Bolivian Congress Passes Agrarian Reform Legislation in Spite of Heightened Regional Tensions

December 1, 2006

Prepared by the Andean Information Network

On November 29 the Bolivian Senate approved the law modifying Bolivia’s 1996 Agrarian Reform law. The lower house of congress, where President Evo Morales’s MAS party has a clear majority approved the law quickly, but MAS needed 3 votes from opposition parties who hotly contested the initiative. The vote took place after a week of heightened tensions and public protest.

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.


End notes

[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.

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