Sunday, June 04, 2006

Morales launches Bolivia land reforms

The Bolivian president has started a land reform plan by handing over about 25,000 square kilometres of state-owned land to poor Indians.

Evo Morales marked the start of his "agrarian revolution" on Saturday, just weeks after his administration nationalised the country's natural gas industry, giving foreign-owned energy companies six months to negotiate new contracts or leave.

"We want to change Bolivia together," Morales told the thousands of Indians gathered in the eastern city of Santa Cruz to receive land titles.

"Getting back the land means we're getting back all the natural resources, we're nationalising all the natural resources."

The ceremony came after talks broke down between Morales and agribusiness leaders on his agrarian reform, which involves the distribution of 200,000 sq km of public land - an area roughly twice the size of Portugal - during the next five years.

Uncultivated land

The government is studying the redistribution of unproductive private land, while the National Farming Confederation has said it would form groups to defend land it feared could be confiscated. The government said such groups would be illegal.

The redistribution plans are heightening long-standing tensions between the prosperous residents of Bolivia's agricultural lowlands and the poorer, mostly Indian people of the western high plains.

Much of the terrain targeted for reform is uncultivated land located in the fertile eastern lowlands.

Wilson Chacaray, a Guarani Indian leader, told the crowd: "The greatest need right now is the recuperation of our territory. The landowners, the foreign companies, the political parties that have always dominated this country took our land from us and that's why we live in misery."

Alejandro Almaraz, Bolivia's vice-minister of land, said the government will ensure sustainable land management and that no forests or protected natural areas would be touched.

Handed to communities

An unspecified number of titles were handed out on Saturday to Indian communities rather than individuals.

"It's land that has no legal problems," Almaraz said. "And we believe that it's not right to try to block this measure when it's going to help many poor people that have been waiting and need this land to improve their life."

The state land was already set aside for redistribution before Morales took office in January. None of the land has been confiscated from large landholders.

But the government says it will eventually seize and redistribute privately owned land that is unproductive, was obtained illegally or is being used for speculation.


Farmers object to plans for private seizures and to the pace of the process, saying they fear that possible environmental damage from mass deforestation could harm farms already in operation.

Mauricio Roca, vice-president of the powerful Eastern Agricultural Chamber, said: "They're going to carry out a political plan for something that first requires technical structuring, infrastructure and training."

Roca said the chamber does not oppose land reform, but prefers a more gradual redistribution programme combined with agricultural training.

Agribusiness leaders said they had cut off dialogue with Morales because the government refused to make any concessions on its proposals, even as officials announced they were still open to discussing the issue.

Signing several decrees to carry out the land distribution, Morales also rescinded an unspecified amount of forestry concessions given out by Carlos Mesa, the former president.

Nearly 90% of Bolivia's productive terrain is worked by only 50,000 families, leaving millions of Bolivians with little or no land, according to the government.

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