Bolivia's Morales and Land Redistribution

Bolivian leader Evo Morales took office promising to redistribute land so that peasants could have their share. Expectations are rising among the landless, and anxiety is rising among land owners.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick.

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I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales is trying to be a modern day Robin Hood. He has promised to give 50 million acres of land to peasants, land that's owned by other people.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how that idea is playing out.

JULIE MCCARTHY: This is a story of two Bolivias, and it begins on this rain-soaked road.

(Soundbite of rain)

MCCARTHY: In the tropical eastern half of the country, roads are so bad you can jostle along for 15 miles, stretches hitting more gigantic puddles than pavement.

An hour long bone-crunching ride from the regional capital, Santa Cruz, delivers us to the prosperous dairy farm Arohar Vocadeis(ph).

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

MCCARTHY: His ranch sprawls beneath cobalt blue skies and billowing clouds. A cattle breeder, Vocadeis survey's his heard of Holstein, Angus and Brahman. The mornings work: selecting cows that will be artificially inseminated.

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

MCCARTHY: Vocadeis's herd of 800 cattle grazes on 1,000 acres of land, a ratio of more than one acre per cow. To the landless peasant it sounds profligate, but by the standards of cattlemen in Santa Cruz, it's modest.

Still, Vocadeis worries that the farm that has been in his family for generations could run afoul of the new land reforms. The government has said it does not intend to pursue ranches whose land is used productively, it's after large landholders who speculate in land. Vocadeis says there is no doubt that his farm meets the legal requirements of creating a social-economic benefit.

But he and other say that the law does not specify how to measure that benefit, and that the uncertainty is encouraging landless peasants to seize land.

Mr. AROHAR VOCADEIS (Farmer): (Speaking Foreign Language)(Through Translation): Now this could cause a big conflict because the people who own land, like me, are going to fight - even against the government.

This here is my life's work, I obey the law and I produce for the country and I create jobs. If they want to take this away from me then I'm going to join with others. And we are going to form a front against the government and anyone who wants to ride roughshod over us.

MCCARTHY: A hour and a half away, in the town of Cotoca, Narcisco Perez(ph) offers a very different glimpse into the struggle over land in Bolivia. A landless compacino(ph), Perez shyly arranges himself on a park bench in the town square, he talks about his cattle - all 10 of them - and the difficulty of feeding them.

Mr. NARCISCO PEREZ (Farmer): (Speaking Foreign Language)

MCCARTHY: We feed our cattle on either side of the highway. We have them graze there but it's dangerous, he says, adding - last year, one of my cows caused a crash.

MCCARTHY: Cotoca is a long way from Perez's home town of Potosi, which exemplifies a pattern of migration. Indigenous Bolivians from the western highlands, where industries our few and land is barren, make their way here to the milder more prosperous eastern lowlands.

Perez belongs to a group of 780 landless who have united to press for a community plot from the government, something Perez believes that Evo Morales -the country's first indigenous president - will deliver.

Mr. PEREZ:(Speaking Foreign Language)

MCCARTHY: We have never seen a president like him before, he says I know that this year there will be a lot more help for peasants and the poor.

There is no official count of the number of landless in Bolivia, estimates range from 20,000 to 200,000. And while there are incidents of peasants seizing land they are not widespread.

The Morales administration says the first phase of its agrarian reform is to hand over government land - 50 million acres worth. Miguel Ereostay(ph) a 20 year long activist, says Morales will only succeed with land reform if he makes the countries landowners - at least the ones who are productive - part of the solution.

Mr. MIGUEL EREOSTAY (Activist): Especially this government needs to dialogue with the elites of Santa Cruz, not confronting all the elites like they were the same. You need to build a kind of consensus that we don't have now at the present.

MCCARTHY: Government officials admit the distribution of land is slow-going, and say any seizure of wealthy ranches is not in the immediate offing. That's not stemmed the apprehensions of ranchers and the rising expectations of the landless.

But for anthropologists Javier Abol(ph) pushing reform even this far is an achievement in itself.

Ms. JAVIER ABOL (Anthropologist): I think this is like a more hold now than several years ago, in spite of all the in-spites.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy NPR News, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

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