Rural Society

Panama Table of Contents

The opening of the trans-isthmian railroad in the mid- nineteenth century and the Panama Canal early in the twentieth century reinforced the distinctions basic to Panamanian society: the dichotomies between rural and urban inhabitants; small-scale, mixed agriculturalists and larger cattle ranchers; the landless and landowners; and mestizos and whites. By the late 1980s, urban-based control over rural lands was considerable. The metropolitan elite not only had substantial rural landholdings, but monopolized pivotal political posts as well. Wealthy city dwellers also controlled food-processing and transportation facilities. For the bulk of the mestizo peasants, though, limited population and ample reserves of land made elite control of resources less onerous than it might have been, as did the fact that urban elites tended to view their holdings less as agricultural enterprises than as estates in the countryside.

Traditional slash-and-burn agriculture was the basis of rural livelihood for most human settlement on the isthmus. All able-bodied household members were expected to contribute to the family's support. The peasant family was a single production and consumption unit. There was a marked division of labor by sex, and most of the work associated with crops and planting was done by men. Mestizos recognized the significant contribution children made to the agricultural output of a household. Boys and girls gradually assumed responsibilities for assisting with the duties deemed appropriate to their gender. As children, especially boys, grew older, they received part of the income from the sale of crops or part of a field that was "in their name."

Agricultural production was geared to the household's consumption. A family typically kept some livestock and planted a variety of foodstuffs, of which maize was the principal crop. Peasants gained temporary access to land by entering an agreement to clear and maintain cattle pasture for absentee landowners. A family would agree to clear a stand of forest (ideally secondary growth) and plant it in crops for one to two years. At the end of the cycle, they would often seed the plot with grasses before moving on to a new site. Peasants also owed landowners a minimal number of days in labor each year. They faced further demands on their labor to build and maintain communal buildings, such as churches and schools, and to assist with certain public works required by the government.

Since the 1950s, however, traditional slash-and-burn farming and the system of social relations it supports have been in the throes of change. Increasing population pressure, the rapid expansion of cattle ranching, and production of a variety of other cash crops in the interior provinces have put pressure on the land base necessary to maintain slash-and-burn agriculture while preserving the tropical forest. Improved transportation has been accompanied by a rapid expansion in cattle ranching in regions hitherto inaccessible. The process as a whole has meant an increasing consolidation of landholdings and displacement of traditional small-scale farmers engaged in mixed crop and livestock production. The number of farms classified as family owned and operated has declined, in favor of larger units worked by agricultural laborers. This pattern has been accompanied by an increase in and intensification of land disputes.

The consolidation process has been particularly intense in the lowlands of the Pacific coast and in Colón Province southwest of the city of Colón. In these regions, the expansion of the road network and the increasing number of all-weather roads have given potential cattle ranchers access to the large urban beef markets in Colón and Panama City. Cattle ranches grew five-fold in size in the hinterlands of Colón Province in the 1960s. Similar forces had a comparable impact on the Pacific coast, where cattle ranching increased by more than 400 percent from the 1950s through the 1970s, and land values tripled.

The increased demands on the land base affected peasant farmers on many levels. Growing population pressure and the felling of most untouched stands of tropical forest meant a decrease of hunting and, therefore, of animal protein in the family diet. Peccary, deer, and iguana, once relatively common supplements to the mestizo diet, were less available. The same process limited the forest products available for home construction and firewood. Ironically, the expansion in cattle ranching limited the ability of small-scale farmers to keep larger livestock. The purchase price of cattle rose; and, because increased planting meant that animals could not forage as freely as before, they had to be penned or fenced. Finally, where drought-resistant pasture grasses were seeded, the forest itself regenerated much more slowly--limiting still further the land's ability to support an expanding population of both cattle ranchers and small farmers.

The decline in the land available for slash-and-burn agriculture and the increase in cash cropping also drew peasants more deeply into commercialized agriculture in the 1980s. At the same time that small farmers faced declining harvests and increased pressure on the family's subsistence base, they were forced to compete in markets for cash crops where the price was largely determined by larger-scale producers. Most of their production of cash crops was sporadic and in response to unpredictable situations. Difficulties in marketing placed small producers at a further disadvantage.

