal hacienda land to peasants was most evident in Pichincha, Imbabura, and Carchi provinces. Elsewhere (in Chimborazo and Cayambe, for example) landlords simply evicted peons and refused to compensate them, treatment that fueled peasant unionization drives.

Sharecropping and wage labor arrangements historically prevailed on the export-oriented Costa plantations. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cacao boom occurred in the Costa. Sharecroppers on cacao plantations cultivated the crop in exchange for advances on the harvest. Plantation owners controlled most marketing channels; their economic clout came not merely from landholding, but because rental agreements typically obliged the sharecropper to sell at terms set by the landlord.

Landlords' effective control over sharecroppers declined following the 1922 blight of the cocoa crop. Sharecroppers either purchased their plots, simply assumed control of them, changed the terms of their rental agreements, or they moved onto unoccupied land. As cocoa prices rose in the 1950s, however, landowners attempted to reinstate their control. Tenants responded with efforts to unionize and, by the early 1960s, with land invasions and rent strikes. Workers on banana plantations, which developed in the 1950s employing wage labor, also tried to unionize.

Land reform legislation in the 1960s and the 1970s aimed at eliminating minifundio plots under 4.8 hectares and subjected absentee landholders to the threat of expropriation. The threat prompted some landlords to sell off at least a portion of their holdings; the main beneficiaries were peasants who could muster sufficient resources to purchase land. Land reform also eliminated the various demands for time that landlords had placed on peasants. By 1979, however, when most expropriations were completed, less than 20 percent of peasant families and 15 percent of agricultural land had been affected by agrarian reform. The legislation did little to change the structure of landholding, which remained roughly as concentrated in the mid-1970s as it had been in the mid-1950s. Nearly 350,000 farms contained less than five hectares--the minimum experts considered necessary to support a family. Almost 150,000 plots were less than one hectare.

The degree of land fragmentation in the Sierra added to the problems of poorer farmers. Andeans had long preferred some dispersion of their lands in order to take advantage of the diversity in microclimates in the region and to limit the risks to any given field. A family might have as many as twenty to thirty small fields scattered around a village. In addition to the poor farmers, there were more than 220,000 landless laborers whose situation was even more tenuous.

For the mass of small producers, agrarian reform simply increased the amount of time available to work on their own holdings. Most had so little land, however, that their own farms could hardly absorb the added labor. Some peasants, especially in the northern Sierra around Otavalo, supplemented their farming with profitable crafts production. Other families produced items such as bricks and tiles for which there was a local market. In these instances, then, additional time afforded a measure of prosperity. A survey of Sierra families in the early 1980s found, however, that fewer than 10 percent earned any of their income from traditional rural crafts. Instead, families with sufficient resources might purchase a small truck and market agricultural products.

The mass of small farmers were not so fortunate; those who did not have any plots to work or whose plots were too small to provide subsistence had to seek wage labor, since land reform regulations had deprived them of the option of working on haciendas as peons or sharecroppers. By the mid-1970s, wages, not agricultural products, had become the largest portion of small farmers' income. As nonagricultural employment expanded during the oil boom, peasant laborers increasingly chose urban employment over agricultural work. Fully one-third of all rural Sierra families surveyed in the early 1980s had at least one member working away from the family landholdings. Peasant laborers had enjoyed a measure of well-being during the economic growth of the 1970s. Both the construction and the service sectors expanded apace and cushioned land-poor peasants. The economic downturn that occurred in the 1980s, however, hit wage earners particularly hard and severely limited employment opportunities.

In the late 1970s, analysts estimated that between 370,000 and 570,000 rural Ecuadorian families lived in poverty. The worst levels of Sierra poverty were found in Chimborazo Province. Poverty in the Sierra correlated with altitude: the higher the family's holdings, the more limited its production options and the greater its poverty. Access to modern transportation was a main determinant of farm income in the Costa. The poorest coastal areas were found in isolated settlements, fishing towns, and villages in Esmeraldas Province.

The emergence of crafts as a major component in some peasant families' livelihood created the potential for intergenerational conflict. Children learned new production techniques in school that sometimes increased their own earning power beyond that of their parents. As some family members sought wage labor farther from home, those remaining relied more heavily on nonfamily wage laborers to assist with farming. Cooperative work exchanges declined in favor of hired casual labor.

The increased pressure on land also sharpened disputes about inheritance and divisions among siblings. Traditionally, inheritance provided the main means of access to land. Individuals began receiving parcels of land from their parents at marriage. Without sufficient land, a couple could not fulfill the wider obligations of sharing and reciprocity that were part of communitywide fiestas. With less land available, moreover, parents tended to favor the youngest son--the child who would stay at home and care for them in their old age. Older siblings increasingly fended for themselves or depended on the largess of the younger sibling.

The need for wage labor in the Sierra reinforced traditional patron-client ties. Former peons found themselves and their children dependent on powerful and influential outsiders as they had once been on landowners. Clientalistic bonds linked the powerless with those who could help them in finding work, emergency loans, and other forms of assistance.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the government pinned most of its hopes for a relief of rural poverty not on land redistribution but on colonization of relatively underpopulated regions, especially the Oriente. By the late 1970s, the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Settlement (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Reforma Agraria y Colonización--IERAC) had awarded 2.5 times more land in areas of new settlement than it had redistributed in agricultural reform zones. Further, colonists normally received a forty- to fifty-hectare parcel in contrast to the minifundio typically awarded former sharecroppers or huasipungueros. Land distribution in the Oriente was more equal than in either the Costa or the Sierra. The average Oriente holding in the mid-1970s was thirty hectares. Farms from 10 to 100 hectares--65 percent of all holdings--accounted for 83 percent of the agricultural land.

Migrants to the Oriente were typically males between the ages of twenty-five and forty with little land in their home communities. They began homesteading with a small amount of savings accumulated through agricultural wage labor. Migrants cleared as much land as they could on their parcel and brought their families to join them as soon as possible. As savings were exhausted, migrants had frequent recourse to wage labor either for oil companies or for more established settlers.

The Oriente's poorly developed transport and marketing infrastructure severely constrained Sierra migrants. Settlements typically consisted of a series of long, narrow parcels of land strung along both sides of a road. Roadside land was at a premium; as it was claimed, subsequent settlers repeated the same pattern of narrow rectangular holdings behind those already established. In the more heavily settled areas, homesteads stood four to six properties deep by the late 1970s. Colonists at farthest remove were six to ten kilometers from an all-weather road--a significant impediment in marketing their crops and increasing family income.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress