Chávez and Morales Take On Sweeping Measures at Land Reform

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  • Andean leaders engage in radical measures to redistribute large, often unproductive agricultural holdings
  • Bolivia risks witnessing a violent class war in the cause of indigenous rights
  • Chávez seeks to utilize land that historically has been underutilized in an effort to bolster national food production
  • Land reform is being visited by the winds of change
  • Latin America’s battalion of left-leaning leaders has been in full voice as they turn to achieve the land reform goals of the Bolivarian Revolution. This oft-quoted but somewhat vague social ideal is loosely centered on populist measures such as the equitable distribution of private land and the abatement of poverty. The tenets of this revolution are best seen today at work in Venezuela and Bolivia, where Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales attempt to achieve their objectives through vigorously promoted land reform initiatives.

    Historically, much of the land parcels in these Andean nations has been under the tight control of a relatively select few multinational corporations, as well as elite European-descended land-holding families. Many of the latter were for decades, often sanctioned by corrupt officials to use coercion or other unscrupulous practices, including counterfeit land titles, to wrest land with murky legitimacy from the indigenous population. Today, leaders like Chávez and Morales are striving to rectify history’s injustices by returning the property back to its original owners. These grassroots initiatives on the part of the indigenous have been controversial, to say the least, and have repeatedly brought both nations to the brink of class warfare.

    Repercussions of the January 25th Referendum
    Since the enactment of the January 25, 2009 constitutional referendum, in which 61 percent of Bolivians voted in favor of ratifying, President Evo Morales has initiated a series of measures aimed at improving the rights of the 4 million indigenous peoples who make up nearly two-thirds of his country’s total population. In addition to increasing the autonomy of provincial governments, as well as granting designated indigenous representation in congress, the referendum results also will limit individual private landholdings. This stand-off undoubtedly will perpetuate an already existing tense situation between the wealthy landowners of the eastern lowlands and the pro-indigenous Morales administration. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) stated that in the eastern region of Bolivia, 25 million hectares (62 million acres) of top-quality agricultural land is managed by a mere 100 select families. The remaining 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of arable land in the country are shared among 2 million campesinos.

    Now coming off a big win, Morales will have the theoretical ability to remain in power until 2014, which is not likely to diminish the opposition’s hostility towards him, but rather intensify it. In this milieu, social harmony is bound to be more difficult to obtain. This is due to the deeply rooted social conflict which for years has been besieging Bolivia and the growing political and economic influence being sought after by the indigenous majority. Whereas a triumphant Morales and his indigenous supporters may view the new constitution as an egalitarian and empowering document, the white Europeanized opposition understandably perceive it as discriminatory and insensitive to their special needs. One thing is for certain, land distribution in this Andean nation has long been a source of strained relations between the indigenous majority and the elite minority.

    Morales, of the Aymara ethnic group, appears determined to drastically restructure and democratize Bolivia’s historically unequal agrarian land holding patterns. “The concentration of land in Bolivia appears to be among the worst in the entire world,” contend Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “The largest farms, although only 0.63 percent of the total, encompasses more than 66 percent of all agricultural land. At the other end of the spectrum, 86 percent of farms account for just 2.4 percent of agricultural land, and many other rural farmers own no land at all.”

    Bolivian Land Reform
    In the first of what would be a number of attempts at reorganizing land usage patterns, former president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, led the fight to enact the 1953 Agrarian Reform Law. The measure, which is largely seen as an underlying cause for the present tension over land ownership, granted indigenous peoples modest plots of land while massive landholdings were bestowed upon the non-indigenous fraction of the population in an attempt to develop the country’s fading agricultural sector. According to a 2007 COHA report by research associate Laura Starr, “the Bolivian reform being promoted at that time affected 32 million hectares (79 million acres) of land, which were distributed to 40,000 medium and small-sized family farmers. At the same time, more than half a million indigenous and peasant families divided up only about 4 million hectares (10 million acres), almost exclusively in the less favorable western highlands of the country.” In 1996, former president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, initiated a would-be land reform measure that defined itself as seeking to boost national productivity levels. As a result of the law, land had to serve a social or economic purpose.

    Douglas Hertzler, a highly-regarded anthropologist working in Bolivia, asserts that, “the law made large speculative landholdings subject to redistribution to the landless, but it failed to establish adequate criteria to regulate this process, so that land redistribution did not move forward.” Initially paying little attention to the strong opposition movement emanating from the eastern provinces, Morales now appears eager to make lasting changes to Bolivia’s traditionally preferential and asymmetrical land distribution policies.

    According to the World Bank, the richest 10 percent of Bolivians consume 22 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Morales observed this during a speech he gave in March to a group of Guaraní Indians, “Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency.” He continued, “Today, from here, we are beginning to put an end to the giant landholdings of Bolivia.” That same day, Morales granted over 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) of land to indigenous communities. But lowland elites, like Ronald Larsen, have vehemently opposed such measures. Larsen, an ardent opponent of Morales’ policies, purchased vast land holdings in the southeastern region of the country. Although he has spent the last 40 years working the land, recent Morales-inspired measures may well lead to the expropriation of the majority of it. “They’re taking it away over my dead body,” said Larsen.

