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Editors Introduction


Reproduction of the Agrarian South: Journal of

Political Economy

Chilean Peasantry 2(3) 315343

2013 Centre for Agrarian Research

under Neoliberalism and Education for South (CARES)

SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2277976013517290
Ral Holz Crcamo

The continuous dispossession of the peasantry has been essential for
the implementation of neoliberal reforms in the Chilean agricultural
sector. This article focuses on Chiles experience as an extreme case
of neoliberal transformations. After describing the main reforms and
public policies impacting peasants, their own response is discussed. The
main argument is that despite such reforms, it is possible to observe
new forms of peasant organization and production. In this sense, seve-
ral organizational and productive experiences are briefly outlined. It
concludes that this recent experience indicates a necessary and possible
break with the dominant agribusiness arrangement, but apparently not
sufficient to pursue a structural transformation of the food system.

Peasantry, Chile, dispossession, reorganization, reproduction

After decades of marginalization and the predominance of welfarist
policies, the peasantry in Chile is demonstrating new forms of social,
political and economic organization. The date 11 September 2013
marked 40 years since the military coup. The violent disruption of
democracy and the massive violations of human rights that occurred

Ral Holz Crcamo is a PhD student at Sydney University, Australia.

Email: raul.holz@gmail.com
316 Ral Holz Crcamo

over the following 15 years were accompanied in the economic sphere

with one of the earliest and deepest neoliberal experiences in the world.
Under the military government, the economy was widely liberalized,
companies were privatized and the economic role of the government
reduced. The return to democracy in the 1990s did not mean a roll back
of these reforms. Although new governments incorporated social
reforms, the main pillars of the prevailing economic model were not
modified in essence. The food and agricultural sector has been no
This article explores the new forms of peasant organization in the
context of a highly liberalized agricultural sector. The first part will
define the main concepts and address the impact of neoliberal reforms
on Chilean agriculture and the peasantry. The second part will then
describe the response of the government to the peasantry. The third and
fourth parts will present the different types of peasant organization, espe-
cially the new forms of economic organization, before offering some
conclusions in the final section. The main argument developed is that the
recent experiences appear not to be sufficient to pursue an emancipatory
food system. However, they signal a necessary break with the dominant
mode of production and accumulation. In this vein, they point to positive
evidence of possible structural transformation in the food system.

Neoliberalism and the Peasantry

Setting the Framework

For our purposes, the liberalization process in Chile will be analyzed as
a system of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2007), by examin-
ing the concrete policy practices, the organization of the capitalist
economy and its impact on peasantry. David Harveys concept is
useful for analyzing the wave of dispossessions which occurred under
military rule, but also for examining the policies of democratic govern-
ments, such as the privatization of water or the current attempt to
privatize seeds.
The neoliberal agenda of the military government was to establish
a free market economy and to abolish the prevailing socio-economic
structure, the result of decades of social struggles which ended with

Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 2, 3 (2013): 315343

Chilean Peasantry 317

Allende as president leading a socialist project.1 The project was imposed

and controlled by an active authoritarian state, whose economic function
was reduced to macroeconomic balancing and repressive procedures.
The elimination of unions and professional associations, the integration
in the international market, the deregulation of work, the privatization of
education, health and social security were all essential factors. The
drastic reforms were enshrined in an ad hoc new Constitution in 1980.
The socialdemocratic alliance which governed the country between
1990 and 2010 introduced many progressive reforms, but was unable
to overcome the neoliberal model and incomplete character of the
democratic transition (Garretn 2012).
The prevailing extractive model based on natural resources is perma-
nently intertwined with an accumulation logic in which surplus value is
extracted in non-economic ways. Violent separation of people from their
land, appropriation of ancestral indigenous and peasant knowledge or
just conventional privatizations constitute constant means of dispossession.
In terms of temporal continuity, accumulation by dispossession is thus
understood as an ongoing process (De Angelis 1999; Perelman 2007).
However, by no means does this neglect other simultaneous forms of
accumulation such as capital accumulation by expanded reproduction.
Nor does it necessarily contradict possible findings and implications
derived from other conceptual reformulations, such as accumulation by
encroachment (Patnaik 2005) or displacement (Araghi 2009).
In parallel with democratic progress and the emergence of social
movements, the means and forms of dispossession such as land privati-
zation, abolition of communal property, the suppression of rights over
common goods and destruction of alternative production, distribution
and consumption have been changing over time. The continuous
relationship between accumulation by means of dispossession and
accumulation by means of making value expand itself (Bonefeld
2007: 2) has a distinctive impact on peasantry. Specifically, on the land
the subordination of labour to capital is not complete.
The present article follows van der Ploegs (2008) definition of
the peasantry. The author characterizes three modes of farming: capital-
ist, entrepreneurial and peasant farming. The capitalist is described
mainly by large corporate farming linked to the agro-export model.
Entrepreneurial farming is of smaller size, but has also a distinct market
focus and logic of financial and industrial capital integration. Peasant

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318 Ral Holz Crcamo

farming is characterized primarily by family labour and family-owned

land and means of production. Unlike the other modes, peasant produc-
tion has two orientations: towards the market and the reproduction of the
farm and the family. There are overlapping spaces and interactions
among the three modes, which are interlinked in a dynamic process
under capitalist reproduction and expansion.
The peasant production process is shaped by capital and the state, but
without necessarily adapting to the capitalist mode of production. In
addition, not all peasants are seen a priori and necessarily in a relation of
resistance to capital and the state. Thus, contrary to van der Ploeg (2010),
peasants are seen as potential, but not predisposed actors of resistance.
This is line with Henry Bernsteins (2013) critique of van der Ploegs
interpretation of the peasants ability to choose. In this sense, there
exists the possibility for simultaneous destruction and reproduction of
In order to better understand the development of the peasantry in
Chile, the agrarian question should be located in Latin American context.
Agriculture has been essential in the social and economic formation of
Latin America. The experience of Chile, although unique in many
aspects, shares many important features with other Latin American
countries: the colonial and independence legacy of land concentration;
the historical expansion of the agrarian border, initially driven by exports
to Europe in the nineteenth century; the expulsion of indigenous com-
munities and general impoverishment of the rural population; and the
neoliberal transformation (Chonchol 2003).
The importance of the agrarian question appears to vary among Latin
American countries (Lizrraga and Giarracca 2009). A debate on this
issue, which was initiated in Mexico in the 1970s, has opposed two views
on the future of the peasantry.2 On one side are the descampesinistas,
predicting, with Marx, the disappearance of the peasantry, due to the
economic non-viability of peasant production and the inevitable
absorption of peasants into wages relations (Astori 1981; R. Bartra 1976;
R. Bartra and Otero 1988). On the other are the campesinistas, who
stress the persistence of the peasantry against the view of its generalized
incorporation into wage labour (Esteva 1980; Schejtman 1980; Warman
1980). In between, there have been more nuanced and elaborate
arguments. Thus, there are also those that support a re-peasantization
process (Coello 1981, Warman 1988) and others who have tried to merge

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Chilean Peasantry 319

Marxist concepts with the persistence of the peasantry. They have been
termed marxistpeasantism (marxocampesinismo) by Schejtman
(1981) or chayanovistmarxist (marxismochayanovista) by Lehmann
In the last decade, Latin America has experienced significant changes
in the agrarian social relations of production, characterized by a reduc-
tion in agricultural employment, an increase in the employment of
women (especially in non-agricultural activities), an increase of salaried
employment versus a drop in self-employment, and the increase in agri-
cultural workers with urban residence (ECLAC, FAO and IICA 2012:
15). Kay (2005) concludes that the dominant tendency in Latin America
is one of diversification and semi-proletarization.
Nevertheless, although the scenario in the region has changed, the
persistence of the peasantry against its subordination to capital is still
vindicated (A. Bartra 2006, 2010; Dominguez 2012; Paulino and
Aparecida 2010; van der Ploeg 2008). By the inclusion of peasants into
family agriculture, the end of the peasantry is described in more subtle
ways today (Abramovay 2007; Berdegu and Fuentealba 2011). In the
region, the label of family agriculture is strongly promoted by inter-
national institutions, such as the Economic Commission for Latin
America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Regional Office for Latin
America and the Caribbean of the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations (FAO). Schneider (2012) argues that family agricul-
ture is not a concept but rather a normative and classificatory definition.
The same international institutions variably substitute family agriculture
with peasant family agriculture. The term remains contested. The main
danger is that family agriculture is emptied of relational meaning in the
process of production, at the same time as it gains space in public policy.
With the aim to identify, quantify, and reduce family agriculture to the
size of landholdings, the peasantry may be effectively eliminated. For
our purposes, the importance of the definition resides in the role of this
category in the dynamics of agrarian production.
Although the agrarian characteristics found within and between
countries vary, there are some characteristics that are present across
Latin America. Since colonialism, the disputes over land have been
central to the socio-economic development of the region and the
configuration of political power. Today, the region is the most unequal
in terms of land concentration, which has worsened since the 1960s,

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320 Ral Holz Crcamo

when land reform was broadly promoted (FAO 2012). As a consequence,

the agrarian question in Latin America is critically linked to land
access and land reforms. The issue reflects the persistence and central
importance of land access claims, ranging from the historical demands
by indigenous populations to contemporary peasant movements,
including also the marginalized and the unemployed, whether in urban or
rural areas (Antezana Ergueta 1992; Bengoa 2000; Chonchol 2003;
Pereira Leite and Vieira de vila 2008; Teubal 2009a, 2009b; Toledo
Llancaqueo 2005).
Historically, peasants have been major players among social move-
ments in Latin America (Bruckmann and Dos Santos 2008). The move-
ments arise from diverse dynamics, and include, for example, the
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the
Zapatistas in Mexico, the cocaleros in Bolivia, and the Movimiento
Nacional Campesino Indigena (MNCI) in Argentina. At the same time,
there are platforms for regional and global articulation among the
movements, such as Coordinadora de Organizaciones del Campo
(CLOC) and Via Campesina (Fernandes and Stedile 2012). Although the
movements are diverse in their origins, structure, and development, most
of them adhere to Via Campesinas concept of food sovereignty linked
to agro-ecology. Additionally, most of the movements are the main social
forces behind land reforms. Although recent pro-market transforma-
tions would appear to have ended agrarian reforms in the region, new
movements have also emerged. These are not only peasant-based, but
include the unemployed and diverse marginalized groups that place land
distribution at the core of their demands (Teubal 2009b).
There are several other inter-related issues that have had an impact
across the region. Historically, they have included political processes
around development projects inspired by structuralist and dependency
theories (Bielschowsky 2009; Di Filippo 2009; Kay and Gwynne 2000);
the role of enclave economies based on production of banana, coffee,
sugar, and the cultural importance of traditional staple foods, such as
corn (Cuvi 2011; de Ita et al. 2003), or the capture of land rent (A. Bartra
2008; Fernandes 2004; Rodrguez and Arceo 2006). More recent issues
concern the clash between peasants and agribusiness, as two distinctive
forms of production (Fernandes 2010; Giarracca and Teubal 2008); the
struggle for seed control between large transnational corporations and
peasants (Massieu Trigo 2009; Perelmuter 2012); or the dichotomy

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Chilean Peasantry 321

between food and energy production, upon the emergence of biofuels

(Bravo 2006; Rubio 2007). In this context, it is important to add the
promotion of Harmonious Coexistence, originally sumaqamaa in
Aymara and sumajkawsay in Quechua, in Bolivia and Ecuador, as a
distinctive new concept with strong peasant content (Gudynas and
Acosta 2011).
The present article engages largely with the major debates occurring
in Latin America. However, the focus is on agrarian transformation at
national and local levels, related specifically to the neoliberal reforms in
Chilean agriculture.

Neoliberal Reforms in Chilean Agriculture

Although the agricultural sector in Chile was not spared of the
radical neoliberal transformation, the previous land reform, carried out
in 196573, was not completely reverted. Around 46 per cent of the land
was returned to previous landowners, while the rest was allocated
to peasants. Of the latter, 40 per cent sold off their lands to former
landowners and new businesses by the end of 1981 (Echenique 1990).
Eventually, the destruction of the latifundio and hacienda system by the
196573 land reforms became essential to the subsequent land allocation
for the expansion of capital in the agricultural sector. The promotion of
trade liberalization and privatization of state-owned agro-industries
would build the future agro-export industry, based on the production of
cellulose, wine and fruits. As a result, the new structure of land owner-
ship increasingly favoured large business acquisitions, which saw excel-
lent profit opportunities in the shifting of crop patterns towards exports.
In conjunction with the economic transformation, most unions and
around 80 per cent of the 500 peasant cooperatives were abolished
(Echenique 1990).
The main argument in defence of an export-oriented economy has
always been that of comparative advantage and the limited size of the
internal market to sustain economic growth (MRE 2009). Chilean
exports are considered the engine of the economy, making up 37 per cent
of GDP (BCC 2013). While about 75 per cent of total exports are based
on basic commodities, over half of Chilean exports are still based on
copper (54 per cent in 2012) (MRE 2013a). As a result, the countrys

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322 Ral Holz Crcamo

trade structure is still shaped by primary exports and imports of manu-

factured goods. After the return to democracy in 1990, and until today,
Chiles agro-export model is still mainly a product of neoliberal reforms.
Although the centreleft coalition which has governed the country in the
transition introduced social reforms, the economic foundation is still
based on the policies of the military government.
Food exports represent around 10 per cent of Chiles GDP, a propor-
tion which is one of the largest in the world (FAO 2010). However,
capital expansion on land is not just for food, but also for forestry
products, which make up approximately 33 per cent of national exports
with origin in land resources (ODEPA 2012). By 2007, after two decades
of transition, the shift in land use towards export crops doubled in area.
The result has been the reduction of land use for cereals and small-scale
production in almost the same amount (ODEPA 2009).
In the agricultural sector, the liberalization process has produced
three distinct sectors: (a) small-scale family peasants focused on tradi-
tional products, subsistence horticulture, and local markets; (b) modern
or semi-modern large- and medium-sized production units, centred on
food production for the national market, and agro-industry based on a
combination of capital-intensive plantations and limited employment;
and (c) large modern companies, often of transnational origin, labour-
intensive and focused on food exports (Pezo Orellana 2007). While
small-scale family agriculture and the large- and medium-sized units
which produce for the domestic market have been experiencing continu-
ous problems since the onset of liberalization, the export-oriented sector
is currently facing troubles because of an appreciated currency and lack
of cheap, short-term harvest labour (Mayol 2011).
The food-export model operates through production and distribution
chains, which transform peasants into short-term wage labourers and
marginalize small-scale family agriculture. In this process, the booming
export-oriented agribusiness has created many jobs over the last two
decades, especially for women, most characterized by precarious condi-
tions in terms of contracts, salaries, duration and health standards
(Willson and Caro 2009). The expanding capital accumulation process
has resulted in new forms of exploitation and subordination: an increase
in precarious wage labour; migration of young people; the eviction of
small- and medium-sized farmers; and the multi-functionality of peasant

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Chilean Peasantry 323

Agricultural lands in Chile are highly unequally distributed. According

to the 2007 Agricultural Census (INE 2007), landholdings of over 100
hectares, which represent 8.2 per cent of total agricultural lands, control
93 per cent of land, while 43 per cent of landholdings, with five hectares
or less of land, control just about 0.7 per cent of all farmlands. Compared
with the earlier Agricultural Census of 1997, there has been a reduction
in landholdings. Three main reasons lie behind the decline in the number
of landholdings: (a) absorption into larger units; (b) urbanization
(Echenique and Romero 2009); and (c) the expansion of forest industry
through pine and eucalyptus plantations. The concentration of agricul-
tural landownership has already surpassed the levels of the hacienda
system in 1955 (Chonchol 1994). Thus, the liberalization process
favours land concentration by export-driven large agribusiness, at the
expense of peasants.
Jara et al.s (2009) study found that 87 per cent of Chilean farms can
be characterized as peasant family agriculture, that is, farms which rely
on a combination of production for own-consumption and a certain level
of non-farm income. However, despite their small landholdings and
unstable material reproduction, peasant family agriculture supplies
approximately 40 per cent of domestic food demand (Schejtman 2008).
A contrary approach, focusing mainly on traditional crops and livestock,
characterizes peasant family agriculture as highly indebted, with low
technological standards, high degrees of informality and a tendency
towards subsistence farming (Nagel 2005).
Nevertheless, peasant family agriculture is a very heterogeneous
group in terms of market access and human resources. The constant
process of exclusion is manifested in varying but generally low levels of
education, casual and precarious employment, lack of access to credit
and lower quality of land. The principal attribute common to all is a
dynamic, adaptive survival strategy, constrained by a dominant accumu-
lation model driven by the export-oriented agribusiness sector. This
results in a constant flux between non-farm occasional jobs, subsistence
farming for self-consumption and occasional possibilities to sell some
harvested products in local markets.
Following Jameson (2011), it is possible to assert that the exploita-
tion of peasants occurs at different moments, not just when in wage
labour, but also as producers for own-consumption, unemployed and
marginalized. Consequently, the process of capital accumulation and the

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324 Ral Holz Crcamo

inherent exploitation continue to inform and constrain peasant organiza-

tion and production practices. Since the return to democracy, peasants
have demonstrated their dynamic ability to adjust to the dominant forms
of market and political relations. However, they have also been absorbed
by the dominant process of accumulation led by agribusiness, through
the appropriation of peasant surplus, the provision of abundant cheap
labour and substantial contribution to the domestic food supply. Thus,
from a structural point of view, both the marginalization and persistence
of peasant production are necessary for the reproduction of the current
food system, as it achieves the above goals simultaneously. The responses
of the peasantry have been diverse and not necessarily regular over
time, but consistent with strategies of material reproduction. Their
responses can be summarized as: (a) integration into the export-oriented
agribusiness chain; (b) individual entrepreneurship in niche markets;
(c) temporary agricultural employment; (d) non-agricultural employment;
(e) production for own-consumption; and (f) migration.
The first two solutionsintegration into agribusiness and individual
entrepreneurshipare promoted by the government within the frame-
work of its anti-poverty strategy. The remaining solutions are the result
of the liberalization of agriculture, which has compelled peasants to
take up jobs in the export industry during harvest season; engage in
non-farm work without abandoning the countryside; produce for own-
consumption; or migrate definitively to the city. Many of these strategies
co-exist dynamically. Thus, it is possible for peasants in seasonal
agricultural wage labour to maintain also some sort of own production,
combined with a non-farm job in the off-harvest season. Chiles specific
geographic conditions impose additional constraints to the range of
actions taken by peasants. The distribution of natural resources is
bounded by clear geographic areas and long distances among them. For
instance, whereas the north is characterized by the Atacama Desert, large
copper mines and minor agriculture activities, further south the central
part of the country allows for fresh produce. In this vein, travel expenses,
different harvest times, and industry specific skills add more complexity
to the above strategies.
After the return to democracy, government policy towards the
peasantry has varied. However, as we will see in the following section,
it has remained functional to the transfer of peasant surplus to large
agribusiness interests.

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Chilean Peasantry 325

Government Response
From the perspective of public policy, peasants have been recognized
mainly as a population at persistent risk of poverty and not as an essen-
tial part of the food system. The fact that the peasants are critical for
domestic food supply is hardly considered as relevant. Thus, public
policy focuses on peasants as part of rural poverty-reduction strategies,
which is in line with the dominant discourse of international institutions
operating in the continent.
In terms of rural poverty reduction, public policies have been centred
on two efforts, as mentioned above: integration in the agribusiness food
chain and promotion of small-scale entrepreneurships. The first is seen
entirely from the agribusiness perspective, which does not consider
peasant agriculture as part of an alternative or complementary local food
system. As large companies have the flexibility to source among differ-
ent small producers, they are able to set the terms of negotiation and
contract, including price, type, and day of payment and quality require-
ments. In this way, they transfer the risk of loss to the peasants. In
addition, there are also intermediary agents who reduce even further
the profits for peasants. Accordingly, power imbalances are in favour of
large buyers and against weak peasant producers. The second policy
emphasizes the role of the individual entrepreneur and centres on market
niches to lift peasants out of poverty. It typically entails market studies
and training of basic management skills. Both policies usually consider
credits which are used to allow small-scale farmers to improve produc-
tion and investments. However, the result in most cases is long-term
debts, which eventually force peasants to sell their lands and migrate to
the city.
Policies with a focus on local market development and production for
community consumption are not implemented. Peasant production is
aimed to supply food markets and not to transform the current food
system, or to position peasants as actors of their own development.
Public policy is thus supportive of the reproduction of peasants within
the ongoing process of transferring the surplus from peasant agriculture
to agribusiness. If peasants do not produce food for the domestic market,
the export-driven model of agribusiness would be hardly sustainable.
Chiles trade marketing strategy is carried out under the slogan Chile
a Food Power, which underlines the current faith in the export food

