Land as a Center of Power in Bolivia

Silvestre Saisari, a bearded, soft-spoken leader in the Bolivian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), sat in his office in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The building was surrounded by a high cement wall topped with barbed wire. It looked like a military bunker. This made sense given the treatment Saisairi and other like-minded social and labor organizers received from the city’s right wing elite.

In 2005, the young MST leader was attacked while giving a press conference on landowners’ use of armed thugs to suppress landless farmers. To prevent him from denouncing these acts to the media, people reportedly tied to landowners pulled his hair, strangled, punched, and beat him.(1) Sitting in his well-protected headquarters, Saisari explained, "Land is a center of power. He who has land, has power….we are proposing than this land be redistributed, so their [elites] power will be affected."(2) 

According to Saisari, the MST has been at the forefront of groups demanding changes to land distribution legislation. The agrarian law originally passed in 1996, the National Agrarian Reform Service (INRA) Law, establishes the right of the state to expropriate lands that "do not serve a just social-economic function" and redistribute those lands to landless farmers and indigenous communities.(3) While the INRA Law already exists, many complain that grey areas in the legislation have led to an incomplete redistribution of land in some areas, and corrupt land hand-outs in others. Land activists like Saisari are now calling for Bolivian president Evo Morales and his MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] Party to carry out a second "agrarian revolution" through legislative reforms to the INRA Law. The proposed reforms focus on the effective distribution of unused land to landless farmers. On November 28, 2006, various landless farmer, campesino and worker organizations, including the MST, arrived in La Paz after marching from around the country to demand such changes. Later that same day, the Senate—minus boycotting opposition party members—passed the reform bill.


11.28 La Paz land march © Dangl

MAS has supported the reforms, and even encouraged the country-wide march to the senate chambers to support the legislation, and perhaps to give MAS the excuse they needed to muscle the reforms through the opposition. Many historic marches to La Paz have taken place in Bolivia, and most have been met by military and police forces who welcomed them with tear gas and bullets. This march was different in that it was supported, and even sponsored by the government. Events such as this march demonstrate the character of the MAS, and its attempt to renegotiate its identiy from that of a radical, union-built opposition social movement to that of a powerful governmental administration. During the march, I asked one woman from the Beni, a department in the north, about the possibility of police repression. "We don’t have anything to worry about," she said, grabbing another coca leaf for stamina. "We are with the government now."

After marching from around the country, the exhausted indigenous and campesino land activists converged in La Paz on November 28. When I arrived at the rally, the main plaza was flooded with placards and flags representing the wide array of social organizations that had united behind one demand: land reform. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the streets buzzed with the sound of Bolivia’s many indigenous languages. As a man in a condor costume flapped his wings from the top of a nearby statue, speakers rallied the tired marchers to make the final push to the Plaza Murillo, in front of the Presidential Palace. A river of colorful banners and clothing filled the city’s main street as the political center of the country was occupied. Marchers yelled such phrases as "Free Bolivia – Yes! Yankee Empire – No!" La Paz residents supported the march from the sidewalks. Business men and women greeted the activists with applause during their lunch breaks while grinning street vendors handed out free ice cream in solidarity.

ImageThe marchers exhibited a spirit of fun more than the anger and urgency which marked so many previous mobilizations around issues such as gas nationalization and an end to forced eradication of coca crops. At the Plaza Murillo, around 50 policeman dressed in riot gear guarded the Presidential Palace in two rows. They showed no intentions of attacking the crowd, and the crowd seemed to ignore them all together, knitting and preparing ceremonial coca offerings right in front of the police line.

However, there was a symbolic threat. Adolfo Chavez, the leader of an indigenous organization from Santa Cruz, stood next to the man in the condor costume, explaining, "We are staying here in the Plaza Murillo. We aren’t going anywhere until these changes are passed." The multitude remained in the plaza long after the sunset, hunkering over bags of coca, guitars and the tired banners they hauled from their homes. Late that night, they were victorious. Morales, who supported their calls for reforms, presided over a Senate without opposition parties and passed the reforms while a celebratory clamor rocked La Paz.

To Have and Have Not: The Bolivian Landless Movement

A bloody history of land occupation and unequal distribution led up that night’s passage of the reforms. On April 20, 2000, hundreds of Bolivian landless families peacefully took over land in Pananti, an area in Tarija, and began a precarious new life. They pooled their labor to cultivate the land, which had been abandoned for eight years, and built their homes close together for protection from the thugs hired by local cattle ranchers who claimed the land was theirs. The residents devised shifts to keep watch on the community while others slept, worked in the fields, or gathered water from far-away sources. In early November, 2001, 60 armed men hired by local cattle ranchers attacked landless farmers in the Pananti settlement, burnt down their homes, and unleashed a barrage of gunfire which killed five men, one 13-year-old boy, and wounded 22 others. In response, landless farmers killed a leader of the attack.(4) Police arrested five landowners linked to the violence and nine landless farmers. Juana Ortega, who had given birth just three days beforehand, was one of those arrested. Ortega occupied the land for her children, "I decided to do it for them, for the land they will need to survive."(5)

This violence reflects an ancient system of exploitation in which land is concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners while poor farmers are left to tenant farming slavery or starvation. The wealth of Latin America’s large landowners has been built on the backs of the region’s poor, landless farmers. Since the Spanish colonists arrived on the continent plantations were largely powered by slaves, though land was sometimes lent to workers in exchange for money, crops, or labor. It was common for owners to rule every aspect of life on their plantations—from communication with the outside world, to internal commerce and justice. These colonial chains still grip the continent. With the application of neoliberal policies, old plantations were turned into modern industrial farms owned by US and European corporations. Campesinos fed up with working conditions or unable to compete with large farms increasingly migrated to the city. Currently, Latin America has some of the most unequal land distribution in the world.(6)

ImageIn Bolivia, a country largely dependent on agriculture, conflicts over land have arisen on numerous occasions. Leading up to the 1952 Revolution, one of the only ways campesinos survived was through their work in horrible conditions on large farms. In return for the use of their own small plot of land, campesinos served the owner’s family day and night, cleaning, cooking, and tending to livestock and crops. The 1952 Revolution offered a glimpse of hope to these small farmers. Large land holdings, mostly in the western provinces—which are called departments in Bolivia—were broken up and distributed to landless farmers, and various forms of exploitation on large farms were outlawed. Some indigenous communities were given land titles.(7)

Since then it has been uphill battle for most of Bolivia’s landless. General Hugo Banzer gave his allies and friends thousands of hectares of land, much of which is in the fertile department of Santa Cruz.(8) In the 1990s, when neoliberal policies were applied in full force to Latin America, privatization and foreign investment was encouraged, and small farmers were ignored by governments. Their credits were slashed and land was sold off to foreign owners. "Modernization" of the agricultural industry favored exports and cheap labor, goals that were threatened by empowered campesinos. (9)

Seventy percent of the productive land in Bolivia is owned by a wealthy five percent of the population.(10) Cattle ranching, the expansion of the soy industry, and mineral exploration has put a strain on land use and distribution. Brazilian soy companies have taken over significant portions of land in northeastern Santa Cruz, displacing the Guarayo indigenous populations. In southern Santa Cruz, ranchers compete with the Guarani indigenous communities for land. Conflicts between small farmers and industrial producers are common elsewhere in this department.(11)

Various areas of indigenous land were not officially recognized until lowland indigenous people from Santa Cruz and Beni began a march in 1990 to demand legal recognition. Their cause was motivated by the fact that the land they traditionally used was being threatened by increased logging, cattle ranching, and soy production. Their demands were eventually met by President Paz Zamora who created decrees legally recognizing indigenous land.(12) However, indigenous populations have often had trouble making the government enforce and enact the decrees that are made to sooth social conflict. Furthermore, the titles given to indigenous communities were only allowed to have one owner, instigating internal disputes as well as facilitating the sale of indigenous land by the individual owners.(13)

