Bolivia: The Agarian Reform That Wasn’t

According to the United Nations, as of October 2005, 100 families control over 25 million hectares of land in Bolivia while 2 million campesino (farmer/peasant) families have, combined, access to 5 million hectares of land. In other words, the wealthiest 100 landowners possess five times more land then 2 million small landowners.*

The UN Development Report goes on to state that it is precisely this inequality that is the principal cause of Bolivia’s political and social instability, fuelling constant conflicts between a tiny elite and the general population.

According to the World Bank, in Latin America the average discrepancy between the wealth of the richest fifth of the population and the poorest fifth of the population is 30:1. In Bolivia it is 90:1. If cities are excluded from the measurement, it is 170:1.

But What About Agrarian Reform?

After 52 years of agrarian reform, Bolivian agriculture is divided into two distinct tendencies: enormous latifundios (estates), vast territories in which only a small part is used for productive agriculture, and hundreds of thousands of tiny, over cultivated properties owned by indigenous and/or campesino farmers. Despite the fact that campesino farmers occupy a much smaller portion of land, they have higher agricultural productivity and supply more food to the local economy then the latifundios, which overwhelmingly cultivate plantation-style agriculture – vast expanses of a single crop such as soya, sugar, rice or cotton destined for export and dependant on the usage of large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers.

So how is it that after a peasant revolution in 1952 and more then fifty years of agrarian reform, today the average campesino from the west or center of the country has less land then they started with?

Technically, the agrarian reform laws are still on the books. All land must complete a social/economic function, or else it reverts back to the state. The state engaged in an intensive process of land grants and agricultural development financing throughout the 50s, 60 s, 70 s and 80 s. On paper, Bolivia should be a reformed country. However…

The more things change…

Since colonization by the Spanish, the territory to-be known as Bolivia has been marked by political and economic domination of a small elite and a feudal economic system. Independence did not result in a full break of the social structures set in place by Spain. In effect, feudal structures such as haciendas and latifundios (large landholdings worked by indigenous labour without pay) remained practically unchanged throughout the first epoch of the Republic’s history, especially in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando (collectively known as the Oriente or Tierras Bajas). According to Carlos Ramiro Bonifaz, director of the Centre of Judicial Studies and Social Investigation, the dominant land-owning classes of the region developed systems of wealth accumulation based on the exploitation of the indigenous labour force (ie charging workers exorbitant prices for basic necessities, resulting in the creation of debt and subsequent servitude), rather then the re-investment of capital or technological development. Instead, the wealth of elites went towards the purchase of imported status symbols.

After the Revolution of 1952, a land reform program was implemented which aimed to change these tendencies. The program was directly influenced by the US-authored Plan Bohan, with the goal of state-led capitalization and industrialization of agriculture(hopefully diffusing peasant unrest while simultaneously providing a new market for US produced agri-chemicals and machinery.) Large properties were designated the social function of "agricultural enterprises", lent prodigious amounts of money with which to obtain modern technology, and informed that they were now obliged to pay salaries (food and clothing also considered acceptable currency) to the influx of workers and settlers arriving from the western part of the country. Interestingly enough, of these loans, $24.7 million went to 114 debtors, while a further $24.8 million went to a clearly needy 27 individuals.

Land Grants

This process was accompanied by an extensive program of land grants. From 1953 to 1993, more than 26 million hectares of land were granted in the Oriente. However, of this land, more then 87.5% was given to the wealthiest (in terms of property ownership) half of recipients, while the remaining half received 12.5% of grants. Today, 55% of farm properties are squeezed into less the one percent of cultivated land.

It is important to remember that almost all of the "unowned" land that was granted was in fact inhabited by indigenous populations. In effect, the land reform program was used by the dominant classes to extend their holdings and develop interests in commercial agriculture and modern ranching. In the years of the Banzer dictatorship (1971-1978), this cronyism reached staggering proportions – 116, 647 hectares granted to the Antelo family, 96,874 hectares granted to the Gutierrez family, 115,646 hectares granted to the Elsner family (plus 73,690 hectares given individually to Guillermo Bauer Elsner), etc…

Debt Forgiveness

All this, however, apparently was not enough to ensure the success of the Agricultural Enterprises. Due to the persistent habit of loans remaining unpaid, the Agricultural Bank was forced to close in the 1980´s – this after a state-ordered forgiveness of 44.5 million dollars in loans belonging to some 726 cotton-enterprise owners and some 188 soy enterprise-owners. Not to mention absorption of some 5.8 million dollars in private debts with the Bank of Brasil and 1.8 million dollars in private debts with CitiBank. The combined effect of these pardons was one of the major causes of the hyperinflation that Bolivia experienced in the 1980´s, resulting in the further impoverishment of the general population and an IMF imposed stabilization program that gutted useless public services such as health and education and privatized the profitable ones.

The Drug Problem

And thus, suffering from such arduous financial difficulties, many members of the Santa Cruz elite had no alternative but to turn to the trafficking of cocaine to feed their families. Luckily "…control of the political apparatus had allowed narco-traffickers to gain control over large expanses of land in Santa Cruz and Beni", and they "received direct political protection from government forces, especially from the Ministry of the Interior and the President of the Republic himself during the years of military regimes, making up an alliance between sections of the armed forces and the trafficking mafia." (Romero Bonifaz 69)

Significant sections of the agro industrialist landowning class were involved in narco-trafficking. To quote a friend, waving his hand towards the walled mansions of the neighborhood Las Palmas "…all this is drug money from the eighties. All the money here is, even if it’s indirectly like through building the mansions for dealers."

(This leads us to the issue of coca growing campesinos and US-lead repression/militarization, which will have to be explored in depth another day…)


When control of the political apparatus is not sufficient to gain desired results, large landowners often turn to violence.

"Between November 2001 and the end of 2002, 10 campesinos were murdered in the Oriente due to conflicts over land, and many social leaders, institutional representatives, human rights defenders etc have been victims of criminal aggression from those who would prefer that the situation of agrarian rights is not clarified."

The current situation in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia is one in which a small elite dominates the political process, with the result that the primary function of government has been to oversee their interests and protect the existing status quo from turbulence. Unlike the western part of the country (Occidente/Tierras Altas), where well organized movements demanding a redistribution of power have achieved a situation where they are capable of shutting down business-as-usual and changing state policies detrimental to the majority of the population (reversing water privatization, gas exports, etc) and have a clearly articulated program for change (an end to the disastrous neoliberal experiment, nationalization and industrialization of gas, real land reform, creation of a directly democratic Constituent Assembly, reconstitution of indigenous territory and sovereignty, and the creation of a pluri-national state), the balance of power in the Oriente is still in the hands of the oligarchy.

This is not to say that people are not organizing – there is an active Landless Movement (MST), and indigenous and campesino organizations and confederations – but the process is nascent in comparison with the Occidente.

Autonomia Ya!!!

A response to the shift in power in the Occidente and the very real possibility of the December election bringing to power a populist government promising to nationalize the country’s gas reserves and enact land reform (MAS, led by cocolero Evo Morales who also would be the country’s first indigenous president – considering that 62% of the population identified as indigenous in the 2002 census, the fact that it has taken this long is instructive as to the level of institutional racism existent in the political system) has been the emergence of a nationalist separatist/autonomy movement in the Oriente, financed by petroleros and Cruceñan society (in particular the Comite Pro-Santa Cruz), playing on existing themes of the central government in La Paz taking an unfair share of the provinces revenues, and regionalism/pride in the cultural identity of "camba".

Green and white flags flutter and stickers reading "Nacion Camba: Mi Unica Patria" (Camba Nation: My Only Fatherland) adorn walls. Political parties vie to undo each other in their passionate declarations of desire for Autonomia.

However, Bolivia is not neatly divided into two distinct halves. A direct result of land scarcity has been migration to urban centers, and migration from the Occidente to the Oriente. In Santa Cruz one overhears Quechua and Ayamara being spoken, and many inhabitants of the city have origins in other areas of the country. The story of a single homogenous identity is, as always, little but a useful tool.

The real frustration that people feel with the central government in La Paz, with all government, will not be resolved by this "autonomy", or any other measure that does not deal with the reality of the state serving as a direct instrument of class oppression and protector of the interests of the privileged elite. What is needed is redistribution – of land and of decision making power. The way to peace in Bolivia is very simple: justice.


*These figures do not  include the at least 250,000 campesinos without land. 


"Cien Clanes Familiares Son Dueñoes de 25 Milliones de Hectareas en Bolivia", Conosur Nawpaqman No. 115, Oct. 2005, published by Centro de Comunicación y Desarrollo Andino, Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Carlos Romero Bonifaz: "La Reforma Agraria en las tierras bajas de Bolivia", Articulo Primero No. 14, Oct. 2003, published by Centro de Estudios Jurídicos E Investigación Social, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Ferrant,/Perri,/Ferreira/Walton: Desigualidades en America Latina y el Caribe ¿Ruptura con la Historia? Banco Mundial 2004, cited in Alvaro Garcia Linera: "La Lucha por el Poder en Bolivia", in "Horizontes y Limites del Estado y el Poder". Ediciones Muella del Diablo, 2005.

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