The United States Should Support Land Reform in Bolivia

For over fifty years international development experts have advocated land reform, small farm development, environmental sustainability, and food security. Land reform has also been promoted as the key to democratization and liberation of peoples trapped in systems of entrenched racial and ethnic inequality. As Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a recent column, United States-supported land reform led to democracy and development in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.1 

On the other hand, failure to carry out land reform in Latin America and the Caribbean has historically strengthened rural elites and weakened the development of democratic institutions and rural economies.  During the 1980s and early1990s international attention to land reform diminished, but in recent years land reform has once again become a top agenda item for many governments and international institutions including the World Bank.2 

The History of Land Reform in Bolivia

Bolivia’s land reform of 1953 played an essential role in the liberation of Andean indigenous peoples from de facto slavery on large estates. However, beginning with the dictatorship of General Banzer in the 1970s, successive governments engaged in a counter-agrarian reform by giving out large amounts of tropical forest land to urban based political elite. The state also failed to adequately manage land records and often gave out overlapping plots of land to different grantees.  The World Bank now estimates that 90% of the agricultural land in Bolivia is controlled by 10% of the landholders.3

In 1996, the majority coalition in the Bolivian parliament passed a new law that provided for the surveying of land to resolve conflicting claims, while renewing the distribution of land to indigenous communities.  However, the executive branch of government under Presidents Sanchez de Lozada, Banzer and Quiroga lacked the political will to carry this land reform forward or to address the issue of corrupt land grants to the political elite.  The “Agrarian Revolution” announced by the Morales government in 2006 only slightly modified the 1996 law to expedite a necessary process previously stalled by political corruption.

Reform Under the Current Government

Since 2006, the Morales government has surveyed and cleaned up the records (a process known as saneamiento) for 45 million acres of land at a cost of 21 million dollars, compared to the 85 million dollars spent by the previous governments (1996-2006) while only managing to survey 22 million acres. Over the next five years the government plans to survey and review records on an additional 136 million acres of land across the country.4  

Through the survey process the Morales administration has thus far identified 19 million acres of untitled state land, half of which is designated for future distribution to indigenous peoples while the other half will be retained by the state as park land or forestry concessions.5   Additionally, the Morales government has provided land titles for 22 million acres to indigenous communities and small farmers, while granting land titles for 2 million acres to large agricultural enterprises.  

This land-titling in most cases represented the resolution of disputed claims, rather than expropriation. Bolivian law only allows land to be reclaimed by the state and redistributed if it was obtained by fraud or if it is being held speculatively rather than being used for a social or economic purpose. There was much fanfare over the redistribution of 40,000 acres of unfarmed land taken from a speculator and given to the Landless Movement for the Pueblos Unidos settlement in Santa Cruz in 2006.6   But so far the government has proceeded very cautiously with reclaiming land for redistribution.

Violent Resistance by Large Landholders

In a few cases, large landholders have violently resisted land surveying. In the Alto Parapetí region of Santa Cruz a commission of the Organization of American States found that indigenous Guarani people remain in quasi-slavery as unpaid laborers because of landowner violence towards agrarian reform officials going back to 1953.7  During the past year violent resistance to land survey teams was led by U.S. citizens Ronald and Duston Larsen, the largest landowners in Alto Parapetí.  According to the Bolivian government the Larsen family has control of 141,000 acres in the state of Santa Cruz, a land area more than 3 times larger than the city of Washington, DC. Larsen initially admitted to the press that he fired at the vehicle of the Bolivian Vice-Minister for Land, but he later denied it, stating “If I had been shooting at people that day, there would have been dead and injured."8

In August of 2008, youth gangs allied with Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas engaged in violent protests that included attacking indigenous organizations and sacking a land reform office.  However, the violence abated after strong statements of support for the Morales government by other Latin American heads of state.  Since then, land reform surveying has moved forward on the Larsen ranch and other properties in Alto Parapetí, but the government has not yet ruled on the legality of the large landholdings in the region.

