Land and land reform in Bolivia: where are we now?

By Bolivia Information Forum
Land holding and land reform has been one of the central drivers behind political dynamics in Bolivia in recent years. The BIF held an international seminar on land and politics in Santa Cruz in 2008, where the issue of stark inequality in landholding was highlighted, along with the need for redistribution and greater equity. We now take the opportunity to assess the success of government policies and examine the current situation regarding competing claims for control of land.
Processes – land titling by the INRA and the creation of TIOCs
During the 1990s, in response to the situation of gross inequality in land ownership and landlessness of many peasant and indigenous communities, social movements – particularly lowland indigenous groups - had pushed for a new process of land reform. This was finally initiated in 1996 with the passing of the “INRA law” which established the National Land Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA). The idea was to create a more equitable distribution of land in the country through a process of “saneamiento”, or land-titling.
The INRA law also enabled indigenous groups claiming ancestral land to be awarded Communal Indigenous Lands (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen - TCOs). Following the constitutional reform in 2009, TCOs became known as territories (Territorio Indigena Originaria Campesina - TIOCs). These brought the TCOs into line with the legal framework of the new constitution, granting them exclusive rights over the use of renewable resources on their territories.
The TIOCs are located throughout Bolivia in the western highlands, the inter-Andean valleys and the eastern lowlands, altogether totalling 20.7 million hectares, which represents just under a fifth of the recognised cultivable land in Bolivia. Some measure several million hectares and contain many small communities. For example, Nor Lipez and Sur Lipez in Potosí department measure 1.99 and 1.55 million hectares, and have populations of just 10,460 and 4,905 people respectively. There are also TIOCs that are affiliated to campesino organisations rather than indigenous organisations, such as Ayopaya in the Cochabamba valleys.
While companies and bigger landowning interests had won out after the previous period of land reform (particularly after the periods of dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s) the situation has now changed with indigenous peoples and campesinos being the main beneficiaries. Some 800,000 people have benefited since the INRA law was passed in 1996 (see also article by Juan Carlos Rojas).
Outstanding issues:

Land for farmers from the western highlands
The 1953 agrarian reform affected principally the western highlands and valleys, with main beneficiaries in these areas being the campesinos. Families received small plots of land, that with successive generations have often become tiny. The great majority of the rural population lives in the highlands (Andean valleys and Altiplano) and this population continues to grow. With no more land available in the highlands, many people are left with few options than to migrate.
Previously a safety-valve for this growing pressure on the land was the process of planned “colonisation”, whereby rural families were settled on productive land in the valleys and lowlands by the National Colonisation Institute (INC). However this office was closed in 1992 amid government corruption scandals. Subsequent colonisation has lacked proper planning and has taken place spontaneously. Many highland peasants now migrate to urban centres in Bolivia, increasing already overcrowded peripheral settlements. They also migrate abroad to Argentina and Europe, where they often face discrimination and hardship.
The serious problem of the minifundio has therefore not been tackled.
TIOCs vs. individual land titles
One of the major problems of land holding has been partly tackled with the finding of solutions to the land issues of indigenous groups, where often small numbers of people have achieved title to large tracts of land, held collectively. However, this contrasts with the situation that the more numerous campesino population is facing, with generally small plots which they own as individuals and families. The logic of landholding is therefore different.
Some campesino organisations see the large tracts of land granted to indigenous groups as unfair treatment compared to what they have received. The disparity is particularly evident where peasants have settled on the perimeter of TIOCs.
The extension of indigenous landholding also raises issues of governance. TIOCs are governed by the communities that inhabit them, with the indigenous organisations and their authorities being responsible for deciding how to use the land and renewable natural resources on it. They therefore enjoy an important degree of autonomy. This can create conflicts with the state where interests differ. The TIPNIS dispute is one such example (see BIF Bulletin No. 20). Further disputes of this sort are highly likely. Rethinking land policy would therefore be one way of pre-empting such disputes.
Redistribution: some successes/emblematic cases
Another route would be to redistribute land held beyond the current legal limit by large landowners in the eastern lowlands. During its first period in office, the government promised substantial redistribution at the expense of large landowners.
In the process of saneamiento, the government has so far seized over 10 million hectares of land from landowners or businesses that failed to show legal rights to their property or were unable to show that the land was being productively used. In some cases landowners were allowed to stay, but had their areas of land reduced.
Emblematic cases where large landowners have been targeted include that of Ronald Larssen, a US citizen whose ranch was seized and redistributed after the government deemed that indigenous people were working in a situation of debt-servitude. His land was given to the Guarani people who live and work there. Land held illegally by the former head of the Comité Pro Santa Cruz, Branko Marinkovic, has also been seized by the state.
The department of Pando has also seen an important transformation. Indigenous peasants who were working as Brazil nut collectors in conditions of debt bondage were awarded the land they worked on after 2.3 million hectares that had been controlled by a few hundred landowners was seized by the INRA.
Unfinished business – large landowners in Santa Cruz
Since 2011, the process of land titling and redistribution has slowed. A referendum held in January 2009 (at the same time as the referendum on the constitution) limited individual landowning at 5,000 hectares, but this was not made retroactive. This had the effect of legitimising large extensions of land already accumulated, subject to compliance with rules governing social and economic use. Landowners are also able to dodge the 5,000 hectares limit by dividing holdings between family members and business partners.
There are some 5 million hectares of the best agricultural land in Santa Cruz which are presently in the hands of large landowners. In many cases this land was accumulated through political favours during the dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s. There are also a growing number of foreign landowners (particularly Brazilians, Argentines and Mennonites) who have purchased land cheaply in Santa Cruz. According to some estimates, there are some 1.5 million hectares of this land that is not serving the economic and social function which could be subject to repossession and redistribution.
As Juan Carlos Rojas argues, the MAS government appears to have softened its approach to large landowning in the last few years. It was indeed suggested at the Social Summit in Cochabamba last December that the verification of the economic and social function of land in the east would take place every five (as opposed to two) years. Some see this as the result of an understanding between the MAS government and agribusiness interests, given the importance of the latter in providing for the country’s food needs. It may also be the case that the economic elites of Santa Cruz see collaboration with the government as a more propitious approach than the sort of conflict that broke out in 2008. By responding to such overtures, the government has isolated groups like the Comité Pro Santa Cruz. But those who stand to lose are the potential beneficiaries of land reform, the campesinos of the minifundios, first amongst them.
Republished from Bolivia Information Forum

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