Bolivia's land reform unstoppable, Morales says

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Leftist leader Evo Morales told thousands of landless Bolivian Indians at a rally on Tuesday that he will push through his far-reaching land reform regardless of an opposition boycott in the Senate.

Morales told the protesters, many of whom walked for weeks to La Paz to support land reform, that if the Senate does not ratify his bill, he will issue a presidential decree that would allow his government to redistribute land to poor peasants.

"We are not afraid to issue a decree to put an end to large estates," he told supporters shortly after returning to Bolivia from a two-day visit to the Netherlands, and before heading to Nigeria for a summit of African and Latin American leaders.

His address came as political tensions rise between Morales and the rightist opposition, which has led a string of protests in recent weeks. Civil society leaders in eight of nine provinces have called for a general strike on Friday.

A former opposition presidential candidate is on a hunger strike and opposition lawmakers walked out of the Senate to protest Morales' drive to control an assembly that is rewriting the country's constitution.

Morales' drive to nationalize the energy industry has enjoyed widespread political support, but his plan to redistribute idle land to the poor, indigenous majority that forms his power base has been cut short by right-wing senators.

The land reform law was approved by the lower house earlier this month but cannot be ratified by the Senate because of the opposition walk-out last week.

At the rally, the crowd called for him to close the Senate, but Morales ruled out this measure.

"I cannot close down the Senate ... those that have (already) closed it are dealing a blow to democracy," said Morales, the country's first indigenous president who gained prominence as a protest leader and head of a nationwide coca leaf growers' group.

Government officials have said that large landowners from the eastern region of Santa Cruz, the country's agricultural heartland and a bastion of the rightist opposition, are behind the Senate protest.

Morales has ruled out mass expropriations saying only unproductive or illegally owned land will be targeted.

But large estate owners in Santa Cruz, where vast cattle ranches and soy plantations abound, are fearful their land might be confiscated.

Morales' land reform, a key campaign promise, aims to redistribute some 48 million acres, or almost a fifth of Bolivia's territory, within five years.

Reposted from Reuters

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