Category Archives: Land

Distortion on the Andes: Right-wing foreign policy advocates showcase non-representative Indigenous “leaders” from Bolivia

In 2011, the newly elected House of Representatives will likely move U.S. foreign policy in Latin America toward intervention. Right-wing politicians in the U.S. maintain close ties with Latin American elite. In recent years, many of these opposition leaders have appealed to U.S. conservative interests in their region, expressing concern about their loss of power at the ballot box in countries such as Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

On November 17, the Americas Forum and the Hudson Institute[i] will sponsor an event in the Capitol Visitors Center entitled “Danger in the Andes,” presenting a slate of speakers on terrorism, radical Islam, drug trafficking and threats to democracy and human rights. Speakers include the new leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and John Walters, architects of Latin American foreign policy under Reagan and both Bush administrations. The organizers have also invited well-known critics of the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments, in addition to three Bolivian guests.

Problematic Panel

The most prominent of the Bolivia speakers is Luis Nuñez, president since 2009 of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, an organization of business and elite society in Bolivia’s lowland department of Santa Cruz. The organization is known for advocating regional autonomy and proposing secession from Bolivia’s majority indigenous Andean highlands.  Mr. Nuñez served as Vice President of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee from 2007-2008 and helped to instigate the violent attacks on government institutions and indigenous organizations in September 2008, which led the Bolivian government to expel U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg for allegedly supporting the autonomy movement.

Mr. Nuñez is closely linked to Victor Hugo Velasco Iporre, another invitee and head of a phantom organization, the National Confederation of Indigenous and Original Nations of Bolivia (CONNIOB). This organization has been promoted by Bolivian elites as an alternative to actual indigenous organizations. However, in reality CONNIOB lacks a grassroots base.[ii]

Unlike Mr. Velasco, the third Bolivian, invitee, Marcial Fabricano, had a long history as a leader within the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB). He played an important role in indigenous protests of the early 1990s, winning territorial rights for lowland indigenous peoples. Yet, Fabricano’s case is disturbing and complicated, and again fails to represent a wider Bolivian indigenous identity or cause. Fabricano’s own people, the Mojeños, have charged him with corruption dating back to the 1990s.[iii] Long before the election of Evo Morales, Fabricano lost legitimacy as an indigenous leader by forming an alliance with the right-wing government of the Beni department. In September 2008, in an indigenous community justice proceeding undertaken by his own people, Fabricano was sentenced to a public whipping. In April 2009, the community carried out the punishment, causing serious injuries to Fabricano.

The event caused considerable outcry and many leaders from across the political spectrum, including MAS officials, denounced the community justice sentence, citing the human rights guarantees against cruel punishment in the new Bolivian Constitution. Other leaders remained silent or defended the indigenous communities’ right to enact the punishment according to their own traditions. While capital punishment is clearly prohibited in the Bolivian Constitution, the limits of indigenous community justice in relation to written Bolivian law have not yet been defined.  The lowland indigenous leaders who most vigorously defended Fabricano’s whipping maintained an extremely tenuous alliance with the Morales government, which has since been broken.  Even though many Bolivians would likely agree that Marcial Fabricano’s lashing constituted a human rights violation, few would continue to view him as a legitimate representative of indigenous peoples.

The invitation of Javier El-Hage of the Human Rights Foundation, an organization connected to the Venezuelan right, is also disturbing. The Bolivian representative of the Human Rights Foundation has been linked to the European mercenaries in Santa Cruz led by Eduardo Rozsa.[iv] The Rozsa gang attempted to set up and train elite paramilitary organizations in coordination with the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. They also allegedly carried out the bombing of the house of Cardinal Julio Terrazas in an apparent effort to provoke right wing backlash against the government. Instead, the bombing prompted a controversial police action, killing three of the mercenaries. Given the subsequent investigation linking the Human Rights Foundation representative in Bolivia to the separatist mercenaries, it is troubling to see this organization included in a forum held in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Delicate Timing and Unfair Focus

Overall, the political legitimacy of the invited Bolivian speakers is dubious within their native country. Although everyone has a right to present their perspectives, the three Bolivian invitees should speak for themselves, but not the bulk of Bolivia’s indigenous people, especially during such a critical moment in Washington when the balance of U.S. foreign policy is likely to shift.

*Doug Hertzler is an anthropologist who serves on the board of the Andean Information Network. He has spent a total of over 6 years in Santa Cruz since 1988. His most recent research in Santa Cruz was during August 2009.

[i] The Hudson Institute played a key role in introducing Ahmad Chalabi’s ideas on invading Iraq.


[iii] Bolpress, “Azotaron a Marcial Fabricano por las fechorías que cometió.” May 15, 2009.

[iv] Witnesses in the Rozsa case claimed that Foundation’s former Bolivian representative, Hugo Achá, was key contact for mercenary group, who’s alleged “terrorist” activities remain under investigation.

El Mundo, “Testigo implica a importantes líderes de Santa Cruz en caso de terrorismo.”

Wright on Bolivian Lithium: Interesting, but Not Quite Right

It’s not the first time a respected, established journalist has presented a selective view of events in Bolivia.  In general, Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article “Lithium Dreams” covers a great deal of territory, but lacks objectivity and thorough research in some areas.

Some errors are simple and avoidable, such as misspelling Pablo Solón, Bolivian ambassador to the U.N.’s name, or confusing the timeline of key incidents.  Wright claims, “After President George W. Bush placed Bolivia and Venezuela on a blacklist, saying that neither country was doing enough to combat drug trafficking, Morales and Chavez expelled their respective ambassadors.”  Morales actually expelled Ambassador Goldberg and Chávez followed suit on September 11 four days before the U.S. “decertification” of Bolivia’s antinarcotics initiatives.  Both assertions could have been easily verified by fact-checkers.

Other inaccuracies stem from partial truths or unnecessary hyperbole, and tend to gloss over the complex dynamics at play in Bolivia.  For instance, Wright laments that Bolivia did not take advantage of silver production in the sixteenth and seventeenth century – without recognizing the inherent workings of the Spanish colonial system of extraction and exploitation.

The Uyuni town square in the sunshine in December, 2005. Features children playing by a small monument and a beautiful colonial-style building in the background.
Uyuni town square over four years ago. (Jialiang Gao. December 2005.)

Wright’s statement that “before Bolivia can hope to exploit a twenty-first century fuel, it must develop the rudiments of a twentieth-century economy” narrowly evaluates progress from the perspective of the most-developed nations, placing much of the world in this backward category.  He exaggerates to sustain his hypothesis by inaccurately demoting the largest town near the Salar, Uyuni, to “a mud-brick town perched on the perimeter of the salt flat.”  Although Uyuni is no metropolis, the majority of its buildings are not made from adobe.  Furthermore, although road infrastructure and other transit routes need improvement in many areas of Bolivia, there are several roads leading to Uyuni, not just the single-lane dirt road that Wright describes.

Misreading Morales’ “Obsession” and Bolivian Government Initiatives

It is true that the Morales administration has made little progress on lithium extraction and international contracts to exploit it, and it appears unlikely that this will change in the near future.  It remains unclear how this will impact the currently stable Bolivian economy in the long run.  Yet Wright oddly concludes that unless the Morales administration immediately cuts a deal with multinationals or rushes to extract and sell the lithium themselves, all hope is lost:

“[Morales’s] obsession with preventing the Salar from becoming another Cerro Rico may also keep it from ever becoming a source of Bolivian wealth. Until his regime can come to an agreement with a multinational corporation—or figure out on its own how the mine the treasure in the Salar de Uyuni at a competitive global price—its lithium will remain forever stuck in the brine, as will Morales’s dreams of Bolivian batteries and electric cars.”

Although a high level of international interest currently exists, Wright makes it seem like now is the only time to sell the metal.  He also implies President Morales will likely extend his tenure beyond his elected five-year term, describing his presidency as a “regime,” although Morales repeatedly asserts he will not seek reelection after his second term, in accordance with the Bolivian constitution.  Moreover, suggesting that the Salar is Morales’s “obsession” reveals that the author doesn’t understand how overambitious and overextended Morales and the MAS government are, in fact leaving little time for any single-minded focus.

Wright even refutes his own hypotheses.  He argues that Bolivia is a victim of the “resource curse,” stating that “Bolivia has its own chaotic political history, and a long tradition of failing to use its wealth to develop its infrastructure to provide decent training and education for its citizens.” Yet, several paragraphs later he adds that “the average teacher’s salary has risen by forty percent,” and “some of the money from gas revenues has gone to subsidize school lunches, to create a form of social security for the elderly, and to provide incentives for mothers to keep their children in school.” All of these government programs, initiated during Morales’ tenure, reflect an effort to invest resource income to benefit Bolivians.

Missing the Mark on Hydrocarbons

Wright provides a narrow, incomplete assessment of Bolivia’s natural gas industry and the “nationalization” of hydrocarbons:

“The [nationalization] approach, though popular with Morales’s base, is seen by many economists as shortsighted:  the foreign gas companies that developed the Bolivian natural-gas fields, after their discovery in 2000, have experienced dramatic declines in their profit margins, leaving in doubt their future investments in the country.”

There are many problems with this statement.  First, Wright suggests that the Morales administration’s nationalization initiative cut foreign investors profits.  In fact, the majority lost the bulk of their profits as a result of the Hydrocarbons Law implemented in 2005 during the administration of Carlos Mesa, a source quoted repeatedly in the article.  The “nationalization” process primarily consisted of the purchase of a majority of shares from Chaco and Transredes international consortiums and one refinery from Petrobras.  This was an incredibly costly process for Bolivia, but did not affect all international investment.

Of the remaining foreign investors in the Bolivian gas industry, only one, CHLB, reacted negatively to policy changes and is seeking international arbitration.  All others, including BG, Pluspetrol, Petrobras and Total, continue investing in Bolivia with no apparent plans to pull out.[i] Furthermore, although exploration revealed huge additional natural gas deposits in 2000, existing reserves were already being exploited, contrary to Wright’s assertion of their “discovery in 2000.”

Wright presents further half-truths.  He continues, “Bolivia’s neighbors, meanwhile, have turned to more reliable sources of natural gas.”  It is true that Brazil has begun to actively explore offshore options and has reduced the amount of gas purchased from Bolivia, yet in November 2009 the Brazilian ambassador to Bolivia confirmed that his country would continue to purchase 30 million cubic meters a day until 2019, as previously agreed, and stated that it was probable that the contract could be extended.[ii] Although Argentina discovered its own natural gas reserves, the nation plans to renew its existing contract to purchase Bolivian natural gas on March 26.  The new contract stipulates sales to Argentina of 5 million cubic cm per day for the next three years, gradually increasing to 27 cubic cm per day by 2017.[iii] Furthermore, Bolivia recently signed an agreement with Uruguay to buy natural gas, and Paraguay has also expressed interest.  Regional negotiations are about to begin to identify how to best transport gas throughout the region.

Admittedly, along with lower prices, natural gas production has failed to increase.  This delay, paired with flourishing contraband of subsidized gas canisters to neighboring Peru, has led to frequent internal shortages.  A lack of reinvestment in the industry has also dampened production potential.  Yet, Carlos Mesa’s statement cited in the article is inaccurate: “[T]he former Bolivian President, says that gas production has fallen to the point that the country is now importing it.”  In truth, Bolivia imports diesel and sometimes gasoline, but does not import natural gas.  Mesa continues, “’We produce less and less,’ he said, calling the situation a ‘disaster.’” Although restricted production provoked internal shortages, it did not cause significant economic problems.  In fact, according to Reuters in late 2009, “State revenue from the key natural gas sector boomed to $2.65 billion last year, from just over $1 billion in 2005, and revenue from the mining sector increased fourfold in the same period to $128.1 million.”

In spite of difficulties in the hydrocarbons sector, increased revenue and advantageous economic moves in other areas have put Bolivia on comparatively strong overall economic footing.  In January the IMF noted:

“Increased export volumes of gas and mining and the concurrent boom in commodities prices led to a 230 percent increase in export receipts between 2005 and 2008. […] The external and fiscal positions strengthened sharply during the boom years.

Larger export receipts, coupled with higher taxation of the hydrocarbon sector and moderate rates of increase in government spending, led to substantial external current account and fiscal surpluses. […] These surpluses contributed to the build-up of a comfortable reserves buffer, which—added to the debt relief obtained under Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI)—turned Bolivia into a net external creditor in 2008.”

