Indigenous pressure key to Bolivias land reform

The Bolivian Congress passed landmark agrarian reform legislation Nov. 28 despite bitter but ultimately faltering right-wing opposition. Central to the achievement was indigenous mobilization working in tandem with an indigenous-headed government, enabling its president to make good on promises to Bolivia’s majority population.

President Evo Morales broke away from a state visit to the Netherlands for a midnight signing of the land reform law, then left La Paz for the South America-Africa Summit in Nigeria.

The week before, prospects for land reform seemed grim as opposition senators boycotted the 27-member Senate, denying it a quorum. The law had already passed in the lower house, where Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party holds a majority. Responding to the Senate boycott, the president threatened to put it into effect by decree. Three opposition senators then returned, re-established a quorum and voted to pass the law.

Opposition forces, representing rich landowners and business interests from the five-state “half-moon” region of eastern Bolivia, leveled charges of bribery. MAS spokespersons denied the charge.

Signing the law, Morales said, “We now have the legal instrument to put an end to the large landholders of eastern Bolivia.” Some 100 families there own 25 million hectares of agricultural land, of the national total of 107 million hectares. Nationally, 71 percent of the population owns 7 percent of the farmland.

“Their power to wrest so much land from indigenous people is finished,” Morales said. “This is the struggle of our ancestors, the struggle for power and territory.” He announced imminent nationalization of Bolivia’s mining sector, particularly tin.

Looking out at indigenous people assembled at the Government Palace, Morales noted, “Happily, we are united, organized and mobilized.” He recalled that “we marched for the hydrocarbons and now for land,” and predicted, “Surely we will be needing some more [marches] to keep on advancing, and may our mobilizations allow for transformation of the old neoliberal rules.”

Morales was addressing some of the 4,000 indigenous men, women, and children who had walked from Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and elsewhere to La Paz, some covering 450 miles in three weeks. As marchers in traditional dress circulated through the palace, some playing musical instruments, indigenous leader Martín Condori declared the “decolonization” process has begun.

According to one estimate, 20 million hectares will soon become available, although the real total is unknown pending assessment of land use and ownership.

Under the legislation, idle agricultural lands and land with no clear title will be expropriated in return for market value reimbursement. Resale of land for profit is banned, land remaining idle after transfer will be recalled, and large landowners may not enlarge their present holdings by more than 50 percent. The law provides support for farm mechanization and marketing.

Morales’ opponents took a beating during this eventful week. They had embarked upon hunger strikes, short marches and a general strike prior to passage of the land law. The strike turned out to have minimal impact on transportation and businesses in the “half-moon” states where it took place. Within a day or two, signs of active opposition waned.

atwhit @ megalink.net