Slavery and Saneamiento in Bolivia
by Alexander van Schaick, Upside Down World
In recent weeks, cattle ranchers and landowners in Bolivia’s Cordillera province, located in the south of the department of Santa Cruz, resorted to blockades and violence in order to halt the work of Bolivia’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA). As a referendum on departmental autonomy for Santa Cruz draws near, the conflict calls into question the central government‚s ability to enforce the law in the Bolivian lowlands.
The dispute centers on the region of Alto Parapetí, south of the provincial capital of Camiri, where INRA is currently trying to carry out land reform and create an indigenous territory for the Guaraní indigenous people. Additionally, it claims various communities of Guaraní live and work on white or mestizo-owned ranches in conditions of semi-slavery.
For nine days landowners and their supporters blockaded major highways and virtually sealed off Alto Parapetí. The blockades continued until Bolivia’s vice minister of land, Alejandro Almaráz, left the region on April 18. At the end of February, Ronald Larsen, a major landowner in Santa Cruz, and other ranchers took Almaráz hostage at gunpoint for
several hours when he and other government officials tried to enter the region.
An Incomplete Land Reform
In the 1990s and up to the present, the Guaraní Nation and Bolivia’s other lowland indigenous peoples mobilized to force the national government to recognize their right to their ancestral territories. In 1996, the first administration of Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada passed a land reform law that gave Bolivia’s indigenous people the opportunity to claim their “communal territory of origin” (TCO).
The 1996 law—Ley No. 1715—reorganized the country’s land law and agrarian reform institutions. It also established INRA to resolve land conflicts and issue titles through a process called saneamiento. In this process, INRA would establish property limits, to look into whether property owners had obtained land legally and to investigate whether they were putting their land to socially or economically productive use. (Latifundios, or huge tracks of idle land used to speculate on rising land prices or as liens to obtain loans, are banned by the Bolivian constitution.) Finally, INRA would resolve land conflicts through mediation and legal processes, title TCOs for indigenous people, and establish parcels of state-owned land for distribution. In the end, landowners would own land with clear title. INRA was to carry out saneamiento throughout all of Bolivia between 1996 and 2006.
But after ten years, INRA had only completely finished the saneamiento process for 10% of its goal. Over half of the land INRA sought to have titled had not even begun the process. According to critiques from indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) organizations, saneamiento was characterized by corruption, a lack of transparency and participation, and a bias in favor of large landholders.
In 2006, the administration of president Evo Morales pushed through several laws (particularly No. 3501 and No. 3545) in order to improve the saneamiento process for the benefit of peasants and indigenous people. Among other changes, the new laws attempted to improve the control indigenous and peasant organizations can exercise over the process, tightened restrictions on what constitutes the productive use of land, and gave INRA the authority to nullify property rights of landowners found to use workers in a system of servitude, captivity, forced labor, or debt peonage. INRA and the Vice-ministry of Land have also been much more active under Morales: in the first two years of his administration, INRA has finished the saneamiento process for 10.2 million hectares, as opposed to 9.2 million completed by the previous five presidents in the nine years since INRA’s founding.
One of the groups that has benefited the least from the saneamiento process has been the Guaraní people, Bolivia’s third largest indigenous group. Guaraní communities populate Bolivia’s Chaco, an arid region that spans parts of the Departments of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija. Only between 5 and 10 percent of the land demanded for TCOs by Guaraní communities has been granted, whereas other lowland indigenous groups have received much higher percentages of their demands for communal land.
The Asamblea del Pueblo Guaraní (APG) has made claims to INRA territory in Alto Parapetí since 1996. Only in February of this year did INRA start the process for the titling of a TCO “Alto Parapetí,” totaling 157,000 hectares of land. Through the saneamiento process, INRA will catalogue what of this 157,000 hectares is available for future Guaraní use and what land is being used in a legal fashion by existing property owners.
