Bolivia: Morales initiates land reform; ranchers pledge resistance

Bolivian President Evo Morales, empowered by his country’s new constitution, began redistributing land to indigenous peasants March 15. In a ceremony on part of the land seized by the government from large owners, Morales turned over about 94,000 acres to Guaraní indigenous communities in the Chaco region of southern Santa Cruz department. Morales harshly criticized the treatment of workers on large farms and called upon rich landowners to embrace equality by voluntarily giving up some of their holdings.

The Assembly of the Guaraní People (APG) received title to 36,000 hectares expropriated from five landowners who the government charged had 50 Guaraní families living in servitude on their properties. APG leader Wilson Changaray filed a claim to the lands three years ago.

Morales, flanked by military personnel, made the announcement at the gates to Caraparicito estate in Alto Parapetí municipality. He named the Larsen, Chávez, Malpartida and Curcuy families who properties would become titled to the Guaraní as Lands of Communal Origin (TCO) by order of the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA). The landowners can still appeal the redistribution to the National Agrarian Tribunal (TAN).

“Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency,” said Morales. “Today, from here, we are beginning to put an end to the giant landholdings of Bolivia.”

US cattleman Ronald Larsen of Monatana, owner of the Caraparicito ranch, emerged as a key opponent of the Morales government’s land reform, joining with other ranchers in threatening to resist the transfer of their lands. “They’ve singled me out as an American,” Larsen told the AP as Morales made his announcement. “We’re not just going to walk away like a bunch of sheep.” He denies that his Guaraní resident workers live in squalor on the vast property, which he bought in 1973.

Human rights groups say an estimated 4,000 Guaraní still live in “virtual slavery” in the Chaco, tending cattle or working sugarcane fields for wages as low as $40 a year. Guaraní leaders last year claimed that 12 families on Larsen’s ranch lived in servitude. Larsen alleges that former workers accusing him of indentured servitude signed statements under duress. “We’re way over the minimum wage” of $81 a month, he said in a telephone interview from the eastern city of Santa Cruz.

Bolivia’s new constitution went into effect in February, after being approved by national referendum in January. The constitution limits single farm properties to 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres), and places economic and social requirements on properties that fall within that limit. In October 2008, the Bolivian National Congress ratified the proposed reforms after Morales agreed not to run for re-election in 2014. He will, however, be able to run in the December 2009 elections, which have been brought forward a year as a compromise. Bolivia’s old constitution only permitted one five-year presidential term, while Morales’s draft stipulated a two-term limit. (BolPress, AFP, March 18; La Nación, Argentina, March 16; Jurist, March 15; Reuters, March 14; AP, Feb. 25; AFP, Oct. 20)

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