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Salvador Allende’s ground-breaking agrarian reform still inspires 50 years later


Salvador Allende signs an act authorizing the nationalization of the Chilean copper industry, 28 September 1971. Together with agrarian reform, copper nationalization was a major plank of Allende’s socialist platform for the country. CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Some 50 years after the coup d'état in Chile in 1973, one of the most significant steps undertaken by Salvador Allende’s government is often overlooked by international media: namely, agrarian reform. Nearly ten million hectares of land were expropriated and transferred to peasant families, and the number of unionized rural workers in Chile was probably the highest in the world — that is, until the landed oligarchy responded with a military coup and violent counter-reforms.

Patricia Lizarraga is a social anthropologist. She works as a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Cone regional office in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Prior to Allende’s reforms, Chilean farmland was broken up into so-called “fundos”, where quasi-enslaved peasant families lived on and worked for the estates of a few landowners. In the mid-1950s, 66 percent of the agricultural workforce depended on this latifundium, a land ownership system rooted in the colonial era. Landowners, despite only owning 14 percent of the farms, controlled 92 percent of total agricultural land.

These agrarian estates were a hierarchical social system characterized by coercive relationships between landowners and resident peasants that granted the landowners a significant source of socio-political power on a national level. Rural Chile resembled a kind of serfdom, with landowners controlling those living on their estates. They imposed physical punishments and workers lived in homes with mud floors, outdoor kitchens, and no bathrooms. They paid wages in kind, such as sacks of beans, wheat, and firewood for the year.

These were the conditions that Allende sought to abolish with his agrarian reform. For Chile’s peasants, it meant dignity. It also marked the end of the latifundium. The landowners, on the other hand, saw their complete impunity threatened. This was certainly one of the main reasons for the military putsch, supported by the landowners, that brought Augusto Pinochet to power.

The Dormant Lands Awaken

Land redistribution policy, and the creation or strengthening of institutional frameworks to implement it, began during the presidency of Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (1958–1964). The push was given by the Alliance for Progress, a programme initiated by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 with the aim of preventing the rest of Latin America from following the example of the Cuban Revolution.

The programme proposed improving sanitary conditions, expanding access to education and housing, controlling inflation, and increasing agricultural productivity through agrarian reform. Participating countries were promised economic assistance from the US, which would ultimately fail to materialize. In compliance with this programme, which lasted until 1970, the government of Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez initiated a timid agrarian reform that, due to its limited scope, became known as the Reforma del Macetero, or “Flowerpot Reform”.

On 16 July 1967, President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964–1970) passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which earmarked nearly 34 percent of land earmarked for redistribution. Earlier that year, on 26 April, he had already announced the unionization of the peasantry, laying the groundwork for further changes during Salvador Allende’s term in office. The socialist-leaning National League of Poor Peasants and the pro-Communist National Agricultural Federation established the Ranquil Peasant and Indigenous Confederation in 1968, which went on to provide strong support to Allende’s Popular Unity coalition.

The role of unions and peasants’ organizations was central to driving and sustaining the reform.

The main objectives of the Agrarian Reform Law were to bring justice to the peasantry, put an end to the old latifundium, make Chile a more equal country, improve food production, and ensure food security through a strong peasant economy organized in cooperatives. At the same time, the Peasant Unionization Law allowed peasants who worked as hired labourers to fight for their right to a dignified life.

Between 1965 and 1973, the Chilean state expropriated almost 10,000 million hectares of land, with nearly 4,400 agricultural properties converted into settlements where agricultural workers had a stake in the production process and ownership of the land. During those years, 313,700 peasants joined workers’ associations. The law was a powerful tool in the fight for their rights and the improvement of their living conditions.

“We will no longer be serfs, we will no longer be pariahs when the peasants carry out agrarian reform”, the peasant movements declared amidst the fervour of the Popular Unity government. “With ploughs, the dormant lands awaken, therefore, comrade, let us create cooperative forms”, could be heard on the radio in the voices of Inti-Illimani, a popular music group.

The role of unions and peasants’ organizations was central to driving and sustaining the reform. Decades of struggle and organization accelerated and deepened the process. Leaders of the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women (ANAMURI) were active participants in the process, as Francisca Rodríguez, the organization’s founder, recounted: “Many things were done during Allende’s government to improve the people’s diet, and that responsibility fell into the hands of the peasants.”

Before the reforms were initiated, the latifundium system controlled almost all of the agricultural land, but cultivated only 18 percent of it, leaving a significant amount of the land fallow. One of the central challenges of agrarian reform was ensuring that the country produced the food that the people consumed. Through significant investments in technology and training, by 1973 the cultivated land for wheat had expanded to 23,000 hectares, reaching the highest number of planted hectares in the country’s history.

Pinochet’s Agrarian Counter-Reform

On 11 September 1973, the fury of Pinochet’s dictatorship was unleashed on rural men and women. Terror spread throughout the country, with armed civilians hunting down union leaders and peasants, either killing them, imprisoning them, or making them disappear.

