|English | Español||June 25, 2017 | Issue #39|
Land War in Bolivia
Conflict for Territory and Power
By Jean Friedsky
Peasant farmers working at the occupied Collana Ranch shortly after the takeover.
Photo: D.R. Lucian Read 2003
Here in Bolivia, the words “la tierra” (the land) imply more than a piece of the ground. They have hidden meanings — power, racism, violence, suffering, struggle and hope — depending on who is speaking them.
Bolivia may have gained international recognition for recent uprisings around water and gas, but this Guerra de la Tierra (Land War) is a daily bloody backdrop to the mass mobilizations that capture the world’s attention. It’s a battle for survival and sovereignty being waged in every corner of the country; a power conflict that is, in essence, rooted in colonial history of the white elite and the indigenous majority.
The national, 50,000-member-strong Landless Movement (Movimiento Sin Tierra, MST) has led the fight to equalize land ownership in a country where 90 percent of the population owns 7 percent of the cultivatable land, where campesinos (peasant farmers) primarily work as peons for large estates or have been forced to leave the countryside altogether. Over the past five years, MST has centralized the issue of landownership in country’s political agenda primarily by taking over owned land.
Territory disputes between indigenous peoples and the ancestors of colonizers are a common occurrence in post-colonial nations. Often, the two groups argue over scant remaining sectors of fertile ground. Bolivia’s conflict differs remarkably because here, there is ample unused land.
This abundance of land is only part of the background necessary to understand the current conflict. Bolivia’s existing territorial relations — and the war waged around them — is rooted in the state’s failed attempts to equalize land ownership during the last 50 years. The first effort at land reform, the 1953 Agrarian Reform Law, aimed to eliminate forced labor, outlaw latifundios (large estates of as many as 800,000 acres), and give land titles to the country’s majority campesino population, which owned little of the country’s 417 million acres of land.
Campesinos had high expectations for true reform following the 1952 revolution. However, because of widespread corruption, the law “liberated [a select group] of campesinos in the west but gave them no more than a tiny piece of land… and in the east, [the law], ironically… opened the valves for the extension of the large estates,” found a study by the Bolivia-based Land Foundation in 2002. Between 1952 and 1996, 55 million acres were distributed to a few thousand large landowners while hundreds of thousands of campesinos had to split 45 million acres.
The 1990s brought a wave of reforms to end corruption and rectify what the Agrarian Reform Law had allowed to become the norm: single owner large estates, each ranging from 25,000 up to 700,000 acres, much of which is uncultivated land. Most significantly, Bolivia passed Law #1715, known as the “INRA Law” (from the Spanish initials for the National Institute for Agrarian Reform), in 1996, requiring that all plots of owned land be used for some purpose — be it for housing, livestock, community space or farming. The new law established a state-run process for the government to seize alleged unused land and redistribute it to campesinos.
But patronage and bureaucracy persisted. Exact figures are hard to come by, but even the most generous statistics show that between 1996 and 2003, 79 million acres were distributed (or redistributed) to 40,000 people in large parcels and only 10 million acres were awarded to 550,000 campesinos, meaning most are forced to live on plots less than 5 acres.
After 50 years of state-run attempts to equalize land ownership, it had become clear, as the European research group Equipo Nizkor found, that “the paradigm of ‘land for those who work,’ the central precept of the Law of Agrarian reform, [had] been replaced by a new paradigm: ‘land for those who pay for it’.”
The Bolivian Landless are a scattered people with shared characteristics.
Campesinos meet to discuss future strategies at the Yuquises settlement, in Santa Cruz.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Noah Friedsky
Some live in rural areas, working on large estates in conditions of virtual indentured servitude or on corners of rented land.
Others lack even land on which to work. They drive mini-buses, clean houses or sell products on the street in nearby cities, having migrated to support their families as neo-liberal policies reduced the viability of small agricultural producers during the 1980s and 90s.
They hope to live off the Pachamama (mother earth) without patrons looking over their backs.
They have become names on stacks of papers piled high in state offices waiting to make their way through the bureaucratic mess that is Bolivia’s land redistribution system.
