June 5, 2006

Bolivia’s ‘agrarian revolution’ sparks hope and fear

By Monica Machicao

MONTERO, Bolivia (Reuters) - Like hundreds of thousands of Bolivian peasants, Justina Cesari has no land to call her own. For the last year, she has been squatting illegally with her family on a vast sugar-cane plantation.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has vowed to redistribute idle farmland to poor peasants, alarming wealthy landowners in the agricultural heartland of Santa Cruz where sprawling cattle ranches and soy farms stretch across the tropical plains.

But for landless peasants like Cesari, who lives on part of the privately owned sugar plantation along with 46 other squatter families, the government's self-declared "agrarian revolution" is a glimmer of hope for a more secure future.

"There are so many landowners who buy up land and don't use it," said Cesari, a single mother of six. She said she used to struggle to make ends meet by renting a small plot before she decided to join the mass occupation by a peasants' cooperative called Campo Verde (green field).

"A lot of people just go where they see land and grab whatever they can just because they've got money. Those of us who don't have any money fall by the wayside," she said in the evening sun at the plantation near the town of Montero, where bright green sugar cane crops stretch to the horizon.

May is harvest time in Santa Cruz's sugar plantations and many landless peasants armed with machetes travel far to work for as little as $3 a day for the seasonal work.

"We feel exploited, so what else can we do but live (like this) to try to get back what is ours and defend our families?," asked Simon Bejarano, another resident of the makeshift squatters' village where chickens and pigs forage amid the simple huts and tiny plots of yucca and soy.


As a first step, the new land reform program aims to distribute up to 12.3 million acres of state-owned property to indigenous groups and then identify unproductive private land for possible redistribution.

Within five years the government aims to redistribute up to 49 million acres -- a fifth of the country's territory.

Elected in December, Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president who comes from a poor peasant family, has billed the reform as a pillar of his wider agenda to champion the rights of the poor, indigenous majority from where he draws his support.

While his sweeping May 1 energy nationalization has been relatively noncontroversial within Bolivia, land reform has exposed the deep divisions between its indigenous people and the richer European-descended elite.

That unease has been strongest in Santa Cruz province, where the fertile soils have also drawn migrants from the impoverished Andean highlands in search of a better life.

The government has ruled out expropriations, but landowners who say the rules are unclear and fear arbitrary land seizures are forming land-defense groups. Some have even threatened to take up arms to defend their property.

"If someone breaks into your house by force, you're got no choice but to drive him out," said Gilberto Aguanta, a technician with the ANAPO association of wheat and soy producers. "That situation could cause problems. We hope it won't be like that and that private property is respected.

"I don't think it's fair that (the peasants) have no land. As long as this law is applied correctly, I think we're all in agreement," he added.


Despite previous attempts to redistribute land in South America's poorest country, a recent report by the Catholic Church found a small group of wealthy businessmen owned 90 percent of the country's territory.

The rest is shared among Bolivia's 3 million indigenous peasant farmers.

Among the Santa Cruz landowners are Brazilians and Japanese who have bought cheap tracts of land in the past decade and established vast soybean plantations that have made soy one of Bolivia's most important exports.

Across the province, farms bear names like "New Brazil" and "Minas Gerais" after the Brazilian state.

They are concerned about being targeted by the reform, though Rural Development Minister Hugo Salvatierra has said landowners -- whether Bolivian or Brazilian -- who bought their land legally and use it productively have nothing to fear.

"(This reform) upsets some people because they don't want to repair historical injustices and want to maintain the slavery of the past," Salvatierra told crowds of peasant farmers in the Yungas region this month.

Zacarias Vale, a soy farmer who hails from Brazil's Mato Grosso region that borders Bolivia, said he recognized the plight of the landless but called for a considered approach.

"Like all under-developed countries such as Brazil and Bolivia there is an uneven distribution of wealth and of land. There are unproductive estates that should be returned to the state and to people who don't have access to land.

"But on its own, the land reform won't work," he added. "For everyone to be happy 50 years from now, with the land being managed in a productive and sustainable way, there must be investment in technology and resources."

(With additional reporting by Helen Popper)