Silvestre Saisari, a bearded, soft-spoken leader in the Bolivian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), sat in his office in
According to Saisari, the MST has been at the forefront of groups demanding changes to land distribution legislation. The agrarian law originally passed in 1996, the National Agrarian Reform Service (INRA) Law, establishes the right of the state to expropriate lands that “do not serve a just social-economic function” and redistribute those lands to landless farmers and indigenous communities.(3) While the INRA Law already exists, many complain that grey areas in the legislation have led to an incomplete redistribution of land in some areas, and corrupt land hand-outs in others. Land activists like Saisari are now calling for Bolivian president Evo Morales and his MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] Party to carry out a second “agrarian revolution” through legislative reforms to the INRA Law. The proposed reforms focus on the effective distribution of unused land to landless farmers. On November 28, 2006, various landless farmer, campesino and worker organizations, including the MST, arrived in
MAS has supported the reforms, and even encouraged the country-wide march to the senate chambers to support the legislation, and perhaps to give MAS the excuse they needed to muscle the reforms through the opposition. Many historic marches to
After marching from around the country, the exhausted indigenous and campesino land activists converged in
The marchers exhibited a spirit of fun more than the anger and urgency which marked so many previous mobilizations around issues such as gas nationalization and an end to forced eradication of coca crops. At the Plaza Murillo, around 50 policeman dressed in riot gear guarded the Presidential Palace in two rows. They showed no intentions of attacking the crowd, and the crowd seemed to ignore them all together, knitting and preparing ceremonial coca offerings right in front of the police line.
However, there was a symbolic threat. Adolfo Chavez, the leader of an indigenous organization from
To Have and Have Not: The Bolivian Landless Movement
A bloody history of land occupation and unequal distribution led up that night’s passage of the reforms. On April 20, 2000, hundreds of Bolivian landless families peacefully took over land in Pananti, an area in Tarija, and began a precarious new life. They pooled their labor to cultivate the land, which had been abandoned for eight years, and built their homes close together for protection from the thugs hired by local cattle ranchers who claimed the land was theirs. The residents devised shifts to keep watch on the community while others slept, worked in the fields, or gathered water from far-away sources. In early November, 2001, 60 armed men hired by local cattle ranchers attacked landless farmers in the Pananti settlement, burnt down their homes, and unleashed a barrage of gunfire which killed five men, one 13-year-old boy, and wounded 22 others. In response, landless farmers killed a leader of the attack.(4) Police arrested five landowners linked to the violence and nine landless farmers. Juana Ortega, who had given birth just three days beforehand, was one of those arrested. Ortega occupied the land for her children, “I decided to do it for them, for the land they will need to survive.”(5)
This violence reflects an ancient system of exploitation in which land is concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners while poor farmers are left to tenant farming slavery or starvation. The wealth of
Since then it has been uphill battle for most of
Seventy percent of the productive land in
Various areas of indigenous land were not officially recognized until lowland indigenous people from
Protests and violent confrontations continued across the country over this valuable resource, forcing the government to take action in 1996 with the passage of the INRA Law. The law included a plan to grant collective titles to indigenous communities, resolve conflicts, and distribute state owned, unused, or illegally obtained land to landless farmers. However, as an investigation by the Andean Information Network reports, successive governments failed to enact this legislature due to vague definitions of unproductive land and standards for determining the legality of land holdings. During the nine years following the passage of the law, land titles were certified on only 18 percent of the targeted areas. Corruption and lack of initiative to fully implement the law resulted in few victories for Bolivia’s landless.(14)
Another aspect of the INRA Law that angered small farmers was a change in the article of the land law, established in the Agrarian Reform of 1953, which said that “The land belongs to those who work it”â€”meaning that the land had to be used productively or else the state can take the rights to it. Under INRA, landowners were allowed to keep their unused land as long as they paid a one percent property tax on the entire value of the land. Yet it was up to the landowners themselves to establish that value, leaving loopholes for corruption.(15)
In the face of such inequality, landless farmers have organized to take unused land regardless of official sanction. On June 14, 2000, a march of farmers demanding land arrived in the town of
The land in Timboy Tiguazu, a humid area 65 kilometers outside of Yacuiba, in the department of Tarija, was totally abandoned and unused when 13 landless families occupied it in 2000. After the takeover, men prepared the land for cultivation and women looked for the best places for homes. Though the poor quality of roads made the zone nearly inaccessible, it had plenty of water sources and good land for farming. In the beginning, family members took turns working for large landowners outside their area and in cities and towns to buy supplies for the new community. They divided work duties and organized shifts to protect themselves from thugs hired by local landowners. By 2001, a total of 40 families lived there, many of them producing surplus vegetables to sell in local markets.(17)
In the wake of such success, landless farmers occupied land elsewhere, primarily in
Various land distribution advances have been made under the MAS administration. Outside the city of
The land reforms passed on November 28, 2006 are expected to help thousands of poor Bolivian families as well as fuel the growing fire among the country’s elite, which will be deeply affected by the redistribution of this natural resource. The passage of the reforms also marks an interesting moment in the brief history of the Morales administration. When MAS lacked support from opposition parties to pass the controversial changes to the land legislation, they worked to mobilize social organizations from around the country to provide the backing and, in many ways, the grassroots mandate Morales will need to continue confronting the Bolivian right. However, it remains to be seen how effectively these land reforms will be enacted.
Saisari of the MST believes the MAS government provides a window of opportunity that should be utilized by the country’s social movements. His organization has access to the government, and offers advice and proposals to the administration in ways that never existed with previous governments. “We feel listened to,” he said, explaining that it was important to support government policies that benefited the MST, and offer criticism and advice when necessary. “Our democracy depends on us as social movements,” he asserted with a smile.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007. Email Ben(at)upsidedownworld.org
1. Raquel BalcÃ¡zar, RepressiÃ³n Fascista en
2. From author interview with Silvestre Saisari in September, 2006.
3. For more information on the passage of these changes to the INRA Law, and the likely implications of the reforms, see the “Bolivian Congress Passes Agrarian Reform Legislation in Spite of Heightened Regional Tensions,” Andean Information Network (December 1, 2006). For more information on the INRA Law and land issues in
4. Omar Mendoza C., Zedin Manzur M., David Cortez F. and Aldo Salazar C., La Lucha por la tierra en el Gran Chaco tarijeÃ±o (
5. Peter Lowe, “Bolivian Landless Give Birth to a Movement,”
6. “In a recent study of land distribution in developing countries, four countries in the region topped the list. They had the highest land distribution Gini Coefficients in the world. Eleven of the top 16 countries in the same list came from
country was in the group of low or even medium inequality. . . The FAO estimated that around 1970 the biggest 7 percent of land holdings in the region (those above 100 hectares) owned 77 percent of the land.” Samuel A. Morley, “Distribution and Growth in
7. Rafael Reyeros, El pongueaje: La servidumbre personal de los indios bolivianos (La Paz: Universo, 1949)., Also see Duncan Green, Faces of Latin America (London: Latin America Bureau, 1997), 25, 33.
9. Green, Faces of
10. This land distribution statistic for Bolivia is provided by the ComisiÃ³n Especial de Asuntos IndÃgenas y Pueblos Originarios, cited in “Los peces gordos de la tierra: Familias Latifundistas,” El Juguete Rabioso (November 27, 2006), 8.
11. John Crabtree, Perfiles de la Protesta: PolÃtica y movimientos sociales en
13. For more information, see Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, Impasse in
15. Information from author interview with journalist and Bolivian Landless Movement researcher Wes Enzinna.
17. Ibid., 89â€“95.
18. Crabtree, Perfiles de la Protesta, 38â€“39.
19. “Landless Step up Occupations,” Americas.org (March 18, 2006).
20. Raquel BalcÃ¡zar, AutonomÃa Para Los Ricos, RevoluciÃ³n Para Los Pobres, (