There is a wide consensus in the scholarship on Latin American peasants not only in acknowledging significant regional and national variations in the historical development of the peasantry but also in the identification of key shared traits through the different historical moments of its rather dramatic history.

It is not possible within the confines of this discussion to do justice to the richness of the literature and the complexity of the debates among historians, anthropologists, rural sociologists, and development scholars. Suffice it to say that the relationships between peasants and the sources of our food have been historically determined and, to this day, keep the peasants, despite immense variations, in various forms of direct connection with the sources of our food in nature. In Latin America, as a result of colonial conquest and domination, large estates took shape and began the era of the haciendas, or latifundios, which, despite many changes in the pattern of development, have survived through the epoch of industrialization for import substitution (1930s to the end of the 1970s), a period when the governments of the region embarked on various ambitious efforts to create processes of industrialization with strong support and involvement of the state. Two major agrarian formations dominate the rural landscape of the continent since colonial conquest: the hacienda, or latifundios, and the minifundios.

These two formations, the hacienda and the minifundio, remained key factors in Latin American agriculture until the demise of the hacienda through the processes of Agrarian Reform, which came as a concession to the emergence of massive peasant movements at the end of the 1960s and 1970s (with the exception of Mexico in the 1920s and Bolivia in the 1950s), while the minifundios continue to exist in various forms to this day. In the 1960s the latifundios comprised approximately 5 percent of farm units but nonetheless owned about five-fifths of the land. Minifundios comprised four-fifths of the farm units but had only 5 percent of the land.13 The composition of the peasantry that worked in these units was complex and varied, ranging from agricultural workers who owned small holdings (the minifundistas) to those who had limited land access through a tenancy (sharecroppers, share-tenants, or labor-service tenants) to those who were landless.

In 1969, an estimated quarter of the total active agricultural work force consisted of landless peasant waged workers (proletarians), and three-quarters had access to land. Of the latter, two-thirds were independent peasant farmers (“external peasantries”) and a third were tenants. Slightly over half of the independent peasant farmers were minifundistas (semiproletarians) and the remainder were formed by larger or richer peasant farmers whose household members did not need to seek outside employment.14 With respect to employment, half of the agricultural labor force worked on peasant plots, mainly as unpaid domestic workers. Larger estates employed less than one-fifth of the total agricultural labor force but accounted for 90 percent of the total hired labor force.15

The study conducted by S. Barraclough for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development revealed important findings about the productivity of labor and the use of land in latifundios and minifundios. Although the average production per agricultural worker was five to ten times higher on latifundios than on minifundios, production per hectare of agricultural land was roughly three to five times higher on minifundios. Overall, this structure was inefficient and socially unjust, and the widespread perception that it was so made agrarian reform one of the key demands of the social and political climate of agitation and unrest of the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America.

Besides the particular case of Mexico, where the early agrarian reform began in the 1920s in most countries throughout the region, agrarian reform remained limited in scope, in terms of land expropriated and peasant beneficiaries. Despite an explicit commitment to agrarian reform and peasant farming (with the exception of Cuba), governments were either too weak to implement a substantial agrarian reform or had the underlying intention of promoting capitalist farming.16

Nevertheless, the mass mobilizations for agrarian reform and the rise of rural trade unions, cooperatives, and other associations served to integrate the peasantry into the national economy, society, and political system, and many peasants themselves, upon receiving a land title, felt for the first time that they were first-class citizens.17 Agrarian reform led to the demise of the oligarchy and created ideal conditions for the full commercialization of agriculture.

According to Lopez-Cordovez,18 the peasant economy, by the end of the 1980s, accounted for almost two-thirds of the total agricultural labor force, the remaining third being employed by private capitalist farms. In addition, peasant agriculture supplied two-fifths of production for the domestic market and a third of the production for export.

In the era of neoliberal model dominance, Latin American peasants have experienced a land squeeze and an employment squeeze. De Janvry19 reports that these processes mainly affect the small peasantry (minifundistas) who comprise about two-thirds of peasant farm households. Their average farm size fell from 2.1 hectares in 1950 to 1.9 hectares in 1980.

Kay20 concluded in 2000 that the process of semiproletarianization is the dominant tendency currently unfolding among the Latin American peasantry. An increasing proportion of total peasant household income originates from wages. Income from own-farm activities often accounts for under half of the total. The small peasantry (minifundistas), who comprised two-thirds of all peasant households, are best characterized as semiproletarian, as approximately two-fifths of their household income is derived from off-farm sources, principally from seasonal agricultural wage employment on commercial farms and estates

Peasants’ access to off-farm sources of income, generally seasonal wage labor, enables them to keep their small land base, keeping them in touch with the land, thus allowing them to avoid fully becoming waged laborers. This arrangement tends to favor rural capitalists, as it eliminates small peasants as competitors in agricultural production and makes them available for employment as cheap labor. Semiproletarianization is the only option open to those peasants who wish to retain access to land for reasons of security and survival, or because they cannot find alternative long-term employment, in either the rural or urban sector.21

However, neoliberalism would soon face significant opposition by peasants. Indeed, the peasant rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 has come to symbolize the new character of rurally based social movements in Latin America.22 In fact, the Chiapas uprising seems to mark a turning point and the beginning of a decade in Latin America where the effects of neoliberalism have led to a new wave of center-left and left-wing governments. It is still too early to assess the impact on the peasantry as a result of the presence of new center-left and left-wing governments in Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, but many observers are skeptical about the real capacity, political will, or power of these governments to enact real transformations of the neoliberal model, although the cases of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador present some important and notable differences compared to the more left-center positions of the others.23

As we have seen, scholarly accounts of the demographic significance and the structure of rural labor present a complex picture of the situation of Latin American peasantry, one that makes it difficult to make firm generalizations. However, what remains a well-established fact is the continued critical role of peasant farmers in providing staple food throughout the continent. Despite the increased use of the world’s agricultural lands to grow agroexport crops, biofuels, and soya beans as food for cattle, peasant farmers continue to provide most of the staple crops that sustain the world’s population. The situation in Latin America confirms the role of peasant farmers as key providers of food security.

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