The report of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation acknowledges that between 11 September and 31 December 1973, 285 peasants and 31 employees of agricultural institutions were executed or disappeared at the hands of state agents. This accounted for 85 percent of the total recorded deaths and disappearances — 324 people — which clearly illustrates the speed and ferocity with which the military targeted the peasant sector.

The arrests and torture of peasants were the result of an alliance between police forces and landowners. There is no separate record of the arrests of peasants, but based on report classifications, it can be estimated that around 8,000 people linked to the rural sector were detained.

Francisca Rodríguez remembers:

When repression came, the peasant organization was the most repressed throughout the whole military dictatorship. Comrades were imprisoned and tortured. Comrades disappeared and reappeared, but others never did. The peasants of Lonquén were buried alive, or the seven peasants from Curacavi, who were taken by Carabineros on the night of September 17 and shot in Cuesta Barriga. The crimes of the dictatorship were orchestrated by landowners. The police, along with landowners, chased peasants. Young people, children, and many peasants were killed in front of the doors of their homes, and their fate remained unknown until the dictatorship ended, because people were afraid to find out what had happened.

There is a place that everyone calls Callejón de las viudas (“Widows’ Alley”) in Paine, a community in the metropolitan region of Santiago in the Maipo province, surrounded by farmland. It is a place of memories, a vivid reminder of the atrocities that occurred in October 1973. It was home to 70 people, mostly peasant union leaders who benefited from Allende’s agrarian reform. According to their accounts, the Carabineros (Chilean police) entered homes, raided them, beat the men, and took them away. They said they would have their statements taken, but never returned.

There are many other incidents such as on 7 October 1973, when the Carabineros killed and buried 15 people who had been detained in Maipo in the old limekilns in the hills of Lonquén. Or the peasants from Curucavi in the Santiago metropolitan region in the Melipilla province, who were shot on 17 September of the same year in Cuesta Barriga, barely six days after the coup d'état.

At least 5,000 peasant leaders along with their families were evicted from their land, which was violently returned to private individuals. Expropriations were revoked, properties were auctioned off, the land was allocated to the state and the armed forces, peasant organizations were suspended, and members were persecuted. Allende’s agrarian reform and peasant unionization laws were abolished and a free-market property system was established.

Today, Chile is largely a product of the brutal agrarian counter-reform instituted by the Pinochet regime.

The Agrarian Reform Law had established an 80-hectare limit on land ownership. The post-coup counter-reform not only returned a significant part of the reformed plots to the former landowners, but also turned land into an unregulated commodity, accessible to those with the most money. This led to the growth of large forestry corporations and export-oriented agribusinesses.

One of the first measures taken by the military dictatorship was separating land ownership from access to water. Chile is the most emblematic case of water privatization in the Southern Cone, perhaps in the world. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s water resources are in the hands of private corporations linked to agribusiness or the mining sector, a direct result of a decision made by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1981, when it passed the Water Code. This legislation defined the separation of the rights to the usage of water and land, enabling the buying and selling of this essential good like any other commodity.

With the onset of the counter-agrarian reform, there were many cases where peasant families had to sell their “water rights” out of economic necessity, and even if they owned the land, they could no longer produce. The next step was having to sell the land itself. As a result, land and water were concentrated even further into a few hands.

The Long Road to Transformation

Today, Chile is largely a product of the brutal agrarian counter-reform instituted by the Pinochet regime. Not only did it lead to the commercialization of water, but additional decrees also promoted monoculture forestry dominated by the most powerful economic groups in Chile, and allowed Arauco — a Chilean forestry company created with foreign capital at the onset of the dictatorship — to own more land than all peasant and indigenous families combined.

Gradually, the business sector took control of most farmland thanks to the support of outrageously generous subsidies. Even after the return of democracy in 1990, political debate about agrarian reform remained off-limits until a few years ago.

Currently, rural sectors in Chile have higher poverty and food insecurity rates than urban sectors. The deep inequality in land ownership, which was already acute before agrarian reform, has grown in the last years: small landowners still comprise 75 percent of producers, yet own only 4 percent of agricultural lands.

To this day, even under a left-wing government like Gabriel Boric’s administration, the Chilean state has not addressed the violence and loss suffered by the peasants. “The Chilean countryside, women, peasants, have not had their human rights issues addressed. There has been no reparation for the countryside. For the land taken from them,” as Alicia Muñoz from ANAMURI recounted.

In recent years, the debate on the urgency of agrarian reform and how to address this historical debt in Chile has resurfaced in an updated form. Together with food sovereignty, it now constitutes a central concern of the Chilean peasant movements and was also a key component of the proposed constitution that was put up for a vote last year.

Although the new constitution was not approved, the agenda set by the peasant movements, currently organized under the banner of the Coordinadora Campesina e Indígena 28 de Julio, will continue to guide the struggles and demands of the coming years.  The distribution of land, the protection of native seeds, the deprivatization of water, and guaranteeing the right to food for all Chilean people with food produced in Chile are more important than ever. The road to transformation is long, but many seeds have been scattered along the way.