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BOLIVIA: Requiem for Land in the Hands of the Few

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Aug 3 2007 (IPS) - Bolivian President Evo Morales announced new regulations and financing for a land reform law aimed at expropriating idle or ill-gotten land in the hands of large estate owners in eastern and northeastern Bolivia and redistributing it to indigenous farmers.

The era of the latifundium or large landed estate seems to be coming to an end in South America’s poorest country, where Morales proclaimed an “agrarian revolution” Thursday on the 54th anniversary of the enactment of the first law that distributed land to peasant farmers.

Morales – Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president – announced the country’s “second era” of agrarian reform in Ucureña, in the central department (province) of Cochabamba in a speech that once again declared his leftist government’s commitment to the ongoing struggle for land and in defence of the country’s natural resources by Bolivia’s native majority.

The programme he announced will focus on the redistribution of land, the mechanisation of small-scale agriculture, the strengthening of a “People’s Trade Treaty” signed with Cuba and Venezuela, and agricultural production in line with environmental conservation standards.

He also asked his cabinet to rename Aug. 2 “Agrarian Revolution Day” instead of “Day of the Indian”, as it has been commemorated since the first land reform law went into effect in 1953.

The president accused agribusiness interests and large landholders in tropical areas of the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando in eastern and northeastern Bolivia of fomenting a development model based on the accumulation of profits with no respect for the environment.

Government spokesman Alex Contreras said the concentration of land in Bolivia has reached an extreme, and cited the case of 14 influential families who own a total of three million hectares.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), just 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million small farmers have access to only five million hectares.

Indigenous demands for access to farm land have been resisted by economic power groups in Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando. Agrarian reform is one of the issues that has generated the most debate in the constituent assembly currently rewriting the Bolivian constitution.

Bolivia, a country of 9.2 million people, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the relatively wealthy eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product. Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of largely European (primarily Spanish) descent.

In Bolivia’s western altiplano region, many rural families have less than one hectare of land, while in the eastern and northeastern lowlands, a single cow often has five hectares on which to graze. “I think you have to be a cow to have land,” joked Morales.

The president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Santa Cruz, Gabriel Dabdoub, told IPS in La Paz that the new regulations for the land reform law generated uncertainty among the business and agribusiness sectors and would discourage private sector investment.

Dabdoub called for a continuation of dialogue between the government and the Agricultural Chamber of the East (CAO) after talks broke off and large producers in the area threatened to raise the prices of basic food items by 40 percent and cause shortages, as a result of the implementation of the new land reform regulations.

“We do not know how to take advantage of opportunities for production,” said Dabdoub. He added that there are businesspeople interested in investing in Bolivia, but argued that the absence of favourable conditions for private capital blocks them from moving forward with their ideas.

Deputy minister of land Alejandro Almaraz said there was no risk of price hikes or food shortages, and said the new regulations would streamline the land reform process and make it more transparent.

Representatives of labour and indigenous organisations will also be closely monitoring the process, to prevent corruption, he added.

Previous administrations handed formal land titles out for 10 dollars per hectare over the last decade, but the current government has reduced the cost of the procedure to one dollar per hectare, said Morales.

In addition, the paperwork will now only take six months, and disputes over property lines and the distribution of plots of land can be resolved by local indigenous communities, whose agreements and decisions will be backed by the government, said Almaraz.

Last year, the government estimated that it could recover some 14 million hectares of idle land for distribution to rural families who are landless or have an insufficient quantity of farmland on which to make a living.

Arable land currently comprises between two and three percent of Bolivia’s total land area of nearly 110 million hectares, while permanent pastures represent 24 percent.

Under the new system, after rural property has been designated as unproductive or as having been illegally obtained through shady purchase agreements, it can be “recuperated” and redistributed, with priority given to local residents of the areas in question, Howard Arroyo, a legal adviser to the National Institute of Land Reform (INRA), told IPS.

But the land will be granted to groups rather than individual owners, thus eliminating the distribution of large extensions of farmland to a few individuals. The new system specifically declares an end to the latifundium, said Arroyo.

According to the legal expert, the history of agrarian reform in Bolivia includes land grants of up to 400,000 hectares to a single individual, and not even for the purpose of farming. In many such cases, the land redistributed by the government was sold off by the new owners, for a profit.

The previous land reform system did not focus on verifying whether large extensions of land with agricultural potential were actually fulfilling a socioeconomic function, said Arroyo. But under the new regulations, land that has been left unproductive is subject to “recuperation” and redistribution by the government.

A National Agrarian Council made up of representatives of the central government and agricultural authorities will oversee compliance with the new regulations, while provincial councils comprised of delegates from associations of small farmers, indigenous people, women, larger producers and ranchers will exercise what the Morales administration describes as “social control.”

Each public official involved in verifying the legality of land titles or determining whether property has been left idle will have the obligation to hand over any information requested by the “social control” committees, to ensure the transparency of the process and avoid corruption.

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