|English | Español||February 19, 2018 | Issue #42|
Let Them Have Tractors: New Steps in Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform
Evo Morales Administration Hands Over Land and Equipment to Thousands of Peasant Farmers as the Landowning Right Wing Arms for Battle
By Wes Enzinna
Peasant farmers at the August 2 event.
Photos: D.R. 2006 Wes Enzinna
The visit to Ucureña was the latest stop in Morales and his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party’s current land reform effort, or, as the President prefers to call it, their “profound agrarian revolution.” The reform officially began on May 2 of this year with the issuing of seven decrees. As Evo explained to the crowd on August 2, “the goal of this agrarian revolution is to break up oligarchic land holdings and distribute and redistribute land to those who need it.” This sentiment is legally codified in the first of the May 2 decrees. This decree (28733) states that the goal of reform is “the distribution of lands exclusively to peasants and indigenous communities without land or who possess insufficient lands.”
There are approximately 2.5 million farmers currently in Bolivia who meet these criteria, out of a population of 8 million. On the other extreme, it is estimated that 400 individuals own 70 percent of the nation’s productive properties.
Since May 2, Morales has used the decrees—which also, among other things, prioritize land ownership for peasant women and outline the process by which lands may be expropriated—as a legal springboard from which to alter Bolivia’s lop-sided ratio of land ownership. To date, 3.8 million hectares (9 million acres) of land have been given to sixty indigenous communities, and 2.2 million hectares (5.5 million acres) have been recovered by the State in preparation for the re-distribution process. Over the next five years, the administration promises to award 20 million hectares (49 million acres), a fifth of the nation’s total land area, to land-starved farmers.
The current land reform effort is not Bolivia’s first. In fact, it was in Ucureña, 53 years earlier, that Bolivia got its first-ever taste of agrarian reform, when in 1953, then-President Paz Estenssoro handed over deeds to landless peasants who a year earlier had fought a national revolution to win such rights
Prior to the 1950’s, land in Bolivia was distributed on an essentially feudal basis – huge estates where peasants, overwhelmingly indigenous, often worked in exchange for nothing but the use of a small plot of the estate owner’s land were the norm. Such estates, called latifundios, were the most common type of land ownership scheme, and it is estimated that in 1951, latifundio owners held 92 percent of all cultivable land in Bolivia. The national revolution of 1952 (and the land reforms that would come a year later) aimed to do away with such arrangements.
Estenssoro’s visit to Ucureña in 1953 saw the creation of the Agrarian Reform Council, whose purpose was to legally break up the latifundios and prioritize previously landless peasants by giving them land of their own to cultivate. To this end, the Council radically re-structured property law by creating the legal precedent that “the land belongs to those who work it”; that is, the primary way to acquire and maintain ownership of land was to work it directly, like peasants do.
Unfortunately, in the years following, subsequent governments would exploit the ‘53 reforms to their own ends. As anthropologist Doug Hertzler explains, “while the  reform awarded land to highland indigenous people and freed them from the virtual slavery of the [pre-1953] system… [throughout following decades] the Agrarian Reform Council distributed far greater amounts of land to the politically well-connected.”
Some of the worst abuses of the land reform system came during the dictatorships of the 1970’s, especially that of Hugo Banzer. Banzer and other military leaders exploited the Council to “re-distribute” enormous tracts of land for free or at rock-bottom prices to friends and cronies, in effect re-creating an array of new latifundios. These years signified a definitive step-back in efforts to benefit the nation’s – the spirit of the times is captured in the words of Dr. Guido Strauss, Banzer’s Undersecretary of Immigration, in 1977. In this year Banzer was trying to attract wealthy white immigrants from South Africa and Rhodesia to settle and create new latifundios in eastern Bolivia. The government offered 800,000 hectares of land free of charge, as well as $150 million (US) in funds, part of which would be available for repressing the 120,000 indigenous peasants who already lived on the designated lands. Strauss, trying to entice the white Africans, assured them of favorable conditions: you “will certainly find our Indians no more stupid or lazy than [your] own blacks,” he wrote, as recorded in June Nash’s We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (Columbia University Press, 1979).
The result of this era was that, except for some areas in Bolivia’s western altiplano, land was never truly re-distributed. Problems were especially pronounced in the eastern and most fertile part of the country, specifically in the departments of Santa Cruz, Pando, the Chaco, Tarija, and Beni.
In response to the failure of post-1953 governments to carry out land reform, beginning in the early 1990s landless peasants started to mobilize for their rights, both to own the land they worked in accord with the 1953 law, and for the state to recognize the ancestral territories in which many of the mostly indigenous peasants lived, which were increasingly being encroached on by agro-business clear-cutting and cattle ranching.
These mobilizations eventually forced President Ganzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993-1997, 2002-2003) to establish law #1715, also known as the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) law, in 1996. The stated goal of INRA was to distribute state-owned lands, as well as land obtained through corruption, to the landless; the law also established a mechanism by which lands could be collectively owned by indigenous communities that worked their land in common.
Yet, the reality of INRA was disappointing. Manual Morales Davila, in his popular analysis of the law, characterizes INRA as a “complete sham.” Specifically, what many found objectionable was that the new reform made an exception to the 1953 maxim, “the land belongs to those who work it.” It now stated, the land also belongs to those who pay taxes – pitifully low taxes – on it. Many, like Morales Davila, considered this antithetical to the spirit of ‘53, in that it legalized absentee ownership, speculation, and enormous holdings, characteristics favored by wealthy landholders, not the peasants INRA claimed to benefit.
As confirmation of INRA’s failure, landless movements continued mobilizations after 1996 and into the 21st century. In 2000, a movement emerged on the scene that would take as its characteristic strategy an age-old tool of the landless: occupations of fallow land, usually with absentee owners. Taking a nod from the Brazilian MST, this movement, the Movimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Workers), was just one of many active organizations of the landless who were fed up with too many false promises.
The current land reform in Bolivia appears an attempt to rectify past failures and satisfy the demands of impoverished and well-organized landless peasants.
Salvatierra said MAS would not make this mistake. The government’s coup de grace in Ucureña was the handing-over of 560 new Spanish, Venezuelan, Iranian, and Chinese tractors, as well as 99 restored Fiat tractors and over 800 pieces of miscellaneous farm equipment. The main buyers were municipal governments and peasant unions, whose members will collectively share the use and costs of the equipment—for each tractor, buyers can choose to pay back the $15,000 (US) cost over five or ten year periods, without interest. The government also announced four new decrees that will provide government funding for irrigation projects of more than 100 hectares, as well as handed out land titles to 700 previously landless peasants.
This show of technical support for poor farmers by MAS was well-timed, as the lack of such support has been one of the mounting criticisms of the reform, particularly from campesinos themselves. At a meeting of social movements in El Alto this July, almost every peasant I spoke with voiced this complaint, one going so far as to call Morales a “cheat” and a “fake.”
Yet just a month later, in Ucureña, MAS seemed to have beat back such criticisms. Of the dozen or so people I interviewed on August 2, all planned to be receiving tractors, whether through their municipalities or unions, and all seemed strikingly optimistic. A peasant from Tarata and member of the Bejeria peasant union, explained, “not long ago, we were poor campesinos, marginalized. Now as a majority we are recovering power, we are happy – we are going to work our lands freely, peacefully, and prosperously.”
Yet despite their skilful response to the question of technical support for land reform, as well as the clearly visible optimism in Ucureña, there remain substantial criticisms of MAS’s land reform from both the left and the right.
The strongest critique from the left is that the “Agrarian Revolution” is, like past reforms, a sheepish effort adorned in revolutionary clothes. A July 26 report titled “Far From Agrarian Revolution,” points out that while MAS rhetoric about breaking up the latifundios is strong, real action against them is weak. The report explains that of “all the land so far distributed [since May 2], not one square meter has been taken from the latifundios.” Rather, re-distributed lands thus far have mostly consisted of unoccupied forest reserves.
The giving of protected forest areas to be settled by the landless has itself provoked criticisms, specifically of the relationship between MAS’s reform and the environment. Some observers wonder what will be the ecological impact of settling forest lands. Roberto Ibarguen of the Bolivian government’s human rights ombudsman’s office, argues that giving away forest lands could be a viable strategy, but only if it is overseen by a proposed environmental advisory board.
Another related concern identifies a class-bias in MAS’s stance towards environmental protection. These critics observe that, while including a clause that allows for government expropriation of land from small-scale peasant producers if lands are not used in an “environmentally viable manner,” the “Law Modifying INRA,” a sort of eighth decree after the seven agrarian reform , exempts large-farms and latifundios, many of whose primary activity is transgenic soy mono-cropping, from similar standards.
An entirely different criticism of Evo’s reform is the relationship it promotes between the reform effort and landless social movements. Representatives of these movements have been, along with many other social movement leaders, largely excluded from the Constitutional Assembly which will re-write the nation’s Constitution by August 2007, the results of which may pose dramatic implications for national land law.
Further, the Morales administration’s failure to denounce and punish the Armed Forces after their murder of a squatter, Santiago Orocondo, during the June 9, 2006 eviction of a Movimiento Sin Techo (“Homeless Movement”) land occupation in Oruro, casts doubts on the administration’s commitment to protecting the human rights of the landless, while at the same time having them as the object of reforms.
Interestingly, despite these conflicts and criticisms, signs of any loss of support from peasant social movements were not visible on August 2—in addition to capturing the hopes and imaginations of those in attendance, the event had the official support of two of the most important peasant organizations, the MST (Movimiento Sin Tierra) and the CSUTCB (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia), as well as a host of other organizations.
But perhaps far more potent than any of the above issues raised by the left are criticisms and threats from the eastern landholding elite on the far right. “We will defend to the last what belongs to us…no one will give away what is rightfully ours,” threatened landholder and Prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, on May 20.
Since Evo’s December, 2005 election, eastern landholding elites have successfully mobilized around demands for regional political “autonomy,” which passed a national referendum vote on July 2 in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija. What exactly autonomy will mean will be decided in the Constituent Assembly, but it will most likely consist of greater local control over laws and resources, and thus poses the double-threat of depriving the national government the resources to carry out national land reform and providing conservative regional governments the authority to flat out reject or neglect nationally-dictated reforms on the state or municipal level.
Another less powerful but no less favored tool of eastern elites has been the hiring of militias to forcibly prevent land settlements by peasant movements spurred on by national legislation. Just this May, the Eastern Agricultural Chamber publicly announced the formation of “armed defense committees” to defend their land against the reform and landless farmers. They announced that they are prepared “to spill blood with each eviction of illegal occupants of land.” (Given the recent legislation, calling such occupations “illegal” is increasingly questionable.)
Morales appears to have inadvertently bolstered such tactics by his inaction towards the murder of Santiago Orocondo; the failure to pursue those responsible for Orocondo’s death may give the message that a certain degree of violence against the landless will be tolerated.
Several hours after Evo’s helicopter had whisked him out of Ucureña, I sat at a chicha (a local brew made from corn) stand with some Bolivian friends, drinking and watching the hordes of landless peasants pile into trucks and buses, leaving us and a handful of other drinking stragglers in the empty dusty plaza. At one point, a middle-aged Bolivian man, missing a pair of teeth and with a ball of coca leaves neatly tucked inside his cheek, came up to our table and offered to share a drink with us. He looked tipsy and offered a simple toast, addressed to my Bolivian friends: “we are going to live in a good country.”
Holding the bowl of chicha in one hand and gently swaying, he followed this prediction by telling us fragments of his life story: a coca grower originally from the Chapare, he later moved and now lives in the Yungas; a prisoner from 2001-2004 for an ambiguous offence related to coca and Law 1008 (the US-sponsored coca criminalization law); a single man, because his wife took their kids and married another while he was in prison. Then he slugged his drink and, before going, offered us a bit of parting wisdom: “You know, we’ve been here before,” he started. “I hope we don’t see each other here again. That’s what I hope.”
And, perhaps, the greater message of the day was to be found in the parting words of this half-drunk sage: maybe the biggest gift Bolivia’s landless peasants received in Ucureña on August 2 wasn’t tractors at all; maybe it was hope. Hope that Evo will come through with reforms. Hope that those who have received new plots will be able to make them productive, and hope that those who haven’t yet received plots will. Hope that in another fifty years they won’t find themselves in the same place, holding their hats and their breath, listening to the promises of another self-proclaimed revolutionary president.
Wes Enzinna is an independent journalist in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he is also a researcher at the Andean Information Network. Comments are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism