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Bolivia's "Agrarian Revolution" Hanging In

Analysis prepared by COHA Research Associate Laura Starr

Bolivia's "Agrarian Revolution" Hanging In

* Constituent Assembly's partisanship holds back constitutional reform process

* President Morale's land reform proposal is being challenged, as his strategy to get through other issues, seems to be flagging

* Bolivia's experience could set the stage for land reform initiatives elsewhere in the region

Land redistribution since 1952 has been a major, if intermittent, factor in Bolivian national life. In recent years it has attracted renewed interest, returning as a major economic initiative under President Evo Morales' "Agrarian Revolution," mainly in the eastern part of the country which is known as the "Media Luna."

This region was largely ignored in the previous agrarian reform effort over 50 years ago and is where the major opposition to Morales resides today. The President's Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party has fielded a comprehensive agrarian reform that will fulfill economic and social provisions scheduled to be engrossed in the country's proposed constitution.

Agrarian reform remains one of the half dozen unresolved issues, which are supposed to be addressed by the constituent assembly meeting in Sucre, is aimed at redistributing land to the landless. This is to be achieved principally by reaching out to indigenous communities and other landless to ensure that the demands of campesinos and migrants moving from the poor western part of the country to the more affluent east are being met.

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Contemporary agrarian reform involves a critical re-arrangement of agrarian practices, some of which look back to ancestral times, which were mainly orientated to the western highlands and are not an obvious priority right now in MAS' grand strategy. Current lowland indigenous land rights are also an issue in the struggle but the parcels are much less quantifiable even though they tend to be huge in size. In this process, the government expropriates and then redistributes the targeted land, if need be, in parcels conforming to various priority categories, beginning with dividing up public land into individual or jointly-held communal properties located, for the most part, in the eastern part of the country. Examples of this proposal are best found in Santa Cruz. This category also covers large, but non-productive estates taken over from relatively small numbers of wealthy landholders, which in theory is the plan but so far not in practice. The affected landholders have been far more concerned with land speculation than with matters dealing with productivity of their properties which, if expropriated, are then sub-divided and given over to landless cultivators. At times, forcibly removing landed owners opposed to such reforms provokes pitched battles, even resulting in violence on both sides.

Bolivia's History of Agrarian reform

Latin America has experienced a long history of sharply unequal living standards and skewed land distribution figures, with Bolivia turning in one of the worst performances in terms of statistics, in all of South America. Bolivia is dramatically different from other countries in respect to the significant campesino and indigenous classes, its unique history, and its traditional, intense connections to the land. Local agricultural fields also account for a significant share of the country's entire market.

The period leading up to Bolivia's epochal 1952 revolution was marked by growing social unrest and economic decline. As early as 1946, domestic turmoil had begun to mount when trade union leaders issued a call for permanent revolution and violent armed struggle on the part of the working class. With the labor sector becoming steadily more radicalized, the government resorted to even more repressive actions, including the dismissal of 7,000 miners in a period of three months.

In the early 1950s, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) emerged as the dominant opposition force even though its head, Victor Paz Estenssoro, had earlier been forced into exile in Argentina. The MNR espoused a working-class ideology and also stressed, importantly, its support for indigenous rights. In the presidential election of May 1951, Estenssoro, still in exile, nevertheless entered the race. With Hernan Siles Zuazo as his vice presidential candidate, Paz Estenssoro ran on a platform of nationalization, primarily focusing on critical sectors of the economy and on an extensive agrarian reform program. However, struggles between the outgoing and incoming parties brought the military into the picture, preventing the victorious MNR from taking office. Thus by 1952, the country's economy was in rapid decline while social unrest continued to grow.

At that time, Bolivia's economy was suffering at the hands of fluctuating international markets and a weak agricultural sector that was also seriously under-capitalized and non-competitive; food imports were increasing, reaching an alarming 19 percent of total imports by 1950 and placing a heavy burden on the treasury.

Bolivia contains somewhat over 180 million hectares of arable land, most of which during this period was grossly unequally distributed and with about 4 percent of landowners possessing 82 percent of the land. As a result, social unrest ensued; at this point, the MNR launched an uprising in La Paz and then proceeded to seize arsenals and distribute weapons to sympathetic civilians. Armed miners marched into the city and blocked pro-government troops, which were on their way to reinforce the government authorities. After several days of fighting the army surrendered and the MNR's Paz Estenssoro assumed the presidency on April 16, 1952.

MNR Plunges into Agrarian reform

The revolution was promptly followed by a barrage of agrarian reform measures which served as a model for several subsequent programs staged elsewhere in the region. The new government emancipated indigenous people from a relationship of bondage associated with the oppressive life on the latifundios, where they had lived entirely marginal existences. The Bolivian reform being promoted at that time affected 79 million acres of land, which were distributed to 40,000 medium- and small-sized family farmers. At the same time, more than a half a million indigenous and peasant families divided up only about ten million acres, almost exclusively in the less favorable western highlands of the country.

By 1970, only 45 percent of eligible Bolivian peasant families had received titles to their land, due in part to the successive dictatorships which came to power during this period. Huge land parcels were handed out to speculators and swindlers who often posed, for legal purposes, as agricultural entrepreneurs. In the east, autocratic officials also spurned indigenous claims to land, encumbering their efforts with heavy, often unfathomable, bureaucratic red tape. Thus, broad disparities in land ownership still remained. Even today, almost 60 percent of Bolivian farmers live in the rural highlands, where the land is the least fertile, accounting for only 40 percent of rural income. Rural societies reflect the complex land tenure history that communities had endured in the past, including the aforementioned attempt at agrarian reform, which allowed for uneven political and economic development. Nevertheless, the reforms had brought about impressive changes within western highland indigenous communities, populated mainly by the Aymara and Quechua peoples, whose previous access to goods and services had always been limited and were still heavily circumscribed.

The rise of campesino protest movements over the decades had offered a platform from which they could endeavor to improve their conditions and fashion policies in accordance to what they believed was their right to land. One crucial event occurred in 1990, when a march of eastern lowland indigenous groups, who previously had been passed over from benefiting from agrarian reform, descended on La Paz from the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni. The increasing deforestation of their eastern region for logging, cattle ranching, soybean farming, and land speculation threatened to degrade the territories that these indigenous lowland peoples traditionally had depended upon for their livelihood. They demanded the recognition of their ancestral territories and, in doing so, earned wide public support. This period was considered to be the beginning of modern land protests in Bolivia and the first call for a new constitutional assembly that would result in the drafting of a more equitable document.

The need to resolve land conflicts was high on the presidential agenda during conservative Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado's first term (1993 to 1997), thereby, prompting a modest amount of land titling and agrarian reform initiatives. His government eventually enacted the 1996 National `Agrarian Reform Service Law INRA, which along with encouraging the formation of collectives in indigenous communities, sought to address corruption in the Agrarian Reform Council, as well as attempting to finally define productive use of land and determine the legality of various categories of land titles.

However, the project was left largely unfinished, despite the millions of euros poured into it by the EU, a primary funder. The uneven nature of the effort could be witnessed by the fact that although small landholdings were being awarded in the highlands and the western valleys, enormous ranches were being created in the tropical zones of the east. The failure of the program over a decade, where less than 1/10 of the land requiring it was actually re-titled, forced a recent commitment out of Morales to emphatically address the issue.

The Morales Presidency

President Evo Morales revived agrarian reform initiatives when he took office in 2006. That same year, the Bolivian Senate passed a measure authorizing the government to present land titles to 60 indigenous communities, accounting for a total of almost 3 million hectares. In addition, Morales hoped to distribute 20 million hectares of land among the nation's mostly poor indigenous populaces over the next five years. The bill, which was also first passed by the MAS-controlled lower house of the legislature, was then blocked by a number of conservative groups. However, three opposition suplente senators (persons that, in Bolivia, legally sit in when the titular, the primary legislator, is unavailable because of illness or travel restrictions) changed their allegiance at the last moment to vote in favor of the pro-Morales measure, following a tumultuous rally in La Paz. This gave the president the backing of 15 of the 27 senate seats, representing a majority in Morales' favor. In spite of what appeared to be a winning strategy, the narrowness of the vote has become grounds for the government to worry if attendant laws will be applied in Sucre as well as La Paz, since the struggle goes on as to which will be the capital.

Last year, MAS controlled the presidency but not a working majority in the Senate, which it has since completely lost, hence one of the reasons why MAS wants, under the new constitution, to do away with the Senate all together. MAS Senator, Santos Ramirez, called for an extraordinary midnight Senate session, without bothering to advise the opposition Social and Democratic Power (PODEMOS), and other opposition titular Senators. However, he did convoke two suplentes, one being from PODEMOS. However, in this case, opposition titulares were not advised of the session, so technically, the outcome can be seen as being fraudulent, or at least suspicious.

The reform program could eventually affect about 13 percent of Bolivia's land expanse involving about 28 percent of its people, out of that one-third of the land already being owned by the state and the other two-thirds reclaimed from individuals or companies. Those who could benefit in particular would come from Bolivia's eastern lowlands, who previously had tended to not hold legal title to their land. (88 percent of agrarian reforms enacted between 1953 and 1992 are estimated as having benefited corporate interests). Soon after the legislation came into effect, 2,300 land titles and 50 new tractors were distributed to local campesinos. Morales stated that agrarian reform "aims to end historic inequality in land redistribution. The concentration of land and the latifundio are part of the exclusion and discrimination that indigenous and peasant farmers are experiencing in the Bolivian countryside."

Will They Still Remain Empty Promises?

Morales' reform program is to be applauded and has been so by many specialists in the subject. Roger Burbach, the highly regarded director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA), hailed it as a "historic victory." Pledges of redistribution, as well as plans to re-write the constitution, have provoked a huge outcry from the largely upper and middle class opposition who live mainly in the eastern, more Europeanized area of the country. The opposition to agrarian reform includes the elected governors of the immediate area, who fear that President Morales would use the constituent assembly to impose the beliefs and practices of the Andean-Indian communities by stressing a "communist model." Because of this, the east would stand to lose the most. Easterners are also worried that agrarian reform will flood the lowland communities with impoverished indigenous immigrants from the western part of the country, tipping the social and political balance as well as adversely altering present demographics. The wealthiest groups in Santa Cruz and other eastern regions have threatened to use force to defend their property, and have announced the formation of armed defense committees to guard their land against the landless peasant movement, known as the MST (Movimiento Sin Tierra), founded in 2000.

Putting agrarian reform to work

The "Agrarian Revolution," according to Morales, would enable the government to gradually do away with the eastern latifundios and recover the lands that are not being efficiently worked, as he put it: "all of these lands that are being hoarded for speculative purposes or that are in the hands of large landowners, have to go to the peasant or indigenous farmers who are suffering from a scarcity of land for production, and who are subsisting only on crops they can grow in the family or community." For example, under the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), thousands of hectares of land were handed out to friends and cronies of the dictator, most of whom never cultivated it but merely held their acreage as collateral to obtain loans for other purposes. Therefore, Morales, who in fulfilling his campaign promise to allocate more land to the indigenous communities and campesinos, has prompted sometimes bloody, social clashes. Characteristically, these have been between the upper and middle class landowners and landless campesinos.

A more recent, welcomed and peaceful announcement made by Morales, took place in July this year, when the president granted the Chiquitano indigenous group permanent land titles in Monte Verde, its ancestral territory of almost 2.5 million acres, located in the south-eastern portion of the department of Santa Cruz. The U.K relief agency, Oxfam, welcomed this historic move and congratulated the native group for its persistent efforts over the last 12 years, which resulted in this peaceful revolution. "This allows the Chiquitano people to recover land which traditionally has belonged to them," said Jorge Velazquez of Oxfam International in Bolivia. "It is the beginning of a new stage of their history." This land titling victory, after decades of campaigning by bitterly frustrated indigenous groups and grassroots movements, recognizes the Chiquitano people's ownership of its land, which will enable them to strengthen their development initiatives as they seek to find the best way to manage their forests and renewable resources for future generations. This type of progressive action will also further encourage other regions of Bolivia to follow suit with a constructive form of activism after witnessing tangible displays of what such cooperative efforts can bring about.

Agrarian Distribution

Nevertheless, Morales' "Agrarian Revolution," has not moved as quickly as some would have preferred. The Bolivian president does not want to disruptively upset the status quo; neither does he wish to short-circuit some proven efficient and traditional land-use practices, based on the maintenance of large productive commercial plantations that efficiently produce cash crops. Because of this recognition, at the present time, such land holdings are exempted from being expropriated by the government, even though these wealthy landowners axiomatically play a prominent role within the middle class political opposition, buttressing it in their anti-agrarian reform stand. A reform measure was only narrowly passed by the Bolivian legislature in 2006, with the dominating elite in the eastern part of the country still vigorously protesting its application.

Up to this point, most landowners have somehow averted the government's newly mandated regulations, according to Douglas Hertzler of the Andean Information Network. They managed to do this by keeping one or two calves on the land that technically qualified them for their allotted plots, or by claiming that family members also work the land and are thus entitled to their own individual parcels, while they alternatively claim that their land is being dedicated as an ecological preserve. Hertzler, while admitting that government progress on agrarian reform on the whole has been slower than was originally hoped for, is now confident that there seems to be an even greater prospect for positive results than before. At the same time, the large landowners are gradually losing their political dominance. They are also losing clout with their negative anti-indigenous attitudes that are anathema to many, including some of their traditional conservative allies, as emphasized by Miguel Urisote of the Land Foundation.

Some observers are hoping that the remaining 15 million hectares of the 20 million proposed for agrarian reform will be transferred over within the next five years. The consistency of Morales' promise of not submitting productive land to the nationalizing process still has some way to go before the middle class political opposition is reassured that it is binding. This point is emphasized in the Washington Post, "The protestors are not in the dark about his [Morales] well thought out plans - land which is productive and legally owned will thus remain so." One has seen what the indigenous groups can achieve when, with determination, they have set out to dramatically change their conditions after centuries of discrimination. Now, with Morales as the country's first indigenous president, expectations remain high but, nevertheless, are beginning to decline.


One school of thought argues that the aim of agrarian reform should be to absorb as many of the region's landless workers and indigenous groups in the east as possible so that the land can be put out to productive use for agricultural cultivation. Growth with equity should also focus on supporting and developing the poorer rural region, with the long-term goal being the procurement of international financial and technical support. US officials have tended to describe the public protestors of the agrarian reform as 'farmers' when in reality they are the lowland agribusiness elite and their flock which all along has tenaciously fought to prevent the assistance needed to fuel the ambitious and agrarian reform initiatives of the government. If this reform is to be successful, these initiatives must first go some distance to improve the economic and social well-being of Bolivia's poor before they are fully trusted.


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