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326 Ral Holz Crcamo

system. In this vein, the aim of the agricultural liberalization process,

deepened by the democratically elected governments, has been to foster
export opportunities. The signing of trade agreements has been funda-
mental to this goal. To date, Chile has signed 26 trade agreements (MRE
2013b), all but one under the socialdemocratic alliance in power until
2010. As a direct consequence of this policy, agriculture focused on the
domestic market has had to cope with higher import competition. Most
of the food imports are made up of meat products, cereals and oleaginous
products (ODEPA 2012). Many of these coincide with the traditional
production of the peasantry. In addition to harsher competition due
to imports, peasants hold land which is often of lower quality, have
more difficulties in accessing credit, and are highly fragmented and
weakly organized. In this context, production turns to subsistence and is
complemented by income through sporadic jobs.
The government view is that without technological modernization,
innovation, improvement in management and associative individual
entrepreneurship, small-scale agriculture will not survive. Likewise, the
production of services by small-scale farmers is increasingly seen as
important. Small-scale farmers are seen as future modern entrepreneurs
within an export orientation, high quality management, access to tech-
nology, larger volume of production, economies of scale, negotiating
power and integration into productive chains (Rojas 2006).
Government policies are based on an intrinsic understanding that
macroeconomic policies implemented in favour of large agribusiness
threaten the existence of peasant agriculture. Nevertheless, public
policies for peasants are not coherent across all ministries. Public offices
respond to different urgencies and priorities, many of them contradictory.
The driver of Chiles macroeconomic policy is the Ministry of Finance
(Ministerio de Hacienda), while social ministries have a secondary and
subordinate role. Government policies for peasants are channelled
mainly through the National Institute for Agricultural Development
(INDAP, acronym in Spanish), an Agricultural Ministry Office, and the
Solidarity and Social Investment Fund (FOSIS, acronym in Spanish), a
service of the Social Development Ministry. In line with the main
policies of market-focused production, INDAP basically hands out
credit, promotes production, and implements palliative policies, while
FOSIS is part of broad anti-poverty strategy. Both are buffer policies
subordinated to macroeconomic priorities. To be sure, there is a moral

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Chilean Peasantry 327

factor in government policies towards peasants, but also an intrinsi-

cally economic one. The reproduction of peasants assures supply of
perishable food and the availability of cheap labour of last resort.
To conclude, it is impossible to refer to the government response
without mentioning the Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura (SNA,
acronym in Spanish), the main agribusiness association. The SNA has
been the main advocate of liberalization of the food system, and is the
main beneficiary of financial assistance from government; governmental
schemes for small peasants are minor compared to the amount that
agribusiness receives. As such, the SNA claims the deep agricultural
transformation of the last 30 years as one of its main achievements: the
multiplication of fruit plantations by a factor four; the doubling of
vineyards in 20 years; more than doubling of wheat and corn yields;
the expansion in agricultural and forest exports by a factor of six in
19902010; and the attainment of the status of a competitive exporter
first for grape, second for plum, avocado and berry, third for cherry and
vine, fourth for apple and fifth for pork. Currently, the SNA is concerned
with the loss of competitiveness caused by the appreciation of the
Chilean peso and an increase in costs caused by higher prices of
energy, fuels, labour and fertilizers, which together constitute 75 per cent
of direct production costs. In this sense, the SNA aims to push govern-
ment policies in public investment for export promotion, labour
adaptabilitymeaning legal extension of the possibility to increase
foreign labour and trainingsubsidies to mechanize agriculture, and
higher innovation (Mayol 2011).
Since 2010, a right-wing coalition has been in power for the first time
since military rule. However, in terms of macroeconomic policies, not
much has changed. On the surface, the debate among the political elite
(the centreleft alliance and the right-wing coalition) involves, on the
one hand, demands for social policies to correct the inherent inequalities
of the capitalist system, and, on the other, the defence of trickle-down
economics. Although, there may exist critiques of the adjustment process
of capital, both are functional to the current accumulation system.
The organizational forms of the peasantry are embedded in the
expanding structure of capital accumulation by agribusiness and the
intermittent state presence. The organizational and associative forms are
multiple and diverse and are directly related to adaptive survival dynam-
ics, but increasingly also to specific political-economic projects. In what

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328 Ral Holz Crcamo

follows, the article analyzes the response of the peasantry, with a focus
on its organizational and economic dimensions.

