The fate of Bolivian farmers such as Julio Mamani hang in the balance amid erupting violence this month following leftist reforms put in place by President Evo Morales.
Morales, the country’s first Indian president, has increased state control of the nation’s economy, and has distributed roughly 2.47 million acres of land to indigenous peasants.
“Because I don’t own land I feel like I’ve got nothing in life,” 44 year old Mamani said.
“Thanks to Evo we’re going to have a piece of the land that belongs to big land owners.”
Mamani currently lives in a shack roughly 50 miles north of La Paz, where frost, drought and hailstorms regularly devastate crops. He burns cow dung to obtain heat and works the land of others to make his living, which amounts to the equivalent of about $2 per day.
Under Morales’ new land redistribution proposal, dozens of families in Achacachi have been promised land in the tropical lowlands in eastern Bolivia.
However, that plan, along with Morales’ broader socialist program, caused a violent reaction by large farming families in the country’s eastern agricultural heartland. The opposition has occupied many government buildings and blocked highways, and 13 people have been killed in the violence according to local media reports.
So far, Morales has distributed only government land, but under a newly proposed constitution a limit on land ownership would be cut from 123,600 acres to 12,360 acres, which would lead to the redistribution of private land.
Bolivia’s wealth was traditionally held in the silver mines high in the Andes. However, families from Asia, Europe and elsewhere moved into the eastern lowlands during the 1960s and converted the area into a breadbasket of rice, soy, sugar and beef.
Today, the country remains divided between wealthier white people in the fertile lowlands and poor indigenous people in the western highlands, with about 1 percent of landowners owning 66 percent of the agricultural land.
“Not for a minute have we hesitated in our rejection of agrarian reform,” said Guido Nayar, who leads a prominent agriculture federation in the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz.
“They want to limit property for those who produce food but not for those who produce drugs,” he said, referring to the coca leaf, the main ingredient of cocaine.
Indians use in the coca leaf in rituals and chew it to ward of hunger, a practice Morales, a former coca grower, has actively encouraged.
Almost all Latin American countries have attempted at some point to change systems in which a small number of elites own most of the land.
Those elites traditionally opposed such initiatives, and even took down presidents who instituted agrarian reform, sometimes with U.S. support.
Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador earlier this month, claiming the United States was endorsing the opposition protests in an attempt to destabilize him.
Nayar said Morales was trying to implement a 1950s model for agrarian reform that contradicts modern, consolidated agriculture, sentiments echoed in places like Mexico, where land redistribution has resulted in farms too small in some cases to even provide for a single family.
However, Morales has the backing of other Latin American leaders, and has vowed to move ahead with his plans.
After taking office in January 2006, Morales first nationalized Bolivia’s energy sector, mining projects and the nation’s largest telecom company. He used the proceeds of these widely popular measures to combat poverty. Morales won 67 percent backing in a vote in August, despite resistance in eastern Bolivia.
“We’re starting the repossession process. It will be the end … of large idle land holdings,” Cliver Rocha, head of the government land reform office, told Reuters.
The Bolivian government wants to redistribute more than 19.77 million acres of land to more than 200,000 families by 2011. To accomplish this the government will need to complete surveys and then seize any land it determines is either illegally owned or idle.
According to Rocha, the focus will be on land grants to “the historically dispossessed.” However, unlike Bolivia’s last significant land reform effort in 1953, the current campaign will not allow people to sell their land, which will prevent speculation, he said.
Silverio Vera of the land rights group Landless Movement said roughly 180 families are better off after relocating to Santa Cruz and establishing a community called “Pueblos Unidos” on state land.
“We have a school, small clinics, water tanks and we are sowing … The families are doing well because we have access to work.”
In Achacachi, where Morales received nearly 100 percent of the vote in August, Mamani hoped for a better life for his family in Santa Cruz.
“With land and hard work we’ll be able to move forward,” he told Reuters, adding that he won’t miss the extreme cold of the Andes, where his family has lived for generations.
“I’m going to take a small picture of the mountains as a souvenir and I’ll be fine looking at the picture.”
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