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Land tenure

Land tenure problems include the concentration of ownership in a minority of the population and a lack of land titles that has its historical origin in the colonial system of land ownership and the simultaneous existence of large agricultural holdings and smallholdings. About 38 per cent of the rural population are smallholders and they manage 35.1 per cent of the land under permanent cultivation (van Dam 1999). Average farm sizes range from 0.41 ha in Ecuador to a little more than 1.5 ha in Brazil and Peru.

In spite of the numerous agrarian reforms and land distribution schemes introduced in Latin America, land tenure has not changed markedly; there is both a tendency to merge farms to make larger holdings and an increase in the number of smallholdings (van Dam 1999). Both processes have adverse environmental effects. In large farms, the land suffers from erosion and compaction due to mechanization, as well as salinization because of improper irrigation and chemical pollution. Smallholdings increase deforestation, and lead to erosion and loss of soil fertility because they are used intensively without allowing for adequate fallow periods (Jazairy, Alamgir and Panuccio 1992).

The Sub-regional Action Programme for Sustainable Development of the American Puna, under the UNCCD secretariat, is developing an action plan for an area where natural resources are limited and there are problems of increasing poverty, migration and marginality (UNEP/ROLAC 1999). The land tenure question, poor land regulations and the elimination of incentives for agricultural expansion inspired the programme.

Environmental impact of the land tenure regime on soil conditions in Jamaica

As in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, the land tenure regime in Jamaica is inequitable and, on both large properties and smallholdings, few land conservation and recovery methods are used.

In the 1970s, agrarian reform favoured large properties in the form of cooperatives, based on the intensified use of crops, mechanization, an increase in irrigated area and monocropping. The environmental effects included soil erosion and compaction of soils from mechanization, salinization caused by deficient irrigation systems and chemical pollution.

One-quarter of Jamaica's territory was under cultivation in the 1980s, and more than 90 per cent of farms covered 4 ha or less. These smallholdings were concentrated in ecologically fragile mountain areas of low fertility. Agriculture was based on traditional methods, including slash-and-burn cultivation. Physical infrastructure and basic services were lacking, farmers received little or no credit and had little schooling.

The continued expansion of large agricultural properties and the marginalization of peasant farmers has meant that there are now fewer fallow periods and less crop rotation. Deforestation of mountainsides continues and there has been a reduction in the number of draught animals. In zones with smallholdings, soil degradation tends to increase, especially the loss of fertility from erosion, and this is reflected in a marked drop in production.

Sources: van Dam 1999 and Library of Congress 1987