    The January constitutional referendum curbs landholdings to 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) as well as requires land to serve at all times a social or economic function. While Morales’ latest initiatives certainly have provoked uproar as well as praise, the efficacy of such reforms remains a serious question. Meanwhile, Bolivia is not the only country in the region attempting to overhaul its land tenure system.

    A Look at Recent Venezuelan Land Reform Attempts
    It was soon after Chávez took office in 1999 that he began to reorganize Venezuela’s agricultural land use policy under the label “Vuelta al Campo” (Return to the Countryside). This should come as no surprise, as Venezuela has had a long history of unbalanced land ownership. For example, in 1937, large haciendas of 1,000 hectares or more were owned by only 4.8 percent of landowners, but comprised 88.8 percent of all cultivatable land. In 2001, Chávez initiated progressive legislation entitled the “Law on Land and Agrarian Development.” This measure allowed for the Chávez government to seize large tracts of land and redistribute them as it deemed appropriate. The measure was enacted by the government in an attempt to bridge the vast inequality gap in Venezuela, a nation where much of the wealth traditionally remained in the hands of a select few.

    According to the CIPE Development Institute, prior to the 2001 reforms, 5 percent of the Venezuelan population owned 80 percent of the land. What is more shocking is that 60 percent of agricultural laborers have no ownership over the land they work. As a result, since the passing of the law eight years ago, Venezuelans have witnessed tensions rise between the landed elites and the landless working-class population.

    President Chávez worked quickly to redistribute land holdings once land reforms had been passed. In 2003, he assigned his older brother, Adán Chávez, to head the process. Adán enacted the “Plan Ezequiel Zamora,” which, over a one year period, redistributed nearly 1.5 million hectares of land to 130,000 families. Over the next year, the Chávez government distributed another 500,000 hectares to poor farmers throughout the nation.

    While there has been a degree of success in the implementation of land redistribution programs, it has come at no small cost. Campesino leaders who have been trying to enforce the new land reform measures for years, have had to face violent oppression at the hands of the land owners and their private forces. According to Venezuela Analysis, more than 200 rural leaders have been murdered since the reforms passed, and the true number may be twice that figure. The murders are thought to have been carried out by thugs hired by the elite, whose land is now under threat of seizure by the government. These forces are often unorganized, but nonetheless, have been able to bring terror to Venezuela’s countryside much like the paramilitary vigilante forces that were formed to protect threatened land barons in Colombia.

    Chávez’s Recent Initiatives
    In the past several months, Caracas has been unusually active in putting its mind to accumulating land for redistribution and for public infrastructural purposes. In an unusually forceful manner, the government’s National Land Institute (INTI) recently expropriated one parcel of over 2,800 hectares (7000 acres) with the help of National Guard troops for fear that recent clashes between the entrenched landowners and the landless peasants would spiral out of control. In some cases, such land holdings have been largely idle despite their rich soil and great potential for agriculture. Despite ample arable land, Venezuela has historically imported the majority of its food supplies. With the advent of its growing wealth from oil drilling royalties, Venezuela shifted away from using its landholdings for subsistence agriculture in favor of growing cash crops. This meant that while the middle class could readily pay for imported produce, the same could not be said about the poor. Thus, characteristically, land has been held by affluent Venezuelans as a symbol of prestige rather than a source of food production.

    A 2005 BBC report made the point that the Chávez administration, “insists it is impossible for Venezuela to grow enough food for the poor, as long as so much land is in the hands of so few.” This is a principal force behind Venezuela’s current land redistribution initiative. The government is now in the process of taking over some of Venezuela’s largest and most profitable farms as well as estates that have been either ignored or underused. Venezuela’s president undoubtedly has the best of intentions in carrying out these actions, most notably the creation of sustainable development. This effort is in stark contrast to the current agricultural situation in much of the nation, where international companies, such as Ireland’s Smurfit Kappa have grown crops on Venezuelan acreage that didn’t offer long term sustainability, but drained the soil of precious minerals. After taking control of 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) that belonged to the Dublin based group, Chávez explained, “We are going to use all the eucalyptus wood sensibly and harvest other things there, beans, corn, sorghum, cassava and yam.”

    Despite his push for land reform, Chávez has not found universal solidarity behind it within his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Governor of the state of Portuguesa, Wilmar Castro, a member of PSUV, has publicly criticized recent expropriations of land for use by landless peasants, blaming the government for its failure to redistribute land through proper legal channels. Governor Castro’s policy is strongly at odds with federal law that allows peasants to utilize unoccupied private land. Another incident that shows the increasingly fractured nature of Venezuelan society occurred on April 17. Authorities in the state of Portuguesa evicted more than sixty landless farmers and three INTI workers from privately owned land that state officials had marked for appropriation and redistribution. With local authorities completely disregarding the policies emanating from Caracas, it is unclear how Chávez will be able to enforce his policies at the provincial level.

