KAI RYSSDAL: This week, Bolivia moved forward with plans to re-nationalize the country’s biggest telecommunications company, Entel. It’s all part of the program of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, who came to power in January.
Morales has pledged to return Bolivia’s resources to its people, and to take land from the rich to give to the poor. That slogan won him plenty of votes in this, South America’s poorest nation. Now, Morales want to give an area the size of Nebraska to Bolivia’s disadvantaged Indian majority.
As Mary Stucky reports, land reform has been tried before in Bolivia, but this time it may finally happen.
MARY STUCKY: Two and a half million people, all of them poor and indigenous, could get land — as much as 28 percent of the population. This would complete a process begun in the early 1950s when large haciendas in the Andean highlands were divided into smaller farms. One of those haciendas was owned by the family of Amanda Penaranda.
AMANDA PENARANDA: My mother gave all of the land to the campesinos with papers and everything. And, it’s OK.
Penaranda says it was the right thing to give land to those who work it. But the reforms of the 1950s did not extend to the eastern regions of Bolivia, which were sparsely populated and remote. But over the last 50 years, deforestation has allowed commercial farming to flourish in the eastern lowlands. Farmers now produce soy, cotton and other crops worth $600 million a year, much of it for export.
The Eastern Agricultural Chamber, a business association of farmers, has announced the formation of armed committees to defend their land. Soybean farmer Mauricio Roca says he’s afraid.
MAURICIO ROCA [translator]: I am worried for my land, for my family, for my means of production, for everything. Evo Morales is a dictator. He’s a dictator dressed as an indigenous person.
But for Evo Morales and his supporters this is the struggle their ancestors lost in the Spanish conquest, when the indigenous peoples of Bolivia were virtually enslaved for hundreds of years, their land and riches taken by a minority of white skinned Europeans.
Wilfor Colque Caceres is a leader in the MST, the movement of people without land.
WILFOR COLQUE CACERES [translator]: Our mission is to bring people together in the countryside and to introduce them to a better way of living.
Morales says the farm land larger than 120 acres would be taken and divided up. Edgar Guardia, a Bolivian economist and head of an agrarian development organization, says Bolivia’s large landowners are not going to give up their land without a fight.
EDGAR GUARDIA: And in the end you’re going to have private armies like you have in Colombia and many other countries. So, in the end, a civil war is not a far-away scenario. It could happen.
Economic collapse is another possibility, according to Santa Cruz soybean farmer Mauricio Roca. Roca says the farms in the east are essential to the Bolivian economy, large farms that rely on expensive machinery and access to capital. Roca says it would be an agricultural disaster to have poor campesinos with primitive farming techniques working small plots of land in the east.
ROCA [translator]: If they destroy our capacity to produce, we’re going to be a country that has to import our food and this would be a very serious consequence for a poor country like Bolivia.
Not likely, says Juana Chambi Mejia, raised on a farm in the dry Altiplano, the Highlands of Bolivia, who thinks the indigenous people of Bolivia have always known how to grow food. What her people need is land.
JUANA CHAMBI MEJIA [translator]:“Maybe we don’t have much technology. Perhaps we don’t have the same amount of capital to invest. But they’re the ones who destroy. They do this monoculture cultivation. They destroy the land totally. They deforest. We don’t do that.
For Juana Chambi the land belongs to the poor from whom it was taken away, hundreds of years ago. For big landowners, the land belongs to those who own it now — it’s a matter of property rights. And as for Evo Morales, he seems determined to correct one of the most unequal distributions of land on the continent.
In Bolivia, I’m Mary Stucky for Marketplace.
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