Protests and violent confrontations continued across the country over this valuable resource, forcing the government to take action in 1996 with the passage of the INRA Law. The law included a plan to grant collective titles to indigenous communities, resolve conflicts, and distribute state owned, unused, or illegally obtained land to landless farmers. However, as an investigation by the Andean Information Network reports, successive governments failed to enact this legislature due to vague definitions of unproductive land and standards for determining the legality of land holdings. During the nine years following the passage of the law, land titles were certified on only 18 percent of the targeted areas. Corruption and lack of initiative to fully implement the law resulted in few victories for Bolivia’s landless.(14)

ImageAnother aspect of the INRA Law that angered small farmers was a change in the article of the land law, established in the Agrarian Reform of 1953, which said that "The land belongs to those who work it"—meaning that the land had to be used productively or else the state can take the rights to it. Under INRA, landowners were allowed to keep their unused land as long as they paid a one percent property tax on the entire value of the land. Yet it was up to the landowners themselves to establish that value, leaving loopholes for corruption.(15)

In the face of such inequality, landless farmers have organized to take unused land regardless of official sanction. On June 14, 2000, a march of farmers demanding land arrived in the town of Entre Rios, in the department of Tarija where a representative of the Prefect asked to meet with leaders of the march. It was then that farmers decided to form the Bolivian MST. From this beginning, the MST has coordinated actions, marches, and land occupations, inspiring others across the country to do the same. The first land occupations usually involved 34-40 families who took unused land and set up tents or homes with log walls and plastic tarps for roofs. Communities then began cultivating subsistence crops on land that had often been unused for decades.(16)

The land in Timboy Tiguazu, a humid area 65 kilometers outside of Yacuiba, in the department of Tarija, was totally abandoned and unused when 13 landless families occupied it in 2000. After the takeover, men prepared the land for cultivation and women looked for the best places for homes. Though the poor quality of roads made the zone nearly inaccessible, it had plenty of water sources and good land for farming. In the beginning, family members took turns working for large landowners outside their area and in cities and towns to buy supplies for the new community. They divided work duties and organized shifts to protect themselves from thugs hired by local landowners. By 2001, a total of 40 families lived there, many of them producing surplus vegetables to sell in local markets.(17)

ImageIn the wake of such success, landless farmers occupied land elsewhere, primarily in Santa Cruz and the Chaco where there are vast expanses of unused land. Wilfor Coque of the MST participated in a land occupation in 2000 in Ichilo, northeast of Santa Cruz. According to Coque, land there had been sold illegally, leaving little for indigenous people and small farmers in the region. Coque said that the community will continue occupying unused land until the "state gives us back what is ours."(18) Many farmers take part in the occupations to work the land for survival, as in the past, labor for large landowners barely has paid enough to survive. "There are still haciendas where 30 peons work from sunrise to sunset for a completely inadequate salary," said Ermelinda Fernández, an MST member in the Chaco. Some laborers are paid only $1.41 per day, but, according to Fernández, ". . . they have no alternative because they have no land of their own."(19)

Various land distribution advances have been made under the MAS administration. Outside the city of Santa Cruz, 16,000 hectares of land have been given to 626 families, along with credits with low interest. The area has been re-named Pueblos Unidos (United People), and despite the difficult access to the community and the lack of basic services, the land is giving some farmers the chance to feed themselves. However, the landowners in Santa Cruz have moved against such progress by hiring thugs and members of the right wing Unión Juvenil Crucenista to harass and destroy such landless settlements.(20)

The land reforms passed on November 28, 2006 are expected to help thousands of poor Bolivian families as well as fuel the growing fire among the country’s elite, which will be deeply affected by the redistribution of this natural resource. The passage of the reforms also marks an interesting moment in the brief history of the Morales administration. When MAS lacked support from opposition parties to pass the controversial changes to the land legislation, they worked to mobilize social organizations from around the country to provide the backing and, in many ways, the grassroots mandate Morales will need to continue confronting the Bolivian right. However, it remains to be seen how effectively these land reforms will be enacted.

Saisari of the MST believes the MAS government provides a window of opportunity that should be utilized by the country’s social movements. His organization has access to the government, and offers advice and proposals to the administration in ways that never existed with previous governments. "We feel listened to," he said, explaining that it was important to support government policies that benefited the MST, and offer criticism and advice when necessary. "Our democracy depends on us as social movements," he asserted with a smile.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007. All photos by Dangl. Email Ben(at)


1. Raquel Balcázar, Repressión Fascista en Santa Cruz, (Santa Cruz: Video Urgente, 2006)

2. From author interview with Silvestre Saisari in September, 2006.

3. For more information on the passage of these changes to the INRA Law, and the likely implications of the reforms, see the "Bolivian Congress Passes Agrarian Reform Legislation in Spite of Heightened Regional Tensions," Andean Information Network (December 1, 2006). For more information on the INRA Law and land issues in Bolivia, see "Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative: An Effort to Keep Historical Promises," Andean Information Network (June 28, 2006).

4. Omar Mendoza C., Zedin Manzur M., David Cortez F. and Aldo Salazar C., La Lucha por la tierra en el Gran Chaco tarijeño (La Paz: Fundación PIEB, 2003), 81-87, 119-132.

5. Peter Lowe, "Bolivian Landless Give Birth to a Movement," Resource Center of the Americas, May, 2005.

6. "In a recent study of land distribution in developing countries, four countries in the region topped the list. They had the highest land distribution Gini Coefficients in the world. Eleven of the top 16 countries in the same list came from Latin America. No Latin

country was in the group of low or even medium inequality. . . The FAO estimated that around 1970 the biggest 7 percent of land holdings in the region (those above 100 hectares) owned 77 percent of the land." Samuel A. Morley, "Distribution and Growth in Latin America in an Era of Structural Reform," International Food Policy Research Institute: Trade and Macroeconomics Division (January 2001). Also see Pauline Bartolone, "Land For Those Who Work It: Can committing a crime be the only way to uphold the constitution?," Clamor Magazine (September 5, 2005) and Green, Faces of Latin America, 24-27.

7. Rafael Reyeros, El pongueaje: La servidumbre personal de los indios bolivianos (La Paz: Universo, 1949)., Also see Duncan Green, Faces of Latin America (London: Latin America Bureau, 1997), 25, 33.

8. "Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative: An Effort to Keep Historical Promises," Andean Information Network (June 28, 2006).

9. Green, Faces of Latin America, 32-33.

10. This land distribution statistic for Bolivia is provided by the Comisión Especial de Asuntos Indígenas y Pueblos Originarios, cited in "Los peces gordos de la tierra: Familias Latifundistas," El Juguete Rabioso (November 27, 2006), 8.

11. John Crabtree, Perfiles de la Protesta: Política y movimientos sociales en Bolivia (La Paz: Programa de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia y Fundación UNIR Bolivia, 2005), 32-36, 36-38.

12. "Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative ," Andean Information Network.

13. For more information, see Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, Impasse in Bolivia (New York: Zed Books, 2006),

14. "Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative," Andean Information Network. .

15. Information from author interview with journalist and Bolivian Landless Movement researcher Wes Enzinna.

16. Mendoza C., et. al., La Lucha por la tierra, 73-76.

17. Ibid., 89-95.

18. Crabtree, Perfiles de la Protesta, 38-39.

19. "Landless Step up Occupations," (March 18, 2006).

20. Raquel Balcázar, Autonomía Para Los Ricos, Revolución Para Los Pobres, (Santa Cruz: Video Urgente, 2006)