Nicaragua's agrarian reform and revolution 40 years on

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Members of the first Canadian Farmers Brigade to Nicaragua attend the January 1985 inauguration of Daniel Ortega as FSLN President. Photo credit: Lois Ross

Recent violent events in Nicaragua, as noted in my previous column, are forcing some of us on the left to take a hard look at power -- and how even power on the left can corrupt.

To better understand present-day events, harken back to Nicaragua at the time of the Sandinista Revolution and the agrarian reform which was to have lifted the poorest citizens out of poverty.

From 1936 to 1979 Nicaragua was governed by a series of Somoza regimes -- regimes that prioritized private property rights and pursued the model of an export-driven, market-oriented, large-scale commercial agriculture system. These policies resulted in an economy where rural land ownership was concentrated in the hands of relatively few Nicaraguans who operated farms producing coffee, cotton, sugar, tobacco, and beef for export, largely to the United States. While on the outside this model might have appeared successful, it was accompanied by high rates of rural landlessness and extreme poverty. This country profile provides some of the context.

The Sandinistas came to power in 1979 because of strong, popular resistance to the Somoza dictatorship, and because the Sandinistas offered a principled alternative, particularly for the poorest of Nicaraguans. Among the many important programs of the Sandinista Revolution was the agrarian reform. Under Somoza, and prior to the revolution, four per cent of the land was farmed by 70 per cent of farmers, most of them poor peasant farmers known as campesinos. Meanwhile, fewer than 2,000 people owned more than 50 per cent of the land and less than five per cent of the population controlled 85 per cent of the land.

Reforming agriculture and land ownership

In 1979 the iconic Daniel Ortega, along with nine commandantes and many thousands of supporters, ousted the lengthy Somoza dictatorship. Almost as soon as the Sandinistas came to power, they began implementing reforms to alleviate the country's incredible poverty rate. Only days after stepping into power, the Sandinistas created the Nicaraguan Institute for the Agrarian Reform to help formulate policy and practices that would lead to decentralization of land ownership. In 1981, the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) was formed to represent farmers and support their interests in advancing agrarian reform and land distribution. The 1980s were a dynamic and hope-filled decade in Nicaragua, albeit also a difficult time because of the U.S.-funded Contra war.

The goal of the agrarian reform was to reduce rural poverty and hunger by redistributing the land to landless peasants, and by creating co-operative farms, as well as state-run agricultural enterprises.

The agrarian reform was unique in many ways. It did not expand the land base, but rather worked to redistribute land that was not in production -- land which had been abandoned or left idle. Few farms were expropriated unless they were underactive or idle. The size of a farm was not a consideration in redistribution, so even very large landowners were allowed to continue farming. There were very large farms as long as the land was productive. 

The 13.7 million acres of agricultural land -- 1.7 million acres of crop land and 12 million acres of pasture land -- was reorganized or restructured to increase productivity. By 1986, 10 per cent of the land was owned by very large farmers, another 21 per cent was in co-operatives formed by previously landless farmers, state enterprises held about 20 per cent, small and medium producers held 35 per cent, with very, very small producers working about seven per cent. By 1990, when the Sandinistas lost the election, more than 40 per cent of productive land had been redistributed by the agrarian reform.

What happened to the agrarian reform?

In the April 1990 election, Daniel Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro, a centrist candidate and former Sandinista supporter. Chamorro split with the Sandinistas soon after the revolution, citing socialist tendencies. The Contra war had lasted more than 10 years and it was said that people were tired -- Sergio Ramirez, well-known author and then Sandinista vice-president, penned an article entitled "Love song for Nicaragua," in which he tried to explain how the Sandinistas lost power. It was a moving, sad, story. For many of us who had volunteered in Nicaragua, news of the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas felt like a really bad hangover.

When the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election to the coalition led by Chamorro, a sort of counter-agrarian reform began and by 2002 less than 10 per cent of the productive land was left in the domain of the agrarian reform -- that is, left to smaller farmers who had received title through the agrarian reform.

In 1997, another election led to the presidency of Arnoldo Alemán, which lasted until 2002. In 2003 Aléman was convicted of corruption. Then came president Enrique Bolanos, a right-wing businessman and one-time large landowner, cotton producer, and president of the Supreme Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP). 

Throughout the 1990s there was strife within the ranks of the Frente Sandinista de Liberation Nacional (FSLN), and some Sandinistas left the party, joining or creating other political parties, claiming the FSLN was not democratic. And then in 2006 a November election led to the return of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in 2007. Nicaraguans had not forgotten the Sandinistas -- and likely hoped that what could not be accomplished during the 1980s because of the Contra war might become reality at a time of peace.

The agrarian reform and other programs that had been initiated by the Sandinistas in the '80s were all but a memory, but a strong enough memory that it led to Ortega's re-election. With the return of Ortega as president in 2007 it seemed that perhaps the hope of the 1980s had returned to Nicaragua -- along with the progressive government policies to end poverty and ensure the rural poor were able to make a living by having access to land and helping to support a decent local economy. And that hope lasted for a while.

The return of landlessness and poverty

While articles on the results of the Nicaraguan agrarian reform policies of the 1980s are few, there is one published in 2013 by Envio that is telling. Envio is a publication of a progressive research institute launched in 1981 to produce critical analysis on revolutionary activity and programs. This article is one of the few available that analyzes current land ownership In Nicaragua, providing detail on the goals, achievements and current realities of the Nicaraguan agrarian reform and of Nicaragua's current market and export-oriented agriculture model.

According to this research, much of the land in Nicaragua is once again becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of large landowners and foreign companies. While it appears that the rural economy is growing, the question of rural hunger for the poorest Nicaraguans is ever present. Even though the Sandinista government had been in power for seven years by 2013, 40 per cent of Nicaraguan farmers, an estimated 170,000, were still landless and food security had once again become a very large issue.

While the agriculture sector has grown, production has been primarily related to cattle ranching, which is the business of large landowners since cattle is pasture-fed in Nicaragua. Some of these owners are Nicaraguan, but others are foreign. Ranching has led to deforestation and is endangering important forests and natural reserves such as Nicaragua's Indio Maiz biosphere. Other export crops have also grown quite dramatically.

Perhaps one of the most shocking statistics is that more than 100,000 hectares of land have been sold to foreign companies and transnationals. Across the country in numerous sectors we see U.S., Canadian, Swiss, Costa Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan and Chinese investments. In most left-wing countries, the sale of land to foreigners is rare and questioned. Privately owned tourist resorts and foreign developers of condo projects have also been growing exponentially.

Is such overt loss of agricultural land and the sale of land to foreign corporations a sign that Ortega has given up on sovereignty, food security, and working to eliminate poverty? If all of this foreign investment were actually helping to reduce poverty, it might be more acceptable. But according to recent numbers, Nicaragua is still the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, with more than 40 per cent of the population living in poverty, and rising to more than 60 per cent in rural areas. A research project by the independent Nicaraguan research centre, FIDEG, has been tracking urban and rural poverty levels annually since 2009. Its most recent report, published in 2018, underscores not only how entrenched poverty is in Nicaragua, but also the degree of vulnerability of the population in general.

Allowing transnationals to buy up land, when close to half of small farmers are landless, tells a huge story. It is one that includes food insecurity for many rural families. If actions speak louder than words, the state of land ownership and tenure in Nicaragua speaks volumes.

So why, since 2007, has Daniel Ortega's government not continued to distribute land to landless farmers? Why have export crops replaced sustainable practices geared to ensure farm families can feed themselves?

These are all good questions, and not only related to farming. There are many other issues in this Central American country being highlighted by the protests that started in April. Corruption and nepotism are on the list as well.

This is the second part of a series of columns on Nicaragua. Follow the full series here.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo credit: Lois Ross

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