And now, after half a century of unfulfilled government promises, they are deciding to take matters into their own hands.
In 1991, Bolivia ratified International Labour Organization Convention #169, of which article 14 guarantees “the rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognized.” In addition, the convention continues, “measures shall be taken in appropriate cases to safeguard the right of the peoples concerned to use lands not exclusively occupied by them, but to which they have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities.”
With the right to land on the books, the state’s failure to safeguard the indigenous population’s makes the current inequality not just unfair, but illegal.
From this basis, “we have announced our legitimacy and necessity,” explained Saisari in Sociology of Bolivian Social Movements. “These are the most important parts [of our struggle] and no one can take them away from us.”
The movement began in the department (state) of Tarija in 2000. At the time of the MST’s birth, 92 percent of the province was owned by 8 percent of the agricultural producers according to a 2002 in-depth study of the region by the Land Foundation. Approximately 80 percent of the area’s campesinos had no land title at all, the study found. This region had become the epicenter of conflict because the polarized landscape demonstrated the state’s inability to enforce the laws of land access. With thousands of campesinos suffering and frustrated because of this, the MST had a ready organizing base.
In coordination with several other social movement groups, most notably the CSUTCB (Bolivia’s national campesino federation), thousands of landless campesinos held their inaugurating march for the “Recuperation of our Mother Earth, Life and Dignity” on June 9, 2000 in Tarija. The March ignited the energy of the campesino population across the country, which saw in the burgeoning group an opportunity for self-determination and real change.
Bolivia’s MST leaders took inspiration and guidance from the well-established Brazilian landless movement. Most significantly, Bolivia’s young movement decided to use the same strategy as its neighbors.
“We distinguish ourselves as unique from other [Bolivian] social organizations that we have seen and analyzed,” explained MST founder Angel Duran in an interview with Garcia-Linera, Costas and Chavez, “because of what we have defined as our central action, which is more direct and more effective [than other tactics]…the direct occupation of large estate land.” (emphasis added)
MST members are therefore those who not only lack land, but also have a willingness to fight. That is, as Avila notes, “they are disposed to taking over land.” 
Martin Machicado, head of MST-La Paz, explains: “The only thing we seek is a piece of land for those who do not have a place to work. We believe the state should give that to us, but given the history of the past 50 years, with or without a title, we enter the land and begin to work.”
Perhaps the most famous takeover (and current settlement) is Pananti, located in the province of Gran Chaco. On June 23, 2000, two hundred campesino families entered this private property, making it the first official MST occupation.
This estate was an archetype of what would become the norm for MST takeovers. “We don’t just take whatever piece of land there is,” says Machicado. In contrast, MST’s takeovers are calculated grabs at “available” land, often belonging to known enemies of the Bolivian left.
Prior to every occupation, MST identifies large estates that are unused and therefore in violation of the requirement that owned land meet a “social or economic function.” The campesinos appeal first to the state, requesting that the land be seized and titled to them. They occupy and work the land only after a month or two lapses without government response.
Gran Chaco is primarily a livestock region, but the soil yields corn, wheat, soy and potatoes. As Pananti residents began communally farming and raising animals on their new 7,500 acres, they continued the long bureaucratic march to win deeds to their new home.
Ironically, settlements such as Panati give campesinos an advantage in the land titling process. The government is more likely to give a deed to those who are already working a piece of land than to those who apply for land they are not already cultivating. Even with this fact in their favor, the state took almost three years to give land titles to the campesinos.
Moreover, as Pananti residents battled the state for deeds, they were forced to battle local property owners for their lives. Threatened not just by the theoretical threat of campesinos illegally occupying land, landowners felt the impact on their labor force, many of whom now had their own land to work.
The attacks began less than three months after the initial takeover when a group of assailants hired by estate owners entered the settlement of Los Sotos and burned MST housing, injuring several people. Over the next year, there were five similar attacks, including paramilitary invasions and a failed military operation.
