The Agrarian Revolution of Evo Morales

Miguel Urioste F. de C. Director, Fundación TIERRA

This article was published in the journal Cuarto Intermedio, number 80, August 2006.

[Whilst it was published before the passing of the modifications to the agrarian reform (INRA) law on November 28, 2006, Bolivia Rising believes it provides important background and analysis to the current conflict over the land question in Bolivia today.]

The root of the current conflict over land in Bolivia is the persistence of extreme rural poverty, in part resulting from the inequality and unproductive distribution of land, in spite of more than half a century of Agrarian Reform. The intensification of this problem, however, is principally due to anti-indigenous racism cloaked in the discourse of autonomy used by civil and political institutions in the East of the country. Furthermore, the recent official launching of a second agrarian reform has created enormous expectations among poor campesinos in the West and new incentives for illegal settlements, and will, without a doubt, bring about additional tension.

Bolivia lived through a profound social upheaval as a result of the occupation of haciendas in the valley and highland (altiplano) regions during the 1950s; this was the prelude to what became the Agrarian Reform in the year 1953. The revolutionary government of MNR proclaimed in Ucureña that it legalized the liberation – through the force or rural-indigenous labor – and the distribution of lands. Although the Agrarian Reform achieved its objective of distributing land to farmers and indigenous communities and eliminating bondage labor in the West, it did not manage to solve the problem of rural poverty. Successive governments – over a half century – have had neither the will nor the capacity to invest in the transformation of productive conditions in traditionally rural areas, for one simple reason: it is a problem of “los indios.

Two decades later, the process of distribution of land in this country has been subordinated by military dictatorships, characterized by favoritism and political patronage; particularly in the East, vast territories of land were distributed left and right to landed “hacendados”, giving birth to large-scale latifundios in this region. At the same time in the Andean region and in the valleys, because of population increase and inheritance patterns minifundios emerged, and the over-exploitation of the land was not accompanied by significant increases in farm yields.

The two state institutions responsible for the administration of this resource – the National Council for Agrarian Reform (Consejo Nacional de Reforma Agraria) and the National Institute for Settlements (Instituto Nacional de Colonización) – had neither a productive nor sustainable orientation, and finally had to face interventions in 1992 because of denouncements of evident corruption.

The need to give order to the chaotic and corrupt distribution of lands in the country was overwhelming. In 1996 – after profound debates and discussions – Law 1715 on the National Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA) was approved in an attempt to provide legal security to land owners and to determine fiscal areas for redistributing them, by means of reversion and expropriation, among landless citizens or those with insufficient land. The process became bureaucratic, lengthy and costly, and – with the notable exception of the progress in titling for Lands of Common Origin (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen or Indigenous Territories– TCO) in the East – did not respond to the increasing demand for the allocation of lands to campesinos and settlers.

The Electoral Promises of 2005

The electoral campaign in December 2005 had the virtue of lacing the problems of the lack of rural development, the exclusion of indigenous peoples and the inequality of access to land on the political agenda. MAS (left wing oriented Evo Morales party), together with PODEMOS and UN, announced that they would focus efforts to promote public policies for rural development with an emphasis on inclusion of indigenous peoples, taking into account the rural municipalities and farmers’ economic organizations (organizaciones económicas campesinas – OECAS), the creation of local markets and national food production. Each of them – although with different nuances – condemned the unproductive latifundios and signaled that, in the framework of the law, these should be eliminated for not fulfilling a socio-economic function. The proposal of MAS, however, went further to call for a “Pact for Land” with the following features: (1) guarantee the legal security to property owners who, in a proven and sustainable way, fulfill productive functions; (2) guarantee social justice in the access of land by placing sanctions on speculators, monopolists and land traffickers, with the reversion of these lands to the state through application of agrarian and constitutional provisions; (3) in recognition of the social demands, reestablish the legality of national agrarian institutions and endow them with mechanisms of social regulation; and (4) to articulate policies of redistribution of land along with policies to encourage and diversify production.

They announced that their government would undertake an integrated revision of all the full agrarian process since 1996 (the year in which the INRA Law was approved), and would accelerate the reorganization process with priority given to conflict areas, would title lands of campesino and indigenous communities, and create – in place of the Agrarian Superintendent – an Agrarian Defender (Ombudsman) to monitor the implementation of these laws, prevent conflicts over land and facilitate their peaceful resolution. MAS also announced reform to the land tax framework, regulation of rents, mortgages and tranfers of lands that had not yet been re titled [saneadas], such as lands retained by banking institutions, and furthermore plans to implement a national human settlement program.

