NYT Article Raises Anxiety and Spreads Misinformation on Land Reform

The article paints a poignant picture of Mennonite colonies in Bolivia (it even compares one colony to “a tropical version of Ohio or Pennsylvania”) in an effort to appeal to American readers. This questionable comparison is far from the only skewed information.   The article rightly asserts that farmers without legal title to their land could face penalties orexpropriation.  After all, assuring that landowners have a legal right to
their land is what agrarian reform legislation is all about.

Here are a series of inaccurate and suggestive quotes with comments:

1. One farmer quoted suggests that the Morales administration’s agrarian reform could facilitate land takeovers.


In the past, land takeovers in Bolivia have been the result of previousadministrations’ unwillingness to enforce land tenure laws or meaning fully deal with the landless issue.  The Supreme Decree passed by the Morales government forbids spontaneous land takeovers, and authorizes the governmentto use security forces to evict squatters. Unfortunately in June 2006 the armed forces shot and killed one squatter, Santiago Orocondo, during aforced eviction outside Oruro.


2. The article states that most Mennonite farms are limited to 100 acres, or 40.45 hectares.


According to the Morales government the reform will concentrate on large land holdings of over 40 hectares — hundred acre farms will hardly be the focus ofthe programs.


3. The article mentions the 1953 land reform.


But the author fails to mention the 1996 law which provides the basis for the newlegislation — in fact, the new law simply updates and modifies some articlesof the older law, passed by the first Sánchez de Lozada Administration thatspearheaded neoliberal legislation.


4. The article gives the impression that the new law works againstlarge-scale agriculture, one farmer quips, ““Expropriations would bedisastrous for a government that refuses to understand that some farming has
to take place for profit in a capitalist system.”

In truth the new law, mirroring previous legislation, stipulates that landmust be given a “social-economic” use to avoid expropriation- which includescommercial agriculture.


5. Another farmer states that he is afraid that Mennonites will beexpelled from Bolivia.


 There have been no legal initiatives on the part of the Moralesadministration to do so, and the legislation does not cite expulsion as aconsequence for noncompliance.


6. The journalist seems to want to force the idea that the reformprogram penalizes private, individual landholding:  “The main thrust of theproposal would require its beneficiaries, though not the current landowners,to own land on a communal instead of individual basis.”


The legislation states that expropriated land will go to benefit indigenouscommunities, which have historically held land communally,  with a proven need for increased territory – not force other farmers into communal living arrangements.   The intention of this  stipulation preserves these communities’ right to communal landholding, and to guarantee that landwill not be doled out indiscriminately to individuals, as in previous administrations.


Some letters to the editor are badly needed.


Happy Holidays!

"Bolivian Reforms Raise Anxiety on Mennonite Frontier"


Published: December 21, 2006

MANITOBA, Bolivia, Dec. 19 — With its horse-drawn buggies, farmhouses with
manicured lawns and fields planted to the horizon with soybeans and sorghum,
this Mennonite settlement in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands feels like a
tropical version of rural Ohio or Pennsylvania.


The New York Times


That placid impression lasts until farmers here start talking about their
fears of President Evo Morales’s plans for land reform.


One year into an administration that intends to reverse centuries of
subjugation of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, Mr. Morales has plans to
redistribute as many as 48 million acres of land, considered idle or ill
gotten through opaque purchase agreements, to hundreds of thousands of


The project won approval last month in Congress, and thousands of Mr.
Morales’s supporters marched in La Paz, the capital, in celebration. But it
has shaken Manitoba and Bolivia’s 41 other Mennonite farming communities.


“I read El Deber — I know what’s taking place in this country,” said Gerardo
Martens, 22, referring to the leading newspaper in Santa Cruz, the
provincial capital 100 miles southwest of here, a long trip on dirt and
asphalt roads for adherents to a faith that prohibits driving automobiles.
“We simply want to know what will happen to us and our land.”


