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In Salvador, Land Reform Sows Conflict

June 25, 1989|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

SINCUYO, El Salvador — To the eight families who own nearly all of the land in this mountainous area of western El Salvador, Emilio Escobar is what a peasant should be: He starves quietly, without complaint.

"I was made for this life," he says of an impoverished existence defined by filth, empty stomachs and disease. "I ask for nothing. I live through the will of God."

Then there is Jorge Soriano. To the large landowners, he is at best a thief, at worst a subversive trying to destroy the existing order. This barely literate, 38-year-old dirt farmer takes his hat off to no one.

"I've lived on this land for 15 years," he says of the four acres of corn and beans that surround his adobe-walled house. "I have a right to live and work here."

And he does. Under land reform legislation enacted nine years ago, Soriano and thousands of other peasants, including Escobar, have the right to buy and own the tiny plots of land that they and their parents farmed for others under a feudal system dating back to the Spanish conquest.

The law notwithstanding, the large landowners of this region in the province of Ahuachapan, encouraged by the election of ultra conservative Alfredo Cristiani as president, want the land back--and they are willing to use force to get it.

"I'm afraid," Soriano said in a recent interview. "The owners warned us that when June came, they would kick us off the land."

June 1 was the inaugural date for Cristiani, himself a millionaire landowner, who has promised to roll back land reform.

According to the Popular Social Christian Movement, a moderately leftist political party, more than 50 peasant families that own plots under land reform have been told to give up their farms or face the consequences. Some say they have been threatened with death, and Roman Catholic Church officials bear them out.

"The big problem is land ownership," one priest said. "Eight families control nearly everything, and there is too much exploitation. . . . Most people don't take the land they are entitled to because they are afraid."

Claimed Land in 1981

For Escobar, the fight for land was over almost before it began. In 1981, Escobar--as did Soriano--claimed the land he had worked for a decade.

"For a year I planted the place," he said between bites of the only meal he would eat that day, a plate of rice and a tortilla made of root flour. "Then I was kicked off, and the land went idle."

As a result, he barely manages to stay alive, along with his toothless wife and their three children, one of them a month-old baby.

The roof and walls of their home, an 8-by-12-foot hut, are made of sticks and branches that let in the heavy rain that falls at this time of year. The baby sleeps in a hammock sewn of rags. The two other children, 10 and 12--who are so emaciated that they seem at least four years younger--sleep on the dirt floor.

Two or three months a year, Escobar earns the equivalent of $12 a month picking coffee; at other times, he scrapes out a living planting coffee trees. His yearly income seldom exceeds $60.

There has been no milk for the Escobars since an army civic action team gave them three pounds of powdered milk in March. The nearest clinic is in Tacuba, too far to go except by bus, which costs more than a dollar each way.

"The children can't go to school," Escobar said, "because I can't afford to buy them clothes or pay the fees"--$20 a year for each child.

Soriano is made of tougher stuff. He has ignored the pressure and has made a success of his land, rotating corn with other crops.

He makes about $50 a month, which is below the national average but enough to buy fertilizer. His house is framed with wood and walled in adobe brick. It has a tiled roof and a wood-burning stove. His children appear to be well fed and clothed, and they go to school. In a land of barefoot people, Soriano wears running shoes.

It is this very success that brings out the hate and threats from the landowners, because it encourages others to file for land, and it tends to refute statements by Cristiani that the 1980 land reform law is inefficient and too costly.

The pressure on the small farmers has led to the organization of cooperative groups.

So far, these efforts have been slowed by the armed forces, which were put in charge of the reform and see the land-to-the-tiller program utilized by Soriano as an effective way to draw peasant support away from the Marxist rebels who have been trying for almost nine years to overthrow the government.

According to Soriano and others in the area, the army has assured them that they will be able to keep their land. But Cristiani's victory and the power the large landowners have over the local government and the police has them worried.

The man who took Escobar's corn patch from him and who wants Soriano's land, a steeply inclined plot near this village on what was once a plantation called Dulce Nombre de Maria, is Jose Mauricio Orantes.

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