Bolivian Congress Passes Agrarian Reform Legislation in Spite of Heightened Regional Tensions
Prepared by the Andean Information Network
On November 29 the Bolivian Senate approved the law modifying
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. The law provides economic compensation to landowners. Bolivian officials clarify that the initiative will primarily focus on properties larger than 120 acres. Although the
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
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
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
The Bolivian press reprinted information that
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
*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
 Constitución Política del Estado. Bolivia. Articles 22, 165, 167.
For background information on Agrarian Reform efforts in