Agrarian Problems and Peasant Movements in Latin America, edited by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, 1970.




Agrarian structure is generally understood to mean a set of institutions, norms (both written and unwritten) and social, political and economic relationships governing the access to and use of land as a productive resource. The concept, of course, includes the narrower term "land tenure systems," but has a wider application. In anthropological literature the concept "peasant society" is often preferred when reference is made to a special kind of agrarian structure. Rural sociologists, in turn, have long been writing about "rural social systems." Whatever the names used, the various definitions offered are often ambiguous. Not only do they overlap, but the choice of one or the other frequently expresses no more than the specific viewpoint of the author who uses the term, with its attendant theoretical and methodological assumptions, rather than discrete social reality.

In the Latin American context, estructura agraria refers to a general situation familiar to millions of people. It affects their conditions of work and life, their position in the labor market, in the social hierarchy and in the political system; it determines their life chances and those of their children for generations to come; and it is deeply rooted in the history of the Latin American countries. Estructura agraria was an essential part of Spanish colonial policies; it has played an important role in civil wars, rebellions and revolutions; and it is today one of the burning issues that in no small measure contributes to the rise and fall of political parties and of governments, to the relative dependence of the Latin American countries vis-a-vis the United States, and to the hopes or desperation of entire peoples. So, regardless of the semantic refinements and scientific typologies, the present volume deals with agrarian structures in the sense that the campesinos of Latin America are living them.

The traditional agrarian structures in Latin America have evolved over a period of several hundred years. They have their roots in Spanish (and for Brazil, Portuguese) colonial policy as well as, for some countries, in pre-Hispanic society. In some parts of the subcontinent quite elaborate agrarian structures existed before European colonization. This was particularly the case among the Incas in the Andes and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. In fact, there are some surprising parallels between Incas and Aztecs as far as social structure is concerned. In both areas, the basic social and landowning unit was a localized extended kinship group known as calpulli among the Aztecs and ayllu among the Incas. Within these groups land was communal property, but it was periodically subdivided among its members and tilled on a family basis. Besides the cultivable area there existed common lands to which everybody in the group had indiscriminate access. These forms of basic communal tenure coincided with similar medieval European institutions that the Spaniards were familiar with, which is one of the reasons why after the Conquest the new overlords did not do away with them. Local communal land tenure systems have thus been able to survive to the present day, though in modified form, in those countries where they were once the basic form of agrarian structure.

Besides communal lands, other systems of tenure existed in pre-Hispanic society. The king or emperor possessed land which served for the maintenance of the royal family and the court. The common peasants of the calpulli and ayllu were required to render service to their king by cultivating these plots. Occasionally, slave labor was also used, but slavery was not an important economic institution among native Indian peoples in America.

The nobility or aristocracy which occupied the upper echelons of the state structures possessed their own lands, as did the priestly class which played an important role both in Inca and Aztec cultures. Various forms of forced collective or servile labor were used for their cultivation. In the later stages of the early empires, shortly before the Spanish Conquest, a class of professional warriors became increasingly important, and they received land from the emperor in the conquered areas which was worked for their benefit by the local population. Among the Incas, the state bureaucracy which grew up in relation with the administration of the conquered provinces also received the right to exact tribute in labor for the cultivation of the land which the emperor set aside for them.

The private property of land had not developed among the pre-Hispanic populations, but some students suggest that incipient forms of private appropriation could be seen in some of the tenure classes that have just been mentioned. However this may be, there does not appear to have existed a market for land.

Among the Incas, the peasants who lived in the ayllus had to render tribute to the state, either in kind or in services. Surplus agricultural produce was then redistributed by the bureaucracy to the nonagricultural classes of the society. Tribute in services took the form of labor obligations at periodic intervals not only for the cultivation of land, but also for the construction of public works (roads, temples, terraces). Similar collective labor, both for the common welfare and the benefit of the ruling groups, existed among the Aztecs.

In other areas of Latin America, where no higher civilizations such as these had evolved, there was a great variety of situations concerning the use and ownership of land. Among most Indian groups, particularly those in the tropical forests, access to land was not a problem because it was widely available and the population was small. Among the more sedentary tribes, particularly the circum-Caribbean peoples, several forms of intensive horticulture had developed, and here fairly well established societal norms and rules for the distribution and use of productive land became common, even though complex state structures such as those described previously did not exist.

The native agrarian structures suddenly suffered the impact of the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century. Both the nature of the Conquest and the "model" of agrarian structure that the Spaniards brought with them were to set the characteristics of rural society in Spanish America for the next four hundred years.

One of the important features to keep in mind is that the conquest of America by the Spanish Crown was not so much a state policy, such as the more recent colonial conquests of Africa and some Asian countries, but rather a series of private undertakings, subscribed to by important mercantile interests, with the participation of the state. The private companies involved very often invested considerable sums of money, some of which were financed by Dutch and English interests, and, of course, they wanted quick and substantial returns. The Crown was content to reap the "royal fifth" of all the new wealth, and only later, once the military conquest had been completed, did it take on an active role in the administration and government of the vast new empire. As soon as it became obvious that pillage and trade would not go very far (the ornamental gold accumulated by the Aztec and Inca kings simply whetted the appetities of the avid conquistadores), new sources of wealth were found in the gold and silver mines of the central highlands (in Peru as well as in Mexico), and in the tropical lowland cultivation of sugar cane for the expanding European market.

Three main factors were thus involved in the need to develop an agrarian policy: reward and compensation for the soldiers who took part in the conquest; the organization of production in tropical and subtropical sugar plantations (later joined by other export crops); and the provision of adequate supplies of food and fibers to the mining and urban centers. The agrarian structure that evolved during colonial times in answer to these three needs had two main ingredients: a system of land tenure and distribution, and a number of rural labor policies.

The soldiers and adventurers had conquered this vast continent from the Rocky Mountains to Tierra del Fuego in the name of the cross and the crown. To compensate them the Spanish king set up a system of land grants (mercedes reales), which form the basis of the large private properties (haciendas, fincas, estancias, as they are variously known) that came to characterize rural Latin America in later centuries. Some of the conquerors were also rewarded with encomiendas, whereby they had the right to exact tribute in kind, money and services from the native peasants, without however directly taking over their land. After a few generations the original purpose of the encomienda had been forgotten and it may be considered as another principal source of the hacienda system.

Sugar-cane production took place mainly in the Caribbean and in Brazil. But sugar was only the first of a long series of highly marketable products which determined the various economic cycles that most Latin American countries have experienced. Over the years, cacao, coffee, cotton, bananas, wheat, rubber, hides and meat became the decisive factor, for a shorter or longer period, in the economies of the different countries. Most of these crops or animal products came (and still come) from the large haciendas or plantations. Their production required not only the concentration of land and water resources in the hands of a small landowning class, but also -- and especially -- the constant flow of an adequate supply of labor. This was achieved through the establishment of a number of labor policies, the first of which was the attempt by the colonizers to enslave the native Indian population. When this became impracticable, for a number of reasons, and after the enslavement of the Indians was banned by the Spanish Crown, several alternatives were used. One of them was the importation of African slave labor for work on the tropical plantations, where a native local labor force was unavailable. The African slave trade continued for three centuries and became the very basis upon which the agricultural economies of the coastal areas flourished. Slavery was only abolished after the wars of independence early in the nineteenth century in most countries, and in some of them it lingered on till the second half of that century.

In the highland areas, which were more densely populated than the tropical lowlands, the encomienda was only the first of a series of institutions whereby servile Indian labor became available to the large landowners. It was soon supplemented by the forced collective labor of entire Indian populations, under the management of local administrations. It was for this purpose that the Spaniards maintained and took advantage of similar institutions which had existed among the Incas (mita) and the Aztec (catequitl), but they transformed them to suit their own interests regardless of the needs of the local native communities, and turned them into forms of virtual slavery. Finally, the system of peonage evolved (known under different names in the different countries), whereby the peasant became attached to the estate and was obliged to render a certain number of days of labor per week or month, in exchange for the right to cultivate a plot of land for himself, and various other minor rewards. Whereas the other forms of labor eventually disappeared or changed their nature, peonage, in its various manifestations, became rooted in the agrarian structure of Latin America, and has endured to the present day.

The local landowning aristocracy and the Spanish administration did not always see eye to eye on agrarian matters. In fact, all through the colonial period, the royal government attempted to limit the economic and political power of the hacendados, by furthering, on the one hand, rural settlement of small Spanish agriculturists (the freehold or homestead), and on the other, by protecting and attempting to strengthen the landowning Indian community. In the long run, however, the small freehold and the Indian community were no match for the monopolistic hacienda, which was able to effectively reduce their resource base by taking over a good part of their land and to maintain them as additional suppliers of labor, thus in fact making both the Indian community and the small independent freehold dependent upon occasional or periodic employment by the large estates. Thus arose the latifundio-minifundio complex in Latin America, the organic structure through which up to the present day the greater part of the rural population is integrated into the prevailing agrarian system.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the largest single landowner was the Church, and in view of the fact that the Church-owned lands had become a dead weight by being subtracted from the land market, the laissez faire-minded reformers and the nascent bourgeoisie of that period decided to expropriate the Church and to throw the land on the free market. This provoked a number of conflicts and civil wars, but instead of promoting the formation of a progressive rural middle class, as the liberal statesmen had hoped, it merely led to a renewed concentration of land in private hands. The process likewise affected the remaining Indjan communities, whose land was expected by the reformers to become the private property of its individual members. Nevertheless, the growth of the haciendas plus the sudden importance of new commercial crops such as coffee, led to the disappearance of many of these small proprietors and their incorporation into the peonage system. This process was of course more pronounced in some countries than in others. Those that did not have important Indian populations still underwent a tendency toward the concentration of private landholdings, in some cases through the private appropriation of large expanses of publicly owned lands.

This, briefly, has been the nature of the process leading to the traditional agrarian structures of contemporary Latin America. To be sure, variations and special situations exist. In Brazil, due to Portuguese policies which differed somewhat from those of the Spaniards, slavery played a much more important part in the development of the country and, on the other hand, the massive immigration of European (Portuguese, German, Italian) and, more recently, Japanese, agriculturists has marked the rural picture in some areas. In a few countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, the special characteristics of an extensive cattle economy with reduced labor requirements makes for quite a different situation. In the frontier areas where spontaneous settlement or directed colonization has taken place, the small freeholder or squatter, not linked to a hacienda economy, finds himself in still another kind of agrarian situation.

The articles in this section deal with the traditional agrarian structures, that is, with those systems that are the result of the processes described and that have not yet been deeply affected by recent changes such as the mechanization of agricultural production or, particularly, land reform. Nevertheless, as will be seen, it would be a mistake to believe that these traditional structures have been completely immutable or marginal to the broader economic and social changes of society. Despite some of their permanent or recurrent characteristics, they have been sufficiently flexible to adjust to changing historical situations. Andrew Pearse, a British sociologist, draws attention to the way in which different neighborhood groups (either smallholder communities or large estates) have reacted to changing trends in the countryside. He provides comparative material drawn from several South American countries. Finally, Barraclough and Domike, two agricultural economists, summarize the findings of an ambitious study carried out by the Inter-American Committee for Agricultural Development in seven Latin American countries, and develop a solid case for the need to carry out land reforms.