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Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform

Before the 1950s, land was readily available to anyone who was willing to clear and plant a plot. The cutting and clearing of forests greatly accelerated as the population increased. By the 1960s, subsistence farmers sometimes reduced the rest period of cleared plots from ten years of fallow to as few as five years because of the inavailablity of farm land. The reduced fallow period diminished soil fertility and harvests. Consequently, cropped acreage peaked during the 1960s. The hard life and low income farmers accelerated the exodus of workers from the countryside to the cities (see Rural Society and Migration , ch. 2).

The long period when new land was easily obtainable contributed to a casual attitude toward land titles. In 1980, only 32.9 percent of the 151,283 farms had such titles. The decline in available agricultural land has made land titling more necessary. Moreover, insecure tenure has been a particularly severe constraint to improved techniques and to commercial crop production. The cost of titling a piece of land, however, has been too high for most subsistence farmers.

Between 1969 and 1977, the government attempted to redistribute land. In the late 1980s, however, the distribution of land and farm incomes remained very unequal. In 1980, 58.9 percent of farms had an annual income below US$200. The issue of unequal land distribution, however, has not been as explosive in Panama as in many other Latin American countries. This was because of the service-oriented nature of the economy and because about half of the population lived in or near Panama City. Also, about 95 percent of all farm land was owner-operated, and virtually all rural families owned or occupied a plot.

In an effort to redistribute land, the government acquired 500,000 hectares of land and expropriated an additional 20 percent of the land. About three-quarters of the land acquired was in the provinces of Veraguas and Panamá. By 1978 over 18,000 families (about 12 percent of rural families in the 1970 census) had access to either individual plots or collectively held land as a result of the redistribution. The land acquisition created uncertainty, however, and adversely affected private investment in agriculture, slowing production in the 1970s.

As part of its agrarian reform, the government placed heavy emphasis on organizing farmers into collectives for agricultural development. Several organizational forms were available, the two most important being asentamientos (settlements) and juntas agrarias de producción (agrarian production associations). The distinctions between the two were minor and became even more blurred with time. Both encouraged pooling of land and cooperative activity. In some instances, land was worked collectively. Other organizational forms included marketing cooperatives, state farms, and specialized producers' cooperatives for milk, chickens, or pigs. Growth of these agricultural organizations slowed by the mid-1970s, and some disbanded, as emphasis shifted to consolidation.

The cost of agrarian reform was high. The government channeled large amounts of economic aid to organized farmers. Rural credit was greatly increased; farm machinery was made available; improved seeds and other inputs were supplied; and technical assistance was provided. Cooperative farm yields increased, but these higher yields were not impressive, considering the level of investment. Despite the high costs of the government programs, incomes of cooperative farmers remained low. After the mid-1970s, the government changed its policy toward cooperatives and stressed efficiency and productivity instead of equity.

Although the economic results of agrarian reform were disappointing, the social conditions of most farmers improved. The number of rural residents with access to safe water increased by 50 percent between 1970 and 1978. Improved sewerage facilities, community health programs, and rural clinics reduced mortality rates considerably. Major expansion of educational facilities, including education programs for rural residents, helped rural Panamanians become better educated and more mobile.

Data as of December 1987

Country Listing

Panama Table of Contents