Reorganization of Peasants
After many years of repression under the military junta and lack of con-
sistent support under the ensuing socialdemocratic governments, today
it is possible to speak of a re-articulation of peasant organizations. They
present diverse organizational structures, either formal or informal, and
have as their common goal the promotion of the well-being of their
members. Although most affiliate to lager regional or national federa-
tions, the new base organizations are increasingly specific in terms of
their membership and geographic location. As such, it is possible to
differentiate types of organization, some with a long history, but
many created in the last 10 years: (a) cooperatives; (b) unions and
federations; (c) organizations of indigenous peasants; (d) organization
of rural women; and (e) rural communities.
Perhaps one of the most traditional organizational expressions is that
of cooperatives. These have a long history in Chile, with origins closely
related to those of social movements (Radrign, Del Campo and Rubio
1998). After the military coup of 1973, the cooperative movement was
almost completely abolished. With the return to democracy and decisive
pro-cooperative state support, the number of peasant cooperatives rose
strongly, only to decline again sharply from the end of the 1990s, upon
the reduction of government support. For the period 200912, the
number of active peasant cooperatives was 236 (Nayan, Encalada and
Seron 2012). According to the Chilean Economic Development Agency
(CORFO, acronym in Spanish), the successful peasant cooperatives
were able to create close to 9000 jobs (Bazaes Merino 2009). In terms
of economic significance, dairy, wine and pisco (a traditional grape-
based alcoholic beverage) are the most important sectors. There exists
an enormous variety of cooperative organizational structures. They
range from an integrated individual profit-seeking logic to one based
on a social vision and solidarity. The decline of peasant cooperatives
at the end of the 1990s, for the most part due to reduction in govern-
ment support, apparently triggered new and more autonomous peasant

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Chilean Peasantry 329

Many of the new organizational efforts have union structures. Most

represent interests of small-scale producers, unionized wage labourers,
and occasional and temporary workers. Some were born at the time of
the agrarian reform, while most others have been created since 2000.
Among their goals are to promote articulation and cooperation among
workers, encourage productive innovation, promote local production
strategies, and take advantage of specific public tools of development
and technological access. They include: the Confederacion Nacional
Campesina (CNC), founded in 1967, Confederacin Nacional El
Triunfo Campesino (2007), and Federacin Nacional de Sindicatos
Agrcolas Sargento Candelaria Prez (2006).
The organizations of indigenous peasants were born out of the
necessity to channel and articulate the political struggle of indigenous
communities vis--vis the state. Their demands include the historical
claim for social and cultural recognition, and land and water rights. In
addition, the organizations defend the promotion of ancestral production
systems. Most of them defend also the autonomy of indigenous nations.
They are organized through unions, community associations and national
councils. Examples of indigenous peasant organizations are the
Confederacin Nacional Sindical Campesina e Indgena (NEHUEN),
founded in 2007, Asociacin Nacional de Comunidades Agrcolas
e Indgenas Leftraru A.G. (2002), and the Consejo Nacional Indgena
Quechua (n.d.).
Gender issues have been acquiring increasing attention in public
debate in the last decade. In rural areas, peasant women have been
organizing themselves with the consciousness that they are discrimi-
nated not just because they are poor peasants, but also because of their
gender condition. The existence of gendered tasks in households and in
the agribusiness export industry entails an important material context for
their organization. In addition to their gender condition, many organiza-
tions also differentiate themselves by their indigenous origin. Thus,
many women are also organized throughout indigenous communities,
handicraft associations, associations of temporary women workers, or
associations of technical and professional indigenous women. Indigenous
women are also organized in supra associations, such as the Asociacin
Gremial de Mujeres Indgenas y Campesinas We Kyen, founded in

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330 Ral Holz Crcamo

Rural communities have a long tradition in the country. On one side,

there is the experience of indigenous nations, the largest being the
Mapuche in south-central Chile, characterized by ancestral production
systems and collective forms of community management and work. On
the other hand, there are agricultural communities, such as the Norte
Chico communities, with no indigenous origin, characterized by demo-
cratic, solidarity, and self-management structures. Although in different
ways, rural communities have been under constant attack of government
and large business. In the south, challenges by large government proj-
ects, such as dam construction, and the expansion of forest companies,
are common, whereas in the north, mining, agribusiness and real estate
projects are frequent. The harm has taken several forms: legal restric-
tions to the establishment of communities, public policies designed
to support individuals and not communities, and privatization of water
access. Compared with the Mapuche nation, which after decades of
political struggle has received some attention and the benefit of specific
programmes, communities in the north are virtually neglected. A
common feature of public policies in this region is their social welfarist
One of main pillars to support peasants rights in Chile have
been NGOs and larger peasant federations, which aggregate a variety
of smaller organizationmany of them mentioned above. Several of
these organizations,3 which participate actively in Coordinadora
Latinoamericana de Organizaciones Campesinas and Via Campesina,
have adopted an anti-neoliberal discourse and strategy. They adhere to
Via Campesinas argument that peasant agriculture is able to feed the
world in an environmental friendly way, based on agro-ecology (Altieri
2009) and that small-scale production is competitive (Rosset 1999).
Similarly, they argue that in order to achieve sustainable agriculture, it is
necessary to transform monoculture production and agribusiness. This
only can be achieved by strong peasant organizations which put peasants
in the centre of their own development (Rosset et al. 2011).
NGOs and lager federations are service providers and intermediate
agents between peasants and the state. They may offer specific training,
but operate also as spokespersons of political and economic demands.
Besides, organizations also argue against government conditionalities
in technical assistance and subsidies to production. An example is the
critique of state support restricted to integration in the agribusiness

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Chilean Peasantry 331

chain. They also oppose privatization of small-scale farmers markets,

that is, the few marketing channels not under the control of large
agribusiness. NGOs and larger federations demand political and techni-
cal training as defined and implemented by peasant organizations.
Critical for the strengthening of peasant organization is training which
includes political organization and delivery of technical knowledge.
Both are considered essential for recognition as counterparts by official
institutions and for monitoring and proposing agricultural policies which
favour the peasantry (ANAMURI 2008). Peasants want to define their
own productive options and not be forcibly relegated to the lowest rank
of the production process.
It is apparent, from the rise of union and other political-economic
peasant organizations in the last 10 years, that peasants have reaffirmed
the intrinsic links between political and productive organization in
achieving their desired goals. Yet, there are threats to this link. Since
the return to democracy, Chile has increasingly lost priority among inter-
national aid agencies. Thus, NGOs and other peasant organization have
been pushed increasingly towards state funding. This is critical, as it
creates high dependence on political cycles and subordination to the
priority of the agribusiness agenda of the state. Another threat is that
many NGOs apparently speak in the name of peasants, but without
peasants. Their professional staff has tertiary education and may
organize seminars and do field research, but speaks from a hierarchical
perspective and social distance. An asymmetric relation that subordi-
nates peasant interests to other socio-cultural, political, and economic
influences is, thus, ubiquitous. This does not mean that NGOs work is
intrinsically negative, as they have been able to push the agenda in
favour of peasants. However, it is important to keep this in mind when
assessing the organizational structure of peasants in the country.
In addition, although smaller peasant organizations might be part
of larger national peasant confederations, there exist discrepancies
among peasant organization on many issues. For example, during the
legislative discussion on a new law for seed improvements, the
Movimiento Unitario Campesino y Etnias de Chile (MUCECH) was
accused by some members of not consulting its bases, thus approving a
law which favours large business interests and impacts negatively on
peasant producers (Ruiz 2011).

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332 Ral Holz Crcamo

Reorganization for Reproduction

The changing economic organization of peasant agriculture has been
a response to the dominant accumulation process and is a result of a shift
in cropping patterns, increased market integration, and new technical
methods of production (Gmez 2002). In the last decade, collective
peasant associations have organized production and distribution in
various forms, with the aim to substitute the role of the market and
capital accumulation. The concrete response varies, depending on the
interaction with the market as actors of production and consumption, on
the relationship to the state as beneficiaries of public policies, and on its
collective commitment. Consequently, the new forms of economic
organization of production, distribution, consumption, and surplus
accumulation co-exist in a dynamic and overlapping relationship with
the state and the market.
The new forms of peasant organization may accept state funding or
interact with the market, but are essentially driven from, and for, the
community and not from above. Thus, they may accept state support, but
not control. Additionally, the new peasant organizations count on the
support of NGOs or universities.
At the base of the new forms of organization, are horizontally ordered
systems of producers and consumers, based on self-governing and
autonomous collectives. Although they are very heterogeneous in their
economic practices and modes of social organization, as described
above, all of them allow space for non-market exchanges. The initiatives
are driven by peasants and often depend greatly on community solidar-
ity. As socio-economic organizations embedded in local communities
and territories and based on collective confidence and commitment, they
offer the possibility of overcoming the limited cost-benefit logic of the
market. The new forms of productive organization are based on more
inclusive and participatory dimensions and aim to address immediate
material needs by long-term commitments to sustainability, collabora-
tion and social equity.
Notwithstanding the economic implications, there are implicit social
and political considerations. Recent peasant experiences contribute to a
more general resistance to the constant marginalization of the peasantry
by the export-oriented agribusiness model of capital accumulation.

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Chilean Peasantry 333

These experiences include: (a) the acquisition of concrete economic

knowledge of local and global processes; (b) practical translation of
theoretical discourse; and (c) the construction and dissemination of a
viable alternative project. By appropriation of production and distribu-
tion, there is an attempt by peasants to recover part of the economic
surplus and decide on their own economic and social priorities. As such,
it might be regarded as a concrete alternative to the exclusionary and
low-wage agribusiness model.
There are many overlapping forms of new peasant economic organi-
zations. Peasant markets are places where different expressions of
production, distribution, and consumption congregate at the same time.
They are of diverse forms, but have a local focus, promote domestic
economies and encourage responsible and ethical consumption. Through
these markets, peasants promote product and knowledge exchange and
the strengthening of social relations. In addition, they are often spheres
of diffusion of agro-ecological practices. An example are indigenous
peasants market, like the Mapuche Walng market (walng means
summer in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language), which exists since
2005. It is a network-based market, which moves through the region for
approximately three weeks. In each place, the market lasts around three
days, and encourages product and knowledge exchange, or traftkintu in
Mapudungun, between different Mapuche communities. In addition to
the sale of traditional food products, as well as handicrafts, the market
promotes cultural traditions linked, for example, to the preservation of
Mapuches agriculture and traditional seeds. The market is based on a
network of communities, supported by Red de Socioeconomia
Solidariadel Sur (REDESSOLES), founded in 2001. The organization
explicitly promotes practices oriented towards social and solidarity
Another example is the market Feria de la Economa de la Solidaridad,
organized for the first time in 2009. The market is organized by peasants
and handicraft organizations with the support of an NGO. The organizers
receive government subsidies and are often supported by universities,
which support collective knowledge construction. Universities and
communities work together to elaborate scientific knowledge based
on ancestral seeds, plants and farming modes. The last market was
organized around the topic of agro-ecological recovery of food diets