Mennonites have been carving new settlements out of the thick jungle of
eastern Bolivia for more than 40 years, helping to create an agricultural
frontier. Multinational companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland
rely on their soybean and sunflower harvests to produce cooking oils and
animal feed. These exports have transformed Bolivia’s 40,000 Mennonites into
a bloc of relatively prosperous landowners.


The country’s German-speaking Mennonites trace their origins to the 16th
century, with their name and Anabaptist beliefs derived from a Dutch
Protestant reformist, Menno Simons. They migrated earlier to Russia, the
United States, Canada, Belize and Mexico, and then some came here, for the
farming opportunities and religious freedom. Names of the communities here,
including Alberta, Belice and Campo Chihuahua, are testament to this past.


While the degree of observance of Mennonite customs varies in each of these
colonies, as they call them, the 2,500 people in Manitoba stitch their own
clothing. They also eschew electricity for their homes and rubber tires for
their tractors. Their only schooling is the study of the Scripture and other
subjects in German until the age of 12. They continue making yellow corn
tortillas, which some residents came to love while living in the northern
Mexican state of Chihuahua.


Families in Manitoba and other Mennonite communities tend to be large, often
with 6 to 12 children. With family farms generally limited to about 100
acres, population growth inevitably pushes families to search for new land
to settle.


This practice, often in areas where land titles are of murky provenance, is
the main source of the Mennonites’ concern about the government’s plans.
Farmers in Manitoba and nearby Chihuahua shuddered when speaking of the
situation in El Cariño, a community more than six hours to the north where
squatters have tried to occupy land owned by Mennonite farmers.


“We’re fine because the title to our land is clear,” said Franz Schmidt, an
attendant at the bustling general store in Chihuahua. “But those people on
the margins are the ones we’re worrying about.”


The Mennonites in Bolivia are citizens, but they generally avoid any
involvement in politics, preferring to farm and practice their faith far
from the prying eyes of outsiders. Mr. Martens, the farmer, guided a rare
visitor around Manitoba in his buggy on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon when
the temperature reached 95 degrees. He said he had gone only once to La Paz.


“We try not to say anything negative about the decisions made at the
presidential palace,” Mr. Martens said haltingly in German-accented Spanish.
“We’re afraid of being expelled from Bolivia.”


The Mennonites are not the only ones worried about the land bill. Hundreds
of foreign farmers, mainly from neighboring Brazil, have started
industrial-scale soybean farming on huge tracts of land in this region. A
potential requirement to review land titles every two years is already
restricting access to financing for costly farm equipment and fertilizers,
these farmers say.


“Expropriations would be disastrous for a government that refuses to
understand that some farming has to take place for profit in a capitalist
system,” said Jocélio Edegar Rodríguez da Silva, 29, a Brazilian who manages
a large soybean farm bordering Manitoba for investors from southern Brazil.


While details of Mr. Morales’s land program remain somewhat vague and
subject to changes in an assembly convened to rewrite Bolivia’s
Constitution, the main thrust of the proposal would require its
beneficiaries, though not the current landowners, to own land on a communal
instead of individual basis. In communities like Manitoba, farms are owned
by single families.


A previous government tried agrarian reform in 1953, though subsequent
lethargy and corruption in the distribution of land grants effectively
concentrated nearly 90 percent of Bolivia’s arable land among its wealthiest
10 percent of families.


With no television or Internet access in Manitoba, news of developments in
the capital often reaches the farmers through word of mouth. Sometimes they
stop to chat at the general store operated by Abraham Martens, where buggies
line up outside on a dirt parking lot.

Looking somewhat astonished when asked what the future held, one farmer,
Abraham Wall, started out by describing the odyssey that brought him here.
Describing himself as “mexicano,” he explained that he was born in northern
Mexico and brought to Bolivia at age 2 by his parents. He moved from
settlement to settlement before arriving in Manitoba in 1993.

“Whether we stay in this spot,” said Mr. Wall, 40, as he was surrounded by
six of his eight children, “that depends on Evo Morales.”