Land ownership in Latin America


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The International Land Coalition (ILC) was established by civil society and multilateral organisations who were convinced that secure access to land and natural resources is central to the ability of women and men to get out of, and stay out of, hunger and poverty.

In 2008, at the same time as the food price crisis pushed the number of hungry over the
one billion mark, members of ILC launched a global research project to better understand the implications of the growing wave of international large-scale investments in land.

Small-scale producers have always faced competition for the land on which their
livelihoods depend. It is evident, however, that changes in demand for food, energy and
natural resources, alongside liberalisation of trade regimes, are making the competition
for land increasingly global and increasingly unequal.

Starting with a scoping study by ILC member Agter, the Commercial Pressures on Land
research project has brought together more than 30 partners, ranging from NGOs in
affected regions whose perspectives and voices are closest to most affected land users, to
international research institutes whose contribution provides a global analysis on
selected key themes. The study process enabled organisations with little previous
experience in undertaking such research projects, but with much to contribute, to
participate in the global study and have their voices heard. Support to the planning and
writing of each study was provided by ILC member CIRAD.

ILC believes that in an era of increasingly globalized land use and governance, it is more
important than ever that the voices and interests of all stakeholders – and in particular
local land users – are represented in the search for solutions to achieve equitable and
secure access to land.

Executive summary

This study offers an initial approach to the problems posed by the concentration of land
ownership in Latin America, referring specifically to the recent processes in Mexico,
Central America, and the Andean countries. To that end, a double perspective has been
adopted: the twin trends produced by the economy and politics throughout the continent
as well as national cases with their historic and social particularities.

The presentation is divided into four sequential sections. In the first section, we present
the context of this process, recalling the changes that occurred in land ownership during
the 20th century and highlighting the existence of two clearly differentiated stages: firstly, the concentration in large estates generally associated with the production of raw
materials for export; secondly, more or less radical agrarian reforms that were accompanied by modernization projects targeting traditional structures. The result is the relative democratization of ownership.

In the second section, we cover the trends of neoliberal standardization arising from the
Washington Consensus that were disseminated and applied at the end of the 20th
century and imposed from the beginning of the 21st century. These trends have been
expressed in the adoption of new institutional frameworks (constitutional changes,
modifications of agrarian regulations, State reform) and the opening of national economies by means of free trade agreements tied to macroeconomic policy conditionality.

The third section identifies the consequences of these changes for agrarian ownership.
Thus, it can be seen that a new concentration is underway with different ends: new
agricultural activities, generally the cultivation of non-traditional products for export; the cultivation of inputs for biofuel; mining and exploitation of hydrocarbons, which tend to displace agricultural activities in the areas where they function; and extensive exploitation of forests.

The fourth section illustrates the modalities of concentration and their effects, through
case studies of Peru, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay. This detailed look provides us with a better understanding of problems such as the displacement of indigenous populations;
contradictions such as those related to mining on communal territories; alternatives such as State regulations regarding environmental management; and successful experiences such as the resistance of one branch of production in the face of the state of emergency experienced by others. Hence, Latin American reality is multi-faceted and complex, and as such it is difficult to make generalizations about it.

Finally, we present brief reflections on the future of ongoing trends and the possible
contradictions of predicting between transnational interests and national well-being on
the continent.


“It has been a long time now since we realized that our hopes for developing our country, improving the situation of our people, and expanding the opportunities within their reach depended to a significant degree on that important national resource. The history of the contribution that oil has made to our national prosperity is as pitiful as that of the crumbs that we have been permitted to take from the table of the old company …. Wherever it may operate in the future, the old company will never do so again in Iran. Neither through a trusteeship nor a contract will we cede to foreigners
our right to exploit our own oil resources.” Muhammad Mossadegh, former Prime Minister of Iran, speech at the UN in 1953 (cited in Kinzer 2005)

The first decade of this century has been a period of consolidation of new large-scale land ownership in Latin America. The path leading to the current situation was opened by the economic structural adjustment and application of the neoliberal programs that followed and were progressively consolidated in the various countries starting in the mid-1980s. After two decades of applying these programs, the new positioning of Latin American states vis-à-vis the international market has shaped a different reality in rural zones in this part of the world and has given this period a particular characteristic that distinguishes it from the social and economic context on the continent prior to the agrarian reforms of the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, if it is considered that for centuries the land problem in Latin America has been a constant and one of the central issues for understanding the reality of the continent, it is important to reflect on the conditions which resulted in the current process of land concentration, its characteristics, and what is new or old in this historic change.

The current land problem is reminiscent of the period of the banana plantations in
Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and the Caribbean, with immense estates (latifundios) operated by individual companies, illustrated so well in Latin American literature; the movable fences of the Cerro de Pasco Corporation in the mountains of Peru, whose cattle ranching division devoured community lands with the support of the police; and the agro-industrial complexes on the Peruvian coast that strangle small farmers for lack of water. From a certain perspective, for some authors (Bravo 2007) today’s problems are an expression of the persistence of the North–South relationship of domination that emerged from the Spanish Conquest. Similar to other regions where the European conquistadors discovered natural riches such as minerals and oil, Latin America was conceived as a territory for supplying raw materials, a place to “extract” resources.

From the period of colonial exploitation up to the installation of European and United States enclaves during the republican period, Latin American territory continued to be seen in the same way by foreign as well as Latin American governments, which facilitated resource exploitation by foreign companies.

In general, five elements that were characteristic of the problems preceding the agrarian reforms executed in Latin America continue to exist or have reappeared:

(1) the investment of foreign companies in pursuit of resource extraction;

(2) export of raw materials with no industrial processing;

(3) pressure on communal and campesino land resulting in the displacement of the original occupants;

(4) the lack of regulations or controls over the companies’ methods of appropriating lands granted in concession and;

(5) the concentration of economic power in certain small groups.

However, these elements play out today in a different environment and have varying dimensions in each country. For Eguren (2009), a substantial difference lies in the fact that in the context of globalization and the opening of markets, nations “internalize” the rules of the game determined by bilateral commercial agreements, which causes them to adapt and adjust their policies to the parameters established for exporting and the free market. This does not only mean that it is a liberal State that has retracted in the face of the market, but rather a functional one that regulates and controls in order to comply with the rules of the game established by the market.

It is difficult to refer to Latin America as a unit, since it is a subcontinent with many
internal differences. Nonetheless, we will try to respond to a few questions that remain
constants. What are the characteristics of new large-scale land ownership in Latin
America? Firstly, we would have to ask who the large landowners are. During recent
decades, the economic recovery in some countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile
within the framework of globalization and the free market economy has reconfigured the map of power relations in the region. Today, large investments do not come only from the developed North, but also from countries within the region itself such as Brazil,
Argentina, Chile, and also, to a lesser degree, others such as Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela.

A second characteristic is the types of resource on which this new land ownership model
is based. There are four types of capital investment: one targeting food-related agribusiness; another targeting forestry and based on plantations for the production of timber and its derivatives, such as paper; a third focused on mineral and hydrocarbon extraction; and the fourth linked to agribusinesses cultivating biofuels in monoculture plantations.

International demand for these resources has been supported in recent decades by free
trade agreements (FTAs) that have been established, or are in the process of being
developed, between several Latin American states and the United States, Canada, Europe,
Asian countries, and others. These agreements encourage the free market of land and
promote exportation and monoculture cultivation. In general terms, national economies
continue to function within a primary exporter model because international markets
continue to demand this type of resource Several years ago, in reaction to affirmation of the end of the oil period, a new source of energy emerged as a substitute: biofuels.

The possibility of generating energy based on agriculture (sugar, corn, canola) has fostered the formation of what could be the new “plantations” of the 21st century. Likewise, the installation of so-called agribusinesses on large tracts of land dedicated to the cultivation of monocultures of soy and palm, and the growth of areas geared towards the planting of pines and eucalyptus for the production of timber and cellulose, are today a part and parcel of the landscape of Latin American agriculture.

The third characteristic of the current phenomenon is the importance of the regulatory
frameworks that different nations have been creating, with more or less emphasis, since
the end of the last century in order to open the door to foreign investment and to grant
part of their territories in concession. In other words, the existence of new rules of the
game in keeping with a globalized world or, in reality, determined by the market and the
FTAs, as well as a context in which the rule of law, international regulations, and new
technology should allow for a greater degree of respect for local populations, their rights,
workforce, and environment. However, the current situation reflects the existing contradictions and limits between the economic model applied and the achievement of real rural development.

To paraphrase the Peruvian scholar José Carlos Mariátegui, the land problem in certain
countries of Latin America continues to be essentially the problem of indigenous
peoples. The conflicts that communities have with companies have perhaps never
resonated as greatly as they do today on the world stage. It is the indigenous peoples’
lands that have been most violently violated by the emergence and operation of mining
concessions, agribusiness, and mega-projects. Even when in recent decades formal
international recognition of these peoples’ rights has been achieved, many states have
continued without regulating and fully applying the existing conventions.

In some cases, governments themselves have countered the rights of these peoples with the supposed interests of national development and have defended companies to the detriment of the lives of native American peoples. The process of reclaiming ethnic identity that is occurring in various countries on the continent has gone hand-in-hand with the application of the neoliberal program. The history of indigenous organization is different in each Latin American country; in some cases, their identity has an older origin, whereas in others it is a process that was begun recently.

Nonetheless, in all cases the neoliberal offensive during recent decades has led to the strengthening and visibility of indigenous organizations and to much greater mobilization and opposition on the part of the population in the face of violations of their rights, principally the pressure that investments in their territories exert on the land. In those areas and/or countries where there is no indigenous population, small farmers are the most vulnerable actors; depending on their institutional and economic strength, they manage to a lesser or greater degree to resist and maintain their agricultural or cattle ranching activities.

In the present study, we tackle the problem of land concentration in various countries in
Latin America, with the goal of contributing to the analysis regarding certain questions to which it is difficult to find definitive answers at this time, due to the fact that this issue has only recently begun to be treated systematically. Some of these questions are: How serious is the current problem in Latin America? What are the peculiarities of the different countries? What are the types of concentration of land ownership that can be found? Which actors are involved in this process? What are the impacts that this phenomenon produces?

In the first chapter we provide a general review of the agrarian reform processes that
have taken place in parts of Latin America.

In the second chapter, we discuss the new rules of the game (national and international), which began to be imposed towards the end of the 1980s and have been consolidated in recent years. To that end, we set out the legislative frameworks that protect the type of economic development proposed by the different countries.

In the third chapter, we focus on some trends that mark the new process of land concentration on the continent according to different methods of land appropriation.

In the fourth chapter, we provide in-depth discussions of some case studies supported by the International Land Coalition (ILC) in Latin American countries, specifically in Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, and Uruguay, which chart the different situations in which the phenomenon of the concentration of land ownership is produced. This approach will help to illustrate the peculiarities and similarities of various Latin American realities.

We hope that a more diligent study of each case can demonstrate what lies behind the
economic growth that the various countries in this part of the world are experiencing. In
other words, at the expense of what and of whom are the emerging economies of Latin
America achieving a better position in the political and economic world order? It is
advantageous to place the discussion of the issue of extensive rural ownership within this framework and also in terms of the visions held in the past and currently by successive Latin American governments regarding their territories and the type of development that they wish to see implemented in them.

All indications point to the fact that in the majority of our countries, fences continue to
appear overnight and the terms of exchange protected by Latin American states remain
asymmetrical and disadvantageous for peoples in this part of the world.

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