    If the state achieves its goal, land that has been expropriated will be turned over to what, in many cases, are newly formed agrarian communes that will specialize in cultivating crops native to the region. Such measures will ensure the long-term viability of the land, encourage the employment of local campesinos, and supply food to subsidized markets all over the country. According to a 2006 report entitled “Land Reform in Venezuela,” Chávez also hopes to build a food processing plant and research center on some of the expropriated government land to ensure that Venezuela’s facilities remain on par with other agricultural nations in the region.

    Food security has been a recent hot-button issue in Venezuela. Under Article 305 of the constitution, the president has the authority to seize any land he sees fit if it is in the interest of food security. This was most recently reflected when Chávez ordered the expropriation of U.S. food giant Cargill on claims that the company was selling rice at prices that exceeded the legal limit for the country. Chávez has good reason to be worried about his nation’s food supply, as it currently imports 70 percent of Venezuelan food that is consumed from abroad. With rising import costs, it has been wise of him to bolster Venezuela’s self-sufficiency by allocating unused land to farmers who have a demonstrated zeal for producing crops. A 2005 land reform law decreased the amount of idle land one could hold. As a result of this, one could allow high quality land to be idle only if it was 50 hectares or less in size, which cut the original figure that one had to meet in half. The limits on unused, low quality holdings were also lowered, decreasing from 5000 hectares to 3000 hectares. Any idle lands above these two limits were subject to peasant invasion and eventual redistribution by the National Land Institute.

    According to Minister of Agriculture and Lands, Elias Jaua, land reform already has allowed for a massive increase in national food production. Almost 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of the redistributed land are now producing food for domestic consumption, including meat, grain, and vegetables. This staggering amount accounts for nearly 90 percent of the total land appropriated for redistribution.

    If those whose lands were expropriated by the government wish to legally challenge the authorities, they will face a long and arduous process. According to Cort Greene, a Latin American political analyst, in 2005 the government legalized preemptive occupation by giving the peasants who storm large estates cartas agrarias. Such documents dictate nothing in terms of formal ownership rights, but nonetheless grant peasants the right to use the land and profit from it until all legal disputes are finalized. The distribution of these cartas essentially ignores prior legal contracts and land deeds and grants the property to whoever professedly will make the best use of it.

    The Future of Land Ownership

    Having never fully recovered from the declination brought about by the Spanish conquest, the indigenous of South America have, to a large degree, experienced systematic inequality, often being viewed as little better than chattel. The issue of land reform is not peripheral to this process. In Bolivia, two-thirds of the land is owned by one percent of the population. Prior to Morales’ recent reforms, indigenous peoples, who represent the country’s clear ethnic majority, controlled under 10 percent of the land.

    In contrast to Bolivia, the indigenous population of Venezuela only accounts for a mere 2 percent of the total population. While Chávez has not made land reform an entirely indigenous-focused issue, he certainly has done his part in trying to ensure that Venezuela’s first people get their due compensation. However, many of Venezuela’s indigenous do not think of land as a top priority, and disagree with policies emanating from Caracas. In a January 15 article in the Economist titled “Venezuela’s Indigenous People: A Promise Unkept,” Rosario Romero, an indigenous Yukpa, explains, “Invasions are very bad. The ranchers worked for what they have.” She adds that, contrary to what radical Yukpa leaders say, her parents never suggested these lands were theirs. Romero’s perspective offers an interesting look into the dichotomy that helps explain Venezuela’s land reform. Although she may have a minority opinion, it is important to note that there is more to this issue than meets the eye.

    Yet Chávez and Morales are not the only Latin American governments reworking land titles. The Movimiento Sem Terra, or Landless Peasants Movement, established in 1980, has attempted to dramatically alter Brazil’s historically unjust system of land distribution. At times, however, the movement’s supporters have had to pressure an occasionally reluctant Lula administration. Moreover, in 2008, Raul Castro initiated a land reform program that sought to redistribute unutilized state-owned land to cooperatives.

    Land reform historically has been one of the fundamental activities on any “must” list of progressive governments. In an attempt to secure a guaranteed food supply, former Chilean president, Salvador Allende, initiated a sweeping land reform. This came at a time when only 8 percent of Chile’s gross national product (GNP) came from the countryside. From 1971 to 1972, 3,282 farms were expropriated by the Allende administration. While the reform initiatives were largely popular, they did polarize the electorate into two bitterly divided sides. Harvard research fellow, Thomas John Bossert argues that, “the revolutionary effect of such [agrarian] reforms is usually seen as coming not from beneficiaries of the reform, but rather from those frustrated by the failure of the reform to grant them land.”

    Both Chávez and Morales have taken worthy first steps towards a less discriminatory distribution of land, but both leaders still have much work yet to be done with those who they have since agitated. Nevertheless, a wave of optimism has swept across the affected region, where steps have been taken to grant more equitable land rights to a rural population which historically has been discriminated against. While Chávez and Morales are gaining political capital by distributing land to the masses, they also risk alienating some of the most productive sectors of society. In the end, and with the best of intentions, they may be doing harm to both of the countries’ long-term political and economic stability. But the concern of an equitable reform of the land remains an issue calling out for redress.