The New Agrarian Reform in Bolivia

Rusty buses lined the wide road, their roofs packed with men, sitting, crouching and lying down. Families sat and stood in the back of old pick up trucks. The people arrived in droves, by truck, bus or on foot, carrying banners and flags.

The Wipala, a flag composed of multicoloured squares, was held aloft, draped around shoulders and hung from the small trees in the grassy central divide of the road. It represents the indigenous people of Bolivia who make up nearly two thirds of the population, those descended from the people who inhabited the land before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Not only the majority, they are also overwhelmingly the poorest. As one of their leaders said, they are often condemned to work as "peons" or serfs for wealthy landowners, "latifundistas". This is a situation generations have faced for five hundred years.

On Saturday June 3, 2006 thousands of indigenous campesinos, peasants and agricultural labourers, congregated around a small stage in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. Representatives of three communities were presented with the legal titles to their land by President Evo Morales, a former union leader of coca growers and now the first indigenous president of the most indigenous country in Latin America. In total sixty sets of papers were received by communities from different parts of Bolivia, from the Departments of Beni, Cochabamba, La Paz, Oruro, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija. The land titles represented over 7.5 million acres of land, for farmer communities as small as 103 acres, and designated native lands as large as 1.1 million acres.

The campesinos were largely poor, with beaten up old sandals, dirty clothes and rough calloused hands, the result of a life of hard labour. With one hand Leon Jeremi Debasces waved the blue and white flag of MAS, the coalition party led by Evo Morales, whilst his other limp arm hung by his side. "It is our right to own land" he said. "We live on the land; our parents lived on the land. This is our life – to work, to produce from the land for our families and for the city. We have to work to survive."

The legal titles given out by Morales were lying dormant in the government offices of INRA, the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, for up to ten years, a sign of the snails’ pace at which agrarian reform has taken place in Bolivia. They do not represent a large redistribution of state land chosen after Morales took office. The significance of the ceremony at Santa Cruz lies mostly in the symbolism of an indigenous President working for his people, and in the signalled intention of the government to implement existing land laws to benefit the poor indigenous majority.

The event followed Morales’ announcement on May 1 that his government would redistribute millions of acres of state land to the landless, and appropriate those lands held illegally or left ‘idle’. Under present Bolivian law land belongs to the state if it doesn’t fulfil an economic or social function. The government has since stated it will redistribute 48 million acres, nearly a fifth of Bolivia. At the event in Santa Cruz Morales launched an "agrarian revolution" in contrast to the ‘reform’ of 1996 that has proceeded slowly with minimal benefits for many of Bolivia’s poorest, allowing the continued existence of large latifundios (huge unproductive estates) despite their prohibition by law. Land reform was first enacted into law in 1953 after the Bolivian revolution. Whilst that radical reform was implemented in the western altiplano (highlands), the best arable land in the fertile lowlands of the east has remained in the hands of the few.

Jacinto Herrera Huanca is twenty nine years old, a father of three and works full time for the FSUTC-SC, the union representing the landless and poor campesinos of Santa Cruz Department. They amount to around 200,000 people, although the numbers are uncertain because many do not have identification or even birth certificates. "We have been fighting for ten years to get the titles to land" he says. "The people are very happy because until now there have only been promises. The government used to promise and not deliver."

A few days earlier in a business complex, a large warehouse was filled with around eight hundred people, many dressed in shiny leather shoes with sunglasses clipped to the collar of their shirts. Nowhere were the pervading divisions of race and inequality of wealth more obvious. Waiting staff, many with dark skin, were dressed in bow ties and neat pinafores serving fizzy drinks. It was a meeting of the Camara Agropecuaria del Oriente, CAO, the main federation of landowners in the east of Bolivia, and they were planning opposition to Morales’ plan. Those present were overwhelmingly of European descent and visibly wealthy. The banner above the stage read "To preserve our model of production", that is, an inefficient one built on cheap labour, poverty and sometimes an almost feudal serfdom. Many speakers talked of forming "self-defence committees" and one man who took the stage said "I am here like a soldier of the militia, I will fight for my lands and I say welcome to the Defence Committee of Bolivia." The calls were repeated by Jose Cespedes, President of the CAO, a few days later.

Whilst the latifundistas talk like victims, they have benefited hugely from the misery and poverty of millions of campesinos. Statistics from the United Nations Development Program demonstrate that whilst just over 12 million acres of Bolivian land are shared by 2 million campesino families, over 60 million acres are owned by less than 100 families. Among these latifundistas are ex-ministers, foreigners, and influential families many of whom benefited from the corruption of previous Bolivian governments, notably that of the brutal dictator Hugo Banzer. Most of the illegal handouts took place in the 1970s and 1980s, but manipulations of the law continued into the 1990s.

The overall effect was, in the words of Santos Mumuni, that "the law has been manipulated so that the land is not for those that work it but for those that pay the taxes. It benefits the rich." Santos is a law student in Cochabamba specialising in the law of land ownership and agrarian reform. His parents are campesinos in the Department of La Paz with "small parcels" of land, and like his President, Santos lost several of his many brothers in childhood, a common occurrence in poor families where malnutrition and disease can be the norm.

Jacinto Herrera Huanca has "a lot of hope about this indigenous government because it understands what it is to live a poor life and to work hard. The people we represent sell what they produce and it is just enough to survive. They produce corn, potatoes, yucca, tomatoes and carrots. They live as peons, they have a lot of children and they earn enough to feed themselves. It is a hard life. Each family has between one and five hectares [two to twelve acres] of land, which represents for example two trucks of rice per year, worth US$400-500 each year. Now with their own land things are going to be a little better because before most had to pay rent to work and live there." Another indigenous leader adds that three days after the event that his people were still making barbecues and celebrating their receipt of land titles. For them, this is a life changing moment, time for a fiesta.

The issue of land reform in Bolivia will not be resolved for years or possibly decades to come. The government of Evo and MAS, pushed by Bolivia’s powerful social movements, are heading in the right direction. Land ownership distribution as it stands is unsustainable – divisive, unproductive and unjust, built as it is on centuries of exploitation and corruption. The oppressed people at the bottom of the pile are organised and have hope. Santos says "I have seen the fight of my parents and it inspired me to join the struggle. Governments did everything they could to help their own people, but the campesinos fought against that and we can now see the results of that fight." If all goes to plan, the people of Bolivia will get their land back. The colourful Wipala flag will continue to fly.

This article appears in the September 2006 edition of Diplo, an international monthly current affairs magazine based in London:

Stefan Baskerville is travelling Latin America and lives in London: