Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative

 · The United States and European governments, as well as international agencies should support agrarian reform in Bolivia, as they have done in the past.  Bolivia should not be forced to turn only to Venezuela for support of a reform process that is critical to future economic and social stability.[i]

Morales Promises Land for the Poor

On May 2 of this year in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, announced his government’s plans for agrarian reform to benefit thousands of indigenous people.[ii] Morales presented land titles for 3 million hectares to 60 indigenous communities and groups and promised that Bolivia’s 2.5 million rural poor would receive title to 20 million additional hectares over the next 5 years. This would constitute about 13% of Bolivia’s land being given to about 28% of its people.[iii] About one third of the land to be redistributed was already owned by the state, while another two-thirds would be reclaimed from individuals or companies holding large amounts of land in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands with no legal title or illegally obtained titles.  The government assured landowners that property legally obtained and used productively would not be affected.  The administration also stated that it would not permit land invasions and squatting settlements.  During the past ten years landless farmers and others, frustrated by the lack of government implementation of agrarian reform, increasingly moved into unoccupied lands in rural and outlying urban areas throughout the country.   Bolivia’s large national parks and forest reserves would also continue to be protected. 

The Morales government’s plans are based on principles laid down in Bolivia’s agrarian reform law of 1996, passed under the first Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada administration (1993-1997).[iv] New legislation attempts to implement existing laws effectively, by prioritizing and accelerating land titling with transparent procedures,[v] making this process more accessible for small farming and indigenous families,[vi] and establishing professional criteria for employees to carry out this process.[vii]  

Need for Agrarian Reform  

Ineffectiveness of previous agrarian reform is one of the reasons that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and has one of the most unequal distributions of land on the continent. Of the estimated 110 million hectares (1 hectare is 2.47 acres) of potentially productive land, the government estimates that 70% of this in the hands of 400 individuals who claim over 100.000 hectares each, under various ownership guises. Another 25% of the productive land is in the hands of mid to large sized agricultural producers, while only 5% of agricultural lands are in the hands of poor and mostly indigenous rural inhabitants.[viii] 

There is widespread consensus in Bolivia on the continued need for agrarian reform. After Evo Morales’ announcement of his new initiative, both the PODEMOS alliance of Jorge Quiroga and the MNR party of former President Sanchez de Lozada expressed support for the principle of distributing land to the landless. Ruben Costas, the opposition prefect of Santa Cruz and the major proponent of regional autonomy, has also announced his own land reform plan, which would rely on the largesse of large landowners to donate land to be given to the poor.[ix]  

Agrarian Reform Precedents in Bolivia 

For Bolivians, Morales’s agrarian reform policy was not something new; instead it was the announcement of the intention to make good on the failed promises of previous administrations, especially the land reform initiative of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 1996. Morales’ announcement was reminiscent of Bolivia’s first agrarian reform proclaimed before a crowd of thousands of indigenous farmers on August 2, 1953, by then President Victor Paz Estensorro (1952-1956).[x] This was the same year that Bolivia’s indigenous majority and Bolivian women received the right to vote. Thus the agrarian reform principle "the land belongs to those who work it" was part and parcel of Bolivia’s first experience of genuine democracy.   

 While the agrarian reform initiated in 1953 awarded land to highland indigenous people and freed them from the virtual slavery of the hacienda system, it also sought to open up eastern Bolivia’s vast forests for development. It was here that subsequent governments manipulated the principles of the reform.  While the agrarian reform stated that large, unproductive landholdings would be reclaimed in favor of distributing them to the landless, it also guaranteed protection for large-scale productive agricultural enterprise. Though the landless poor did establish settlements in the lowlands, the Agrarian Reform Council distributed far greater amounts of land to the politically well-connected and awarded large amounts of land to foreign settlers.  The greatest corruption occurred during the military dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), who handed thousands of hectares to nearly a thousand of his friends and supporters. Many of these grantees never bothered to even survey their new properties, but simply used them as collateral to obtain loans for other purposes.   

Corruption and mismanagement abounded in the Agrarian Reform Council and in the system of land title registries, both during and after the period of military dictatorships.  The same plots of land were awarded to different parties, overlapping titles were registered without conflicts being discovered, and a great deal of land was bought and sold speculatively with improper or counterfeit documents.  President Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) suspended the Agrarian Reform Council in 1992 after denunciations that his Minister of Education, Hedim Cespedes, had used his position in government to obtain a grant of 100,000 hectares near the Brazilian border.[xi] 

Another crucial event was the 1990 long distance protest march of lowland indigenous peoples demanding legal recognition of their territories in the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni.  These peoples had not benefited from the agrarian reform system established in 1953 and the increasing deforestation for logging, cattle ranching, soybean farming, and land speculation threatened to erase the territories indigenous lowland peoples had traditionally occupied.  The indigenous marchers gained a remarkable degree of public support and President Paz Zamora issued the first decrees recognizing indigenous territories, even though many land conflicts within these territories remained unresolved.  

When the first government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993-1997) came to power, the need to resolve land conflicts and resume the land titling and agrarian reform processes remained a top political issue. The government was slow to move forward, but after several waves of rural protest, the 1996 National Agrarian Reform Service Law was passed.[xii]   

The 1996 law set up a system of collective land titles for indigenous territories and indigenous communities.  It also set up new procedures for resolving land conflicts caused by the corrupt Agrarian Reform Council, continuing the agrarian reform through the distribution of state lands to the landless, and reclaiming unproductive or illegally obtained landholdings. Prior to the election of Morales, successive governments lacked the political will to implement the law, leading to frustration from unmet expectations and increasing land conflicts in rural Bolivia.

Corruption and Cronies Impede Land Reform 

One basic problem was the failure to adequately define productive use of land. The 1996 law allowed unproductive land to be reclaimed by the state, but the only clear criteria given was the failure to pay property taxes. The wealthy elite rendered this criterion meaningless by enacting tax regulations that set extremely low property taxes.[xiii]  Morales’s land reform bill would eliminate this loophole.[xiv]  The other enormous problem was the failure to move forward at a reasonable pace with the process of surveying conflicted areas and determining the legality of land holdings.  The Sanchez de Lozada and Banzer/Quiroga (1997-2002) governments wasted approximately 100 million dollars in international aid plus an around 35 million dollars from the national treasury that was supposed to be used to resolve land title conflicts.[xv]  

Inexperienced political cronies, appointed to posts requiring technical expertise, only certified land titles on 18% of the land targeted for the surveying and conflict resolution program during nine years.[xvi] This systematic corruption made it too time-consuming and costly for the poor to pursue their land claims. The governments simply failed to move forward with the process of surveying indigenous territories and expelling illegal landholders, even though the boundaries of indigenous territories had been defined by previous presidential decrees. For poor rural Bolivians, these failures were among several burning issues that contributed to the toppling of the Sanchez de Lozada government by social protest in late 2003.  When indigenous leader Evo Morales won a landslide victory in December 2005, land issues were second only to the recovery of profits from Bolivia’s natural gas reserves at the top of his political agenda. 

Long Term Land Conflicts in Eastern Departments  

The US press has characterized opposition from "farmers" to MAS’s land reform program.  Instead, the agrarian reform initiative’s primary opponents come from the wealthy, eastern large-landholding elite, many with questionable claims to their holdings.  They hardly resemble the typical Bolivian farmer, who holds very little or no land, and who generally supports Morales administration reforms. These elite landowners have much to lose if the historical promises of this reform come to fruition.   

The autonomy movement in Santa Cruz is one of the biggest challenges facing the Morales government. Autonomy for the country’s wealthiest department could keep most of the petroleum, mineral, and land resources under the control of the lowland region’s wealthy political elite. There have been sporadic, recurring conflicts over land tenure in this and other eastern departments as a result of previous administrations’ lack of enforcement of agrarian reform laws.  In the absence of state regulation, some wealthy landowners have hired guards to forcibly evict families settling on their land.  

The reaction to Morales’ land reform initiative by wealthy landholders in Santa Cruz and other eastern departments has been extremely negative. The Eastern Agricultural Chamber announced the formation of armed defense committees to defend their land against the reform and the landless peasant movement known as the MST (Movimiento Sin Tierra), founded in 2000.[xvii]  The mayor of one Santa Cruz rural area with protracted land tenure conflicts, Guarayos, enthusiastically supports the armed defense committees. He announced that they are prepared "to spill blood with each eviction of [what they consider] illegal occupants of land."[xviii] Landholding elites soon followed through with their threats.  In Guarayos, MST squatters occupied part of the under-utilized property of Luis del Rio, long-time President of the COTAS telephone company. Del Rio has also been a leader in an elitist secret society, the Caballeros del Oriente, which has long controlled positions of power in Santa Cruz. The Caballeros del Oriente promote the ideology that the European and native lowland mixture in Santa Cruz has produced a population that is superior to indigenous and racially mixed highlanders.[xix] The first week in June, Del Rio responded to the occupation of his land claim by hiring a group of indigenous Ayoreo men, victims of earlier land displacement, to drive off the squatters, resulting in two violent confrontations and numerous injuries.[xx]  

