Agrarian Reform Legislation
By Andean Information
17 December, 2006
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. 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. 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
*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
*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
*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
*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
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
 Constitución Política
del Estado. Bolivia. Articles 22, 165, 167.
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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