However, if we accept Mesa’s claims of “disaster,” it is important to factor in recurring multiple problems related to the Morales administration’s resource management and extraction efforts. These issues include widespread corruption allegations, as well as problems with output and technical capacity in the national hydrocarbons company and the Mutún iron foundry.  In light of these very real challenges, an extremely slow, measured approach by the Bolivian government – whether by design or default – and not the rapid “now or never” action recommended by Wright appears to be the most prudent course.

Mystifying Morales

The middle section of the article, based on conversations with several Bolivian ex-advisors, breaks with the analytical focus of the rest of the piece, and Wright largely bases his assessment on a few sources who are not experts on resource management.  For example, he frequently cites Fernando Molina, claiming the journalist is “one of Bolivia’s best-known intellectuals,” when in fact he does not enjoy that reputation.  Molina presents some questionable analysis, such as oversimplifying and minimized the Aymara world view: “The Aymara see the world as a fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil, like in ‘Star Wars.’”

Wright also attempts to shed light on President Morales’ moral character, describing the leader after accompanying him on an official presidential trip.  Although the author often quotes Morales directly, the rest of his portrayal seems to imply that Morales is alternately quirky and paranoid.  He writes, “Morales, who is fifty, is a creature of his biography.”  Characterizations of an indigenous president merit extra diplomacy, and the following description of Morales’ formation as a leader can be interpreted as objectifying the president as an exotic rarity.

Furthermore, Wright asserts that Morales possesses a “mystical attachment to coca.”  Despite the traditional and spiritual significance of coca, Morales’ primary connection, like that of tens of thousands of Bolivian families, is a pragmatic reliance on the leaf as a source of economic subsistence.  Wright later criticizes Morales’ statement that “social control” to limit coca farming is “vague.” Perhaps this term was unfamiliar to the author, but it is specifically defined and implemented in the Chapare region, where Morales still leads coca growers’ unions.[iv]

Wright seems to use an unfair yardstick to criticize Morales in his presidential persona.  He describes how Morales imposes exaggerated security measures such as sending his luggage on separate flights, and would rather call his own doctor during international travel or use a common Bolivian home remedy for an earache – implying Morales does not trust U.S. doctors.   Comparatively, Barack Obama’s security is a great deal more elaborate, and it is not at all rare for presidents to consult their own physicians while out of the country.

He also claims that Morales “fired” ex-Justice Minister and indigenous union leader Casimira Rodriguez because “She didn’t seem to be learning anything.”  Although Wright is quoting Morales’ former campaign advisor in this instance, he offers no further information to put this comment into perspective.  Rodriguez’s removal from the post did not reflect a lack of ability on her part; she left office at the same time that about a third of the cabinet turned over.  The author does not seem to understand that MAS views these ministerial posts as rotating appointments to be shared by different key constituencies.  Whether or not you agree with this political strategy, the reality fails to support Wright’s hypothesis that Morales’ “nontraditional appointments” demonstrate poor judgment.


If Wright had accurately assessed the numerous impediments Bolivia faces in its attempt to extract lithium and negotiate international contracts, his article could have made a significant impact.  There are no guarantees that lithium exploitation in Bolivia will be successful, but the author oversteps his bounds and overshadows his more salient points by dramatizing the issue and creating a false sense of economic crisis and urgency for lithium exploitation.

Wright’s historical segments on the demand for lithium seem even-toned and balanced. In contrast, the information about Bolivia is dramatic, incomplete and misleading.  Wright’s tone reflects a common problem with outside reporting on Bolivia: journalists often lack the information and input they need to contextualize their hypotheses and affirmations.  In the absence of a solid frame of reference, they tend to exaggerate existing ironies or trivialize the nation’s political dynamics.  Furthermore, Wright, like others before him, relies too heavily on a handful of interviews or “experts,” and as a result, perhaps unintentionally, reflects their biases.

[i] For examples of recent  foreign investment in the hydrocarbons industry:,



[iv] The latest UNODC Coca Cultivation Report points out that, although the social control method faces challenges in some areas of Bolivia, in the Chapare region the cato restriction for coca production is largely observed. For further information on social control in the Chapare, please refer to AIN’s report: “Obama’s Bolivia ATPDEA Decision: Blast from the Past or Wave of the Future?” at

Social Housing in Bolivia: Challenges & Contradictions

The Social Housing Program: PVSS

The MAS' ambitious $90M Program for Social & Solidarity Housing (PVSS) was launched with significant fanfare in April 2007, promising to provide at least 14,500 new units by the end of the year. Bolivia's 300,000 unit "quantitative" housing deficit (unlivable or overcrowded units) would be reduced by 5%, and totally eliminated in 10-20 years. The program would also generate 73,000 new jobs, reduce unemployment and emigration, promote investment, and provide a major stimulus to the national economy.
In important respects, PVSS represents a departure from Bolivia's discredited housing programs of the past, which gave stable middle-income workers better access to private mortgage credit–often to buy a second home. Under PVSS, the government provides direct loans on favorable terms to enable renters with limited means to build or buy their first new homes in urban or peripheral areas. In rural communities, beneficiaries receive direct grants.

In the urban program, 20-year government loans are available for 100% of land and construction costs. Interest rates are 0% for houses in the lowest price categories ($2,500 to $8,000 initially, indexed to inflation), and 3% for houses costing $8,001 to $15,000. (The interest rate on a typical private bank loan, for which few families in Bolivia qualify, is at least 10%.)

In rural areas, the government directly subsidizes up to 60% of construction costs (initially capped at around $3,600/unit), while families contribute 40% through self-help labor or donated materials. Departments, municipalities, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are encouraged to offset one-third of the national government's cost. Similar grants are available for remodeling, upgrading, and expansion of rural housing, with an initial target of 26,600 units.

With these financing terms, an urban family earning the minimum wage of $83 per month can afford a new $5,000 house with a monthly payment of around $21, at 25% of income. The smallest loan of $2,500 can benefit a family earning as little as $42 per month.

