Ecuador Table of Contents
Data on land use varied widely and were often considered by analysts as unreliable or at best an approximation of actual numbers. In the mid-1980s, for example, estimates of cropland ranged from 1.6 to 2.5 million hectares out of the total land area of 27.1 million hectares. Different sources put the amount of pastureland at 4.4 or 4.8 million hectares. Estimates for the total land area suitable for agriculture showed an even wider variation, from less than 50 percent to as high as 90 percent. Over half of the cultivated land was in the Costa (coastal region), about a third in the Sierra, and the remainder dispersed throughout the Oriente region. The Costa, with the exception of the area near the Santa Elena Peninsula, had generally fertile land with a climate conducive to agriculture. Altitude, rainfall, and soil composition determined land use in the Sierra. The intermontane basins near Quito and farther south near Cuenca and Loja offered the most productive Sierra lands, whereas the basins surrounding Latacunga and Riobamba had dry and porous soil and the least fertile lands. Higher areas of the Sierra contained grasslands suitable only for grazing or cold-tolerant crops, such as potatoes.
Modern land tenure patterns developed from Spanish colonial land systems. The Spanish encountered large native populations in the Sierra and established the encomienda system whereby the crown granted individual colonists rights to land and the Indians who lived there. This system gradually produced haciendas worked by a "captive" labor force composed of huasipungueros (see Spanish Colonial Era , ch. 1; Peasants , ch. 2). These huasipungueros worked without salary in return for the farming rights to minifundios (small plots) on the haciendas. In many cases, the huasipungueros were bought or sold with the hacienda. Large-scale agriculture developed later in the Costa, where farming for export used sharecroppers or paid labor to harvest crops. The monetary labor system that developed in the Costa began to compete with the feudal system of the Sierra for cheap labor.
Pressure to reform feudal agricultural practices came from abroad, from humanitarian and liberal elements within the country, and from large landowners in the Costa, who needed additional cheap labor. A land reform law enacted in 1964, the Land Reform, Idle Lands, and Settlement Act, outlawed the huasipungo system and also set up the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Settlement (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Reforma Agraria y Colonización--IERAC) to administer the law and to expropriate idle arable land for redistribution to farmers. The law outlawed absentee ownership and limited the size of holdings to 800 hectares of arable land in the Sierra, 2,500 hectares of arable land in the Costa, and 1,000 hectares of pastureland in either region. The law also set the minimum amount of land to be granted in the redistribution at 4.8 hectares. Revisions of the law in the early 1970s required that all land with absentee landlords be sold to the tenants and that squatters be permitted to acquire title to land they had worked for three years.
Although IERAC made some progress initially, political opposition slowed implementation of the land reform act. IERAC received little government funding and was not permitted to actively encourage expropriation. Later amendments to the land reform act exempted all farms that were efficiently run. In addition, redistributed land was frequently poor or on mountainsides because the large landowners kept fertile valley lands for themselves. Except for a few showcase examples, farmers on minifundios received no government assistance or services to make the plots productive. In spite of these difficulties, however, by 1984 over 700,000 hectares had been distributed to 79,000 peasants.
Distribution of the land remained highly unequal. In 1982, 80 percent of the farms consisted of less than ten hectares; yet these small farms accounted for only 15 percent of the farmland. Five percent of the farms had more than fifty hectares, but these large farms represented over 55 percent of the land under cultivation. In addition, minifundios were more likely to be found in the Sierra in areas of poor soil or with poorer growing conditions than in other areas.
Agricultural censuses revealed that over three-quarters of the farms were worked by their owners. About 12 percent of the farms were occupied by families that did not hold title to the land but rented it, sometimes hiring additional laborers. Sharecroppers or communal farmers cultivated the remaining 7 percent.
Although intensely cultivated, minifundios in the Sierra could not sustain the region's occupants. Because of the higher wages for nonagricultural jobs, many farmers held unskilled jobs in the cities while family members stayed on the land to grow crops for home use or for sale (see Migration and Urbanization , ch. 2). A study in the late 1970s indicated that over half of small farm earnings came from off the farm.
Patterns of cultivation ranged from primitive to modern, with the more modern methods generally used in the Costa, where much of the production was geared for export. In 1982 Ecuador had fewer than 7,000 tractors in use. Ox-drawn plows were used on some farms, and digging sticks were used for cultivation on slopes. High prices limited the use of chemicals; manure was the common form of fertilizer in the Sierra, but farmers had increased the use of pesticides and fungicides.
Sizeable areas of land, estimated at over 320,000 hectares, were under irrigation using ditches dug by individual farmers, and about 40,000 hectares were irrigated under government-supported irrigation projects. State support for irrigation schemes began in 1944 with the creation of the Ecuadorian Institute of Hydraulic Resources (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Recursos Hidráulicos--Inerhi). Inerhi's largest project, inaugurated in 1970, brought water to 10,000 hectares of land in Pichincha Province.
Data as of 1989
Ecuador Table of Contents