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


The main purpose of this book of essays is to provide the reader with an introductory general picture of a number of interrelated topics about which much has been written in recent years in specialized books and journals and which are much discussed at the government level. Despite the importance of the issues involved, however, the general student of Latin American affairs is not frequently aware of their complexities. Up to quite recently the agricultural population represented the great majority of the peoples of Latin America and at present it still makes up fully half of the total population, despite recent massive growth of cities. That means more than 100,000,000 people, most of whom are among the world's poorest, most illiterate, most sickly, most oppressed and most desperate human beings. The causes for this poverty and backwardness are rooted in the history of the Latin American countries. Contrary to what is a widespread misconception, they are not due to the peasants' isolation from the mainstreams of economic life, and they will not be overcome by merely making farms "more efficient" or bringing modern technology into the countryside. Rural underdevelopment is the result of a number of economic, social and political institutions which over the centuries have created and maintained rigid stratification systems and a bipolar class structure. The low-status peasant groups (small freeholders, sharecroppers, landless laborers, members of Indian communities, tenants and others) have been permanently and ruthlessly kept at the fringes of survival for the greater benefit and glory of small but well-organized and politically powerful ruling groups.

Until the latter part of the nineteenth century this system functioned exclusively on the basis of various kinds of forced labor (including slavery and forms of serfdom), but again contrary to a widely held misconception, the introduction of "capitalist" labor relations (wage labor) in some parts of Latin America has not only not improved the lot of most agricultural workers but has actually contributed in many areas to their increasing impoverishment. In fact, the crudest forms of exploitation have historically taken place on the plantations and estates most closely linked to the world market, ever since the first slave cut down the first sugar-cane stalk in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century.

Among the main set of institutions responsible for this state of affairs, those that have traditionally governed the distribution of property and usufruct rights to land (land tenure systems) are the most important. These, in turn, have conditioned the economic and social relations between different kinds of landowners and between owners and laborers. Around these basic pivots (man-land and man-man relationships) have arisen legal norms, stratification hierarchies, patterns of social behavior and political power systems, all of which, taken as a whole, are subsumed under the term "agrarian structures."

For many superficial or ill-informed observers, the remedy to rural poverty is simply the modernization of agriculture, a purely technical or, at best, an educational matter. Yet enough has been learned about Latin American agrarian structures so that specialists in the field and, of course, the campesinos themselves, know that only drastic and basic institutional changes can bring about the desired economic and social development of the agricultural population. Agrarian reform is one such change, but it is a complex and delicate matter. In Latin America -- as elsewhere in the world -- successful agrarian reform has been associated with social revolution and has shaken the body politic to its foundations. It has been able to impressively mobilize large masses of people but has also called forth the determined and sometimes violent opposition of landowners and other dominant groups. The issue will continue to be debated for a long time to come, for it is not likely to be solved in the near future. Yet one thing is certain: the organized voice of the Latin American peasants themselves will have to be heeded sooner or later.

The essays in this volume address themselves to the various aspects of the problems outlined above. The first part of the book deals with the traditional agrarian structures, those that are firmly established in Latin America's history, but also with the various trends and changes that have always been associated with them. The second part is devoted to the issue of agrarian reform, its nature and characteristics, and also to the forces that support or oppose it. The third and final part of the volume deals with the social movements and organizations of the peasants in the context of changing agrarian structures.

Although agrarian problems have been studied in several scientific disciplines, the literature in this field generally approaches it from only one angle at a time. In this volume, an effort has been made to compile essays by anthropologists, economists, political scientists and sociologists, each one of whom examines the issues involved in a different light. The editor feels that such an approach is likely to provide a clearer picture of the complexities involved in this issue. There has also been an attempt to strike a balance between American authors and social scientists from the Latin American countries themselves and from Europe. The papers have been selected only on the basis of the light they shed on the subjects dealt with, but inevitably many excellent articles which would have enriched the volume could not be included for limitations of space.