Rice fields in the west valley in Puerto Rico

Rice fields in the west valley in Puerto Rico

The land law was a bill passed in 1941 by the Legislature of Puerto Rico under the leadership of Senate President Luis Muñoz Marín and Governor Guy J. Swope. To grasp the significance of agrarian reform, it is important to understand the background to the reform program.

The background

The landholding system in Puerto Rico became a serious socio-economic problem during the first decades of the 20th century. Most of the arable lands were held by the large sugar companies, whose profits were sent abroad. The economic domination of the large sugar corporations meant the impoverishment of the Puerto Rican working class, as they were displaced from the land and depended on agricultural wage labor for their income.

In the decade of the 1930s, the prevailing socio-economic tension in Puerto Rico had increased due primarily to the effects of the world economic depression and the damage to the agricultural sector caused by hurricanes San Felipe and San Ciprián. Given the acute crisis of the time, socio-economic reform projects were implemented in Puerto Rico under the New Deal. These projects were the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA) and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA). Along with these, there were Puerto Rican national reform projects, such as the Chardón Plan formulated with New Deal support.

One of the most important proposals of the Chardón Plan was agrarian reform. The plan proposed to implement the 500 Acre Law contained in the Foraker Act of 1900. The law provided that no company or business could hold more than that amount of land. Given the level of non-compliance with the provisions of the 500 Acre Law, the plan limited sugar production and purchases by sugar mills and it provided for the distribution of lands to agricultural workers and small farmers. Despite the effort under the Chardón Plan to implement agricultural reform, it could not be put into effect given the opposition of various political interests at the time.

Prior to passage of the land law, the United States government organized a committee to investigate landholding in Puerto Rico. Presiding over this committee was Rexford G. Tugwell, a man of much experience in agrarian matters. Tugwell had been the assistant secretary and then deputy secretary of Agriculture in 1934, in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he collaborated in the Chardón Plan. The committee’s research showed that there was a high percentage of people living without land and in poverty. The landholding system was unjust and unequal. Parallel to the work of the committee, attorney Miguel Guerra Mondragón – who was to be the lawyer representing the Puerto Rico Land Authority later on – took the matter of compliance with the 500 Acre Law to court. In 1940, the Puerto Rico supreme court and the US supreme court recognized the illegality of the sugar corporations’ failure to comply with the 500 Acre Law. The decision contributed to the strengthening of the agrarian reform program that the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) submitted to the legislature in 1941 under the leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín.

The Land Law 

The land law opened the way for the agrarian reform of 1941 and was implemented in the context of the Second World War. In its statement of purpose, the law indicated that land was a source of life and economic liberty. The agrarian reform strengthened the security of the population in the critical context of the war. The law provided for the establishment of an agricultural policy in Puerto Rico. The policy consisted of limiting landholding to 500 acres, eliminating corporate ownership of large estates, preventing the resurgence of large landholdings, distributing plots of land, and stimulating the development of small cooperatives of farmers and farm laborers. The legislation also provided for the creation of the Puerto Rico land authority. To comply with the purposes of the law, the land authority was invested with the power to purchase and expropriate lands that were in the hands of the great estate owners. The land authority created a structure to articulate the reform and the process of redistribution of lands. The mechanisms were individual farms, proportional benefit farms, and Title V of the Land Law.

Individual farms could not be larger than 25 acres or smaller than 5 acres. They could be ceded, sold, or rented to individuals, and they could be paid for over a period of 40 years at very low rates of interest. The proportional benefit farms were agricultural production units whose benefits would be divided proportionately between the farmers and agricultural workers who made the land productive. These units could not exceed 500 acres, and they could be rented to farmers, agronomists, and agricultural administrators. Title V of the law consisted of free distribution of plots of land with the purpose of eliminating the agregado system and so doing social justice to the landless. The redistribution of lands was to be by public drawing. The time and place of the drawing was set by the Land Authority. Under Title V, the Rural Community Development Plan was implemented. The purpose of this plan was to establish communities with all kinds of public services and to facilitate family access to these.

In implementing the agrarian reform program, the PDP had the support of Governor Rexford G. Tugwell. The legislation, however, provoked a variety of reactions from the political sectors that were in opposition to the PDP. Still, the landless demanded attention from the PDP-dominated legislature to obtain access to land. In the critical circumstances of the war, land became the focus of divided interests. On the one hand, the Legislature expropriated the great estates to redistribute the lands among the landless, and on the other, strategic US interests in Puerto Rico required land for military use. The agrarian reform sponsored by the PDP had to achieve harmony between the two sectors. The agrarian reform program, which had aroused such interest based on its commitment to social justice, began to flag once the industrial incentives program, known as Operation Bootstrap, was begun in 1947.

Author: Dra. Josefa Santiago Caraballo 
Published: September 12, 2014.

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