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BOLIVIA: Delays in Land Reform a ‘Time Bomb”

José Luis Alcázar* - Tierramérica

TARJIJA, Bolivia, Nov 15 2005 (IPS) - Nine years after the enactment of Bolivia’s last agrarian reform law, just 17 percent of the 107 million hectares included in the legislation have been regularised, a delay that experts consulted by Tierramérica call a social and political “timebomb”.

The results of the 1996 Law 1.715, which created the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) to oversee the distribution of land, issue communal property titles to indigenous groups and eliminate unproductive large estates, “are frustrating”, says Carlos Romero, director of CEJIS, a social research think-tank.

Of the land slated for reform, the regularisation is complete for just 17 percent, 29.4 percent is in the process, and 53.3 percent has yet to be dealt with.

“All of the governments were negligent in carrying out agrarian reform. The military dictatorships were notable for their free and arbitrary distribution of land, especially in the east, to pay off political loyalties,” says a document of Fundación Tierra, whose director, Miguel Urioste, was one of the authors of the 1996 law.

Bolivia has a long history of struggle for land. The land reform of 1953, one of the demands made in the revolution of 1952, was inspired on the Mexican agrarian reform begun 35 years earlier. But it was left unfinished and caused distortions, with small landholdings in the high plains and the western valleys (with plots of less than two hectares) and the creation of enormous ranches in the tropical zones of the east (up to 50,000 hectares).

This Andean nation has an area of just over one million square kilometres. Between 1953 and 1992, some 60 million hectares were distributed, 88 percent of which benefited corporate interests, mostly in the tropical plains, and 10 percent went to indigenous peoples and peasant farmers in the western high plains and valleys, according to Romero.

One-third of Bolivia’s approximately nine million people live in rural areas.

In 1992, the government decided to freeze the old agrarian reform mechanisms and in 1996 passed Law 1.715.

“The reform is undermined by macroeconomic policies and counter-reform measures, distortions that constitute one of the central axes of the social and political conflicts that are polarising the country,” Romero said.

For Pablo Regalsky, an expert with the Centre for Andean Communication and Development (CENDA), “the process of counter-reform and land concentration began in 1967 and accelerated and deepened since the enactment of the (neoliberal economic) structural adjustment in 1985.”

According to Regalsky, “the governments, pressured by the World Bank, try to have little fiscal land (four million hectares) for forestry and petroleum companies, which at the same time are active in biopiracy, usurping genetic resources, displacing from these regions – under title of protected areas – the indigenous and peasant populations.”

A study to which Tierramérica had access, and conducted by CENDA researcher René Orellana, indicates that concessions have been granted to private entities to take advantage of biodiversity resources, for genetic research for the biotechnology industry, administration of national parks and even the sales of carbon dioxide certificates (for trade in greenhouse gas emissions).

Meanwhile, there are more than 200 lawsuits for regularising indigenous communal lands (54 in the tropical region and 160 in the Andes) for a total of 34 million hectares. In the past nine years, titles have been granted for just five million hectares.

“By not carrying out the reversion of the large estate, the assignment of fiscal land resources, or the implementation of human settlement programmes as was agreed in 1996, violent land disputes have erupted, involving groups of the dispossessed like the Landless Movement (MST) contributing to cases of confrontation,” maintained CEJIS director Romero.

CENDA’s Orellana observed that “the agrarian conflicts in Bolivia are increasingly violent and widespread. The landless peasants and indigenous people have been carrying out land seizures, calling into question the existing legislation and institutions for their slowness in resolving the problem, and thus turning into a time bomb.”

The Bolivian MST was founded in 2000, inspired on neighbouring Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement, which emerged in 1980. Bolivia’s movement has an estimated 5,000 members, keeping the government on tenterhooks with its land takeovers, particularly the large estates in the tropical region, and drawing the ire of agri-business executives.

The experts consulted by Tierramérica agree that the Constituent Assembly convened for July 2006 will be the scenario where the land debate could turn into an Achilles heel of the institutional re-founding of the nation.

The indigenous and peasant representatives want the demarcation and distribution of land to be related to the concept of territory, autonomous indigenous jurisdiction that not only includes ownership of the soil, but also the subsoil, air space and all the area’s natural resources.

The matter will be at the centre of the debate on the way to the Dec. 18 presidential elections, in which one of the frontrunners is indigenous and coca-grower leader Evo Morales, who has the support of many landless peasants.

Regalsky warns that the most conservative sectors, especially the large landowners in the tropics, will resist a Morales victory because it would mean another agrarian reform affecting big livestock, agricultural and forestry companies.

To deactivate this time bomb, according to the experts, the agrarian process needs to be take up again, speeding up the regularisation of the lands, putting unproductive large estates back into production and granting fiscal lands to the marginalised sectors.

(*José Luis Alcázar is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Nov. 12 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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