La Paz, Bolivia — A Bolivian court has upheld a government decision to seize a ranch from a U.S. cattleman and his family on the grounds they treated workers as virtual slaves, an official announced Monday
The National Agrarian Tribunal rejected a challenge by Ronald Larsen, a 65-year-old from Montana who has owned the 58-square-mile (15,000-hectare) ranch nearly four decades, deputy land minister Juan Manuel Pinto said at a news conference.
Pinto said the Caraparicito ranch would revert to Guarani Indians, traditional inhabitants of Bolivia's southeastern region, known as the Chaco.
He said the ranch and an adjacent 15-square-mile (3,790-hectare) spread owned by an unrelated family, the Chavezes, would be cleared by authorities and divided among 2,000 Guarani families.
Pinto did not say when the court issued its decision, which is not subject to appeal.
The Larsens could not immediately be reached for comment. They have vehemently denied treating their ranch hands — all of them Guarani natives — as indentured servants.
Larsen moved to the region in 1969, began acquiring land and married a Bolivian. He told The Associated Press last year that he deeded Caraparicito in 2005 to his three sons, all Bolivian citizens.
After leftist President Evo Morales took office in 2006, Larsen became a key target of a government land reform campaign law that deemed servitude grounds for confiscation.
Human rights groups said last year that several thousand Guarani lived in conditions of "forced labor and servitude" in the region, earning as little as $40 a year.
Leaders of the Guarani, Bolivia's third-largest indigenous group after the Aymara and Quecha, claimed in 2008 that 12 families on Larsen's ranch lived in servitude.
Larsen denies that, insisting in interviews with the AP since the government first moved to seize his land in February 2009 that he has treated his workers well.
For four decades, he said, he has fed and clothed workers who would otherwise live in squalor, educated their children and provided them with free health care.
He claims he was singled out as a relatively wealthy white American in a racially divided nation by an Aymara Indian president who grew up dirt poor.
Morales, the Larsens claim, was more interested in getting access to natural gas and petroleum deposits that likely underlie Caraparicito — exploratory drilling began there last year — than in restoring indigenous lands.
Bolivia's government has also confiscated ranches totaling more than 60 square miles (15,500 hectares) from two powerful white opposition leaders in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, the stronghold of Morales' most bitter foes.
The government said the seized land had been fraudulently obtained and met another main criterion for confiscation — that it served no "social or economic purpose."
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.