INRA also will investigate which landowners have workers in conditions of servitude. According Law 3545 and its governing rules, the state does not recognize the legal property rights of a landowners’ estate if he or she is found to have one or more persons working under conditions of modern-day slavery or servitude. If this is the case, the estate becomes state land that the government, in the case of Alto Parapetí, will include in the formation of a TCO. (Article 4e of Law 3545 requires that the state guarantee that people formerly subjected to a labor regime of peonage, captivity, forced labor, or servitude have access to land.) At the end of the saneamiento, INRA will give land titles to the Guaraní community and all existing, law-abiding landholders.
The APG, the national organization of the Guaraní nation, backed Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party during the elections of 2005. It hoped that a MAS government would respond to its demands for the territorial reconstitution of Guaraní ancestral lands. The results have been mixed: while Guaraní communities have received far more land than under previous administrations, the APG feels like the current government can do better. One of the key conditions for the Guaraní Nation’s continuing support of the Morales administration may be the successful titling of the TCO “Alto Parapetí” and the liberation of Guaraní “captive” communities in the region.
“Now Blood Will Run”
Conflicts in Alto Parapetí between INRA and large landowners began in February of this year. On February 12, INRA issued a decree committing to title a TCO “Alto Parapetí” for the APG. Beyond the recuperation of territory for the APG, the creation of a TCO would provide the base for the liberation of Guaraní families living in servitude on large landowners’ estates in the area. According to a report released by the Swiss Red Cross and the Bolivian Ministry of Justice in 2006, there are ten “captive” Guaraní communities in Alto Parapetí that live under a system of semi-slavery: Yaiti, Yapui, Yapumbia, Recreo, Itacuatía, Huaraka, Bajo Carapari, Alto Carapari, La Colorada y Tartagalito.
INRA initiated the process of saneamiento by another decree on February 26. Vice-minister of Land Alejandro Almaráz and the national director of INRA, Juan Carlos Rojas, came to Camiri to personally supervise the launch of saneamiento with the participation of the Guaraní community.
The reaction to the start of saneamiento from the landowning and cattle ranching sector was swift and severe. On February 28, a group of 50 to 100 landowners and their supporters forced INRA officials out of their office, which they preceded to sack. They demanded that the land titling process in Alto Parapetí be halted. After the incident, the Mburuvicha Guasu (Grand Captain) of the Guaraní community in Alto Parapetí, Félix Bayanda, condemned the ranchers for trying to stop the saneamiento process:
“This is [an] abuse from the cattle ranchers, who don’t want to recognize the existence of enslaved communities and who misinform the people,” he said. “The Guaraní people are prepared to defend our communities‚ demand to end once and for all the servitude and enslavement of our people. The Assembly of the Guaraní People will fight for their demands and we will initiate mobilizations in Santa Cruz, Chiquisaca and Tarija.”
In spite of the threats, INRA also reiterated its commitment to carrying out the saneamiento, as required by the law. Following the incident, on the evening of February 29, Vice-minister of Land Almaráz, INRA director Rojas, APG president Wilson Changaraya, and other INRA officials entered Alto Parapetí. Their goal was to notify property owners that the saneamiento process was commencing. According to an interview with Almaráz and accounts published in the press, as the INRA vehicle drove by the property “Caraparicito,” a large cattle ranch owned by an American, Ronald Larsen, they came across a tractor blocking the road.
A group of landowners surrounded their vehicle, led by Larsen, who was armed with a revolver and a rifle. Larsen proceeded to shoot out the tires of the INRA vehicle to prevent the escape of the land reform officials. He reportedly yelled, “Now we are going to carry out community justice on you.” He ordered the INRA vehicle to be dragged onto his property with the tractor. Later, he bragged to Almaráz that he had shot and killed three robbers that had come on to his property and no authority had ever found out. Another local landowner, Lino Medrano, allegedly threatened “No one is going to leave here alive, now blood will run.” Two members of the INRA team escaped to Camiri, where they obtained reinforcements who returned and freed the remaining INRA officials after their eight-hour ordeal.
Interestingly, no immediate action was taken against Larsen. According to Almaráz, witnesses are giving testimony before the public prosecutor of Camiri in order to bring a case against Ronald and Duston Larsen for sedition, criminal association, impeding and extorting official government activity, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping.
After being released, Almaráz and Rojas called for dialogue in an attempt to reengage the small producers of the region. INRA issued public statements explaining that the saneamiento would not negatively affect any property owners with under 500 hectares of land. They convened an INRA meeting on March 10 in order to engage all the actors affected by the saneamiento process. Most large landowners, however, boycotted that meeting, and are still refusing to participate in any INRA-sponsored dialogue.
On March 11, the President of the Unión de Productores Agropecuarios del Sur (the local cattle rancher and farmers association), Juan Carlos Santistevan, issued a press statement saying that the cattle ranchers of the Cordillera would give their lives to protect their land and to oppose the creation of a Guaraní TCO in Alto Parapetí. According to statistics published by the Vice-ministry of Land, Santistevan owns 1,885 hectares in the area.
Tensions boiled over again on April 4, when Almaraz, Rojas, representatives of the APG, and several dozen national police once again tried to enter Alto Parapetí through the municipality of Lagunillas. According to statements and testimonies from INRA, Guaraníes, and Almaráz, the group was on the way to participate in a meeting convened by the APG in the Guaraní community of Itacuatía. The week prior, over 450 Guaraní traveled to Itacuatía for the meeting before landowners essentially sealed off the area. Once again, the convoy was halted as they tried to pass by the property of Caraparicito. Duston Larsen, son of Ronald Larsen, and a group of people armed with sticks, rocks, and guns violently prevented them from passing. Police officers dispersed the crowd; however the convoy still could not pass.
On April 5, various sectors in Alto Parapetí allied with the landowners issued a declaration, “Cordillera de Pie,” which accused the government and INRA of attempting to violently enter Alto Parapetí the previous day. The document also demanded:
“That the vice-minister of land, national director of INRA, technical personnel and police contingents halt the abuses and illegalities that they come to commit against our people and that in the term of 24 hours they definitively abandon the province of Cordillera in order to avoid other consequences which, if they do occur, will be the unique and exclusive responsibility of the government.”
Almaráz, however, reiterated that government officials and the INRA team would remain in Camiri until the saneamiento process had been completed.
On April 9, landowners and their supporters blocked major interdepartmental highways between the city of Santa Cruz and Camiri, between Camiri and the southern departments of Chuquisaqa and Tarija, as well as all entrances into Alto Parapetí. Although the landowners originally declared the blockades would be lifted after 24 hours, they continued until April 18 when Almaráz finally left the region.
Both sides on the conflict mobilized their supporters. The APG issued a statement declaring a state of emergency for the Guaraní Nation and convoking representatives from all 26 Guaraní Capitanías (districts):
“The Guaraní Nation will not renounce its social, political, economic and cultural rights to the recuperation and consolidation of its territory, natural resources and Indigenous Autonomy; thus, it declares a state of emergency and calls the 26 Captains and the social organizations allied with the Guaraní Nation and other sectors, to join the fight to defend the Guaraní Nation‚s historic demand of Territorial Reconstitution and liberation of enslaved families.”
On the other hand, the government has reported that at least several hundred members of the proto-fascist Unión Juvenil Crucenista traveled to Camiri to support the blockades.). The Union Juvenil Crucenista is a “youth” organization widely considered to be the violent arm of the Comité Cívico Pro-Santa Cruz, a powerful association of the elites in Santa Cruz.
A little over a week after their first attempt, they tried to enter Alto Parapetí again. At 4:45 PM on Sunday, April 13, Almaráz, Rojas, Changaray, INRA officials, and several dozen Guaraní, without police escort, tried to pass a blockade in the town of Cuevo again trying to reach the community of Itacuatía. According to Almaráz, in Cuevo, a crowd of several hundred landowners, townspeople and members of the Unión Juvenil Crucenista threw a hail of rocks at the convoy to repulse them. As the convoy tried to return to Camiri, landowners and their supporters ambushed them, partially blocking the road and firing guns. They prevented several trucks from passing. Those people unfortunate enough to be left behind were forced out of their trucks, threatened, and beaten with sticks and rocks.
According to the mayor of Cuevo, Sonia Guthrié, a supporter of the landowners’ blockade, the group of INRA vehicles “entered firing their guns in the air. Later, with violence and slingshots, they managed to get beyond the first blockade. But, then we organized ourselves and in the Matadero zone we were able to stop them. They ran off towards the woods.” She displayed two rifles and six other guns taken from a vehicle carrying Guaraníes as proof of the group’s hostile intent. Members of her retinue have made press statements claiming that Vice-minister Almaráz is trying to form armed guerilla groups in the Chaco in order to “train a FARC in the Cordillera.”
Almaráz rebuked this claim saying, “nobody from the Vice-ministry or INRA had guns. I don’t know what the Guaraní had, but I didn’t see any of them with guns.” In response to the version of events given by Mayor Guthrié, Almaráz pointed out that the vast majority of people injured in the incident were Guaraní or government employees. The Bolivian state information agency, ABI, published a list of 46 people injured in the incident by hospital in which they received treatment; 11 suffered “grave” injuries and 35 “light” injuries. Juan Carlos Rojas, national director of INRA, was listed as gravely injured.
The government also published a list of five people who have “disappeared.” Several people, including the APG’s lawyer, testified to having been captured, taken back to Cuevo, and tortured, at least one of whom was whipped and beaten in the town’s plaza. The crowd also looted and destroyed several government vehicles. According to the landowners, five of their supporters in Cuevo were lightly wounded.
The government temporarily has suspended saneamiento activities and recalled Almaráz to La Paz. By doing so, it hopes to diffuse tensions and allow an inter-institutional commission of human rights organizations, the press, and the religious community to enter the region in order to investigate rights abuses and open dialogue. Nevertheless, a negotiated, peaceful resolution to the conflict will be difficult to achieve.
Freeing Slaves or Grabbing Resources?
Both sides in the dispute over the saneamiento of Alto Parapetí have very different views of why the conflict is happening. The government claims that the saneamiento process and the creation of a TCO represents the way in which various Guaraní communities living in a system of semi-slavery can be freed and assured a sustainable rural livelihood. The landowners and their supporters maintain that the issue of slavery is a red herring invented by the MAS government and that the saneamiento is part of larger processes by which the government hopes in the future to gain control over local hydrocarbon resources and dissolve the municipalities in the region.
Numerous Bolivian and international human rights organizations have published reports on the existence of systems of semi-slavery on estates in the Chaco. Estimates vary, but at least 600 Guaraní families live in such conditions in the departments of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija. These families have no land of their own and live in communities located on the estates of their masters. In the documentary “Quiero ser libre, sin dueño” (“I want to be free, without a master”), produced by the Bolivian Ombudsman’s office and the Ministry of Justice, dozens of Guaraníes give dramatic testimony to conditions on estates in Chuquisaca. Although treatment varies, interviewees testify to working for their masters over 12 hours a day for between ten cents to two dollars a day (far below what they legally should receive); sometimes workers receive no pay at all, only second-hand clothes and food. Debt slavery is common, where debts supposedly incurred by the Guaraní to their masters (sometimes passed down from their parents) effectively negate their pay. Child labor and corporal punishment are widespread.
Local Guaraní leaders express their frustration that they have nowhere to turn. Local authorities are either landowners or under the landowners’ influence, and previous governments turned a deaf ear to their plight. According to the Fidel Cejas, captain of Alto Parapetí, “In all of the district of Alto Parapetí nobody treats our brothers well and it’s sad to think about the abuse: psychological, physical, even the rape of the daughters of our brothers, and assassinations as well. Complaints have been made, but the authorities don’t carry out justice when such complaints are made.”
For many Guaraní interviewed in the documentary, a community’s access to its own land to cultivate represents the path to freedom, dignity, and the recuperation of culture and language. In the past, the Centro de Investigación y Promoción de Campesinado (Center for the Research and Promotion of Peasants, or CIPCA) and Catholic organizations have liberated several Guaraní communities in servitude by given them land purchased from landowners. Government and NGOs hope saneamiento will solve the problem.
The most vocal support for the landowners in Alto Parapetí has come from agricultural and cattle producers’ associations and local Cordillera politicians. They have also received full support from prominent figures in Santa Cruz. Given the sensitivity of the semi-slavery issue, these powerful politicians’ willingness to back the landowners indicates the extent to which the Cruceña landed elite occupies or influences the institutional spaces of power in Santa Cruz.
The Comité Cívico Pro-Santa Cruz, the strongest non-governmental political organization in Santa Cruz, has come out strongly behind the landowners in Alto Parapetí. Branko Marinkovic, president of the Comité, stated in reference to the events of April 13, “In no way do we accept this kind of violence, we ask the president to call back his functionaries because they will not conduct saneamiento with violence and the organization of paramilitary groups to make Bolivians fight each other.” Although different groups have played the deciding role in the Comité at different times, Gisela Lopéz, a journalist and former editor who covered land issues at El Deber, Santa Cruz’ paper of record, explains that:
“The Comité Cívico Pro-Santa Cruz has a long history of real civil struggles of the region and for the region, but in the last 20 years, it has been ‘taken over’ by the cruceño power elites, groups that have controlled the principle institutions in Santa Cruz (telephone, electricity, and water cooperatives, among others). And, now, the Comité Pro-Santa Cruz is lead by a huge landowner (Marinkovic) who utilizes the Comité for the defense of his particular interests and has been chosen to defend the landed elite from the current government of Evo Morales.”
Marinkovic is not only a major landowner in Santa Cruz, he also owns one of Bolivia’s biggest cooking oil companies.
Rubén Costas, the prefect (or governor) of Santa Cruz, also has supported the struggle of landowners in Alto Parapetí. Costas is one of the leading opponents of the Morales government and previously served as president of the Comité Civico. He counts on the political support of landowners and is considered to be close to Marcelino Apurani, the far-right sub-prefect of Cordillera province. According to reports by Bolpress, Apurani played a divisive role in a February meeting between INRA and landowners, where he attempted to sabotage dialogue and push landowners in a radical direction against saneamiento.
The landowners and their allies have presented their resistance to saneamiento as a fight to defend their land and to maintain Departmental control over hydrocarbon resources. They have seemingly successfully portrayed the conflict in the media as another struggle of the people of Santa Cruz against the impositions of the Morales government. They claim that if INRA creates a TCO for the Guaraní in Alto Parapetí, it will set the conditions for the Guaraní to later create an autonomous indigenous territory if the new Bolivian constitution passes its referendum vote. If these things come to pass, they argue that the Department or the municipality “lose control” over the oil and gas resources in the TCO and that the municipalities in Alto Parapetí would dissolve. These concerns are most succinctly put in the document “Cordillera de Pie”:
“WE WILL NOT ALLOW, under any circumstances, actions or activities of agrarian reversion, expropriation, reorganization or the creation of new community lands of origin supported in the illegal law 3545 and its regulations, that attempt to take control of the petroleum, aquifers and gas reserves of our department, cut and destroy municipal jurisdictions and confiscate individual and collective productive private properties.”
Government officials have responded that the creation of a TCO would have no effect on the amount of money the municipalities would receive from hydrocarbons. Subsoil resources pertain to the State, so the taxes on oil and gas exploitation that are redistributed to municipalities (such tax money also goes to universities, departments, and the national social security system) would not be changed.
Regarding the issue of servitude, the landowners and many of their allies claim there are no captive communities in Alto Parapetí and that such claims are merely stories invented by the MAS government to legitimize their hidden agendas.
Another landowner demand is that the saneamiento be halted until after May 4, the day of the vote on the controversial Santa Cruz “Autonomy Statutes.” Although in a July 2, 2005 referendum a majority of Santa Cruz’s residents voted in favor of regional autonomy, no legal framework exists for establishing what regional autonomy means or how it should be established. Nevertheless, a set of “Autonomy Statutes” were written up by a group of “legislators” appointed by the Departmental Prefect with the strong backing of the Comité Civico and agro-business associations. The Departmental Electoral Court in Santa Cruz set May 4 as the date when the statutes will go to referendum. The National Electoral Court, Bolivia’s highest decision-making body on such matters, ruled the referendum outside the law and ordered the departmental court to cease and desist its actions. The Departmental Electoral Court, however, has refused to comply.
Article 102, one of the articles relating to land policy in the Autonomy Statutes, states that:
“Property rights over land, the regulation of rights, the distribution, redistribution and administration of lands in the province of Santa Cruz are the responsibility of the Provincial Government and will be regulated through a Provincial Law by the Provincial Legislative Assembly.”
The authority to carry out saneamiento would thus be transferred from the central government to the departmental government and, by extension, into the hands of the landed elite. While it is doubtful that the government of Evo Morales will recognize the Autonomy Statutes’ legality, it is easy to understand why the large landowners of Alto Parapetí would seek to postpone saneamiento until after May 4. Effectively, the landowners may have won on this front. As this article goes to press, one week remains before the referendum and it appears unlikely that the government will restart saneamiento beforehand.
Ronald Larsen: Gringo Instigator of the Landowners‚ Uprising?
One of the more bizarre aspects of the conflict is the controversy surrounding Ronald Larsen, the landowner of US citizenship who reportedly sequestered Almaráz and others at gunpoint on February 29. According to documents released by government sources, Larsen’s story goes back to 1968, when, after fighting in the Vietnam War, he came to Bolivia where he has lived since without residency on a tourist visa. His son, Duston Larsen, who was captured on Bolivian TV leading the group that violently prevented INRA from passing Lagunillas on April 4, was chosen to be “Mister Bolivia” in 2004. Duston also appeared as himself in the popular Bolivian comedy “Quién Mató a la Llamita Blanca.”
The Larsens have been among the leaders of the resistance to saneamiento in Alto Parapetí. During the Banzer dictatorship of the 1970s, Ronald Larsen began consolidating properties in Santa Cruz, eventually becoming one of Santa Cruz’s biggest landholders. He and his family hold at least 57,145 hectares of land in Santa Cruz although discrepancies between records held by INRA and the Agrarian Superintendent may mean he own an additional 10,000 hectares. In Alto Parapetí the Larsen family holds at least 15,777 hectares of land in five different properties. According to Bolpress, Larsen also has strong links to the right wing in Santa Cruz, having wined-and-dined with Rubén Costas and Branko Marinkovic among others on his estate in the Cordillera.
Minister of Rural Development Susana Rivero claimed on Bolivian state TV that in preliminary interviews with INRA Larsen admitted that a Guaraní community lives on his property and performs services for him, apparently not knowing that such a labor relation means that this community is in “captivity” according to Bolivian law.
More Conflict on the Horizon
Larsen aside, the conflictive situation in Alto Parapetí has highlighted a disturbing trend that is becoming increasingly common in Santa Cruz: the willingness of the landed elite to use violence to halt land reform, and the central government’s inability to protect their supporters in the indigenous community as well as their own employees from such violence.
Thus far, the saneamiento has gone nowhere. Given the state’s weakness in Santa Cruz and the level of resistance put up by landowners over the past months, the Morales government will face an uphill battle if it again tries to carry out its land reform agenda in Alto Parapetí. Making matters worse, the May 4 referendum on the “Autonomy Statutes” will likely pass (although with high abstention rates; its opponents are boycotting the vote). This will give landowners additional rhetorical ammunition, even though the central government will not recognize its legality.
The government may be banking on the Inter-institutional Commission and a different Parliamentary commission to release reports verifying systems of servitude in Alto Parapetí. A clear, unequivocal statement from the commissions confirming the existence of captive communities might give the government the legitimacy to use force to carry out the saneamiento. Given the large landowners‚ trenchant resistance to losing their way of life and privilege, it seems unlikely that any accord that does justice to the Guaraní community will be reached through dialogue. More violent conflict may be on the horizon.
Alexander van Schaick is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Bolivia. Until recently he also was an organizer for the IWW in New York City.
This story first appeared April 28, with footnotes, on Upside Down World.
See related story, this issue:
Santa Cruz Votes for Autonomy
by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World
From our daily report:
Bolivia polarized on eve of autonomy vote
WW4 Report, May 4, 2008
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution