Comunero Democracy Endures in Chile

September 25, 2007

For the comuneros, socialism was not an abstract utopia, but a set of ideas that resonated with the way they already organized their economic production. We agree, allot the land!" shout impatient comuneros from the back of the packed "V hall. But because the holders of neigh- boring lands are absent, the motion to allot a 10- hectare Iluvia to a fellow comunero-a member of one of Northern Chile's Agricultural Communities-- is set aside. Yet another motion from the stack of more than 70 is then brought before the Junta General de Comuneros, the highest decision-making body of the Agricultural Community of Canela Baja.' Some 250 comuneros meet two to three times each year in Canela Baja to make the land and resource-use decisions of the community. Despite repression and interference, these meetings-part of the traditional decision-making process of the Agricultural Commu- nities-continued during the 17-year military dictator- ship, through times when large participatory meetings were unheard of in the rest of Chile. Now, three and a half years into Chile's transition to democracy, the Agricultural Communities are struggling to undo the legacies of the dictatorship and to create economic development projects that improve their quality of life and strengthen the communities. Located almost exclusively in Chile's Fourth Region, about a five-hour bus ride north of Santiago, community lands total one million hectares (about 2.5 million acres). Eighty-thousand people-about 57% of the Fourth Region's population-live in the Agri- cultural Communities. 2 Over 160 communities are legally recognized, and others await recognition from the government. The Agricultural Communities maintain an old form of collectively owned and managed property. Every comunero is entitled to three distinct forms of proper- Stephanie Rosenfeld is a researcher on the Development and Democracy project for the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First. VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/OCT 1993 ty within the Agricultural Community. Comuneros are allotted 1.5 hectares of irrigated land for vegetable and spice crops, the goce singular, alongside which many build their houses. Each comunero also has the right to fence in a lluvia, 10 hectares of unirrigated-rain- dependent, hence the name-land for cereal crops, mostly wheat, for family consumption. The land is farmed through a combination of family labor, unwaged labor exchanges among related families, and wage labor on the farms of the relatively better-off comuneros. The lluvia is planted for approximately 10 years. When it is time for the land to lay fallow, the comunero returns it to the community and petitions the Junta General de Comuneros for a new lluvia. Finally, comuneros have access to common pasture land, where thousands of goats eat everything but the cacti. Organizationally, the Agricultural Community is like a stock corporation with a fixed number of equal shares. The Agricultural Communities are jointly owned and governed by all those who possess a legal- ly registered derecho de comunero, or share in the community. Only those who own derechos are offi- cially considered comuneros, with the right to vote in meetings of the community, and with rights to land and water resources. Comunero democracy has the limits dictated by its traditions, and as a consequence, has its critics within the communities. Because only those who hold a dere- cho de comunero have the right to vote in community meetings, comunero "citizenship" is almost entirely limited to aging men. Very few women own derechos. With a few exceptions, those who do are widows who inherited their husband's derecho upon his death. Young people are almost totally excluded. Men in their 50s cannot vote if their elderly fathers hold the derecho. This systematic exclusion of women and youth is not, of course, unique to the communities. 29REPORT ON DEMOCRACY Mayorazgo and the machista subordination of women both have their roots in the Spanish colonization of Latin America, and have been maintained in the com- munities since colonial times. The communities are among the poorest districts in Chile. In a recent study of 286 rural counties in Chile, A comunero residence and its small irrigated plot of land, surround the arid countryside, in El Chivo in northern Chile. three of the four poorest were populated predominant- ly by Agricultural Communities. 3 They often lack basic infrastructure like good roads, health clinics and schools. And their lands are becoming desertified. Community land is so ecologically degraded that, despite the vast expanses, comuneros often cannot produce enough to eke out a living even in good years. Nor do they have the natural resources to support an expansion in population. Many of the youth abandon the communities to find work or go to school, leaving behind an aging population of grandparents, many of whom care for small children. Some young people eventually return home to the communities, but most settle elsewhere. "In the countryside we live by fate. When it rains, and we harvest what we sow, we have life. And if it doesn't rain, then we don't even have money for aspirin," laments one comunero, as others shake their heads in agreement. 4 When agriculture is bad, the comuneros look for gold and other minerals in small mines on community lands. Comuneros also make use of a variety of small government subsidies for old age, widowhood, motherhood, indigence and school-aged children. Many find they still can- not make ends meet. As a result, they leave the community to find wage labor. Wives and daughters often work as domestic servants, while men mostly find jobs in construction or mining. This pattern of temporary labor migration has contributed a leftward slant to comunero identi- ty and political culture. Comuneros who went to work in the nitrate fields a century ago brought back to the communities their experiences in the radical unions. Over the past three quarters of a century, comuneros have learned left-wing poli- tics in the copper mines and the construction unions. Stories abound of comuneros who stood side-by-side historic figures of the Chilean Left such as Emilio Recabarren, Clotario Blest and Elias Lafferte, or received personal phone calls from Salvador Allende. "That Communism in Eastern Europe ended, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart means nothing in the Agricultural Com- munities," says Eduardo Lara, director of the La Serena office of Youth for Development (JUNDEP), a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with the Agricultural Commu- nities. For the comuneros, socialism was not an abstract utopia, but a set of ideas that resonated with the way they already organized their eco- led by nomic production. Communist and Socialist discourse on national integration and the over- coming of poverty and marginalization spoke to the historic complaints of the comuneros. Lara describes a conversation he had with a comunero who had recently returned to his communi- ty after working in the mines up north: A friend-a comunero-told me, 'Compaiiero, it is one thing to be a unionist and a Communist, and be on strike. But it is another thing to be chief of the strike committee and be worried about whether all the com- paiieros eat every day, that their kids don't go hungry, and when someone is sick to find them medicine....' Imagine. A campesino that you see up on those barren hills over there tells you he took part in a nationally important strike. All the richness of this experience gets transferred to the Agricultural Community, because that comunero arrives back in the community and starts to stir things up. 5 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 30REPORT ON DEMOCRACY The Agricultural Communities emerged at the end of the seventeenth century as northern Chile fell into economic decline due to econom- ic competition and ecological disaster. 6 The region's wheat boom came to an end as Chile's fertile central valley proved more efficient in producing wheat for domestic consumption and export. Meanwhile, northern Chilean mining camps and metal refiner- ies consumed all the regional forest resources as fuel, and grazing sheep and goats left desert in their wake. Many haciendas became unprofitable, and some hacendados were forced to sell their land or to work it themselves. Ecologically degraded, much of the Fourth Region became suitable only for subsistence agriculture and small livestock. In this depressed atmosphere, the subsistence-oriented Agricultural Communities were born. Collective tenure and inheritance became the norm, because vast expanses were required for grazing, and the low-grade agricultural land had to be frequently rotated. Individual farmers on small private plots of land simply could not have survived. More people and land were added to the Agricultural Communities during the mid- nineteenth century, when out-of-luck miners sought refuge in subsistence agriculture on the vast lands once owned by the mining companies. For centuries now, the Agricultural Communi- ties have been pockets-of extreme poverty, ignored by the government and isolated from the economic transformations that have "modern- ized" Chilean agriculture. When Chileans in San- tiago think of their countryside, it is the parceleros (campesinos who have received land during the agrarian reform) or the fruit-export industry that come to mind, not the Agricultural Com Communities. tural The Chilean state first showed some sign of interest in the communities during the presidency of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei (1964-70). The Frei government implemented a series of measures to encourage rural unionization and agrarian reform. During this same period, the Agricultural Communi- ties were legally recognized as a special case of col- lective land tenure within Chile, and their decision- making and land-use customs were codified into law. 7 The new law formalized a series of practices that the comuneros had incorporated into their society-- organizational forms "borrowed" from the unions, peasant cooperatives and corporations with which they had contact. The communities have, for example, adapted their form of self-governance from labor unions. The structure of the Junta General de Comuneros, the general assembly of all comuneros in VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/OCT 1993 a given community, is borrowed from the general assembly prevalent in workers' unions. Leaders are directly elected, and the Junta General has final say on all matters. The Juntas de Vigilancia-which pro- vide a check on the actions of the elected officers of the community, especially regarding community unero Josd Castillo and a young friend take a break in the Agricul- Community of Yerba Loca. funds-are based on similar organizations in peasant cooperatives. "Fhe military coup of September 11, 1973, which brought a brutal end to Salvador Allende's Pop- ular Unity government, constrained the democ- ratic functioning of the Agricultural Communities. During much of the dictatorship, elections of all kinds were forbidden throughout Chile. The Agricultural Communities were no longer allowed to elect their own leaders. Community leaders were "elegido a dedo"-appointed by the dictatorship. "It was like a strainer," explains the president of the Agricultural Community of Carquinmafio. "We had to send a list of names to the governor (who was appointed by the military) in Illapel, and from there the names would come back approved or rejected." 8 Community meet- had more or ings could not be held without advance permission munities wol from the carabineros (the police) who would often Comunero attend the meetings, enforcing the will of the appoint- land to indi, ed leaders and taking prisoners when necessary. Com- land taxes w munity resources were sometimes confiscated or comuneros destroyed. In some communities, an implicit alliance land, their d developed between some elders and the local repre- that they wo sentatives of the dictatorship. The extension of be entitled tc comunero democracy became virtually impossible. Between 1 Representatives of several Agricultural Communities discuss reforestation with technicians from the NGO development corporation JUNDEP. "The carabineros took me prisoner three or four times tional fruit during the dictatorship for trying to speak in meet- new law. ings," one son of a comunero told me. 9 The dictatorship did not stop at just repressing and T ough abolishing democratic institutions. Always at the ideo- the pc logical forefront of Latin America, Chile went from organic being the experiment in the democratic road to social- exile abroad ism to being the so-called "pure case" of neoliberal Party in the free-market development. The Agricultural Communi- comuneros' ties were not spared from market reforms. The dicta- a history far torship argued that turning collectively owned com- repression munity land into individual private property would relatively 1 promote economic growth and development. Individ- Comuneros ual titles would supposedly give comuneros easier destinely thr access to credit and rural housing subsidies, and pro- ly with the vide a sense of security and tranquility to individual lizing peopl property owners. Modifications to Article 42 of the campaigning 1967 law of the Agricultural Communities permitted Patricio Ayl comuneros to expropriate their goce singular from the But the pI community as individual private property, and sell it nomic justic as such to anyone. 1 0 Before, only the derecho could be tion that ma sold, and only to someone from the community. This not regain th VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/Oct 1993 less ensured that the Agricultural Com- uld remain intact. s were not told that if they converted their vidual property, they would have to pay rhich they may not be able to afford. The were also not told that if they sold their terecho de comunero would go with it- uld cease being comuneros and would not new land from the communities. 986 and 1990, the government conducted three house-to-house campaigns to encourage and/or coerce comuneros into inscribing their goce singular as individ- ual sellable private property." Most comuneros showed a lack of enthusiasm for the campaigns. Two communities, Huentelauqu6n and Montepatria, reject- ed the campaigns entirely. In the end, 3,214 comuneros, or 22% of those tar- geted, converted their land. Most of the largest goces which were inscribed as private property (some as large as 50 hectares, well over the 1.5 hectare aver- age) were taken in the names of officers of the communities who, during this period, were not democratically elected. Many of these large parcels of scarce irrigated land were sold off to transna- tional fruit-exporting companies. No sur- prise to critics, it was the best irrigated land that entered the land market, and it was not the communities as a whole, but a few individual comuneros and transna- companies that benefited most from the formally banned during the dictatorship, ilitical parties of the Left maintained their izations clandestinely within Chile, and in d. The very survival of the Communist Agricultural Communities testifies to the deep-felt culture of resistance, which has older than the dictatorship. In rural areas vas especially harsh, and it wasn't until ate that opposition took public forms. who were politically active worked clan- ough the political parties, and more open- NGOs, organizing demonstrations, mobi- e to vote "no" in the plebiscite, and then g for center-left Concertaci6n candidate win. )litical transition has not brought the eco- e and opportunities for popular participa- ny Chileans dreamed it would. Chile did ie form of democracy it had 20 years ago. 33 C CREPORT ON DEMOCRACY In the new democracy, the military is not under civil- ian control, and the Congress has been at a near stand- still because "designated" or "institutional" senators representing the interests of the military regime block most proposed reforms. Meanwhile, because the national economy is booming with natural-resource exports, many political leaders who are critical of the poverty this model has brought to many are fearful of making changes that might threaten the prosperity it has brought to others. The Concertaci6n is anxious to show that high economic growth rates and increasing export volumes can be maintained under democracy. The mass mobilizations, and the social organizations that made them possible, died down with the transition to democracy. Although the democratic government It has proven more difficult to build strong independent organization in a formal democracy than it was to organize during the dictatorship, when there was a common enemy ani ample foreign donor money. maintains popular support, many people who partici- pated in the anti-dictatorship struggle feel disillu- sioned and frustrated with how things have turned out. It is in this context that the revitalization of comunero democracy is taking place. The comuneros can again elect their own leaders and have meetings whenever they want, without notifying the cara- bineros. Like the opposition movements in general, participation in some of the social organizations in the Agricultural Communities died down after the transi- tion. It has proven much more difficult to build strong, independent organizations in a formal democracy than it was to organize during the dictatorship, when there was a common enemy and ample foreign donor money. The NGO development corporation JUNDEP, however, has helped mobilize the communities, sup- porting organizations of youth and women, training community leaders, organizing reforestation projects, and working with the comuneros to write and pass a new law for the Agricultural Communities. While 20 years ago, social demands were channeled through the political parties, in today's climate of political open- ing and social demobilization, they are expressed largely through NGOs. Some groups of comuneros, for example, are partic- ipating in reforestation projects to take advantage of a government tree-planting subsidy to which only large corporations usually have access. During the dictator- ship, the comuneros resisted such projects, suspicious that somehow they would lose their land to the gov- ernment. However, three years into the transition, a certain level of trust is developing and, one lluvia at a time, thousands of hectares are being planted with trees to be used for fence posts, and with bushes that goats can eat. Right now the comuneros are celebrating the sign- ing into law of their own modifications of the Law of the Agricultural Communities. JUNDEP and the comuneros took advantage of the democratic opening to rewrite this law, which they hope will help keep the communities together while encouraging economic development that can benefit the comuneros. The proposed changes came out of a process of edu- cation and consultation with the comuneros. JUNDEP held a working retreat with comunero ons representatives, where they studied the law together, and mounted a theatrical production of how the new law would work its way through Congress and the Senate on its way to presiden- tial approval. d "We looked for a formula," says Juan Solis de Ovando, a lawyer for the comuneros, "that would permit us to reconcile respect for the right of the community to have its properties, and the desire and the necessity of incorporating individual property as part of the strategy of a complex and com- bined economy like that of the Agricultural Communi- ties." 1 2 The new law creates separate rights for the derecho de comunero and individual property. This will allow comuneros to sell off an individual parcel, or lose it to creditors, without forfeiting their derecho de comunero and its entitlements. With the changes, individual comuneros can no longer unilaterally decide to expropriate their goce singular from the community. The decision must now be approved by the Junta General de Comuneros as part of a process which encourages economic planning for community development. Comuneros are no longer restricted to selling only their own goce singular. They can now make collective decisions to sell or develop parcels of land as a community, benefiting all interested comuneros. To ensure survival of the communities, only 10% of community land can be sold off as indi- vidual property. Today, many comuneros characterize the communi- ties as "the place where I am going to die." The comuneros hope that the recent changes in the law will set the stage for economic development that can alleviate the extreme poverty and isolation of the com- munities, making them places where their children will want to live. 0 34 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS NACU REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 34 Comunero Democracy Endures in Chile Thanks to Norman Araya, Concejal of Canela Baja, and Eduardo Lara of Corporaci6n JUNDEP for introducing me to the Agricul- tural Communities, and to Heidi Tinsman and Sergio Gonzalez for helpful criticism. 1. Junta General de Comuneros de la Comunidad Agricola de Canela Baja, March 25, 1993. 2. Juan de Solis de Ovando S. et al., Normativa legal de las comu- nidades agricolas: Estudio critico del D.F.L. no. 5 de 1967 del Ministerio de Agricultura con sus modificaciones posteriores (Santiago de Chile: JUNDEP, 1989), p. 10. 3. "Diagn6stico del impacto de las campafias de inscripci6n de los goces singulares en forma individual, a trav6s del D.L. no. 2695 de 1979 en las Comunidades Agricolas de la IV Regi6n: Informe final," unpublished manuscript (Santiago de Chile: Cipres Con- sultores, August, 1992), p. 19. 4. Interview with comuneros, Canela Baja, March, 1993. 5. Interview with Eduardo Lara, La Serena, May, 1993. 6. Milka Castro and Miguel Bahamondes, "Surgimiento y transfor- maci6n del sistema comunitario: Las comunidades agricolas, IV Regi6n, Chile," Ambiente y Desarrollo, Vol. II, No. 1 (May, 1986). pp. 111-126. OUT OF THE SHADOWS $15.00 PB*8731 paper ($2.00 P & H) Women, Resistance and Politics in South America by JO FISHER "A fascinating and vivid insight into the rise of the independent women's movement in South America." -- Maxine Molyneux, Birkbeck College, University of London In this fascinating study, Jo Fisher uses a series of case studies to show how women in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay have moved into the vacuum created by the military's destruction of the male-dominated left, developing organizations to deal with the issues they face. She describes the communal kitchens of Chile's shantytowns, trade unionists in Uruguay, peasant activists in Paraguay, mothers of the disappeared, self-help groups in Ar- gentina, and grassroots feminists in Chile. vol XXVII, No 2 SEPT/Ocr 1993 43 VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/OCT 1993 43 REPORT ON DEMOCRACY 7. Decreto con Fuerza de Ley No. 5 de 1967, Chile. 8. Interview with comuneros, Carquinmafio, May, 1993. 9. Interview with comuneros, Santiago, April, 1993. 10. Juan de Solls de Ovando S. et al, Normativa Legal, p. 106. 11. For a full description of the campaigns and their impact, see "Diagn6stico del impacto de las campafias de inscripci6n." 12. Interview with Juan de Soils de Ovando, Santiago, June, 1993.

Tags: Chile, comuneros, community organizations, socialism, democratization

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