The proposals of these three parties were harshly criticized by some institutions [1] for ascribing to a market-based approach, for assuming plans developed by international agencies to privilege external markets for developing the agricultural, livestock and forestry sectors, but above all that being subordinated to the INRA Law qualified it as a legal norm that promotes agrarian counter-reform and reflects a neo-liberal focus. This criticism denounced the absolute limitation of proposals to satisfy the demands for land and communal territories by poor campesinos and indigenous communities, and announced that the land conflicts would persist and grow worse.

It is interesting to note that in the electoral campaign the MAS program recognized – for the first time in an explicit and open manner – the importance of the application of the INRA Law and the reorganization of lands, with some important modifications. In past campaigns and under different circumstances, this party has maintained a different position concerning the INRA Law and its application, generally much more critical and considered it as neo-liberal in origin.

The changes to the INRA Law

By the middle of May 2006, the MAS government led by Evo Morales communicated to the nation – in the middle of its electoral campaign for candidates to the Constitutional Assembly – its decision to uphold the laws in force and complete the reorganization of lands throughout the country over the next five years, to revert unproductive latifundios in the East and to hand over twenty million hectares of land in the next five years to landless campesinos and indigenous peoples.

On 19 July this year, the National Agrarian Commission (Comisión Agraria Nacional – CAN) – the highest body for deliberation and decision-making on agrarian issues, created by the INRA Law – met in a plenary session in La Paz and, with just one dissenting vote by CONFEAGRO (Agricultural Entrepreneurial Corporation of the low lands), approved a project to modify the INRA Law, which was called “Community-based Re launching of the Agrarian Reform.” The executive authority immediately tasked this Congress with this bill, but at the time of this writing a new law had still not been promulgated.

The principal changes that the government seeks to introduce to the INRA Law are fundamentally oriented toward its expedited application in the lowland areas and refers to the broader authority of the state to reclaim immediately idle lands through reversion, i.e., to return the property rights over land that are not fulfilling the Socio-Economic Function (la Función Económica Social – FES) to original control by the state. To reach this objective, it was proposed to separate fulfillment of the FES from the payment of taxes (the INRA Law establishes that the cause for reversion is the abandonment of agrarian property, demonstrated by the failure to pay land taxes for two consecutive periods). This is to say, it would no longer be of importance whether medium- or large-scale enterprises are paying land tax, as this tax would not be sufficient to claim the property right when the land itself is not being worked. The modification also proposed that not fulfilling the FES could be total or partial in scope, meaning that a portion of property that is not worked could also be subject to reversion. The INRA Director would be given the administrative capacity – through the re titling process and for as long as it is conducted – to determine which lands are eligible for reversion and which are not.

The modification of the INRA Law proposes that the properties subject to expropriation would be distributed to those who do not have lands. Previously, the Law established that those lands could only be directed toward public uses (highways, irrigation systems, public works, etc.). This reform would go along with the promotion of new human settlements, in the first order by campesinos living in the area, and in the second order by residents of the highlands.

This calls attention that the executive authority’s legislative project, with the endorsement of campesinos and indigenous communities, arranged (in the case of expropriation) for the legal recognition of compensation for such property, “taking into account the market value of the lands, improvements, investments and other criteria that would assure fair compensation”. This would mean that, in practice, the announced agrarian revolution could reduce the purchase of latifundios lands to be distributed free of charge to landless campesinos and indigenous. The obvious questions here are: Why not compensate those expropriated lands at the cadastral value, which is clearly much less than the market value? With what funds will the state compensate expropriated lands? Will this be done with loans from international agencies that support market-assisted land reforms?

In relation to the communities and to small-scale landowners in the altiplano highlands and valleys, a “Special Procedure for Titling Without Additional Process” (Procedimiento Especial de Titulación Sin Más Trámite) would be applied – this is already contained in article 75 of the old INRA law but up to now has rarely been applied in practice. Those communities or smallholders which are exercising the right of possession (el derecho de posesión) – productive occupation of land without a title – would be titled in a quick manner through the process of “internal reorganization” in which community authorities (jilacatas, mallkus, capitanes, union secretaries) play a direct role, not only for social control but also in leadership and social legitimization of the whole reorganization process. This would be translated effectively through a much more direct involvement by all communities in the titling process, which would go from being simply an administrative procedure and exclusively one of the state, to becoming a new social pact on rights to land of families and communities. In recent years this process has been undertaken with much success in various communities in the highlands, valleys and plains, by Fundación TIERRA and other organizations.[2]

