Country Listing

Uruguay Table of Contents


Land Use and Tenure

The general characteristics of Uruguay's land area helped determine the pattern of land use. The countryside is devoid of mountains--in contrast to most other Latin American nations--and is only 2 to 3 percent forested. Over 80 percent of the land can be used for some kind of agriculture. The natural grasslands for which Uruguay is famous lend themselves to the predominant agricultural activity: livestock production.

Although the land and temperate climate facilitated livestock production, the limited fertility of the soil hindered the production of crops. Livestock ranches covered three-quarters of the total land, especially in the departments of Artigas, Cerro Largo, Durazno, Flores, Lavalleja, Maldonado, Paysandú, Rivera, Rocha, Salto, and Tacuarembó (see fig. 1). The most productive wheat- and cereal-farming area was the southwest (Colonia, Río Negro, and Soriano departments); most of the rice was produced in the east (Treinta y Tres Department); and fruits, vegetables, and wine were produced in the departments of Canelones, Florida, and San José.

Uruguay was no exception to the Latin American pattern of concentrated landownership, but its small population had kept land distribution from becoming a major political issue. Agricultural enterprises could be roughly divided into two types, whose characteristics in the mid-1980s reflected the concentration of landownership and helped explain Uruguay's urban tendencies. The first type, family-operated (owned or rented) farms and ranches, made up 85 percent of agricultural enterprises in the country, employed 68 percent of rural workers, and produced 45 percent of all agricultural output. But this type of enterprise controlled only 25 percent of agricultural land (farming and livestock). The second type, larger commercial enterprises, controlled 75 percent of the land, employed 32 percent of rural labor, and produced 55 percent of output. These statistics indicate that smaller enterprises made more productive use of the land. However, the fact that such family-operated farms and ranches employed mostly family members rather than salaried workers tended to limit the development of the rural economy. The larger enterprises, by contrast, were mostly extensive livestock ranches that had little need of hired labor. As this second type of enterprise became more prevalent throughout the twentieth century, landownership became more concentrated, and the population of the countryside declined.

Agricultural production employed only about 15 percent of Uruguay's labor force in the late 1980s. The agricultural work force declined steadily as the number of small agricultural enterprises diminished. There were 87,000 farms and ranches in 1961, 77,000 in 1970, and only 57,000 in 1986. The importance of family-operated establishments is clearly seen in rural labor statistics. In 1980 two-thirds of the 160,000-person agricultural labor force was made up of landowners or their relatives; only 57,000 workers were wage earners. Not surprisingly, the labor movement had little impact on rural workers, although both the rice workers and the dairy workers were organized into unions.

Data as of December 1990