Bolivia: Santa Cruz Autonomy Statute Violates Constitution

(Photo – Bolivia Indymedia)

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, May 2 (IPS) – Voters in the Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, which is in the vanguard of an "autonomy" movement involving six of the country’s nine regions, will decide Sunday on a statute that runs counter to the constitution.

The provincial statute was adopted a few days after the constituent assembly that is rewriting Bolivia’s constitution approved a draft document declaring this country a unified but "multinational" state — a reference to the indigenous groups that make up a majority of the population.

The Santa Cruz autonomy statute drafted last December proclaims "a strong degree of autonomy to manage affairs related to justice, finance, administration and war," invoking a resolution adopted by the country’s mayors that dates back to the year 1872.

Future referendums planned by other provinces will depend on the results of Sunday’s vote in Santa Cruz.

But the government and the electoral authorities have declared the autonomy referendums illegal.


Analysts agree that underlying the autonomy debate is the question of control and use of the abundant natural resources in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest province, which is rich in natural gas, farmland, iron ore, water and forests.

Some political observers see the autonomy statute as an attempt at "separatism". They point to article 12 of the statute, which refers to "inter-governmental accords" between the provincial and central governments, in a relationship similar to bilateralism between independent states.

"The autonomous provincial government of Santa Cruz will enter into cooperation agreements for the administration and provision of services involving matters of its exclusive competence, with the national state as well as other provinces and municipal governments," says the statute, which runs counter to the integration proposed by movements and political groups that support the government.

The autonomy statute grants the provincial government control over areas that are the jurisdiction of the central government, according to the constitution, such as land, agriculture, animal health, forests, protected areas, the environment, biological diversity, and use of water resources.

"The provincial government is in charge of the use of renewable natural resources and environmental management, with the aim of protecting and improving the quality of life of present and future generations, and promoting social responsibility and collective solidarity," says article 86 of the autonomy statute that voters in Santa Cruz will approve or reject on Sunday.

The Bolivian constitution clearly establishes state control over the country’s natural resources, referring in article 136 to the soil, the subsoil "and all of its natural riches," and the water in the country’s lakes and rivers.

The draft constitution, which is to be approved by Bolivian voters in a national referendum, defends the country’s resources, such as its vast natural gas reserves, as the property of the Bolivian people, and attempts to limit the presence of transnational corporations in this country. Article 349 says the state will administer the country’s natural resources "in the collective interest."

One of the central campaign promises of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was elected in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote, was to renationalise natural gas reserves and other resources in the hands of foreign companies.

So far the government has successfully renegotiated 44 contracts with foreign oil companies. As a result, the state coffers now receive two billion dollars a year in revenues, up from 180 million dollars a year in 2005.

Supporters of Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party say the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, which is led by the local landed and business elites, is attempting to defend the influence of foreign capital in the country, in defiance of Morales’ policies.

They point out that the autonomy statute gives the provincial government the power to "design policies to protect, make use of, conserve and restore renewable natural resources and the environment, and to establish, in the area under its jurisdiction, public policies and complementary regulations to increase the levels of protection and conservation."


Another focus of tension is land reform. The government’s efforts to distribute idle land to landless peasants and indigenous people have clashed with the interests of landowners in Santa Cruz, who include families from the United States, Europe and Asia, and from neighbouring countries like Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

Land ownership is heavily concentrated in Bolivia. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million small farmers have access to only five million hectares.

Article 397 of the draft constitution bans the "latifundio" (large landed estate) as contravening the "collective interest and the development of the country."

It also prohibits rural property that serves no social or economic purpose, estates where workers are held in servitude or semi-slavery conditions, and estates that exceed the maximum extension established by law.

The government plans to hold a referendum in which voters will decide whether the ceiling on the size of estates should be 5,000 or 10,000 hectares.

The National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) reports that some families own as much as 200,000 hectares of land in Santa Cruz.

Under the current constitution, the distribution and redistribution of agricultural property, in line with economic and social needs and rural development, is the purview of the state.

The autonomy statute’s chapter on land use states that the provincial government has the authority to approve a provincial plan on land use, and that the regularisation, distribution and administration of land in the province is the responsibility of the Santa Cruz government.


The statute would also create a separate police force, even though the constitution states that the country’s police forces are under a unified command, and that internal security is the responsibility of the national state, "in an integral, indivisible manner and under a single command." (END/2008)