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334 Ral Holz Crcamo

in peasant families. Activities were centred on factors which contribute

to the development of food sovereignty experiences, such as: the recov-
ery of agro-ecological horticultural practices and techniques, storage
and promotion of traditional seeds and the preservation of local
A system which integrates local and global dimensions of production
and consumption is that of Fair Trade. This is a system which offers
benefits to the producers, although it remains functional to the current
food system and subordinates local production to trade structures and
demand preferences of developed countries. Fair Trade accounts for
a growing number of producers and organizations in Chile. Some are
part of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), such as Comparte,
Fundacion Solidaridad, Cooperativa Apicoop and Fundacion Chol-
Chol, while others, such as Hands of Chile and Ona, just work by
their principles but are not members.4 The organizations work as part
of the fair trade chain from the producer to the consumer. Most of
them are cooperatives, associations, export and import companies,
national fair trade nets, and distributers who work under the fair trade
principle. Although the products are mainly handicraft, some include
specific food items. An example is Apicoop, a peasant cooperative which
produces honey. The cooperative has approximately 300 members, of
which 40 per cent are of indigenous origin. Founded during the military
government, in recent years the cooperative has been consolidating
its business and has even diversified into blueberries (Apicoop
n/d; ProChile-FUNDES 2007).
Finally, as peasants are generally excluded from formal credit
markets, communal banks have been financing many peasant projects in
the last 10 years, in the form of micro-credit. Most of the beneficiaries
are women. The credit system is based on local networking, by gathering
a certain number of people who assume a voluntarily commitment to the
collective. Although, each participant has an individual project, the
methodology promotes organization and solidarity among neighbours.
Not all communal banks operate in the same way, and they vary in terms
of credit size, conditionality and additional services, such as training and
education. They include: Fundacion Crecer, Fundacion Padre Adolfo
Kolpin, Fundacion Contigo, Cecades, Oriencoop and Fondo Esperanza
(Bazaes Merino 2009).

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Chilean Peasantry 335

Concluding Remarks
Chiles peasantry is embedded in a specific form of capitalist accumula-
tion and state management in the re-democratization period, all part of a
Chilean way of neoliberalism. Under adverse conditions, peasants still
supply approximately 40 per cent of food for domestic consumption
and much of the low-wage labour for agribusiness. Large corporate
agro-export capital accumulation has come at the expense of peasants.
State responses are generally subordinated to the expanded reproduc-
tion of capital. Peasants are regarded mainly as potential links in
the agribusiness chain or future entrepreneurs, or otherwise people in
risk of poverty, to be targeted by welfare policies. Upon the withdrawal
of the state from the promotion of peasant cooperatives in the late
1990s, peasants have been founding new organizational structures. The
new experiences of peasant economies and organizations show the
viability of a different food system, based on local provisions, less
export dependence, and sensitivity to environmental sustainability and
peoples needs.
It is questionable to what extent public policies are able to contribute
positively to peasant autonomy, as such interventions do not aim to
change the food system as such. Although it makes sense to use state
benefits and to push for further progressive measures, the reliance on the
state may have a paralyzing impact on the long-term goals of peasants,
and must be regarded with caution.
The recent experiences signal a necessary and possible break with
the dominant mode of production and accumulation, even though
they are not sufficient to pursue an emancipatory food system. The
problem is not just the dominant food system, understood as an isolated
dimension, but the institutions and policies which sustain the system.
Therefore, it is not certain that a permanent project of social transforma-
tion for the peasantry is possible parallel to the dominant agribusiness
structure. However, the new forms of production, distribution, consump-
tion, and knowledge-building have intrinsic normative implications for
collective behaviour and social relationships. In this way, the new expe-
riences indicate positive evidence of possible structural transformation
in the food system.

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336 Ral Holz Crcamo

1. It is not the objective here to account for the specific socioeconomic devel-
opments which led to the socialist coalition government in 1970. For more
information, see Landerretche (2011), for a recent account; and Maspero
(1974), Nohlen (1973), Oficina de Planificacin Nacional (1971), Pinto
(1964) or Villanueva (1976), for a more historical review.
2. It is not the aim of the article to develop an exhaustive review of the agrarian
question in Latin America. For the historical discussion, the present paper
draws mainly on Kay (2005).
3. They include: Coordinadora Campesina de Chile (CCCH), Asociacin
Nacional de Mujeres Rurales e Indgenas (ANAMURI), Confederacin
de Cooperativas Campesinas (CAMPOCOOP), Movimiento Unitario
Campesino y Etnias de Chile (MUCECH), Confederacin Nacional La Voz
del Campo and Unin Nacional de Agricultura Familiar de Chile (UNAF).
4. The Fair Trade principles, as defined by the WFTO (2013), are: (a) creat-
ing opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers; (b) transpar-
ency and accountability; (c) fair trading practices; (d) payment of a fair price;
(e) ensuring no child labour and forced labour; (f) commitment to non-
discrimination, gender equity and womens economic empowerment, and
freedom of association; (g) ensuring good working conditions; (h) providing
capacity building; (i) promoting fair trade; and (j) respect for the environment.

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