Christophe Ena/AP
Bolivian President Evo Morales

Bolivian President Demands Redistribution of Land

March 16, 2009 03:31 PM
by Denis Cummings
After seizing the land of a high-profile rancher, President Evo Morales called on Bolivia’s wealthy landowners to hand over property to poor indigenous peoples.

Morales Calls for Land Redistribution

Bolivian President Evo Morales said Saturday that he expects Bolivia’s wealthy landowners to voluntarily give up property to poor Indians. “There are people … who don’t want to end large landownership,” he said. “Those people should voluntarily give up their (excess) land to people who have none.”

Morales was speaking at a ceremony held on the ranch of American Ronald Larsen, who was among several wealthy landowners in eastern Bolivia to have his land seized by the government for redistribution to Guarani Indians. Larsen has been one of the most prominent opponents of Morales’ land reform.

The leftist Morales has made land reform one of his biggest priorities since taking office in 2006. In January, voters passed a new constitution that allows the government to take control of all natural resources; it also limits single farms to 12,400 acres and establishes social and economic conditions that must be met by farmers.
Morales accused Larsen of mistreating the Guarani Indians working on his 88,960-acre ranch, forcing them to work under slave-like conditions. “It is not that these lands were not in production, but that they were the site of human rights violations against the Guarani, who will now be their new owners,” he said.

The battle between Morales and Larsen has come to symbolize the growing divisions between Morales’ socialist government, which has the widespread support of Bolivia’s indigenous people, and his conservative opponents, who tend to be wealthy landowners of European descent.

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Background: Morales and Bolivia’s political divisions

Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was elected in 2005 under promises that he would give indigenous peoples more land and greater influence in the government.

He has faced resistance from Bolivia’s wealthy urban and landowning elites, particularly those in the eastern province of Santa Cruz. In May 2008, the province passed a referendum demanding autonomy from the “totalitarian and hegemonic centralism” of the Bolivian government.

Ronald Larsen, a Montana native who first bought land in Bolivia 1969, became a symbol of the opposition to Morales’ land reform last year after he and his son Duston were involved in an armed showdown with Land Minister Alejandro Almaraz, who was performing an inspection of the ranch in preparation for seizure.

The growing division in the country led to an August recall referendum for Morales and eight regional governors, including four eastern governors who strongly opposed Morales. Morales easily won his referendum, as did the governors in the eastern provinces, illustrating the deep divisions in the country.

Morales’ referendum victory cleared the way for the passage of his leftist constitution in January. The new constitution grants greater power to indigenous peoples and allows the government to take control of natural resources.

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