Defence of right to water drives call for land reform in Chile

Fifty years after its first land reform, there is growing support in Chile for a second land reform which will make water a public good once more.

Orlando Milesi

WATER at high prices, sold as a market good, and small farmers almost a species in extinction, replaced by seasonal workers, are the visible effects of the crisis in rural Chile, 50 years after a land reform which postulated that the land is for those who work it.

To tackle the crisis, environ-mental and social activists are proposing a new land reform to reclaim water as a public good, at a time when a persistent drought is affecting much of Chile, making it necessary to use tanker trucks to distribute water in some low-income neighbourhoods in cities around the country.

Last year the number of villages, small towns and neighbourhoods that were left without water and were supplied by tanker trucks also doubled in relation to 2015, said water department director Carlos Estevez.

'In Chile, water has become a capital good, left to the discretion of speculators and separated from the land, while international juris-prudence indicates that it should be available for the preservation of life and food production, and only after that, for other economic activities,' expert and activist Rodrigo Mundaca told Inter Press Service (IPS).

Mundaca, the secretary-general of the Movement for the Defence of Access to Water, Land and the Protection of the Environment (Modatima), said that 'a second land reform is key to recovering water', after the one carried out in the 1970s.

'The green revolution is a model that does not preserve natural assets. Our export model is associated with monoculture and we need to promote a new development paradigm based on a harmonious relationship with nature,' he said.

This South American country is a major producer and exporter of food products, thanks to the production of major companies and consortiums that own the land and water. The mining industry still accounts for half of Chile's exports, which amounted to over $60 billion in 2016. But this is also one of the top 10 countries in the world in food exports, ranking first for several products. The food industry represents a total of $20 billion in exports.

Meanwhile, the current regulation of the right to water in Chile, after it was privatised in 1981 during the 1973-90 military dictator-ship of General Augusto Pinochet, is threatening small-scale family farmers, who are fighting for at least partial restoration of public control.

The 1980 constitution states that water is a private good. The use of hydric resources according to the laws of the market is regulated by the Water Code, which gives the state the power to grant usage rights to companies free of charge and in perpetuity. It also allows water usage rights to be bought, sold or leased without taking into consideration priorities of use. In Chile, there are 110,000 water-use rights contracts in force under the Water Code.

The government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet introduced a proposed amendment to the Code in Congress, although its final approval will take several months. The amendment would make water usage rights temporary rather than perpetual. But it would apply only to future concessions and would not be retroactive, which has drawn criticism from environmentalists and social activists in rural areas.

Fifty years after the land reform launched by the Christian Democrat government of Eduardo Frei (1964-70) and expanded by socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-73), support for a second land reform plan that would make water a social good once again is growing.

Between the cities of Petorca and Antofagasta in arid northern Chile, 200 and 1,340 km from the country's capital Santiago respectively, the prices for a year's water rights for a litre of water per second - the amount needed to irrigate one hectare of vineyard - range from $7,670 to $76,700, said Mundaca, referring to cases that make the reform necessary.

The rest of Latin America

Luiz Beduschi, a Territorial Development Policies officer at the Santiago-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS that 'historically, Latin America has been one of the regions with the highest levels of inequality in the distribution and use of natural resources'.

'This phenomenon has among its causes an increasing concentration in the value chains, the establishment and growth of companies that exploit resources at an industrial scale, backed by public policy approaches that foster an increase in the participation of these countries in export markets,' he said.

Beduschi stressed that 'the expansion of investment in the region through sowing pools (speculative investment funds), annual leases or purchases of large extensions of land, among others, has contributed to a higher concentration of land than before the land reforms that were carried out in several countries in the region'.

'Conflicts over access to natural resources have been on the rise around the world and the situation is no different in this region,' said the FAO expert.

'The historical processes of agricultural reform, strongly promoted in different countries in the region, which in the case of Mexico was carried out 100 years ago, and 50 years ago in Chile, allow us today to once again discuss the widespread question of inequality, which arises from the global concentration of the ownership and use of natural resources, historically reflected in land ownership,' he said.

Impacts of the model to be reformed

Agronomist Jacques Chonchol, minister of agriculture during Allende's government and a promoter of the land reform process, told IPS that the new reform made sense because the counter-reform carried out by the dictatorship 'practically privatised water, an increasingly scarce resource'.

'We have very little arable land - less than 10% of Chile's 757 million square kilometres - and part of that is being lost' to the phenomenon of the selling off of parcels of land in rural areas as second properties of city-dwellers, he warned.

Chonchol also expressed the need for 'a forestry policy that excludes agricultural lands. That was prohibited, but during the dictator-ship, it began to happen again. Forestry plantations should be banned on farmland, and these companies should plant native trees, since pines and eucalyptus absorb a lot of water'.

He believes that the counter-reform 'gave rise to a new capitalist agriculture, much more efficient from an economic point of view, although not always in social terms', in a model that 'perpetuates inequality', which the democratic governments have maintained.

On the social level, historian Jose Bengoa told IPS that until the land reform, there were three kinds of farmers in Chile: 'small landholders grouped in towns and villages; tenant farmers and their families, on the big estates; and "outsiders" who wandered between the towns and estates'.

'That structure changed dramatically and today a great majority are non-permanent agricultural workers, who live in towns and cities near agricultural areas,' Bengoa said.

'There is a small sector of small-scale farmers, who could be called peasants, who are the majority in some regions and sectors, and then there is an increasing proportion of seasonal workers,' he said.

For Bengoa, 'Chilean agriculture is nowadays, due to the land reform carried out 50 years ago, a highly capitalist and productive sector'.

'This activity, without any controls, leads to an unprecedented level of exploitation of human resources, workers and natural resources, such as water. In the next few years there will be serious problems, in terms of both the need for manpower and the need for resources such as water and land, as well as environmental problems,' he predicted.

According to Bengoa, these problems cannot be easily solved, because 'the agricultural sector will pressure the state to increase the flow of migrant workers, and for more infrastructure works, in particular in water reserves'. - IPS                    

*Third World Resurgence No. 319/320, Mar/Apr 2017, pp 4-5