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Bolivia launches "agrarian revolution"
by Fiona Smith    Associated Press
Entered into the database on Monday, June 05th, 2006 @ 12:14:18 MST


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Bolivian indigenous farmer Angelino Aruquipa, left gathers wheat his son Ricardo is harvesting on their 1 hectare farmland by the Titicaca Lake near the city of Guaqui, some 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Bolivian capital La Paz on Saturday, June 3, 2006. Bolivian President Evo Morales will launch a sweeping land reform plan on Saturday by handing over roughly 7,700 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) of state-owned land to poor Indians, the government said. (AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)

Leftist President Evo Morales launched a sweeping land reform plan on Saturday by handing over roughly 9,600 square miles of state-owned land to poor Indians.

Morales marked the start of his "agrarian revolution" just weeks after nationalizing Bolivia's natural gas industry, giving foreign-owned energy companies six months to negotiate new contracts or leave.

Thousands of Indians gathered in the eastern city of Santa Cruz to receive land titles, chanting "Evo!" and waving Bolivian and rainbow whipala flags, which represent 500 years of Indian struggle.

"We want to change Bolivia together," Morales told the crowd. "Getting back the land means we're getting back all the natural resources, we're nationalizing all the natural resources."

Some land titles were handed out Saturday to Indian communities rather than individuals.

The ceremony came after talks broke down between Morales and agribusiness leaders on land reforms that involve handing out 77,000 square miles of government land — an area twice the size of Portugal — over the next five years.

Farmers say they fear mass deforestation. And the government also has promised to redistribute some private holdings, generating further unease. One farmers' group has said it would form self-defense groups to prevent land seizures.

"The greatest need right now is the recuperation of our territory," Wilson Chacaray, a Guarani Indian leader, told the crowd. "The landowners, the foreign companies, the political parties that have always dominated this country took our land from us and that's why we live in misery."

The land currently targeted for redistribution was set aside for that purpose before Morales took office in January. None of it was been confiscated from large landholders. But the government says it will eventually seize and redistribute privately owned land that is unproductive, was obtained illegally or is being used for speculation.

Just under 90 percent of Bolivia's productive terrain is worked by only 50,000 families, leaving millions of Bolivians with little or no land, according to the government.

The government plan is heightening long-standing tension between the prosperous residents of Bolivia's agricultural lowlands and the poorer, mostly Indian people of the western high plains. Much of the terrain targeted for reform is state land located in the fertile eastern lowlands.

Alejandro Almaraz, Bolivia's vice minister of land, praised the initial hand-overs, saying the government will ensure the sustainable management of the land and no forests or protected natural areas would be touched.

"It's land that has no legal problems," Almaraz said. "And we believe that it's not right to try to block this measure, when it's going to help many poor people that have been waiting and need this land to improve their life."

Farmers have objected to the pace of the reforms, saying they fear possible environmental damage from mass deforestation could harm their own farms.

"They're going to carry out a political plan for something that first requires technical structuring, infrastructure and training," said Mauricio Roca, vice president of the powerful Eastern Agricultural Chamber.

Roca said the chamber does not oppose land reform, but prefers a more gradual redistribution program combined with agricultural training.

Agribusiness leaders said Friday they had cut off dialogue with Morales because the government refused to make any concessions on its proposals.

Officials said Morales on Saturday also would sign executive decrees speeding up government land redistribution, which has already dragged on for more than a decade as Bolivia's justice system slowly untangled title disputes.

On Wednesday, the National Farming Confederation said it would form "self-defense" groups to defend land it feared could be confiscated. It did not give details, but the Morales administration said the groups would be illegal.

The land dispute underscored the growing tensions between Morales and Bolivia's business leaders, which escalated after Morales nationalized Bolivia's natural gas industry in May.

On Friday, seven of the country's nine leading business federations issued a statement saying Bolivia's "prospects for a better future are being diluted by actions based on ideology, politics and foreign influence." Morales' conservative opponents have criticized his close ties with the leftist governments of Cuba and Venezuela.

The government on Saturday responded by calling the business leaders "traitors."