The deadly assault was launched on November 9, 2001. “At 6am, about 40 heavily armed paramilitaries entered the encampment, showering bullets on [and killing] six campesinos, wounding 21 others,” recalled a Pananti community member in Sociology of Bolivian Social Movements. One of the dead was a 14-year-old boy. To this date there have been no convictions.
“Today, Pananti is functioning and producing,” says Miriam Campos, director of the organization Indigenous Communities and Empowerment. But, she admits, there is sadness about the loss of lives and difficulties of creating a stable settlement from nothing but barren land.
For the campesinos, the case of Pananti evidenced the great risks in the struggle for land through occupation. Yet the state’s inability to unilaterally grant land titles and the success the landless movement’s perseverance confirmed the need to continue these direct actions. As Pananti progressed, the MST organization spread its wings by developing affiliates, and led takeovers in virtually every region of the country.
“They were armed with sticks, pick-axes and machetes, assuring that they were not moving until the government initiates the registration of that property,” an MST member recalled (quoted in a report for the Land Foundation) of Sunday, June 29, 2003, when 300 campesinos entered the Collana plantation in the highland department of La Paz and set up camp.
The two-year-old settlement is one of the more than 100 current MST settlements across the country. Altiplano (highland) land is generally less fertile and less in demand, but there still lives a campesino population eager for land of its own.
The Collana hacienda was ripe for occupation. One family owned 16,000 acres of land and the primary “patron” was the sister-in-law of the much-disliked president of the time, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Collana’s struggle has been less about violence and more about state and media persecution. MST leaders have been jailed for crimes in the surrounding areas on accusations that the MST says have little legal basis.
These arrests have enhanced the media’s ability to characterize MST activists as criminals, a slant the MST believes is purposeful. Reporting of MST actions is riddled with words like “assailants,” “criminals,” “tyrannize,” “delinquents,” and even “acts of terrorism.”
“Through the commercial media, who act on behalf of the landowners, our organization is criminalized. They have put our leaders in jail and they label the landless as ‘assailants,’” notes Machicado. “They make it seem like we don’t care about our country, but all we want to do is work the land.”
Despite these troubles, Collana persevered: an economically stable settlement (producing fodder for livestock and crops to sell in city markets) of 300 families, each with its own parcel of land; an organized system of governance; and communal production.
Unfortunately, relatively successful settlements like Pananti and Collana are more the exception than the rule. Most of the landless occupying territories live in destitute conditions — makeshift shacks or tents, without potable water or electricity — and are hours by bus from the nearest town. Disease is rampant and food is scarce. They farm when and where they can but without basic infrastructure, tools, or money for initial investment; producing from the land is not easy. Constant military operations aimed at removing the settlers mean they are often forced to abandon their crops and homes for extended periods.
In the Yuquises occupation, campesinos live in improvised palm shacks.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Noah Friedsky
The disputed land is on an estate of more than 200,000 acres owned by a well-known businessman with old political links. According to the landless campesinos in Yuquises, estates of this size are common in the region, the majority of the plots having been political gifts to supporters under the right-wing governments of the 1980s and 1990s. The takeover has upset the local elite and enflamed racial tension in Santa Cruz, the heartland of Bolivia’s right-wing movement for regional autonomy.
With the implicit support of the powerful Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, landowners hired armed assailants to invade the MST settlement on May 8, 2005. The undercover intruders burned crops and homes. Three MST members were disappeared during the attack. At the same time, in the city of Santa Cruz, members of the Cruceno Youth League beat MST leaders, including Silvester Saisari.
Campesinos retaliated by taking 60 of the assassins hostage. After negotiations, MST released the hostages, but the government responded by using the military to forcibly expel the settlers later that month.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Noah Friedsky
“Ten years ago, I saw a documentary on TV about the Brazilian landless movement,” Ruben Carmelo, a Yuquises member, recounted to photographer Noah Friedsky. “I couldn’t believe the horrible conditions they were living in. I never imagined that I could live that way, but now look at me… It’s a hard life, but we don’t have a choice, we have to persist.”
In recent weeks, the land issue has again exploded in Santa Cruz. In mid-September, about 200 landless took over five parcels of land in the Santa Rosa area, north of the city of Santa Cruz.
