Although mining, banking, and industry have been the source of the greatest Chilean fortunes since the early nineteenth century, rural society has occupied a much more central place in the nation's history. Until the 1930s, most of the population lived in rural areas, and most upper-class families, whatever the origin of their wealth, owned rural land.
Until recently, large landholdings ( latifundios) were a characteristic feature of rural society. The latifundia pattern of landownership originated in the Spanish crown's early colonial practice of giving land grants, some of them huge, to soldiers involved in the conquest and to the Roman Catholic Church. By the late eighteenth century, the most important lands of the Central Valley were held in large haciendas by families with noble titles that were all inherited by the elder son under the mayorazgo system. All such titles were abolished with Chile's adoption of a republican form of government after independence, and new laws of inheritance eventually ended the practice of primogeniture. This led to the creation of a market for rural properties and to their division as they were inherited by family members. However, by the midtwentieth century land transfers and divisions still had not put an end to ownership of large properties.
The typical large landholding was a complex minisociety. Some of its laborers lived on the estate year-round, and they or their family members worked as needed in exchange for the right to cultivate a portion of the land for themselves and to graze their animals in specified fields. Among the rural poor, their families enjoyed better living conditions. Other workers, a majority in times of strong demand for labor, especially during the harvest, lived in rural towns and villages or on small properties they held independently (whether legally or not) at the edges of the large farms. These holdings were usually insufficient to maintain a family adequately, and its members therefore would seek employment in the large rural enterprises. When needed, other rural workers were recruited from among migrants who would come during the summer from other parts of the country. The large rural enterprises included stores where people could buy a variety of goods, chapels where priests would say mass, and dispensaries for primary medical attention. In addition to the sometimes ornate houses of the proprietors, which generally were occupied only during the summer months, there were houses for the administrators, mechanics, accountants, enologists (if wine was produced), blacksmiths, and others who constituted the professional and skilled labor forces of the enterprise.
Beginning in the 1950s, the large rural properties became the target of heightened criticism by reformist politicians and economists. They noted that the uneven distribution of land contributed to social inequality and that the large landholdings were highly inefficient agricultural producers. During the governments of presidents Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-70), who established a reformed sector, and Salvador Allende Gossens (1970-73), an extensive land reform program was carried out. It basically did away with the large rural properties on prime agricultural (nonforested) lands. Thus, whereas in 1965 fully 55 percent of all agricultural lands (measured as basic irrigated hectares--BIH) were held in 4,876 properties of more than eighty hectares each, by 1973 there were only 260 such properties left, covering only 2.7 percent of all BIH. The expropriations covered 40 percent of all the nation's BIH.
The military government put an end to the agrarian reform program, as well as to the technical assistance given to the beneficiaries of the expropriations. It also returned to previous owners some of the land that had not yet been formally transferred. In addition, it distributed individual titles among residents of the peasant communities sponsored by the Allende government's agrarian reform program. Moreover, the military government permitted the sale of any rural property, including the small family farms created by the agrarian reform. This policy led to new changes in land tenancy, which did not, however, reconstitute the large landholdings to the same extent as before the agrarian reform. Instead, it favored an expansion of medium-sized holdings. After all the changes, very small holdings of less than five hectares still accounted for about 10 percent of agricultural area. The largest holdings, of more than eighty hectares, were far from restored to their prior importance, at only 18 percent of the total area. If a primary purpose of the agrarian reform had been to create a better distribution of the agricultural land, after much turmoil and change the data indicate that this had been achieved.
The remarkable transformations in land tenancy that started in the mid-1960s were accompanied by other great changes in agriculture. These led to much more intensive land use, with the accelerated incorporation of modern technologies. Labor-service tenancy and share-cropping arrangements as a source of agricultural labor have disappeared from commercial farming, substituted by wage-earning workers living mainly in towns or small rural properties. The number of self-employed workers in agriculture has also increased with the land tenancy changes.
The rural network of mainly dirt roads was expanded to permit access to new farms and logging areas. Concurrently, small-town entrepreneurs were quick to respond to new opportunities by establishing bus routes along these expanded roads, thereby facilitating the rural population's access to schools and sources of employment. By the 1980s, the peasantry was for the first time overwhelmingly literate, with attendance at primary schools by its children virtually universal.
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