Agrarian Reform – Concept, history, measures and examples

We explain what agrarian reform is, its history, objectives and what measures it usually involves. Also, examples in the world and in Mexico.

agrarian reform economy history
Agrarian reforms increase production with changes in property and technology.

What is agrarian reform?

The name of agrarian reform is known as the set of economic, social and political measures with which seeks to modernize and transform the productive structure of the field, that is, the agricultural platform. There is talk of agrarian reforms, in the plural, since there is no single or single way to achieve it.

In general, agrarian reforms were proposed in currently independent countries that were previously colonies, such as the Latin American nations. They seek to meet the need for deconcentrate land ownership (latifundio) and achieve higher quotas of agricultural production through the use of new technologies and the creation of multiple productive units where there was previously idle land.

Already in classical antiquity there were many projects of change regarding the possession and exploitation of land. The Athenian statesman and poet Solon (c. 630-c. 560 BC), for example, transformed many of the laws governing farming and mortgaging land. These measures were controversial at the time and spawned a brief period of anarchy, which led to the rise of the tyrant Pisistratus (c. 607-527 BC).

However, agrarian reform was a concept that varied over time, aspiring to different objectives as the economic and social role of land tenure varied. For example, the French Revolution of 1789 gave land reform a new leading role. In this case, the idea was to sweep away the feudal model inherited from the Middle Ages, freeing the serfs from their unpayable debts and abolishing the feudal courts.

In its contemporary sense, agrarian reform comes from the nineteenth century and is commonly associated with the struggle of progressive or revolutionary sectors against the large estates inherited from the imperial or colonial structure.

It was a common measure in the socialist regimes of the 20th century (such as the Soviet Union, Vietnam, China) and also its capitalist competitors, who saw in it the opportunity to improve the living standards of the peasantry (thus preventing, precisely, the Revolution) and also increase the rates of food production.

Objectives of the agrarian reform

In general, the great objective of any form of agrarian reform is always the transformation of agriculture, that is, substantially change the social, economic and political conditions in which agricultural production is carried out. This can, of course, translate into many different things, depending on who carries out the reform in question.

Thus, a socialist regime can see in agrarian reform the opportunity to collectivize productive lands and implement a communist agricultural model; while a democratic capitalist government can consider the reform as an important chance to modernize agriculture and guarantee a more abundant food production, in order to satisfy the internal market.

Land reform measures

agrarian reform measures
Land reforms can give peasants more power over production.

As with the objectives, the measures that an agrarian reform implies can be of a very diverse type. But generally they have to do with land tenure and the production model, so they usually involve actions such as:

  • Expropriate idle land and offer it to productive initiatives private companies that guarantee production, whether they are small and medium producers.
  • Expropriate the idle lands of a single owner and grant them to the State, to implement different initiatives of public or collectivist exploitation.
  • Introduce the Internet and electricity in agriculture, as well as the machinery that allows maximizing production and improving the standard of living of the peasantry.
  • Limit the maximum amount of land that a single owner can have, to prevent present and future large estates.
  • Empower the peasant class insofar as necessary, providing public services, literacy, etc.

Examples of agrarian reform

Some examples of agrarian reform are the following:

  • It became known as the “Spanish confiscation” to a long process of agrarian reform in which idle lands that were in “dead hands” were expropriated, that is, that were property of the Catholic Church and religious orders, and that until then it had not been possible to alienate them. These lands were then put up for auction by the State. This began in 1798, with the so-called “Godoy confiscation” and lasted until around 1924.
  • The collectivization of the lands of the Soviet Union by the regime of Iósif Stalin (1878-1953) is probably the most dramatic example of agricultural reform that is known, since its consequences were disastrous for the population. This was due to the bureaucratic and authoritarian model with which everything was carried out in his government, which forced almost a million agricultural owners (the so-called kulaks) to abandon their lands, imposing in return a highly inefficient and policed ​​model of exploitation that led directly to the great famine of 1932.
  • The socialist government of Salvador Allende (1908-1973) in Chile in 1970 granted the status of law to a Chilean land ownership reform that had been taking place since 1962, as a response to the crisis and great agricultural inefficiency in the South American nation. By the end of his government, around 6 million hectares had been expropriated throughout the country, and it had been established that no citizen could own more than 80 hectares of basic irrigation.

Agrarian reform in Mexico

cardenismo popularity
The distribution of land in Mexico began with the Revolution and culminated with Cárdenas.

Agrarian reform was one of the key actions of the Mexican Revolution in the transformation of the State postcolonial. Initiated with the approval of the Political Constitution of the Mexican States (1917), it was based on the legal basis that the territory was the entire domain of the nation and that the latter was the one who granted property to individuals, so that said relationship always it could be transformed.

To this end, the Agrarian Reform Secretariat was created, dependent on the federal Executive Power, which had to ensure the establishment of fair working conditions for the peasantry and which gave the president the title of “Supreme agrarian authority”.

The main mechanism devised then was the ejido, a new type of land demarcation, which established indivisible, inalienable and collectively owned portions of territory, destined to the production mainly of the indigenous peasantry.

This agrarian reform emerged as a mechanism to put an end to the abusive practices of exploitation of the rural population that were practiced in Mexico since the end of the colony, and it was one of the famous measures of the Revolutionary Government of Abelardo L. Rodríguez (1889-1967).

However, the distribution of land in Mexico reached its peak later, during the mandate of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (1895-1970), who distributed more than 18 million hectares among 51,400 peasants.