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Bolivia to return land to its indigenous poor

Indigenous peasants who marched to the Bolivian capital of La Paz in support of the approval of land law promoted by President Evo Morales' government attend a rally November 28.

BOB MOON: Suppose there was a move to take all the unused land in America and redistribute it to the Native American population? That's essentially what's taking shape right now in Bolivia.

The Bolivian Senate has approved a controversial plan by the country's recently-elected president to reclaim huge parcels of property and hand it over to the country's indigenous poor.

BBC reporter Damian Kahya has been following this developing story in La Paz. Thank you for joining us.

DAMIAN KAHYA: Thank you.

MOON: The news wires coming out of Bolivia say this land redistribution bill finally won approval under some intense pressure from thousands of indigenous protesters. What's the scene been leading up to this?

KAHYA: Well, that's right. These people have been marching, in some cases longer than three weeks. Indigenous people from the countryside and every different part of Bolivia have been marching toward the capital, La Paz.

So, if you can imagine, you had these various different columns of indigenous from every different part of the country dressed in their traditional dress and carrying various different signs and items. In fact, one column was carrying the coffins of some of the leaders of the opposition who were blocking the bill to demand that the opposition-controlled senate pass this law which is backed by the president, Mr. Morales, who is, himself, indigenous. The first indigenous leader.

The actual numbers weren't that large. We're talking between three and eight thousand people. But the effort was huge.

MOON: Now, for the new Bolivian leader this is the fulfillment of a campaign promise, correct?

KAHYA: That's correct. Along with the nationalization of gas, and reform of the law governing coca, redistribution of land was key to Mr. Morales' election. And it's in many ways the most concrete thing that he can give his supporters. He's talking about benefitting over a million people in four to five years. Redistributing about 20 million hectares, that's 77,000 square miles of land — one-fifth of the country's land area.

MOON: You say huge. How much opposition was there?

KAHYA: There's very strong opposition to this and to a number of other things the president is doing. And it's a big surprise to us here, that the law passed at all. Because the opposition was boycotting the senate. But somehow at the very last minute the presiedent's party managed to convince three opposition senators to come into the senate, giving the senate a quorum and they passed not just this law but two other laws in the space of just hours. It was a dramatic event happening at about 11 o'clock here. The law wasn't signed until about midnight.

MOON: What were the arguments against this land redistribution?

KAHYA: The large landowners say that this could destroy Bolivia in agriculture. That dividing the land into smaller plots will make it uneconomic. They say they're giving land to people that don't necessarily know how to farm it, and that they're taking away land that is being used. The government says that only land not being used will be taken away, but obviously that's a matter for debate. And some landowners have threatened to use force to defend their land.

MOON: I saw some of the indigenous leaders were quoted as saying that this was the struggle of their ancestors. How big do they see this victory?

KAHYA: I think that for many this is a bigger victory than the nationalization of oil and gas. A recent survey by the Roman Catholic Church showed that just 50,000 families controlled 90 percent of the productive land in Bolivia. And so for them this is a chance to get the land back, going back hundreds of years from the time that the Spanish came here and took the land away.

MOON: Big changes in Bolivia. Damian Kahya, thank you for joining us.

KAHYA: It's a pleasure.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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