Land tenure conflicts also occur in the rest of the nation, especially spontaneous settlements and land takeovers.  Conflicts are expected to continue during attempts to implement the new government policy.  For example, in compliance with stated government policy, the Morales administration ordered security forces to evict squatters in four different settlements outside the highland city of Oruro on June 9.  Security forces are suspected to have shot and killed one man and wounded at least six others, highlighting the need for more stringent human rights controls.[xxi] 

The implementation of an effective land reform initiative could be plagued with conflict and impediments. Yet, it is crucial to seek peaceful and enduring solutions and government guarantees for legal redistribution. While threats of violence are not unusual in land disputes, compromise and peaceful resolution have been more common than violence. In appointing Hugo Salvatierra as Rural Development Minister, Morales has shown the political will to carry out the agrarian reform by choosing this tough negotiator with years of experience of working with indigenous organizations. A native of Santa Cruz, Salvatierra is has a strong record of commitment to land reform favorable to indigenous peoples and the poor.  Other appointees within the ministry are also committed and more capable than those of previous administrations.  


International support for land reform efforts can help guarantee equitable and successful initiatives to improve the economic situation of many of Bolivia’s poor and peacefully resolve longstanding historical conflicts.  More than $100 million of international aid will be needed to carryout an agrarian reform process that is demonstrably fair, while meeting the needs of indigenous peoples and the rural landless.  

· The United States and European governments, as well as international agencies, should support agrarian reform in Bolivia, as they have done in the past.  Bolivia should not be forced to turn only to Venezuela for support of a reform process which is critical to future economic and social stability.[xxii] 

Douglas Hertzler is an anthropologist who has worked periodically in the Bolivian lowland region of Santa Cruz since 1988. He is a member of the Andean Information Network Board of Directors.

 Andean Information Network Director Kathryn Ledebur and AIN research assistant Wes Enzinna also contributed to this report.


[i]"Venezuela prestará 100 millones de dólares a Bolivia para repartir tierras." El Deber, 19 May 2006.

 [ii] Morales is a peasant union leader of Aymara descent and the founder of the MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo). As candidate for the MAS, he was the first president to win an absolute majority in a Bolivian Presidential election since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982.

 [iii] Monte Reel "Bolivia Plans to Redistribute Idle Farmland." Washington Post Foreign Service,  18 May 2006; A20

 [iv] Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario, was chosen as president twice at the head of coalition governments formed in 1993 and 2002.

 [v] Decreto Supremo 28736. República de Bolivia, 2 June 2006.

 [vi] Decreto Supremo 28734. República de Bolivia, 2 June 2006.

 [vii] Decreto Supremo 28737. República de Bolivia, 2 June 2006.

[viii]According to the Santa Cruz Nacional Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA), at least  20 million hectares of land is owned by approximately 3,500 people. "Propuesta para acabar con ‘latifundio ocioso’ encuentra apoyo político."  El Diario, 22 May 2006.

 [ix] "Costas Plantea desconcentrar el INRA y crear un Banco de Tierras," La Prensa, 24 May 2006.

 [x] Paz Estensorro was the founder of the Movimiento Revolucionario Nacional (MNR) party.

 [xi]Paz Zamora of the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR) party was President during the center-right Patriotic Accord coalition government that he formed with his former political enemy General Hugo Banzer.

 [xii] The Sanchez de Lozada government was dominated by his MNR party, but included some center-left coalition partners such as the Movimiento Bolivia Libre (MBL) which pushed for the agrarian reform law and a process to resolve the question of indigenous territories.

 [xiii]  Ley No. 1715, INRA, Análisis de, Manuel Morales Davila, La Paz: UPS, 2005, p. 59

 [xiv]  "Función Económica Social," La Prensa,  17 May 2006, p.6

 [xv] This refers to both of the Sanchez de Lozada governments of 1993 and 2002, and the 1997 coalition government in between that was headed by former dictator Hugo Banzer of the right wing Acción Democratica Nacional party. After his death from cancer, Banzer was succeeded by Vice-President Jorge Quiroga, who is now the leader of the opposition PODEMOS coalition.

 [xvi] ABI: Distribución – Tierra, ABI C3038 20:45:22 05-06-2006, 1-N

[xvii]"Agro del oriente crea Comités de Defensa y amenaza con violencia." Los Tiempos, 31 May 2006.

 [xviii]  Ibid.

 [xix] Ferreira, Reymi.  "Las Logias en Santa Cruz." Santa Cruz: Fondo de Ediciones Municipales, 1994.

 [xx] "Ayoreos y los Sin Tierra Enfrentan a Balazos." El Deber, 8 June 2006.

 [xxi]"Excessive Use of Force in Pampa Ajata and the Death of Santiago Orocondo."  Andean Information Network, 22 June 2006.

 [xxii]"Venezuela prestará 100 millones de dólares a Bolivia para repartir tierras." El Deber, 19 May 2006.