Constitutional Compromise

While the government has used strong rhetoric against large landholders, in practice it has proceeded slowly and has made significant concessions to the political opposition.  In the process of writing the new constitution, delegates were split between the government’s proposal for a private land ownership limit of 25,000 acres and a 12,500 acre limit proposed by indigenous organizations. Both limits are generous and well above the size of most large farms in the United States. The government and conservative parliamentary opposition later reached an agreement to allow the new constitution and the land limit question to go to national referendum on January 25. In a compromise that disappointed indigenous groups, the government stipulated that it would campaign for the higher limit, and that the new limit would not be retroactively applied to productive properties.

Future conflicts over land reform will likely focus on large underproductive cattle ranches which do not meet the current legal criteria for serving an economic and social purpose.  The demand for land by poor rural workers and tenant farmers is very high and there is danger of additional social instability if the government fails to redistribute land to satisfy these demands.

Farming Communities versus Large Industrial Farms

The key means of addressing Bolivia’s poverty and promoting food security is supporting rural communities consisting of highly productive small farms. Large farms with monocultures are more susceptible to outbreaks of disease and variations in rainfall than small farms with multiple crops. Due to transportation difficulties, large soy farms in Bolivia require costly diesel fuel subsidies to compete with exports of other countries, and these mechanized farms produce few jobs.

With adequate access to appropriate technology and markets, small farms have the potential for high levels of productivity that rely more on human labor and less on petroleum energy. Thus they create more rural jobs that contribute to the health of communities.

Family farmers develop a more intimate knowledge of their farm and can adapt more easily to variations in the micro environment, changes in soil type and topography through a diversity of crops and animal husbandry.  They can produce a variety of crops for both domestic food security and specialty exports, allowing agriculture to be less susceptible to crop disaster or market fluctuations.

Bolivia has a relatively low overall population density, but nonetheless suffers from high rural to urban migration and high urban unemployment. A well-developed system of many smaller farms can support thriving rural communities with rural education and health systems that can make provincial living more attractive and reduce pressure on the cities. Highly productive small-scale agriculture and forestry provide sustenance for indigenous communities who struggle to maintain the distinctive identities which provide for Bolivia’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

The development of highly productive small-scale rural agriculture requires a sophisticated system of relationships between researchers and farmers, with technical assistance in the development of production techniques and markets.


The U.S. government should provide aid to the Bolivian government to strengthen its capacity to conduct rural development. This aid should be aimed at strengthening bilateral relations and building the capacity and independence of the Bolivian government and should be provided without pre-conditions.  

The U.S. government should publicly support the Bolivian state efforts to undertake land reform programs to sustain large numbers of indigenous farmers and their communities.

The U. S. should join the international community in condemning recent attacks against indigenous peoples, land reform officials and destruction of infrastructure committed by groups connected to opposition prefects and regional elites.


Doug Hertzler an anthropologist who has lived, worked, and conducted research in Santa Cruz Bolivia intermittently since 1988. He is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at Eastern Mennonite University and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andean Information Network. He can be reached at

1 Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, Sept 29, 2008
2 The World Bank’s approach to market based agrarian reform is seen as inadequate by many experts, see Rosset et al. Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, Food First Books, 2006. But some see the Bank as moving in a positive direction: Urioste, El BM promovió los monocultivos en Bolivia durante 15 años.  
3 Bolivia – Quick facts, World Bank 2008. Bolivian government sources have cited statistics indicating higher concentration, but solid numbers will not be available until the government’s land survey process is complete in five years or more.
4 Gobierno prevé concluir saneamiento de tierras en próximos cinco años, ABI, La Paz, Dec 29, 2008
5 INRA saneó en tres años 18.3 millones de Has. de tierras con $us21 millones, ABI, La Paz, Dec. 13, 2008
6 Humble beginnings for Evo Morales' sweeping land reform in Bolivia, AP Jan. 13, 2007
7 Press release 26/08 IACHR Concludes Visit to Bolivia