In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Land Reform in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Latin American Land Reforms of the 20th Century
  • Reference
  • Journals
  • Centers and Agencies
  • Explaining Land Reform
  • Market-Led Agrarian Reform (MLAR) and its Critics
  • Civil Society Mobilization and Land Reform
  • Land Reform, Food Security, and Sustainable Development
  • Land Reform and Political Violence
  • The Peasantry
  • Land Reform and Indigenous Peoples
  • Land Reform and Women
  • International Relations and Land Reform

Political Science Land Reform in Latin America
Nancy Lapp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0132


The terms “land reform” and “agrarian reform” are often used interchangeably. In Spanish, the term for both is reforma agraria (reforma agrária in Portuguese). The term “land reform” usually has meant state-led redistribution: government expropriation of large tracts of land from the wealthy and redistribution to the rural poor. When a distinction is made, “agrarian reform” often indicates a broader scope than “land reform”: not only redistribution of land but also related measures considered vital to the success of “land reform,” such as access to credit, agricultural inputs, and changes in agricultural economic, social, and political relations. The 1960s were the peak of redistributive land reform in Latin America, although significant reforms took place before and after. Land reform, advocates argued, would redress significant social and political ills while also spurring economic growth by rectifying abysmally unequal land distribution and faltering agricultural production. In addition, revolutionary reforms, especially the Cuban Revolution of 1959, helped spur even some conservative governments to pursue land reform. The United States also promoted land reform with the Alliance for Progress. Results did not meet expectations. Land reform met significant resistance from wealthy rural elites and their allies, and half-hearted support from the United States after the initial enthusiasm of the Alliance. Reforms were slowed, halted, and often reversed. Subsequently, the focus on addressing rural poverty and meager agricultural productivity shifted toward the neoliberal policies emphasized by international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These policies shunned government-directed redistribution, instead promoting a focus on establishing secure property rights and relying on market forces. By the 1990s renewed peasant mobilization in reaction to neoliberal policies presented a challenge to these policies. One tactic has been the rural poor taking land redistribution into their own hands; in Brazil, the Landless Movement organizes occupations of underutilized land to force de facto—and if possible, de jure—expropriation and redistribution. Land reform is inextricably intertwined with other vital issues. Access to land affects (and is affected by) poverty, economic development, food security, environmental sustainability, and indigenous and women’s rights. The search for arable land has driven deforestation and encroachment on indigenous lands. Agricultural structures affect women’s economic, social, and political status, raising questions of women’s rights and effectiveness of reforms. Whether the era of the traditional “land reform,” consisting of government-led expropriation and redistribution, is over, substantial land issues remain.

General Overviews

Land reform policy dominated the agenda worldwide, not just in Latin America. These works provide significant coverage of land reforms worldwide, describing reforms and their effects. King 1977 gives the most historical view; he includes discussion of land reform in ancient Greece and revolutionary France as well as contemporary cases. He provides more information on Latin American specifics than Tai 1974, although Tai has compiled a more comprehensive worldwide survey and overview of common explanations of reform. Ghose 1983 emphasizes the effects land reform has on the rural poor. Thiesenhusen 1989 is by an expert who has written extensively on land reform in Latin American and elsewhere. His book provides a good overview of past land reform and recent changes toward privatization. Barraclough 1999 is another venerable expert on land reform in Latin America. His paper is a quick and easily accessible overview of land reform and the important actors in any land reform process. Kay 2002 provides a succinct summary of Latin American land reform while comparing the timing, significance, and results with land reform in Taiwan and South Korea. Africa and Asia are the focus of the empirical data in Ellis 2013, but his report concisely addresses current issues regarding agriculture and alleviating poverty. Finally, Cotula, et al. 2006 describes more recent trends in neoliberal land policies, as well as explains how land tenure issues are related to gender and indigenous rights.

  • Barraclough, Solon L. Land Reform in Developing Countries: the Role of the State and Other Actors. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1999.

    Excellent overview that explains land reform and provides summaries of land reform in Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico, an entity that is infrequently examined. Analyzes role of major actors in land reform: the state, peasant organizations, large landholders, political parties, NGOs, and international organizations.

  • Cotula, Lorenzo, Camilla Toulmin, and Julian Quan. Better Land Access for the Rural Poor: Lessons from experience and challenges ahead. Rome: FAO, 2006.

    Good overview of recent and continuing topics on land issues. Explains importance of land access for empowerment, agricultural development, and poverty reduction. Also discusses market-led trend in agricultural reform and the relevance of land redistribution. Includes separate sections on women’s land rights and indigenous rights.

  • Ellis, Frank. Topic Guide: Agriculture and Growth. 2013.

    Brief summary of many current and past issues and debates in land tenure and agriculture. Focus is on pro-poor growth while considering topics such as farm size, food insecurity, climate change, gender, and the implications of supermarkets in developing countries. Includes a short annotated bibliography with articles, blogs, and a glossary.

  • Ghose, Ajit Kumar, ed. Agrarian Reform in Contemporary Developing Countries. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.

    Introduction discusses land reform with a focus on how land reforms have affected the rural poor. The Latin American cases include a chapter on agrarian reform in Peru, Chile (1965–1979), and Nicaragua.

  • Kay, Cristóbal. “Why East Asia Overtook Latin America: Agrarian Reform, Industrialisation and Development.” Third World Quarterly 23.6 (December 2002): 1073–1102.

    DOI: 10.1080/0143659022000036649

    Clear, concise description of the social, political, economic, and international context of land reform in Latin America, Taiwan, and South Korea. Explains why significant land redistribution occurred in Asia and not Latin America. Comparison suggests land redistribution in Taiwan and South Korea played an essential role in their economic development.

  • King, Russell. Land Reform: A World Survey. London: G. Bell, 1977.

    Discusses land reform and types of reform. Broad historical description of evolution of land reform, reaching back to ancient times. Discusses relationship between land reform and economic development. Latin American cases: Mexico, Bolivia, and Cuba, with one chapter giving a brief synopsis of reforms in Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, and Peru.

  • Tai, Hung-Chao. Land Reform and Politics: A Comparative Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

    Huge compendium on land reform worldwide. Latin American cases are Mexico and Colombia. Provides detailed description of concepts, analyzes why land reform occurs, and considers the effects. Discusses revolution, rural unrest, ideology, international climate, population pressure, and especially elite decision making.

  • Thiesenhusen, William C., ed. Searching for Agrarian Reform in Latin America. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

    Introduction provides excellent brief introduction to basic concepts, explanation of demand for reform. Discusses old and current debates (including privatization pressures). Case studies on Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador (two chapters), Nicaragua, and the Caribbean. Another chapter compares El Salvador and Nicaragua.

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