Moreover, although PVSS funding is derived from mandatory housing benefit contributions paid by salaried public and private sector workers and employers, for the first time in Bolivia's history these funds will also benefit informal sector workers. (Only the 3% loan program is limited to salaried workers.) Informal sector workers–with tremendous variation in earnings–now constitute an estimated 80% of Bolivia's workforce and are an important MAS constituency. This initially controversial PVSS feature has become a hallmark of the MAS government's approach to social programs, resurfacing in a recent dispute over proposed pension fund legislation which caused a rift between the government and the national trade union federation.

Despite these novel features, PVSS also represents a continuity with the past, reflecting the political, economic, and institutional constraints under which the MAS government operates. Like previous programs, the emphasis is on new construction, which has high political visibility.

While PVSS projects are typically targeted to social sectors such as unions, neighborhood organizations, and indigenous groups, the program is largely private sector-driven, subject to government regulation. For example, the financieras who review credit applications, disburse government funds, and collect loan repayments are primarily established cooperative banks and other financial institutions. The constructoras who develop and build the housing are typically private or cooperative construction companies.

Major materials producers like SOBOCE, the largest cement company in Bolivia–owned by Samuel Doria Medina, head of the center-right National Unity (UN) party–have committed discounted materials to the program, and some are participating as builders. According to Doria Medina, whose company's production capacity stands to double from government construction projects, "SOBOCE's business philosophy is to support the country's development.”

As a result of this pragmatic design, the launching of PVSS was greeted enthusiastically across the political spectrum—an unusual event in Bolivia. The program even received a strong editorial endorsement from Bolivia's newspaper of record La Razon, a consistent MAS critic.

Experience to Date: A Mixed Record

During the first year, PVSS experienced major start-up difficulties. By the end of 2007, despite significant demand, only 8,000 units had been approved and funded with scant evidence of actual construction. In his January 2008, State of the Union address, Morales lamented the government's disappointing performance while pledging at least another 14,500 units for 2008.

Over the past year, the program's pace has accelerated considerably. As of August 31, funds were committed for approximately 27,600 units in 200 projects, and all available PVSS resources were exhausted. Approved projects, located in 52 of Bolivia's 112 provinces, were widely disbursed throughout the country. More than 90% of the units were new construction.

Interestingly, the distribution of program benefits has not favored the western, heavily indigenous, and poorer regions–MAS' political base. On the contrary, the eastern "Media Luna" Departments (and allied Chuquisaca) have received a disproportionate share of units (55%) and funds committed (64%), relative to their share of total population (40%). Agrobusiness elites in these resource-rich regions have been waging a violent "autonomy" campaign in opposition to the Morales government, although outside the provincial capitals the MAS maintains strong support.

On the whole, the housing approved by PVSS to date appears to be relatively affordable. Approximately half the units funded are in the rural program, aimed at the lowest population strata. In the urban program, three-quarters of units are in the $5,001 to $8,000 price range.

From MAS' perspective, PVSS has surpassed its original goal, achieving in just 17 months what it had promised to accomplish in 2 years. Still, in terms of tangible results, fewer than 4,000 units have actually been completed (with another 1,000 anticipated to be delivered by year end).

To be sure, substantial time lags from project initiation to funding and completion are typical of all government housing programs. But with more than 86,000 credit applicants approved or in processing, the government appears to be creating its own credibility gap. As one MAS representative has noted: "Bolivia as a state has great economic limitations. We've got a program for social housing which has generated a lot of expectation…but…expectation mustn't exceed reality!"

Many problems encountered in the PVSS program appear to be systemic in nature. Materials costs have doubled over the past year, a predicament not unique to Bolivia. Some labor cost increases have been induced by internal shortages, e.g. as skilled bricklayers migrate to take advantage of new opportunities in Bolivia's mining sector, and abroad.

In the cities, rising land costs–due in part to PVSS-generated demand–are a significant problem. A prominent bank participating in the program is under investigation for allegedly inflating land costs through straw purchases at several sites. This is the third financiera to be relieved of its PVSS responsibilities for suspected irregularities, a factor which has contributed to program delays. Still another prevalent problem is the inability of prospective purchasers to secure clear land title, a prerequisite for PVSS loans which require mortgage security.

Delays have also resulted from administrative shortcomings, related in part to Bolivia's centralized governmental structure which is a controversial political issue today. Popular frustration with centralized government has been manipulated by regional elites to fuel the autonomy conflicts that brought the country to the brink of civil war last September. The weakened capacity of public sector institutions is a legacy of 20 years of neoliberal retrenchment, compounded by the new MAS bureaucracy’s inexperience and persistent corruption allegations. In its less than two-year life, the PVSS program has had four housing vice-ministers (Ramiro Rivera was replaced last October).

Nor has PVSS been immune from partisan conflict. Funding commitments have often appeared to be politically motivated, especially during the August 2008 recall referendum campaign (a plebiscite vote on Morales' government) when significant awards were made to projects in the embattled Departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Chuquisaca. The government has also used PVSS funds to settle political disputes with rebellious social movement organizations, such as the transport workers' union.

Most dramatically, in October 2008, following Morales' strong (67%) referendum victory and successful negotiation in the Congress to bring the new Constitution to a popular vote, the municipality of Santa Cruz (headquarters of the regional opposition) destroyed 100 PVSS houses constructed for a local indigenous group. While the immediate cause of this conflict was a jurisdictional dispute between two municipalities, the episode had broader political overtones. As ex-minister Rivera noted, "The anti-MAS municipalities don't want PVSS to succeed." The government is pursuing legal remedies for restitution, as well as punishment of the offending officials.
The 386-unit "Integration of the Americas" project in the municipality of La Guardia, Santa Cruz, illustrates many of PVSS' contradictions and challenges. Built for the wheelbarrow porters union (which had previously occupied government offices to protest construction delays), the houses were nearly completed but not yet occupied when we visited last August.

The units feature a utilitarian design and are densely packed across the site, but at a total cost of $5,000 (including land) they are extremely affordable. While some residents have criticized the quality of construction and are demanding an investigation of their financiera's possible role in land speculation, owners interviewed in a recent news account–all former renters—welcomed the reduced costs, increased security of tenure, and accessible location of their new homes. Said Miriam Sánchez, a single mother of five: "What hurt me most, living as a tenant, was that having children seemed to be a sin…a barrier to finding a place to live. The dream of having my own home seemed impossible to realize, until now."  

The NGO Perspective

An alternative approach to social housing is offered by RENASEH (the National Network of Human Settlements), a coalition of 11 NGOs that combine housing advocacy, development, and organizing and have led the struggle for housing rights in Bolivia. To date, NGOs have not played a significant role in the PVSS program, although Habitat for Humanity has participated from the start as a financiera.

In RENASEH's view, social housing (urban as well as rural) should emphasize incremental construction and remodeling of units with reliance on individual and collective self-help, progressive microcredit loans, and other forms of creative, non-mortgage financing. This is the dominant shelter strategy that poor Bolivian families have used for generations. For households with unstable sources of income, it is easier to borrow small amounts and upgrade living space incrementally as family needs expand. Focusing on rehab, RENASEH maintains, will stretch scarce public resources further. Arguably, Bolivia's "qualitative deficit" of 600,000 – 900,000 units (lacking basic services or in poor condition) is more pressing than its quantitative housing needs.

Moreover, self-help and community financing strategies build solidarity, empower communities, and foster a collective, participatory stake in housing. This approach, RENASEH believes, is more consistent with social housing objectives than is reliance on market-oriented strategies that encourage households to spend beyond their means. Says architect Guillermo Bazoberry: "For most Bolivians, housing is a form of social security, not an investment. The government should be helping people and communities directly, to make the informal housing economy work better."

Over the past 15 years, RENASEH's member NGOs have helped families built 10,000 new homes and renovate 30,000 units, utilizing incremental and self-help building and financing strategies. Their 15,000 micro-credit loans have a repayment failure rate substantially lower than that of traditional banks.

Critics argue that families with the most pressing housing needs (including female-headed households) may lack the time and skills for individual or collective self-help, and point to the public and private costs of uncompensated labor. In addition to the loss of construction jobs and economic stimulus, creating a decent unit takes longer, and quality may be compromised. The critical supportive services provided by the NGOs (including architectural, construction management, and organizational assistance) are labor-intensive and may be difficult to replicate on a larger scale.

Still, successful examples, such as the Maria Auxiliadora community we visited in Cochabamba, are inspirational. Founded by a group of domestically-abused women, the community has worked with several NGOs to build and renovate approximately 100 houses in nine years. The majority of members are female-headed households (divorced, widowed, or with husbands working abroad). The land is owned cooperatively–unusual in Bolivia–and the houses individually, similar to the US community land trust model. Houses cannot be rented or sold, and revert to community use if vacated.

To finance the housing, the community uses a traditional collective savings system called pasanaku in which members' personal funds are pooled and redistributed, as needed, to each family in turn. Progressive microcredit loans of $1,000 – $3,000 are made by the NGOs to individual households, but are guaranteed collectively (with no mortgage security). Mutual-help construction is a community obligation. The community has developed its own water, sewer, and irrigation systems. The pasanaku system is also used to finance family and community enterprises (such as catering, sewing, and construction materials).

The community has approached PVSS for funding to build additional units. The cooperative form of land ownership poses a challenge, but this may be ameliorated by the new Constitution.   

Social Housing and the Constitution

RENASEH was instrumental in securing the right to housing in Bolivia's new Constitution, now scheduled for a referendum vote in January 2009 (and widely anticipated to be approved). Its members organized a petition campaign, formed alliances with health, education, and labor sectors by demonstrating the importance of social housing to their agendas, and promoted community input on housing during the drafting process.

Article 19 of the new Constitution establishes every Bolivian's right to a decent, adequate home and living environment, that dignifies family and community life. It requires all levels of government to promote social housing programs–including adequate financing–based on principles of solidarity and equity, and with preference to groups having the least resources and greatest need. (An unanticipated benefit of the autonomy conflict, notes RENASEH, is that all levels of government now want to take credit for social housing.)

Article 56 guarantees both private and collective ownership of property, provided that its use is not harmful to the collective good. The original draft explicitly allowed the government to expropriate surplus urban land not serving a social function, to be reused for social housing.  This anti-speculation provision was removed in a compromise with Samuel Doria Medina, to prevent his UN party from joining the opposition boycott of the Constituent Assembly vote. The final Constitution negotiated between MAS and the opposition parties in Congress emphasizes that urban real estate is not subject to confiscation.

Looking Ahead

With the new Constitution about to be ratified, Bolivia has resolved, for the moment, its political tensions. The MAS government now faces the real (and perhaps more difficult) challenge of delivering on its promises.

In November, the government announced that resources had been found to fund another 26,000 units of social housing in 2009. In line with the new decentralization trend, satellite program offices have been established in several Departments with the goal of more delegated decision-making. The government is considering allocating funds to each Department on the basis of population, with projects to be selected jointly by the Departments, municipalities, and popular organizations. An agreement has been signed with the National Federation of Neighborhood Boards (CONALJUVE) to promote participatory decision-making in housing design and construction.

To contain costs, the government has announced plans to develop a state cement company with loans from Iran and Venezuela. This is widely seen as an attempt to outmaneuver Doria Medina, a potential rival to Evo Morales in the next election. Measures to curb land speculation are also being considered. All projects are being audited for irregularities in land costs and acquisition practices–an issue which has cast a cloud over the entire PVSS program.

Finally, RENASEH hopes to work with the Housing Ministry to develop a program for urban housing remodeling, expansion, and upgrading based on its successful community experience. Habitat for Humanity is now acting as a constructora for several projects. Whether the incremental building and financing approach can be "scaled up" and made compatible with the political and institutional requirements of a national housing program remains to be seen.

In many respects the PVSS program illustrates the larger challenges and contradictions of the government's efforts to bring about "revolutionary" change through democratic reform. As with other MAS initiatives (such as gas nationalization and agrarian reform), ambitious social goals have been constrained by underlying economic and market forces and the need to accommodate opposing political interests. The weakness of existing government institutions and bureaucracies is an obstacle to the achievement of MAS' redistributive agenda across the board. Tensions between the consolidation of state power and popular demands for more democratic and community-oriented practices are characteristic of relations between the social movements and the MAS government today.  

As it evolves in the future, the social housing program will likely continue to provide a revealing window on Bolivia's radical process of social transformation.

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and affordable housing consultant and activist based in Boston, MA. She has been researching social housing and urban social movements in Bolivia and last visited Bolivia in August 2008. She can be reached at

This article is reproduced with permission from:               

Progressive Planning: The Magazine of Planners’ Network, #178, Winter 2009

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


Bolivia’s Regional Tensions: A History of Conflict

The long-standing power struggle between Bolivia’s central government and regions reflects the country’s persistent regional divisions. Even today Bolivia is considered one of the least integrated countries in Latin America (US State Department 2004) with a diverse population concentrated along the western Andean plateau, distinct from the population scattered throughout the eastern lowlands.

The original creation of Bolivia as a separate nation was a complex, flawed process that represented a compromise agreement between Peru and Argentina to form a buffer state between them. But it was also driven by the ambitions of Bolivian criollo elites who saw possible personal benefits.  These founders of the Bolivian republic, however, had little grasp or foresight of the geopolitical problems that affect a highly dispersed, weakly consolidated state. From these shaky beginnings, not unlike other countries patched together from former colonies, Bolivia has continually struggled to establish internal cohesion and a national identity in the face of considerable ethnic and geographic diversity.


Reliance on Exports Impedes Unity

Colonial and republican control after 1825 was always strongest close to valued natural resources and transportation corridors. At the margins, in regions virtually abandoned by the state, emerging elites were successful in avoiding most central government control.
Whenever the national economy declined, central rule weakened, leading to power struggles between the regions and the central government.

Repeatedly since Bolivia’s 1825 founding, local or regional elites have tried to decentralize state power and devolve public investment to either municipalities or departments (a political unit roughly equivalent to US states, Canadian provinces or English counties). Given western Bolivia’s mountainous terrain and the orientation of transportation towards export markets, interregional communication was poor, contributing to a stronger sense of regional over national identity among both isolated indigenous peoples and mestizo city dwellers.


The roots of the autonomy movements


Largely abandoned and isolated until the mid-nineteenth century, the department of Santa Cruz emerged as the locus of regional demands beginning in the late nineteenth century and, in 1876, declared itself a federalist state. Rebellions against central authority demanding federalism occurred again in Santa Cruz in 1891 and 1957, as well as in La Paz in 1899 and Potosí in 1928.

Regional disputes have historically ended in compromises. The 1899 revolution, for example, began with demands by liberals in La Paz to reconstitute the nation from a unitary state, centered in Sucre, to a federal system in order to recognize La Paz’s growing economic importance due to the rise of tin mining. The uprising ended with an agreement that moved the seat of government to La Paz, creating a second capital, but leaving the unitary governing structure intact.

Tensions between the regions and the central government within Bolivia arose again after the 1952 revolution, particularly among the business class in Santa Cruz, who strongly opposed the changes it brought. As a result, the 1953 Agrarian Reform was never implemented in the eastern lowlands, strengthening the local oligarchy. During the 1950s, local elites created a Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee to lobby for greater concessions and independence from the central government. Despite the gradual emergence of similar demands in other regions, after the 1952 revolution, Bolivia’s left primarily focused on national-level, workplace organizing and identified regional concerns with the right wing, and therefore paid little attention to them.


Civic Committees and Autonomy

Initially, the military dictatorships from 1964 to 1982 believed that the existing civic committees could serve as better mechanisms for exerting centralized control over the often unruly regions than political parties (US Department of State 2004). While newer committees formed in the early 1970s were inspired by the Santa Cruz model, the strength of local oligarchies in other regions paled in comparison with the elites that dominated Santa Cruz (Calderon and Laserna 1983). As a result, the political orientation, social base and demands of most civic committees slowly became far broader and in some cases, notably Potosi and Cochabamba, they supported progressive social movements, especially during the 1970s when other opposition groups were forced into hiding (Pittari 1991).

During the 1970s Banzer dictatorship, members of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee held prominent government positions, enabling them to turn around much of the petrodollar loans that Banzer directed to the eastern lowlands, ostensibly for agricultural development, and deposit them in their own Miami bank accounts (Malloy and Gamarra 1988). Santa Cruz elites benefited from the dictatorships in other ways as well. Some were awarded huge tracts of government land, particularly under the dictatorship of Garcia Meza (1980-81), including parcels in protected areas, national parks and reserves (La Prensa, 3 October 2001).

for greater regional autonomy accelerated after the 1985 structural adjustment program which heralded the shift to neoliberal policies. Civic committees have pushed for a greater share of regional resources, direct elections of prefects, and increased political autonomy. In Cochabamba and Potosí, the Civic Committees began to advocate for local jobs, gas nationalization, and rather belatedly, reversing water privatization.

Bolivia’s 1994 Law of Popular Participation (LPP), a World Bank promoted decentralization scheme, was designed to provide greater municipal autonomy.   In practice, the legislation reinforced the centralized political system, as the president still appointed departmental prefects (equivalent to a US governor or Canadian premier) (Laserna 1995). The business-controlled Santa Cruz Civic Committee argued that Popular Participation represented one more attempt to shackle the dynamic lowland economy to the central government. As these regional elites have expressed little interest in decentralization and increased democratic participation within their respective departments, Goudsmit and Blackburn (2001) argue that the LPP enabled the central state to dissipate separatist tendencies by forcing these elites to confront growing local demands.


The Santa Cruz regional movement before Morales

The Santa Cruz regional movement remains the strongest in the country and its discourse has become increasingly separatist. In January 2005, during what verged on an insurrection, civic committee leader and current departmental prefect Rubén Costas announced plans to form a provisional autonomous government. A government cut in diesel subsidies in December 2004, in response to IMF pressure to reduce the government deficit, sparked the Santa Cruz uprising.2   IMF demands provoked a visceral social response, as 250,000 people took over central Santa Cruz, calling for departmental autonomy – one that apparently was to ensure large local cotton, sugar, and soy producer’s access to cheap fuel. The unrest spread to the southern department of Tarija where protestors blockaded roads to push for the proposed refinanced state hydrocarbons company to be headquartered in their department, near the gas fields.  These protests demanded that the Mesa administration call for a nation-wide referendum on the autonomy issue.

The protests surged in part due to the loss of eastern elite influence in the central government. Since 1985, Santa Cruz business interests had controlled more than their fair share of government ministries and traditional ruling party leadership positions. When Carlos Mesa became president in 2003, many of those privileges disappeared. Unable to dominate the 2004 municipal elections, Santa Cruz elites shifted their focus to demanding more power for the departmental government, where they thought they could exert greater control.

