The Land Tenure System

El Salvador Table of Contents

Historically, landownership in El Salvador has been highly concentrated in an elite group of wealthy landowners. Most of the good arable land in El Salvador was located on large coffee plantations, while lower quality land was rented to peasants, who grew staple crops. Because these plots often failed to provide even a subsistence-level existence for them, the tenant farmers often worked as laborers for the coffee plantations as well.

During the colonial period, a certain tension existed between the hacendados--the owners of private plantations--and Indian communities that laid claim to, but did not always make productive use of, communal lands known as ejidos or tierras comunales. Although some encroachment by hacendados on Indian lands undoubtedly took place, this practice was not apparently widespread, mainly because the Spanish crown had supported the integrity of the Indian lands. After independence, however, the process of private seizure of communal lands accelerated, aided by the confusing and incomplete nature of the inherited colonial statutes dealing with the ownership and transfer of land. The rapid growth of coffee production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led the government to formalize the favored status of private, export-oriented agriculture over subsistence farming through the passage of the legislative decree of March 1, 1879. This decree allowed private individuals to acquire title to ejido land as long as they planted at least 25 percent of that land with certain specified crops, most notably coffee and cocoa. Tierras comunales were formally abolished in February 1881; the abolishment of ejidos in March 1882 left private property as the only legally recognized form of land tenure.

During the twentieth century, the conflict over land tenure pitted commercial export-crop producers against campesinos who sought to raise subsistence crops--mainly corn--on land to which they rarely held legal title. Some campesinos worked under various rental and sharecropping arrangements; however, an increasing number functioned as squatters, with no claim to their land beyond their mere presence on it. This occupation of private and public lands was intensified by rapid population growth, the expansion of cotton production that removed further acreage from the total available for subsistence agriculture, and the expulsion of thousands of Salvadorans from Honduras following the 1969 war between the two countries.

As of 1988, the most recent agricultural census had been conducted in 1971, but data on the 1980 land reform program corroborates that extremely unequal land distribution patterns persisted throughout the 1970s. According to the 1971 agricultural census, 92 percent of the farms in El Salvador (some 250,500 in all) together comprised only 27 percent of all farm area. The other 73 percent of farmland was combined in only 1,951 farms, or 8 percent of all farms; these parcels were all over 100 hectares. Farms between 100 and 500 hectares represented 15 percent of El Salvador's cultivated area.

The land distributed under Phase I of the land reform program included the largest plantations--all those larger than 500 hectares. Phase I divided up 469 individual properties, with a combined area of 219,400 hectares, almost 18 percent of all Salvadoran farmland. Nearly 31,400 Salvadoran heads of household benefited directly from Phase I of the land reform; if family members are included, the beneficiaries totaled almost 188,200. Most of these lands were expropriated by the government and divided among 317 cooperatives. The government hoped that the economies of scale possible under a cooperative framework would keep the farms efficient.

The government guaranteed the former landholders that they would be compensated and had planned to pay them out of the cooperatives' earnings. However, because the cooperatives experienced major difficulties during their initial years, much of the compensation had to be paid by the government. According to a report released by the inspector general of AID in February 1984, the cooperatives established under Phase I of the land reform "had massive capital debt, no working capital, large tracts of nonproductive land, substantially larger labor forces than needed to operate the units, and weak management." By the end of 1985, only 5 percent of the 317 cooperatives formed under the land reform were able to pay their debts, in spite of US$150 million in assistance from AID. Many lacked capital to buy fertilizer, so yields steadily declined. Nevertheless, by the end of 1987 almost all Phase I compensation had been paid. The restrictions placed on Phase II by the Constituent Assembly greatly limited its effect on land tenure because of the small size of the plots. As of 1987, however, phase II of the agrarian reform program had not been implemented.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress