Bolivian land reform: a country strives to sustain an 'agrarian revolution'

Land reform programs have failed elsewhere in South America, but Bolivia forges ahead in hopes of helping the poor farm their way out of poverty.

By , / contributor

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    Eusebio Yucra works on his house of wood and palm leaves in the Bolivian settlement of Puerto Morales Ayma.
    The government plans to distribute more than 400,000 acres for new communities in 2011.
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The small town deep in the jungle here is much like any other community in Bolivia's tropical northwest. Situated along the border with Brazil, it has wooden houses, a school, and a store that sells basics. But Puerto Morales Ayma, in the state of Pando, was founded just a year ago by Bolivians from the western highlands as part of President Evo Morales's plan to grant government-controlled land to people with little or no holdings of their own.

About 900 settlers arrived here in August and September of 2009. Their goal was to build homes, clear jungle, plant crops, and form a community – thereby gaining title to the land.

The socialist Morales government reasons that with enough land, struggling Bolivians can feed themselves through farming and profit from sales in local markets. It says it plans to see this revolution through to a conclusion that lifts South America's poorest nation – and the one with the largest indigenous population, at more than 60 percent – out of poverty.

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"It's an indigenous revolution," says Miguel Urioste, researcher and former director with the La Paz-based nonpartisan land rights group Fundacion TIERRA. "That's what makes the agrarian revolution in Bolivia different."

Many South American nations have grappled with land reform with mixed success, but only Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela remain embroiled in the process.

Reform began in 1953, when the highland indigenous population won release from forced labor on large estates and were granted the land they had formerly worked. But without enough land in the highlands to support the growing population, settlements soon became an issue. A colonization program of the lowlands was relatively successful in the 1960s and '70s, and Mr. Urioste says many who relocated to these settlements have a better quality of life than those who stayed behind.

Now, the government vows to complete land reform by determining who has legal right to every acre of land in Bolivia and making sure the poor and landless gain ownership of unowned or unused land.

The majority of Bolivians who would benefit from the effort come from the crowded highlands, where small-scale indigenous farmers are clustered and form part of Mr. Morales's base. Most of the government-controlled land available for redistribution, however, is in the eastern lowlands, where political opposition to Morales is strongest and where the landholdings of powerful non-in­di­genous Bolivians are concentrated. Some of these large properties drive production of crops for export, while others sit unused.

Puerto Morales Ayma and its neighbors were formed just months before the 2009 presidential elections. The opposition criticized Morales for trying to populate lowland states with supporters who could tip the region toward Morales's party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). The government maintains the settlements are not politically motivated.

Martin Jesus Silvestre, a teacher at Puerto Morales Ayma's elementary school, says resistance from locals was fierce. "They didn't want us settling here. They said we were invading," he says. "People from the right came here to threaten us, to tell us that we had to leave, that ... there could be a massacre."

Indeed, clashes between the opposition and government supporters in Pando left about a dozen people dead in 2008. Mr. Silvestre says the risk was worth it. "Before I didn't have even a piece of land, so I came here to look for a life, a way to survive, and to have my own home," he says.

Silvestre says relations are good now, but that animosity could flare up when more settlers arrive. The government plans to distribute more than 400,000 acres for new communities in 2011, a big increase over the past year.

Esteban Sanjines directs programs in the highlands for Fundacion TIERRA. He supports reform, but says the current model is not systematic enough. "A better process would be to enter a community in the highlands, identify the people who don't have enough land, and offer to take them to a new area," he says. "But it's not like that. They just ask who wants to go."

Today in Puerto Morales Ayma, most work focuses on clearing jungle to plant crops. Each family may clear about 7-1/2 acres of their 185-acre plot, brutally hard work done with axes, machetes, and fire. Seeds are being planted, and hopes are high that within months, watermelons, rice, corn, and tomatoes will grow.

Only about half the initial settlers made it through the first year. But those who toughed it out and plan to live in Puerto Morales Ayma say they are happy.

Jacoba Cahuana's family had survived as laborers in other people's fields, and news of land distributed free of charge gave them hope.

"When we first got here we were unhappy because we didn't know where we had arrived or how we were going to live, but we always trusted in the government," Ms. Cahuana says.

"At the beginning we suffered, but now we have everything – our land and our crops."

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