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Q&A: Land Reform Agents Try to Free Indians from Servitude in Bolivia

Interview with INRA Secretary General Juan de Dios Fernández

LA PAZ, Apr 24 2008 (IPS) - Alto Parapetí, a rural area in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, is caught up in a dispute between large landowners and the government, which is trying to free more than 2,700 Guaraní Indians from a state of servitude.

Juan de Dios Fernández shows map of land to be distributed to Guaraní families. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS.

Juan de Dios Fernández shows map of land to be distributed to Guaraní families. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS.

Forty inspectors from the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) are attempting to draw up a land registry in the area and restore the land rights of 19 indigenous communities in the area.

Alto Parapetí, in the province of Cordillera, is located 1,200 km southeast of the administrative capital, La Paz.

The inspectors’ access to the disputed land, where Guaraní families are living in a state of servitude and forced labour on remote estates, according to the ombudsman’s office and human rights groups, has been blocked by local landowners.

The medium and large landholders have the backing of the local government and the pro-business Santa Cruz Civic Committee, who are staunch opponents of the leftwing government of indigenous President Evo Morales.

The presence of government inspectors in the area has fanned the flames of a conflict with the Morales administration, which is attempting to regularise land ownership and redistribute idle or fraudulently obtained land (involving expropriation with economic compensation) in the extensive plains and forests of Bolivia’s Chaco region, which covers the eastern and southeastern portions of the provinces of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija.

But the government’s land reform efforts have run into stiff opposition from the powerful agribusiness interests and landowners in the relatively wealthy eastern part of the country, who have accumulated huge extensions of fertile farmland and property rich in natural gas and water, which has served as the basis of their political power.

Santa Cruz and three other eastern provinces have adopted "autonomy statutes" in open defiance of the government of Morales and the constitution. (In Bolivia, which is made up of nine provinces, the western highlands are home to the impoverished indigenous majority and the eastern lowlands concentrate most of the country's natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product).

On May 4, voters in Santa Cruz will take part in a provincial referendum on whether or not to declare autonomy.

In the following interview with IPS correspondent Franz Chávez, INRA Secretary General Juan de Dios Fernández says the demand for autonomy is based on the regional elites’ intention of gaining greater local control over the abundant natural resources in the east and expanding the already enormous extensions of land under soybean cultivation.

On three occasions since Feb. 29, landowners and their security guards have attacked the INRA team of inspectors with shovels, stones, fists and firearms to keep them off the land in dispute in Alto Parapetí, where the agrarian reform officials are attempting to grant land titles to Guaraní residents, who have never had the security of registered land ownership.

IPS: Why did you choose such a touchy moment to carry out this operation in the most conflict-ridden area, especially when a U.S. citizen is one of the landowners involved? JUAN DE DIOS FERNÁNDEZ: After their Jan. 28, 1892 defeat by the Bolivian army in the battle of Kuruyuqui, where they suffered 5,000 casualties, the Guaraní Indians lost their land, which was distributed among landowners as political perks and favours. After that, the surviving indigenous people lived in a state of near-slavery, which evolved into the servitude of today.

In the years since the INRA land reform law was passed, before the Morales administration took office (in January 2006), there was no interest in addressing indigenous peoples’ claim to 157,000 hectares in that area, either because of a lack of political interest on the part of the authorities, or because the land was occupied by agribusiness interests, (non-indigenous) small farmers and people with links to the political factions in power at the time.

The Morales government committed itself to enforcing the land reform law and making the process of land redistribution transparent, and our inspectors began to visit the area, also in response to a 2005 resolution by the Office of the People’s Defender (ombudsman), which found that there were communities living in servitude.

This is a foretaste of the battle to come in areas along the border with Brazil where ranchers have accumulated large extensions of land.

IPS: Will you move ahead with your efforts despite the risk of more violent clashes? JDF: In Santa Cruz they (the landowners) would like a violent solution, in order to present themselves as victims. The route they could take is to create a movement opposed to agrarian reform, but the land redistribution process is picking up more and more steam.

Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee are keeping quiet because they don't want to delegitimise their May 4 autonomy referendum. There have been warnings that the INRA inspectors will be lynched. But that won't happen because we have the backing of the Camiri Civic Committee, which supports the Guaraní people.

IPS: The Guaraní People’s Assembly says there are 500 families living in near-slavery conditions in Bolivia’s Chaco region. How many families live in the area in dispute? JDF: In the Alto Parapetí area there are a total of 10,000 families, including Guaraní Indians and (mixed race or non-indigenous) small farmers and peasants. All of them will benefit from the land regularisation process, which involves surveying and measuring properties and identifying unused land, to be distributed to the indigenous communities as collectively-owned property.

IPS: What previous steps were taken to address the demand for community-owned territory presented in late 1996? JDF: The demand was accepted by the government nearly 12 years after it was presented, and an inter-ministerial council was set up to eradicate forced labour in the Guaraní territory and draw up a plan to create a communally-owned indigenous area.

In the process of creating a land registry, our inspectors visit rural property to verify whether it is serving an economic and social function. If it is, the current ownership is respected; otherwise, the land reverts to public property.

Based on the number of people living in the area (2,700) and their way of life, 157,000 hectares are needed to support the Guaraní families. But much of that land is currently occupied by ranchers and medium and large landholders.

IPS: How much public land is available to distribute to the indigenous communities? JDF: We don't know how much of it is actually public land. In previous years, the publicly owned land that was identified by INRA was distributed as part of murky deals smeared with corruption. Documents were forged, and the property was parcelled out to those already occupying the land.

But things have changed now, and INRA is verifying land ownership and usage, owners are marking their property boundaries, and land that has no owner is being registered as public.

IPS: How many hectares belong to the family of U.S. citizen Duston Larsen? JDF: In Cordillera province, the Larsen family (ranchers from the U.S. state of Montana) owns five properties totalling 15,000 hectares, equivalent to the area covered by the central city of Cochabamba. And in that province and Velasco and Ñuflo de Chávez together, the family has a total of 57,145 hectares – three times the area of the entire city of Santa Cruz.

IPS: What is the relation between the government’s aim to create a land registry and redistribute property to landless families and the demand for autonomy voiced by certain sectors in Santa Cruz? JDF: Underlying the autonomy movement are these deeper hidden issues that have to do with the administration of natural resources by an elite that wants control over them, however it is achieved. They control the agriculture industry, amass land, sell, traffick and do not produce.

They want property, to continue expanding the area under soy cultivation and to lease the land to agribusiness interests from Russia, Brazil, Japan and the Mennonite Church.

IPS: Are the INRA inspectors aware of the risk to their lives that they are facing in this task? JDF: In 50 years of agrarian reform, 20 percent of the beneficiaries have received 80 percent of the land, around 50 million hectares – a perverse ratio that we want to modify. We are fully aware of the risks, and are prepared to face them.

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