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Peace Rooted in El Salvador, People Now Seek Own Land

THE half moon that was waxing over the mountains of El Salvador this week seemed to reflect the slow but steady consolidation of the peace accords that the country's warring factions signed four years ago this month, putting an end to the 12-year civil war that claimed 75,000 lives.

The United States poured in tens of millions of dollars in military aid to help the Salvadoran military's fight to eradicate the leftist insurgency that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) launched in January 1980.

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This week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher brought $10 million more to El Salvador, but this time, it was to help bolster peace through a land-redistribution program.

Concentration of agricultural lands in relatively few hands and the poverty that resulted from it were among the reasons the FMLN said it took up arms 16 years ago. At the time, 80 percent of El Salvador's farmland was owned by 20 percent of landowners, relegating 2 million rural dwellers to a life of subsistence farming or hunger, FMLN leaders say.

The FMLN's goal of a socialist state withered along with the war, but the dream of land reform survived and was one of the pillars of the 1992 peace accords that formally ended the conflict.

The land-transfer program set up by the accords has been a hard row to hoe, but now, three years behind schedule, about 90 percent of the 36,551 former combatants on both sides and others who qualify for the program have received titles.

One reason for the delay was the lack of a precedent.

''We couldn't find in any other country of the world a land-transfer program that was the result of a political negotiation that came at the end of an armed conflict,'' says Antonio Alvarez, the FMLN land-transfer coordinator.

''We didn't have anything to help orient us,'' he said. The former rebel party is now the second-largest in the Legislative Assembly and is working on the land-transfer program with its former enemy and current ruling party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

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Further delays, however, could undermine the program, warn officials at the United Nations mission in El Salvador, which monitors compliance with the peace accords. For instance, only 43 percent of the transfer titles have been legally registered, according to the mission. ''The idea is that you transfer the land, and it becomes more productive through the planning of this program so that the beneficiary will be able to live off the land and also have a profit and repay the debts. That is increasingly not the case,'' says Angelica Hunt, political affairs officer at the UN mission.

Part of the problem is that officials are still sifting through the paperwork of a previous agrarian-reform program that was initiated in the early 1980s by the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte, but interrupted by the civil war.

''There's a terrific hangover of confusion over who owns what [land], and where exactly it's located, as a result of the agrarian reform,'' says Ms. Hunt.

In the confusion, some new titleholders are waiting for loans they need to finance purchase of their lands and seeds. Consequently, many property owners who have agreed to sell their land haven't been able to.

The $10 million in US aid was formally received by El Salvador's President Armando Calderon Sol at a signing ceremony with Mr. Christopher at the Salvadoran presidential palace Feb. 26. The money will provide credit and technical assistance to farmers to help complete the land-transfer program, according to a State Department spokesman. Since 1992, the US has provided $55 million for the program.

The transfer of titles to the last 3,600 ex-combatants is proving to be rocky. Many are squatting on land that owners refuse to sell. The accords call for people who live on such lands to be relocated to lands of similar quality, but in this small and densely populated country, it's a difficult search.

That the search is taking place at all indicates how deeply the peace process has taken root, at least for now. ''In order to avoid social conflicts between owners and [land-transfer program] beneficiaries, we are trying to find alternative properties so that we can make the relocation,'' says Mr. Alvarez.

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