Bolivia: Evo launches “land revolution”

Evo Morales sticks it to the landed elite. He saves the announcement for a trip to Santa Cruz, the section of the country which had threatened to secede if he nationalized the gas (as he has now done). A none-too-subtle message. And the land barons immediately talk of forming paramilitaries. This should be interesting… From Reuters, June 4:

SANTA CRUZ – Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, took a first step on Saturday toward handing over a fifth of the country’s territory to poor farmers, a day after angry landowners vowed to form self-defense groups.

Morales chose the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the landowners’ power base in Bolivia’s agricultural heartland, to award 60 titles to 7.8 million acres of former government land to some of the poor peasants who support him.

“The historical enemies of the poor must accept this land revolution,” Morales said at a ceremony in a square packed with thousands of indigenous people.

Morales, a coca farmer from a peasant background, unveiled the land reform program on May 1, the same day he nationalized the oil industry in South America’s poorest country.

Although Morales’ oil nationalization plans have worried foreign investors and stoked fears in Washington of continuing a leftward, nationalist trend begun by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, criticism at home has not been widespread.

But his land reform plans have laid bare fault lines in a country where the Roman Catholic Church estimates a handful of families own 90 percent of all farmland, while 3 million indigenous peasant farmers share the rest.


Government pledges to redistribute only idle land and avoid massive seizures have failed to reassure landowners, and talks broke down between the government and landowners on Friday.

Jose Cespedes, a leader of a farm group in eastern Santa Cruz, told local television late on Friday that landowners would form committees to defend properties in the region, home to vast cattle ranches and soy plantations.

“If the law of the land doesn’t defend us, we have the right to seek defense mechanisms,” Cespedes said.

Cespedes did not say whether the groups would be armed, and government officials said earlier this week they would not tolerate “delinquent groups”.

Bolivia has seen only isolated invasions of farms by landless peasants in recent years.

At first, the government said it planned to hand over up to 12 million acres of state property to indigenous groups. It then planned to identify idle private farmland for possible later distribution.

The government said in newspaper advertisements on Wednesday it had raised its target to 48 million acres, or almost a fifth of Bolivia’s entire territory, within five years.

Morales’ opponents have charged him with electioneering ahead of an election next month for a constituent assembly. If he gains control, Morales has pledged to “redirect” a land reform program begun 53 years ago that focused on the western highlands but left large eastern plantations mostly untouched.

See our last report on Bolivia.