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The agrarian sector continues to present a baffling problem in Chile. Over the past decade, new tenure patterns and labour systems have been formed, reformed, and shattered through movements led by urban cadres – frequently armed with little more than passionately held assumptions. Despite the interest and energy recently focused on the countryside, remarkably little is known about the formation and nature of rural society. Usually illiterate, rural people wrote few memoirs or confessions; not owning land, rarely hired by contract, and usually disposed to toil without complaint (or having little hope of legal redress), they left little trace in the written records and are only dimly perceived through the eyes of travellers. Even in fairly recent times one is forced to infer the workers’ existence from the volume of their output or the nature of the demands placed on them. One way to get at the elusive subject of rural society is by examining the more statistically visible agrarian units – haciendas, medium and small farms – around which labour was organized. That is the aim of the present paper. We present first a statistical picture of changes in land distribution under the impact of expanding markets during the century up to 1935, and then we discuss the way the lower rural society adapted to the new conditions.
Although writers, with tiresome predictability, describe Chile as a ‘long thin land of contrasts’, many are inclined to generalize about the central nucleus. But even here the broken terrain and micro-climates produce a variety of geographic patterns that should be kept in mind.
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