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BOLIVIA: Government Takes Up Challenge of Land Reform

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Mar 8 2006 (IPS) - The Bolivian government of Evo Morales plans to strengthen and speed up agrarian reform, to reduce the heavy concentration of land ownership, and to combat speculation and illegal sales of land along the border to foreign nationals.

“The new government has the democratic legitimacy to carry out a profound agrarian reform effort, after the institutions responsible for redistributing land have been reorganised, since they were staffed by known representatives of powerful landowners and agribusiness,” the deputy minister of Coordination with Social Movements, Alfredo Rada, told IPS.

>From his office at the government palace, Rada has undertaken the difficult task of overhauling an agrarian reform process that had been virtually paralysed by the influence of agribusiness interests in the eastern region of Santa Cruz.

Left-leaning President Morales will cancel decrees issued by his predecessors Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997 and 2002-2003), Hugo Banzer (1971-1978 and 1997-2001) and Carlos Mesa (2003-2005), because they represented a setback by allowing land ownership to be further concentrated, said Rada.

Law 1,715 of the National Service of Agrarian Reform was promulgated on Oct. 18, 1996 to put fair land distribution into practice, an aim which had been on the statute books for decades but never realised.

The law establishes procedures for eliminating vast, unproductive land holdings, and for reviewing and updating property rights over all land, whether it belongs to smallholders or agribusiness interests.

In nine years, the Bolivian State has reviewed land ownership of only 14 million hectares, or 13.1 percent of the 107.2 million hectares of land dedicated to agricultural and livestock production and forestry, according to the latest figures from the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA). At this rate it will take another 66 years to complete the job, which according to analysts has been blocked by economic and political interests.

The deadline established by the law for granting formal land titles to peasant farmers and for the communally owned lands of indigenous people is October this year. However, although 74 million dollars have been spent, including financial aid from international organisations, the process appears to be at a standstill.

“There was no political will to apply this law, but now we hope for firm, radical determination to implement it,” the president of the non-governmental Land Foundation (Fundación Tierra), Miguel Urioste, told IPS.

The inauguration of indigenous activist Evo Morales, the leader of the country’s coca farmers, as president on Jan. 22 has reawakened the sense of entitlement of indigenous communities, which are demanding the expropriation of land from Brazilian and Paraguayan entrepreneurs who have bought up extensive areas along the northern and northeastern borders with Brazil.

Bolivian legislation forbids foreign citizens to own property within 50 kilometres of the border, and indigenous and small farmers’ organisations are calling for these lands to be expropriated for their benefit.

Lawmaker Isaac Ávalos of the governing leftwing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) said that some 600,000 hectares have been occupied illegally, and the minister of Rural, Agricultural and Livestock Development, Hugo Salvatierra, announced that properties under illegal ownership would be expropriated.

Prosecutors, migration authorities and police have been deployed by the government to investigate accusations of the illegal presence of foreign nationals within the 50-kilometre border zone, especially in the provinces of Germán Bush and Angel Sandoval, in Santa Cruz.

This could be a crucial test for the government of Morales, who was elected with 53.7 percent of the vote.

According to Rada, the government, with the support of the armed forces, “will restore sovereignty in areas invaded by foreign citizens, and will do it in a decisive manner.”

On the diplomatic front, the government will talk to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva about the problem, and request his cooperation in preventing illegal land sales and trafficking in gold, timber, and other natural resources from Bolivia’s Amazon jungle region.

At the beginning of his five-year term, Morales stated his intention to promote fair land distribution, and quoted the example of landowners who put one cow out to pasture on 50,000 hectares of land.

Last week, Morales called on large landholders to share their idle land with poor small farmers, while guaranteeing state recognition for productive landholdings of 1,000 to 5,000 hectares that are dedicated to economic and social ends.

The agrarian reform of 1953, born of the1952 revolution, was adversely affected by corruption and pressure groups. By 1996, 55 million hectares had been handed over to large landholders, and 45 million hectares to small farmers, according to a study by the Land Foundation.

This unequal distribution led to intervention of the body responsible for land concessions in 1992. In 1996 it was replaced by INRA, created by law 1,715. However, this new institution did no better than the previous one.

Bolivia’s Landless Movement (MST) was formed in 2000, inspired by Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. Its first act was to seize an extensive property called Pananti, in the southern department of Tarija. But the occupation of land ended on Nov. 9, 2001 with the deaths of six landless farmers, killed by thugs sent in by landowners.

>From Tuesday to Friday, the second United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development is discussing land tenure problems in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), just 100 families own 25 million hectares, while 2 million small farmers have access to only 5 million hectares.

According to the 2001 census, three million Bolivians live in rural areas, out of a total population of 8.2 million.

But administrative measures will not present a final solution to land problems, said Urioste, who believes that it is up to the Constituent Assembly, which will convene in August to rewrite the constitution, to examine the question of the ownership of land and natural resources, such as forests, water, minerals, oil and gas.

“These will be the main topics for debate, particularly land ownership rights. According to the Constitution, land belongs to the State and not to any specific region or social or business sector,” Urioste said.

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