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BOLIVIA: A Negotiated Land Revolution

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, May 30 2006 (IPS) - The Bolivian government is negotiating with agribusiness and rural social organisations the scope of a new programme of land distribution among poor rural workers, which experts warn might be a step backwards as it involves handing over small plots of land with limited productive capacity.

Women and indigenous people are at the top of the list of intended beneficiaries of the first two million hectares to be distributed, out of 4.5 million hectares of land identified as state property by the leftwing administration of Evo Morales.

In the second stage of the programme, registers of private ownership of land will be revised and updated, and lands that are unproductive and held merely for speculation and investment will be expropriated.

Re-registration and distribution of state lands, initially intended for forestry projects and other purposes, will precede confiscation of private land lying idle, held only for its market value, as established in the official plan for fair land distribution for productive purposes.

Fifty-three years after Bolivia’s first agrarian reform efforts, and a decade after a radical reform in land legislation, the model of agrarian development now being implemented aims to protect and promote three modes of production, based on communities, small farmers and agroindustry.

On May 16, the administration of Morales, who took office in January as the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia, announced a plan to modify the law on agrarian reform and draft six decrees that will complete the new legal framework for land tenure and agricultural and livestock production.

The next step was to convene a dialogue with all the sectors involved, before the new provisions are enacted and land confiscations begin. However, the announcements have not yet mentioned development aid for the rural sector, such as credits or machinery..

According to the latest figures available from the National Institute of Statistics (INE), 63 percent of Bolivia’s population of 9.2 million lives in poverty. The situation is even worse in rural areas, where 79.5 percent of the population is poor.

Although the precise number of people demanding productive land is not known, Omar Quiroga, an analyst at the Centre for Research and Advancement of Small Farmers (CIPCA), told IPS that leaders of indigenous peoples’ organisations had registered 22,000 families who were landless or land-poor, in the eastern department of Santa Cruz alone.

Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera said the government urgently wanted to give productive employment to a sector that represents 40 percent of the economy in rural communities, and is made up of 650,000 families living on incomes of less than 600 dollars a year.

>From October 1996 to last April, the state National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) has spent nearly 100 million dollars revising titles to barely 17 percent of the 107.5 million hectares of arable land, a task that law 1715 of the National Service of Agrarian Reform stipulated should be completed in 10 years, according to information from the Vice Ministry of Lands.

The Morales administration plans to take nine months to finish a job that has already taken nine years and five months.

Their estimates indicate that at the end of the process, there will be about 14 million hectares of land available for distribution, including lands that are to be confiscated. These lands are in the lowlands of the departments of Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz, an extensive northern region that spreads from the west to the east of the country, and in Chuquisaca and Tarija, to the southeast.

Land ownership in Bolivia has unique features. After the agrarian reform of 1953, large estates in the western highlands region and in the valleys were shared out among small farmers, and over half a century they have passed from generation to generation and have been so subdivided that now some landowners are known to have room for just a single furrow.

At the time of the first agrarian reform, the western region was the economic powerhouse of Bolivia, with silver and tin mining at their peak, while the eastern and northeastern regions started to come into their own in the 1960s, when young people and immigrant families from Europe and Asia moved there in search of their own ‘promised land.’

But the dictatorships in power from 1964 to 1978 – with brief periods of democracy in between – changed the face of agriculture in the east by assigning the best land to influential families and relatives of those in government at the time, which led to the concentration of property in only a few hands.

That vast region in the lowlands of the departments of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca, with estates of up to 50,000 hectares, is the area that the government is targeting now for land reform.

A study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that in this region, just 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million families of small farmers have barely five million hectares.

Sociologist Joaquín Saravia, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, believes that land distribution on its own will not solve the problem of poverty. Instead, he proposes a development plan based on sound economic, environmental, political and administrative criteria, linked to the creation of large producing regions.

Determining the productive strengths of each region, and joining them together to generate intensive agricultural production, with technological support and credits, could prevent a return to the history of the 1950s, when plots of land were distributed to families who ended up sub-dividing their property almost to extinction, he explained to IPS.

For his part, Enrique Ormachea, an agricultural analyst with the Centre for Research on Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), pointed out that “the limited state lands to be distributed are in the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, and the small farmers living in those departments will have priority.”

“But what will happen to the small farmers in the (western) highlands, where most of the poverty is concentrated?” the expert asked, in an interview with IPS.

The 1953 land distribution affected large estates in the altiplano (highlands) and valleys in the departments of La Paz, Oruro, Potosí and Cochabamba, in the west, centre and southwest of the country. As a result, there is little land left to be distributed in that region.

Ormachea is concerned about the future of small farmers from the altiplano, where land can no longer be found, who have no option but to migrate to the cities and hire themselves out as cheap, unskilled labour. So far, the government has not announced a plan to relocate families, or a settlement policy, in relation to the agrarian reform measures.

Saravia agreed with Ormachea that “the small size of the plots of land are the cause of extreme poverty in several small farmer sectors.”

“That’s why it’s not good enough to give them small parcels of land; it would be better to form a large collective or communally owned farm in which technology can be used to boost productivity,” he added.

Quiroga, in turn, emphasised the urgent need for a broad government programme, to include technical assistance, productive infrastructure, provision of farm machinery through cooperatives, access to soft credit, and guaranteed markets for producers.

Nevertheless, he predicted there would be a land struggle between small farmers, indigenous people and agribusiness.

“Agriculture and livestock owners’ associations, and one sector of small producers’ associations, are being led by dishonest businessmen or pseudo-businessmen, who are bent on embezzling banking institutions by taking out ‘linked’ loans (given to bank shareholders) or simply not paying them back,” Quiroga said.

The government has also said that large rural properties have been used as collateral against loans that were left unpaid, driving financial institutions into bankruptcy. Even now, the state is still trying to collect debts amounting to 70 million dollars, contracted in the early 1990s by influential members of the business community.

Ormachea and Quiroga also foresee problems in the land distribution process, and in deciding who will benefit.

The executive secretary of the Bolivian Confederation of Rural Workers’ Unions (CSUTCB), Felipe Quispe, an indigenous leader from the western region, was critical of the government’s plan because, he said, it aims at reaching an accommodation with “owners of vast estates and landholders who have historically exploited rural workers.”

For the time being, Quispe has not called for seizures of private lands, in contrast to the small Landless Movement (MST), which is divided into a wing that supports the government, and one that is in radical opposition.

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