- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007


Land reform has long been the battle cry of Latin American leftists, not least in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales wants to convert nearly a fifth of the country in in to communal farms.

His revolution has begun here, on a remote riverbank, with a few dozen thatched huts, two Chinese tractors and plenty of hope.

The hamlet of Pueblos Unidos — “People United” — is the first community founded on land redistributed by Mr. Morales, and is a first step in the populist leader’s vision of lifting his countrymen out of South America’s severest poverty.

But the village and its mosquito-choked fields also reveals the immense challenges facing the farmers, from competing with the giant soybean plantations next door to coming up with gasoline for the tractors.

Still, the community founded in September is a dream come true for several hundred formerly landless peasants — a 40,000-acre spread, part of which lies on land expropriated from a soybean farmer.

“We’re no longer talking about whether we can stay here or not, whether the legal papers might come through, whether it’s time to move again,” said Luis Velasquez, a leader in Bolivia’s Landless Movement and unofficial mayor of Pueblo Unidos. “We’re talking about something real.”

Elected a year ago as Bolivia’s first Indian president, Mr. Morales has promised to redistribute a staggering 77,000 square miles — an area the size of Nebraska — among Bolivia’s long-oppressed Indian majority over the next five years.

To meet that goal, Mr. Morales plans to deliver titles to settlers on government land and expropriate private acreage deemed unproductive or fraudulently obtained. But land titles are in a muddle dating back centuries, despite 10 years of efforts by previous governments to sort them out.

The government of Mr. Morales needs to untangle who owns the land while building a government agency to monitor land use across a sparsely populated nation twice the size of France. Ultimately, success will turn on how well his government can help the farmers settling the redistributed land.

Mr. Morales came to Pueblos Unidos in October to donate the tractors, a gas-powered generator and pump for the well. But when the Associated Press visited in December, the tractors and the generator had no fuel, and sat idle in a clearing of dried mud at the village center.

“We have to make this a national effort,” said Miguel Urioste, director of Fundacion Tierra, a La Paz-based nonprofit group monitoring agrarian reform in Bolivia. “We have to work together to provide technical support, training, schools, safe drinking water. Just handing out tractors won’t get it done.”

Without such help, Bolivia risks repeating the history of its original land reform, begun by a 1952 revolution in which poor Aymara and Quechua Indians in the Andean highlands seized the haciendas on which they worked from their European-descended owners.

A law divvied up the haciendas into small farms the following year. But over the next decades a lack of government support doomed many of them.

The 1952 revolution hardly touched eastern Bolivia, where Santa Cruz was then a small, remote city without a highway connecting it to the capital of La Paz, 340 miles to the west.

In the years since, waves of immigrants chased booms in sugar cane, cotton and soy, scraping the countryside around Santa Cruz clear of jungle and setting up the large farms now central to Bolivia’s economy.

These frontier capitalists of Santa Cruz are deeply suspicious of the president’s new brand of Andean socialism, and a widely circulated government list naming some of Bolivia’s largest landowners — many with strong ties to the conservative opposition — has only raised their fears.

The 40,000 acres of Santa Cruz cattle rancher Luis Saavedra is on the president’s list, and he disputes the implication that his land is either ill-gotten or unproductive.

“The government says we don’t work, and that’s just not true,” Mr. Saavedra told the Associated Press. “I work from sunup to sundown, and the money I have has been hard earned.”

For now, no one can be sure whose land — and how much of it — the reforms of Mr. Morales will affect. Wary of future expropriations, banks in Santa Cruz are no longer accepting land as collateral for loans, sending farmers scrambling for credit.

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