Their success in mobilizing powerful popular regional demonstrations illustrates skill in convincing the urban working class and poor majority that unemployment, social problems, and discrimination are principally the fault of Bolivia’s centralist system.3   In contrast, highland social movements have successfully persuaded their members that current problems are due to neoliberalism. This difference mirrors a fundamental divide in the country: the economically dynamic eastern and southern region, with most of the oil and gas, are controlled by a powerful, conservative oligarchy, while the social movements that forced Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada from office in October 2003, are based in the highlands and valleys.


Democratic election of prefects deepen regional frictions

The 2005 elections were the first in Bolivian history to provide for direct election of prefects in the country’s nine departments.  Conservatives won these posts in Cochabamba  and La Paz, as well as in the eastern lowlands departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando, known as the media luna. In July 2006, an autonomy referendum took place with all four eastern departments voting overwhelming in favor of greater autonomy while the country’s western departments voted almost as strongly against.

The MAS government’s promises to extend land reform in the eastern lowlands faces challenges by political opposition from the conservative prefects, often representatives of now-defunct traditional political parties. It is likely that Morales hopes to diffuse the power of regional elites by pushing to expand autonomy within their departments to poorer outlying regions, in order to increase pressure on them from below. If he can accelerate the lowland land redistribution process, his grassroots political support will grow.

At the same time, the Morales administrations efforts to increase revenues from natural gas have increased the power of the regional governors as a percentage of royalties go directly to gas-producing regions.  With this increase in revenues, lowland departments have stepped up the autonomy campaign. 
These calls for autonomy are not a recent development, but are based in a long history of often legitimate regional demands for greater control over resources and policies. 

The Constitutional Assembly, a body elected eight months ago to write a new constitution, provides an opportunity to acknowledge this history and reach a compromise on the extent of regional and central government powers.  However, as both groups have been continually unwilling to compromise within the Assembly, addressing these issues will likely continue to be a complex and highly contentious process, as it has been throughout Bolivia’s history. 


1In eastern Bolivia, fewer than 100 families control over 25 million hectares (61 million acres) while some two million indigenous peasant families work five million hectares (12 million acres). Almost 250,000 indigenous farmers are landless. (PNUD 2005)

2In 2005, the subsidy for diesel was projected to exceed US $80 million. The primary beneficiaries were the agro-industrial producers of Santa Cruz and the transportation industry (La Prensa, 2005, 24 June, 4c).

3The much smaller rural population of Santa Cruz, however, formed groups opposing the calls for departmental autonomy, with some calling for a separate department encompassing Santa Cruz’s rural, gas-producing hinterland.



* Adapted from Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance, by Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, London: Zed Books 2006.   Linda Farthing is a writer and educator who has published on Bolivia for over twenty years.



Calderón, F. G. and R. Laserna (1983) ‘El Poder de las Regiones (a manera de introducción)’, in F. G. Calderón and R. Laserna (eds), El Poder de las Regiones. Cochabamba: CERES/CLACSO, pp. 9–19.

Goudsmit, I. and J. Blackburn (2001) ‘Participatory Municipal Planning in Bolivia: An Ambiguous Experience’, Development in Practice, 11: 587–96.

La Prensa, (2001) ‘Por acuerdo entre la CAO y el gobierno habrá repartija de las tierras protegidas’, 3 October.

La Prensa (2005) ‘EEUU advierte a Bolivia si nacionaliza hidrocarburos’, La Paz, 24 June.

Laserna, R., (1995) ‘Descentralización y participación’, in SNPP (ed.), Debate Nacional sobre la Ley de Participación Popular. La Paz: SNPP, pp. 223–4.

Malloy, J. and E. Gamarra (1988) Revolution and Reaction: Bolivia, 1964–1985. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Pittari, S. R. (1991) ‘Movimientos Regionales en Bolivia’, Revista Homines, 15–16: 61–75.

Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (2005) Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano del (PNUD), La Paz, Bolivia September 7.

Stern, S. (ed.) (1987) Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World: 18th to 20th Centuries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Urenda Diaz, J. C. (1987) Autonomías Departamentales: la alternativa al centralismo Boliviana. La Paz: Editorial Amigos del Libro.

US Department of State (2004) ‘Bolivia’, vol. 2005. Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.


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.”

Bolivian Congress Passes Agrarian Reform During Tension

During his campaign Morales promised to redistribute 23 million hectares within five years. The new law stipulates that land that is not currently serving an economic or social function may be allocated to indigenous or campesino communities with insufficient or no land.  The legislation follows the basic land tenure principles specified in the existing Bolivian constitution, which does not legally recognize massive landholdings (latifundia) and grants the state the right to expropriate and redistribute land.[1] The law provides economic compensation to landowners.  Bolivian officials clarify that the initiative will primarily focus on properties larger than 120 acres.   Although the U.S. mainstream press has characterized it as "radical" and MAS has made repeated statements attacking the landholding elite, the law passed this week simply modifies the 1996 law of the Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada government, and does not represent a dramatic change in land policy.[2] What concerns the political opposition and large-scale landowners, though, is that it appears that this government will actually implement the policy, which had been ineffectual and subject to corruption and favoritism in the past.  The initiative’s success will depend on the Morales administration’s’ capacity to transparently and objectively implement and interpret the law, and the ability of all parties to put aside their fondness for inflammatory rhetoric and polarized positions in favor of a transparent, just policy.

Land debate occurs in heated political context

In early November, members of indigenous groups launched a march from the lowlands and other rural areas to La Paz to demand passage of the agrarian reform law, supporting the MAS initiative. Although participation fluctuated, the march had over a thousand members at its peak.  Lowland agricultural interests led counter protests and opposition senators from Jorge Quiroga’s PODEMOS and Samuel Doria Medina’s UN party boycotted congressional sessions for a week.

The battle over land reform occurred at the same time that the Morales administration proposed accountability legislation and a mechanism to censure the actions of the independently elected departmental prefects.  Six out of nine prefects, or governors, represent opposition forces and the traditional political elite, and have been consistently at odds with the administration.  These officials and their supporters said they would reject any attempt to control their actions from the central government. 

Preexisting tensions also soared over the Constitutional Assembly, as several hundred opposition representatives, assembly delegates, and civic leaders launched a hunger strike to demand that each article of the new constitution be approved by a two-thirds vote.  The law structuring the constitutional assembly vaguely states that "the new constitution must be approved by a two thirds vote." MAS officials have pushed an initiative through the assembly stating that individual constitutional articles can be passed by a simple majority of over fifty percent. (MAS controls 54% of the Assembly’s seats).   As a result of frustrations over the simple majority decision and heightened regional disputes, a crowd heckled and threw stones at Morales after a presentation at Santa Cruz’s public university.  Furthermore, civic leaders and prefects called for a nationwide civil strike on December 1, but only six departments partially complied while the others operated normally.   In Cochabamba, MAS followers tried to break up planning meetings for the strike and were stopped by the police, under the command of the regional governor.  During the meeting MAS supporters and opposition members had fistfights and shouting matches in the city’s main plaza.

The pitched battle over agrarian reform

Land reform is one of the most contentious political issues and one of the focal points behind the regional rift between the highlands and eastern lowlands.  Although the mainstream press characterizes most lowland residents as descendents of Europeans, the great majority of this region’s population is indigenous or migrated from the highlands.   A significant portion of the  small economic elite, who consider themselves white, whom benefited from unscrupulous gifts of land by previous military or traditional party governments, staunchly oppose the land redistribution initiative.

During the past week statements by both sides have exacerbated the conflict.  On November 23, government press officer, Alex Contreras, published a list of fourteen families, many linked to traditional political parties, ex-ministers and current PODEMOS representatives, who he said owned a total of 7,732,090 acres of unused land with no productive use, and claimed that over 90 percent of the nation’s land suitable for agriculture had been given away by political elites between 1953 and 1992. (El Diario 11-24-06).  According Contreras,  Walter Guiteras, minister in the government of ex-dictator Hugo Banzer and current PODEMOS senator, extended family owns 121,208 acres in the Beni Department. Guiteras gave journalists the finger when they inquired about his holdings.  Large-scale Santa Cruz agricultural interests also vehemently rejected the bill.  The head of the National Agricultural Federation (Confeagro) stated that the new law would "cause the destruction of the nation agricultural system by breaking the productive cycle, unemployment and confrontation" (El Diario 11-23-06). 

The Bolivian press reprinted information that Santa Cruz agricultural elites sent two representatives to Spain to hire mercenaries to defend their interests and overthrow Morales (Los Tiempos 11-24-06). 

As tensions heightened, opposition senators boycotted congressional sessions in protest, provoking threats from Morales to pass the agrarian reform legislation by Supreme Decree.  The central government avoided this potentially disastrous political move by passing the reform through the senate in a late night session.  Three opposition votes, two from legally elected alternates, joined the MAS block to pass the new law.  The three representatives were the only opposition party members present for the vote.  The opposition immediately claimed that MAS had bribed the three senators into voting to pass the laws, but the government expressly denied the accusation.   The shift in position of these three opposition representatives highlights a lack of cohesion in opposition parties, which are a conglomeration of defunct traditional parties and other interests.   Their surprise decision to facilitate the law’s passage averted potential acute social conflict.

Key Aspects of the New Legislation: 

– As in the 1996 law, land without a social or economic use is subject to expropriation.

– The definition of economic and social use includes areas left fallow for crop rotation, ecological reserves and areas and projected growth of agricultural enterprises.

– Although opposition, foreign government officials and others expressed concern that the requirement that land have a socio-economic productive use would eliminate environmental protection on nature reserves, like the 1996 legislation, it includes ecological functions and conservation as valid land uses, even if they do not have an additional social economic function.

– Small properties, campesino farms and indigenous communities are exempt from property taxes.

– The  newly conformed  national agrarian council will determine landholding  and expropriation policy The council includes indigenous federations, government agencies and ministries, and CONFEAGRO, the Santa Cruz agricultural organization representing large-scale landowners

– There will also be departmental councils.

– Grants the government the ability to expropriate or revert land by eminent domain or for incompliance with the required social economic function and established a detailed administrative process to carry this out.

– Grants the government the right to expropriate land identified as illegally obtained as a result of the survey process.

– Allows the government to expropriate land without compensation when its use violates existing constitutional norms.

– Establishes an appeal process for expropriations, owners must be paid in full a monetary (or if the owner prefers, land) compensation calculated based on the market price and taking into account improvements and investments that the owner has made. Land cannot be expropriated before full payment. Also part of a property can be reverted back to the state.

– Protects small properties and indigenous communal lands from expropriation.

– Provides due process guarantees for affected landowners and if the land is mortgaged, the lending individual or institution has a right to participate in the process.

– Prohibits land grants to government and agrarian reform officials, their families, and government contractors. 

– Expropriated lands will be granted exclusively to indigenous or native communities with insufficient land based studies.

– The on site inspection process will take place every two years after the title has been granted.  This gives all those large landowners time to create an economic or social function for their property, such as buying cattle. These inspections will focus on properties larger than 120 acres.

– Creates an additional 0.25 percent surcharge to the tax base already set for agricultural land.  The law mandates that municipalities must use at least 75 percent of these tax revenues for improvements in rural basic infrastructure and healthcare.

In spite of fiery political rhetoric from both sides and misrepresentation in the Bolivian and U.S. press, the text of the law merely updates and modifies the 1996 Agrarian Reform Law passed during the first Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada government, and provides clearer guidelines for its implementation.  The desire of the Morales government to enforce the stipulations of pre-existing constitutional and legal norms for land reform and to attack decades of corruption and land speculation could dramatically improve the lives of Bolivia’s rural poor.  Bolivia has one of the smallest populations per square mile in Latin America, theoretically facilitating a more equitable land distribution.  In order to successfully carry out this objective, MAS officials, opposition parties, and large-scale landowners will have to put aside past resentments and avoid inflammatory and accusatory posturing.  Bolivia’s capacity to grow and develop as united nation depends a great deal on the peaceful resolution of this potentially violent issue.

 [1] Constitución Política del Estado. Bolivia. Articles 22, 165, 167.

[2] For background information on Agrarian Reform efforts in Bolivia see Doug Hertzler. "Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Initiative:  An Effort to Keep Historical Promises." Andean Information Network. 28 June 2006.

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.