Sharp limits to agrarian reform in Bolivia

Honor Brabazon and Jeffery Webber have just released a new research article on the state of agrarian reform in Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales. The paper, available as a pre-print from the Journal of Agrarian Change, offers a disconcerting look at the state of land redistribution six years after Morales signed a law promising community-led “redirection of the Agrarian Revolution.” The paper is compelling because it puts the experiences and views of the Bolivian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST; the same initials as its better-known Brazilian counterpart) alongside hard data on the redistribution of land produced by the La Paz-based research unit Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA).

I’ve previously covered the most dramatic shift in Bolivian land tenure on this blog, the dramatic reordering of large swaths of land into “Native Community Lands,” (TCOs) collectively controlled indigenous territories throughout the country that now constitute nearly a fifth of the country. The same process of clarification of land title was promised to yield a revolution in the prospects of landless and near-landless peasants. The data presented and translated by Brabazon and Webber shows that promise was not to be.

The story of land reform in Bolivia has long been a regional one. The sweeping 1953 Land Reform Decree was the product of rural uprisings across the Altiplano and the central Valleys which left the vast eastern lowlands essentially untouched. There, a relatively small number of landowners built vast export-oriented monocultural plantations over the next five decades. Both the predominantly lowland MST and Evo Morales spoke of these large holdings as ”latifundio,” oversized properties that deserve to be redistributed for the common good. However, land reform requires one of two causes to take away land from its owner. Either the field is used for illegal labor exploitation, or it is failing to fulfill its “economic and social function.” The latter term essentially applies to fields left in disuse for long periods. As it turned out, neither cause applies to the agribusinesses of the east:

the types and delimitations of latifundio designated for expropriation by the MAS government through the LRCRA and official policy documents are not those that predominate in the structure of the Bolivian agrarian economy; therefore, the large capitalist landowners who obtain rent from the land, along with the agrarian capitalist enterprises that obtain their profits through the exploitation of their salaried workforce, have not and will not be affected by the ‘agrarian revolution’. (19)

A small number of farms have been expropriated ”due to the presence of bonded labour, semi-slavery, slavery or other illegal labour practices,” but just 54,734 hectares. Another 855,823 hectares owned by medium- and large-propertyholders were incorporated into TCOs. But when the government speaks of “land redistribution,” it pulls out far larger numbers. As Brabazon and Webber point out, “the overwhelming bulk of these redistributed lands were transfers from various forms of state-owned lands (tierras fiscales) to TCOs” or even the re-categorization from one form of collective ownership to another. Meanwhile, “one-third of the [national] territory will remain in the hands of the medium and large agro-industrial firms.”

Brabazon and Webber provide a sobering conclusion: “The same social class that ruled over agricultural production in 2005 continues to rule today in 2012” (21).

In honor of #NewResearchThursday / #NRTh, one attempt to increase the content to signal ratio on social media.

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