Agrarian Reform in El Salvador: An evaluation

Martin Diskin | 01.01.1984

By Martin Diskin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985, Research Report No. 3


The agrarian-reform program in El Salvador has reached a point where it may be examined to evaluate its effect. The legislation that created it has been in place since 1980. All the land that was to have been distributed, with a small exception, has been given. We may now see that what was trumpeted as “the most sweeping land reform in Latin American history” is in reality an inadequate measure to redress the most serious problem facing El Salvador.

The root reason for this failure is that those who own the most productive land have dominated the economic system and have manipulated the political system to exclude the poor and landless who are used to plant and harvest the great wealth agriculture represents but not to share in this wealth. These wealthy people have been somewhat affected by this reform, but not enough to dislodge them from their monopoly of power. They continue to frustrate any efforts to genuinely reform the agrarian system.

There are four principal reasons for this:

  1. Since 1 982, the implementation apparatus for the agrarian reform has been in the hands of ARENA, the party most outspokenly opposed to reform. When the Ministry of Agriculture was given to ARENA after the 1982 election, that party had the opportunity to implement the anti-reform policies it had consistently advocated. During its period of control, which lasted until June 1984, it restructured the agrarian-reform agency (ISTA), asserted financial control over the peasant cooperatives, de-emphasized the social services they are required to provide, and laid the groundwork for the re-privatization of the cooperatives.
  2. The ratification of the 1983 constitution was accomplished through the same right-wing coalition that took over in 1982. This constitution effectively eliminated the available land for redistribution in Phase II. It speaks more about the sanctity of private property than the social necessity of agrarian reform. It represents a victory for opponents of agrarian reform.
  3. Of the more than one-half million beneficiaries of the reform, virtually none have experienced an improvement in their standard of living. This is, in Phase I, because of the systematic sabotage of the reform by ARENA and, in Phase III, because of the difficulty of improving the welfare of those who, to begin with, are very poor and are only given tiny, impoverished bits of land. Thus far, none of the auxiliary services and supports (i.e. credit, technical assistance) have found their way to the beneficiaries of Phase III.
  4. Although José Napoleon Duarte, the Christian Democratic candidate, won the presidential election of May 1984, he has been severely restricted in his scope of action. Anti-reformist members of the military, private sector landowners, and other right-wing elements, as well as present policy of the United States, all act so as to make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to carry out the social-justice mandate embodied in the original agrarian-reform legislation. Although he has been sympathetic to representatives of rural workers and peasants, he has not been able to satisfy any of their demands to date.


El Salvador has always depended on its agrarian sector. Agriculture has been the crucial determinant of the economic, social, and political state of the country. Although a very small country, it has enjoyed great productivity. But success in production has brought a series of social problems that have plagued the country for a century. The fortunes amassed by the few who control this society have been obtained at the cost of impoverishment of the vast majority of peasants and farmworkers.

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This legacy of poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy has led to increasingly harsh steps to ensure docility of the work force, on the other. The resultant social tension has been at the boiling point for generations. The numerous protests against injustice have always been countered by lethal force exercised by the military and paramilitary allies of the landowners. The most serious clash occurred in 1932, the matanza (massacre), when thousands of farmworkers, peasants and Indians were murdered. Concerned Salvadorans have never accepted the smoldering peace left in the wake of 1932 as a solution. Rather, the need for agrarian reform is a continual item on the agenda of social questions to this day.

The exaggerated land concentration and its attendant disparities between had to be solved before any significant development could occur. By 1971, 1.5 percent of all farms accounted for 49 percent of all farmland while 92 percent of the farms represented only 27 percent of the land.

The exaggerated land concentration and its attendant enormous disparities between rich and poor were problems which had to be solved before any significant development could occur. By 1971, 1.5 percent of all farms accounted for 49 percent of all farmland while 92 percent of the farms represented only 27 percent of the land, usually of the poorest quality. As a consequence 83 percent of the rural population were classified as the “rural poor,” living on incomes of less than $22 (U.S.) per capita per year. Three-quarters of all rural children under five suffered clinical symptoms of malnutrition. In 1975, more than 40 percent of this population was completely deprived of land, depending on agricultural wages earned during the peak agricultural season on the larger landholdings. With so much landlessness, the under- and unemployment rate was at about 50 percent.

One effort to respond to this situation was the agrarian transformation (transformación agraria) instituted in 1976, on a pilot basis, in San Miguel and Usulutan. This modest test, involving only 4 percent of the land and very generous terms for former owners, was successfully resisted by landlords, with military and vigilante support. James Dunkerley commented, “This failure to bring about a modicum of social change in the countryside, even when such a project had the backing of the military government, had a discernible effect upon political developments, especially amongst the reformist parties, which had set great store by the reform.”

The decade of the seventies brought a cycle of protest and repression that exploded in the military coup of October 15, 1979. The junta that took power at that time resolved to institute reforms that would ameliorate the social disparities and enfranchise the majority of Salvadorans, help them share the national wealth, and thereby establish an enduring peace.

An agrarian reform was the key project initiated in 1979. The United States quickly recognized the junta and supported its reformist trajectory. As the conflict heated up it became clear that those who came to control the government were seen as condoning, if not controlling, or even participating in large-scale systematic violations of human rights. Congress imposed restrictions on the granting of assistance to the Salvadoran government. The president was required to “certify” that the government of El Salvador was “making continued progress” in a number of areas, among them the land reform initiated in the Spring of 1980. This report assesses whether there has been “continued progress” in land reform. To do so first requires discussing what is meant by land reform, progress, how it is to be measured, its current state, and future possibilities.