This land dispute highlights the morass of the state-run land registration. Authorities claim that the property belongs to Civic Committee member and candidate for prefect of Santa Cruz Ruben Costas. But the MST asserts the property is ownerless and therefore the campesinos have a right to settle and work.
“When they talk of property, no property exists there; when they talk of delinquents, I don’t understand to whom they are referring,” stated MST leader Benigno Vargas, in an article published in BolPress, after the takeover.
Vargas displayed several documents that demonstrated the campesinos’ right to occupy the land, including government decree # 25838 from the year 2000, which orders that small producers be given priority to the 521,000-acre area, and that no producer should have more than 124 acres.
“It’s obvious that the ones who should leave are those with large tracts of land. That is, the estate owners.” Vargas concluded.
The Bolivian landless movement is more complicated than this historical article can show. In January 2004, MST split into two parallel organizations, one of which is said to be an “arm” of the political party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) headed by indigenous leader Evo Morales, the other, independent. The split occurred as the MST grew powerful in the Bolivian social movement scene. Various political parties looked to take advantage of the MST’s large constituency and weight for their political battles. Disagreeing about the course the organization ought to follow, the groups’ leaders and members split.
According to leaders, there is not so much “division” between the two groups as there is “distance.” The goals are the same, as is the main strategy of land takeover, but they have distinct internal structures and methods for carrying out occupations.
“The majority of those who work on land issues know that there is great social injustice,” says Miriam Campos, whose organization, under the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Justice, aims for the “empowerment of indigenous peoples and campesinos.” “It’s a truth we all understand,” she continues, “but very few treat the [land] issue with seriousness because they know that they will arrive in a place where they can go no further against a force that is impossible to penetrate.”
Her shaky voice and moistening eyes evidences the challenges of trying to find a solution to the loaded question of land in Bolivia.
Why the impenetrable force at the end of the line? Why the rampant violence and pathological persecution against a group of people only trying secure their legal right to cultivate a portion of the country’s abundant unused land?
“In total, the land is a space of knowing the multilayered world of the indigenous… Their collective memory is written in every rock, mountain and field and creates a piece of their identity,” writes Aymara scholar Pablo Mamani in a 2005 article on Bolivia’s indigenous movements. 
Campesinos — those who feel themselves as part of the land, regardless of where they live or what they do — have been ripped from that which defines him or her. MST and their movement is what they have developed to seal this rupture.
This indigenous self-determinism deeply threatens Bolivia’s social fabric based on inequality and white rule. “In this country’s [political] power game, the land has been converted into another of the factors of strategic use and control” because of its inherent importance to indigenous identity, Mamani concludes.
The settlers know it, too. “They call us terrorists but we’re not in a guerrilla war. We’re in a psychological war against the powers that be,” Yuquises member Carmelo explained to Noah Friedsky.
The future of the land question in Bolivia appears muddled. MST leaders — even those of the sector of the movement not affiliated with electoral politics — speak optimistically of the Constitutional Assembly set for 2006. Through the collective rewriting of the nation’s grounding document with the involvement of indigenous and landless sectors, there is, they believe, hope for improvement.
However, if the threat of allowing campesinos to reclaim the missing piece of their identity is as great a danger to the nation’s power relations as the past five years of “Land War” seem to imply, then the land conflict in Bolivia is not going to be solved in meeting rooms.
This article is part of the continuing series “Bolivia on the Train of Life,” on the issues facing Bolivia as it heads toward December general elections. Read part one of the series here.
 “Collana: The Pride of the Second Anniversary” in Movimiento de Trabajadores Sin Tierra Bolivia-MST, Informative Magazine No. 3 August 2005.
 “The Bolivian Landless: A Grave Affront to Basic Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” by Juan Jose Avila in Agrarian Reform: 50 Years. Center for Judicial Studies and Social Investigation: October 2003.
 “Identity and Territory in Bolivia: Cartography of Indigenous Power.” By Pablo Mamani Ramirez published in Barataria, Quarterly Magazine of El Jugete Rabioso. Aug-Oct 2005, Year 1 No. 3.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism