Land means different things to different people and different countries handle the problem in very diverse ways. While it is a fact that land rights are extremely important in South America, in Bolivia they are an issue that has taken our government over 60 years to address. However, in Bolivia the land rush problem is a little different from that faced by other countries since the biggest issue here is not land grabbing but regularization of the agrarian reform of 1952.
Why is it different? Because foreign governments and multinational corporations are banned from buying land in Bolivia. The aim of this regulation is clear: to protect our sovereign territory from outsiders. However this legislation has not stopped constant purchases of land by foreign individuals also banned from acquiring land who, to circumvent the system, marry Bolivian women or form partnerships with Bolivian citizens. This strategy has led to progressive foreign land ownership.
How has this come about?
In the past 13 years, and especially in the last four, the agrarian reform has been successful in providing property titles for over 18 million hectares to indigenous groups and peasant communities for collective use. Out of this, 14 million hectares are located in the oriental lowlands (Amazonia) and only 4 million in the highlands. However successful this policy might have been, it has failed to provide land titles to individuals or families in the valleys and highlands as the government proposed when this process of land regularization first started. This is why nowadays there is strong confrontation between the peasant movements of the highlands and the indigenous groups of the lowlands. Out of these 18 million hectares, only a small percentage is available for human settlement because the lands the indigenous groups were given are mainly national parks, natural reserves and biodiversity conservation areas.
Article 396 of the new Constitution, approved by referendum in February 2009, establishes that the State will regulate the land market to avoid accumulation of large areas of land in a few hands. It also specifies that foreigners cannot acquire state lands by any means. However, this doesn’t mean that foreigners cannot buy land from private individuals, be they Bolivian or non-nationals. Nor will any of the large farms that existed before February 2009 be touched as long as they comply with the obligation to have productive land that provides work or products. This restriction is to avoid the existence of “lazy land” where nothing is produced and which are barred to new farmers. It also prohibits landowners from using bonded labor.
Thus the power of foreign landowners is not only concentrated in land and in the growth of oil producers but also in the property like warehouses owned by important commercial houses for the import of supplies, machinery, agrochemicals, and also in transformation industries of oil and its derivates. The general outcome is that over the past two decades (including the period of the Evo Morales government) the agrarian reformation has focused on giving land to indigenous communities.
Land grabbing or just land alienation?
To sum up, in Bolivia there is no land grabbing, if understood as the direct purchase of land by foreign governments or foreign companies. However, based in unofficial information and using complementary research tools, Fundación Tierra concludes that for nearly two decades now there has been progressive foreign ownership of land – of the best agricultural land – especially by Brazilians and Argentineans. In recent years, these two groups have concentrated their purchases on land for livestock. Brazilians and Argentineans own a total of about 1 million hectares of land in Bolivia. Even so, we should note that the biggest landowners in Bolivia are still mainly Bolivian producers and stockbreeders who not only use their lands but also rent or sell them to the highest bidder, thus facilitating the rapid conversion of vast amounts of land for agricultural use and extending the agrarian frontier.
Amazon rainforest or coca plantations?
As large chunks of land are bought or rented to foreigners and Bolivian farmers and stockbreeders grow apace in Santa Cruz, there is another critical matter that also needs to be addressed. This is the smaller farmers who call themselves the Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia and are better known as the colonization movement or the No Land Movement. This complex name clearly refers to the problem of cultural belonging and the cultural ownership of a territory and they took it to emphasize their identity as the indigenous communities. To be clear, we have to say that indigenous communities are the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform process because they never left their lands and because the majority of them live, as stated above, in natural reserves. So, in a sense, these indigenous communities are helping the government protect these lands from deforestation and from foreign ownership.
This was the case for the Territorio Indigena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – TIPNIS (Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure) that has caused some fuss these past months because the government (with Brazilian money) planned to build a road through the park. In protest the communities embarked on a 65 day march from their homes to La Paz to talk to Evo Morales and obtain cancellation of this project. This they did indeed obtain, although many of us still have our doubts about the sincerity of what the president said.
The colonization movement has been trying for decades now to get its share of land because its people have indigenous origins. The problem is that they were forced to migrate in the 60s and 80s from the highlands to lower ones that sadly were not free for them to take. This caused confrontation between the Intercultural colonizers and the indigenous communities as we have seen in the TIPNIS case. The main issue here is that the Intercultural communities plan to plant coca in some regions. In the TIPNIS case the situation is dramatic because if the road were built the coca plantations would have a straight highway to take processed cocaine to the Brazilian border in less than twenty hours. The thing is we don’t want to be cocaine producers, but how many choices do we have considering that coca sells well and uses very small amounts of territory?