The conflict over land in the East

Although the political will of the government to eliminate latifundios and distribute land to those who do not have land and need it to live is clear, the initiative that implies this agrarian revolution could be shipwrecked in the coming weeks, depending on the response of elites that have concentrated property rights to land in the East. Until now, it is perceived that their reactions have managed to block the legislative process and to bring together “all the producers in the East” toward one ethnic-regional vision that is anti-indigenous and anti-government. In the same way, the process could be frustrated– even before the legislative obstacles present themselves – if small but radical groups proceed to stimulate land occupations and provoke rural violence. It is not absurd to think that some of these “subjugations” recently produced were encouraged precisely for some illegal property owners to provoke acts of violence and, in this way, necessitate the intervention of state force. Some producers’ organizations and autonomous civic movements in the East have been co-opted by large-scale land owners – who in some cases are also producers – that utilize the guilds of the Cámaras Agropecuarias as umbrellas for their real estate businesses. It remains to be seen what will be the conduct of Constitutional Assembly members on this theme.

Already in 2005, Jorge Quiroga (PODEMOS) set forth to revise the ways of determining the fulfillment of the FES of land, and the “institutionalization and effective independence of all public bodies involved [in the administration of lands], including the prefectures and autonomous departments (las Prefecturas y Autonomías).” In more than one year since, PODEMOS has proposed that the administration, regularization titling process, registration and cadastre, allocation and reversion, and titling of lands should be the function of the autonomous departments in the future. Recently – before the national rejection of civic demands for “full property rights to all natural resources by the departments” – the Pre-Autonomous Council of Santa Cruz planned to modify the current agrarian and campesinos provisions in the State Political Constitution (Constitución Política del Estado – CPE), in a way such that in the future the distribution of work, regrouping and redistribution of agrarian property and migration plans would correspond to the national government, in concurrence with departmental and municipal governments. However, it also proposed that the Constitutional Assembly include an article that states that “in each autonomous department, there is an Agrarian Reform Service Department (Servicio Departamental de Reforma Agraria) with jurisdiction over the whole territory of the department. The titles issued by it are definitive, with the full force of the state and no admission for subsequent recourse, establishing perfect and full property rights for definitive inclusion in the Registry of Real Rights (Registro de Derechos Reales).[3] The political gathering that took place in Santa Cruz to close the campaign for autonomy at the end of June is the true social force used to block Agrarian Reform in the East.[4] At the same time, the veiled threat of President Morales to close the parliament – if Congress does not approve his modifications to the INRA Law – is apparently the weapon being used by the government.

In different regions of the West that are trapped in poverty, landless farmers are placing themselves on lists, as they perceive that this is the final free allocation of lands and that the moment has arrived to mobilize and exert pressure in order to gain access to a piece of land. To not respond to these expectations would generate a profound disenchantment in these popular sectors. However, reversion or expropriation of lands would also generate a conflict of enormous proportions in the East.

The migration to the East must be planned, not stopped

The permanent migration to this region – for a number of decades now – is the product of the land scarcity, demographic change and the persistence of rural poverty in the west. It has taken place within a constant agrarian conflict with an ethnic character, the extreme regional confrontation between the West and the East, between cambas and collas, the greatest expression of which is now seen in the results of the autonomy referendum and the election of assembly members. The country has become newly polarized and divided over the last six months, but now the composition of the Constitutional Assembly is clearly inclined to favor the popular sectors which support the Agrarian Revolution.

In the East, a few but very powerful people – especially those which call for autonomy at all costs – have property titles over vast areas of land that they do not work. They claim legal security for the power to sell these to foreign investors, especially Brasilians that purchase lands to cultivate soy bean. Obviously, these investors need full titles to the lands that they buy, and that means lands that have been re titled [tierras saneadas], given certificates and titles by INRA that are custom-made for the interests of large-scale commercial landowners, who – in many cases – are the same as those who manipulate the civic movements, producers’ guilds, political parties and media outlets.

The conflict for land in the East is also racial. Landless indigenous communities in the Andean region – Quechas and Aymaras – continue to migrate and establish themselves on lands in the East that are not being used, those which non-indigenous property owners claim rights over although many are not worked. These non-indigenous property owners resist the settlements and demand respect for their private property rights. Some medium- and large-scale property owners maintain that the INRA Law has created two classes of citizens: the indigenous, with preferential rights and privileges, who do not have to work the land, nor pay taxes, to retain their rights; and the agricultural producers (as they refer to themselves), with property titles, who pay taxes, generate employment and create prosperity but suffer tenure insecurity and the violation of their property rights. At the same time, the indigenous communities of the West denounced the INRA Law for bringing to an end the free distribution of land for benefit of their families, especially for new colla settlers in the lowlands, and that those lands would end up being placed in the market for the benefit of the non-indigenous. The land thus no longer corresponds those who are working it, but instead to those who have the money to purchase it, violating one of the basic principles of the 1953 Agrarian reform and the current CPE.

The lukewarm and partial application of the INRA Law during the last decade has not been part of any rural development program and has been isolated by other public policies. The reorganization, in terms of the reversion of land to the state in cases of irregularities or non-fulfillment of the FES of land by the big landlords, has been considered by civic and business leaders in the East as a problem invented by the bishops Catholic Church Carta Pastoral, and some NGOs, and not as a solution.[5] Hopefully the law on “Community-based Reapplication of Agrarian Reform” that the government seeks to approve and apply will push a much quicker process of eliminating latifundios and achieving equitable, productive and sustainable distribution of lands in the East, which would benefit thousands of campesinos and indigenous families that desperately need these to survive.

Three main conclusions about the Agrarian Reform

1. Bolivia needs a second Agrarian Reform, particularly in the East, the Amazon and El Chaco. It is in these regions that there clearly is an unproductive concentration of land; the tenure insecurity that results from the existence of multiple titles that are illegal and which, for ten years, reorganization has not been able to identify fully. This community-based reapplication of the reform can be a genuine leap forward to deepen the distribution of lands in the country, bring and end to hidden latifundios and generate wealth and sustainable employment.

2. Reversion – and not expropriation – is the fundamental tool for the effective application of Agrarian Reform. It has been ten years of partial application of the INRA Law and the results have been frustrating; they have satisfied neither indigenous groups and campesinos nor businesses. Modifications to the INRA Law are needed, especially in what which is referred to as the state’s authority to claim idle lands through reversion, respecting the rights of tenure security and recovering lands that were obtained in irregular manners. It is a pity that the MAS government does not put back in place the land tax on medium- and large-size companies that was contained in the INRA Law (1996) but eliminated by Banzer in 1997.

3. The re titling of lands is the instrument which allows for clarification of property rights over land. Re titling is not only a technical-legal procedure designed to regularize and perfect the property rights to land, it is furthermore an instrument which permits the state to recover lands that have been obtained illegally. However, the execution of Agrarian Reform, through re titling of lands, needs a process for reversion through a brief mechanism, which the government still has yet to identify.

Three basic principles for the Constitutional Assembly

1. The Republic of Bolivia is the original rights-holder of the land and all its resources, and corresponds to the government its administration. This is the central point such that, as opposed to other goods and without consideration of its character, land is a natural resource to which property rights rest with all Bolivians, and the state is entrusted to regulate its distribution in accordance with particular criteria so that its use responds to the interest of the whole society.

2. Work is the fundamental source for the acquisition and conservation of agrarian rights. Equitable and sustainable access to land for every citizen is guaranteed by the state, so long as land is used in a manner that is productive and fulfills a socio-economic function in favor of the Bolivian people. Productive work does not mean pillage of the land; it is a matter of sustainable employment drawing on the land in the development of farming, livestock, forestry and other activities (e.g., protection of biodiversity, research, ecotourism).

3. The Republic of Bolivia does not recognize latifundios. The latifundio is that vast extent of land which is not worked or is insufficiently worked. Bolivia is a nation with abundant national resources, but with a population that is majority poor and indigenous, without sufficient land and territory. The existence of large, unproductive rural landowners generates problems of social inequality and, most significantly, impedes rural development.



[1] CEDLA, Vendedores de ilusiones. Propuestas electorales frente a la demanda social. Elecciones generales diciembre 2005. Separata de prensa.

[2] Fundación TIERRA. Informe de gestión 2005. La Paz (ms).

[3] The Pre-Autonomous Council of Santa Cruz proposes that in the Constitutional Assembly, two reformulated articles (165 and 172) are incorporated and an additional inclusion of article 175 from the current CPE, with the text above summarized and transcribed.

[4] According to the registrations of the Civic Committee, more than half a million demonstrators participated in that political gathering; nonetheless, in the city of Santa Cruz there are only 327,347 people who voted yes for autonomy, while 105,282 voted no.

[5] In 2000, the Bishops of Bolivia disseminated the Carta Pastoral, “Land, fertile mother for all”, in which they highlighted the increase in conflict over land access supported concerted efforts for productive and sustainable distribution.

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