Agrarian Reform and Counter-Reform in Chile

Joseph Collins | 01.01.1979

By Joseph Collins, 1979, Research Report No. 1


Five years have passed since a military junta violently overthrew the constitutional government of President Salvador Allende. In these five years of martial law, the junta has summarily detained, tortured, murdered, and forced into exile untold tens of thousands of Chileans. Such human rights crimes of the junta are protested the world over—thanks, in part, to their documentation by such organizations as the Chilean Catholic Church and Amnesty International. On my own visit to Chile, I sought to measure the junta’s human rights impact in yet another way by asking:

  • What have been the policies of the junta in the countryside?
  • What have been their consequences for the well-being of the Chilean people?

Agrarian Reform Before the Junta

In 1965, a mere 730 estates controlled half of Chile’s agricultural land—over 25 million acres. By contrast, 45,233 farms were of less than 2.5 acres and 156,769 were of less than 25 acres. In the prime central zone, only 8 percent of the farm units controlled over 80 percent of the land. Almost half of the rural population were deprived of land ownership; they survived as permanent laborers on the large estates (latifundia), paid mainly in kind and with the right to use some of the land. Despite an exceptionally favorable ratio of people to good agricultural land (the countryside resembles the Pacific coastal states of the United States), Chile imported more agricultural products than it exported, with the deficit growing during the 1960s.

By 1965, the urgency of land reform could no longer be denied. [But] it was not until the Popular Unity government (1970-1973) that agrarian reform accelerated, under great pressure from organized campesino groups.

By 1965, the urgency of land reform could no longer be denied. Agricultural stagnation combined with pressure from campesinos beginning to organize unions (and, in a few cases, to seize land) and some recognition of the gross injustices in the countryside motivated the land reform of the Christian Democrat government (1965-70). While land was promised to 100,000 campesino families, only 20,000 in fact received land.

It was not until the Popular Unity government (1970-1973) that agrarian reform accelerated, under great pressure from organized campesino groups. Cooperative structures (asentamientos) were organized not only to rationalize the use of the land and modern equipment and other inputs but also to create structures of effective participation for the rural majority traditionally disenfranchised from national political power. By the time of the military coup in 1973, there were no longer any estates with over 200 prime acres. Over 40 percent of the cultivable land was in the reform sector. The campesinos were massively organized.

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The Junta’s Counter-Agrarian Reform

With a penchant for doublespeak, the military junta immediately set out to “normalize” and “consolidate” agrarian reform. The junta has sought to reinstate and reinforce private property at every turn.

Thirty percent of the land expropriated under the agrarian reform law was given to the former estate patrones. In 1,512 cases, the entire estate was returned. In other cases, former estate owners could apply for the equivalent of 200 irrigated acres, invariably the best land of the asentamientos, in exchange for the cancellation of the government’s debt of compensation for the earlier expropriation. Another 30 percent of the 20 million acres worked in 1973 as cooperative farms were auctioned to private buyers. The remaining 33 percent of the land was parceled into plots to be paid for over a number of years. Seven percent of the land is held by the state.

The junta brags that, unlike the Christian Democrat and Popular Unity governments, it has assigned land titles to individual peasants. Technically, the members of the asentamientos of the Allende years had not received individual land titles. “They have sought to erase the image that it’s possible to work in common,” one 47-yearold former campesino leader told me. Moreover, by handing land back to former estate patrones and by individually titling land, the junta sought to divide the campesinos. At least one-third of the asentamiento members have been excluded from getting land. The junta sought to co-opt the other two-thirds by making them think that they, too, are now landowners.

By what process did the junta decide who would receive the parcels of land? First, a military-appointed commission decreed how many parcels “capable of supporting a·man and his family” could be carved from what was left of the asentamiento after restitution to the former patrones. The number of parcels to be assigned was invariably fewer than the number of cooperative members. Then it was announced that those wanting a parcel should apply to the authorities and compete by a point system.

The system awarded points according to years of schooling, number of children (single people were disqualified), aptitude for agricultural work, and entrepreneurial capabilities. The system pretended to exalt “technical criteria” over “political criteria.” Yet any prior involvement in the management of an asentamiento merited negative points. Decree 208 disqualified from ever owning land all those who have ever participated in strikes, land seizures, and other conflicts with patrones.

They have sought to erase the image that it’s possible to work in common.

Decree 208 unleashed the most hateful ratting and other forms of revenge and division in the history of the Chilean countryside. People perceived themselves in a life or death predicament. Conversations I had with campesinos and transcripts of dozens of hours of interviews I read with campesino leaders invariably mentioned this bitter experience.

Many pointed to the special role the patrones played in the whole outrageous system. The patrones collaborated with the intelligence services to list those to be excluded by Decree 208. Included in the competition for parcels were non-asentamiento members—truck owners, local shop and other business owners, former administrators of the estate, and relatives of former patrones. The patron had the sole responsibility (independent even of any commission) to grade non-members of an asentamiento who had once been his employees. Many have charged that the patrones worked to get approved only “their men” who reportedly later leased their parcels back to the patron. The entire process of candidate grading was secret, but the general fear in the countryside (particularly because of Decree 208) prevented anyone from speaking out. Appeal to the commission was theoretically possible but, as one campesino with 40 years work on the fundo and now deprived of land told me, “No one would be so foolish.”