Sugarcane provides an instructive example. Farmers often planted sugarcane as a second-year crop in the fields they had cleared. The crop was pressed on the draft-animal presses some families owned and used for home consumption. As transportation improved, more small farmers gained access to large-scale, commercial sugarcane mills and had the option of growing sugarcane on contract for the mills. Although this opportunity offered the cultivator a possible source of more reliable income, small farmers were disadvantaged in a number of ways. Planting cane precludes using a plot for foodstuffs during the second year of cultivation. In addition, it requires hired labor, and small-scale producers were hard pressed to offer wages competitive with those that larger farmers or the mills themselves could pay. Finally, small farmers were unable to control the timing of their harvesting, which is essential for gaining optimal yields, because producers had to cut and transport their harvest whenever they were able to contract laborers and truckers for hauling the crop to the mill.

By the late 1980s, peasant families had become vastly more dependent on the money economy. In many regions, consumer goods replaced the traditional craft items produced at home, and hired labor was used in preference to labor exchange among households. Neighbors previously linked through myriad ties of exchange and interdependence were now bound by their common link with external markets. The amount of cash purchases families had to make rose dramatically: corrugated roofing replaced thatch, metal cookware replaced gourds and wooden utensils, nails served instead of vines as fasteners, and, in rare instances, gas stoves were used instead of wood-burning ranges.

Peasant families had a variety of subsidiary sources of income at their disposal. Men and women alike had opportunities to earn a little cash income. Women husked and cleaned rice for neighbors who could afford to pay, sewed, made hats, cooked, and washed clothes, while men made furniture. Those fortunate enough to own draft animals or trucks hauled goods for other farmers. Depending on location, season, and a variety of other factors, there was occasional demand for casual laborers. Such options represented a "safety net" that farmers took advantage of when crops failed or harvests were short. Nevertheless, nonfarming sources of income did not represent a viable alternative to agriculture for most families.

The general increase in cash in circulation affected various segments of the rural population differently. Younger or more highly educated and trained workers were able to compete for better-paying jobs and thus outearn their parents. Despite this, the impact on family life was cushioned because parents never counted on controlling their grown children. In one sense, families were better off because well-employed children were better able to assist their elderly parents. Where the increased cash purchases included milled rice, women were spared the arduous task of husking and milling rice themselves. Educational opportunities benefited all able to take advantage of them. Women gained in particular from the increase in employment opportunities for primary-school teachers.

In addition to peasant farmers and ranchers, Panama had the core of a rural educated middle class by the mid-twentieth century. Frequently educated at the teachers' college in Santiago, in the province of Veraguas, these educated sons and daughters of more prosperous agriculturalists and small merchants were of marginal influence in comparison with the urban elite. Long excluded from any effective role in the nation's politics, they proved a bulwark of support for the Torrijos regime.

Land reform legislation drafted under the influence of the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s recognized the peasants' right to land. Nevertheless, the law's consequences in the countryside were often unforeseen. The plots allocated under the law were usually too small to support slash-and-burn agriculture; they did not allow sufficient land for fallowing. And, for a substantial portion of peasant families, the cash outlay required to purchase land was prohibitive. Although the relatively poor were unable to assume such debts, the more prosperous were. Some of the more successful emigrants to the city managed to acquire land through land reform and rented it to farmers under terms equivalent to those previously available through larger absentee owners.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government attempted to model its land reform efforts on a collective farming system borrowed from Chile. The government acquired tax-delinquent properties and set up a variety of collectively operated agro-enterprises. The collectives enjoyed mixed success, however. They tended to be heavily mechanized and dependent on outside infusions of technical assistance and capital, while they generated only minimal employment. The most dramatic successes were achieved in regions like Veraguas Province where small farmers competed with cattle ranchers for land. Collectives were less successful in areas where smallholdings predominated.

Where small farmers held title to their lands--an infrequent pattern in traditional rural Panama--they often sold their lands to the larger, more heavily capitalized cattle ranches. The numbers of landless, or nearly landless, cultivators in search of plots to "borrow" for a season's planting rose. Substantial numbers of these displaced small farmers chose migration as an alternative.

Mestizo migrants from regions where cattle ranching was expanding entered the lowlands of the Atlantic coast and the Darién Peninsula in increasing numbers. Migrants arrived and cleared forest land (generally away from the rivers favored by the region's earlier black, Indian, Hispanic Indian, and Hispanic black settlers). The process then repeated itself: the new settlers remained for a few years until improved roads brought more cattle ranchers; the colonos (internal migrants) who originally cleared the forest then sold their lands and moved yet deeper into the tropical forest.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress