Effects Of Land Reform In Bolivia
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
In the next part of the show, we're going to get elemental. We'll talk water in a few minutes with an author who argues that water could replace oil as the resource that defines power in the world.
First, though, to the power of dirt. Ownership of land is a political flashpoint in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales was just reelected. Morales is giving land to the nation's poor, indigenous majority. And that includes state land, unused land, and land taken from private individuals. Those private interests call this a populist land grab.
Reporter Annie Murphy has the story.
ANNIE MURPHY: Think back to when you played in the dirt as a kid. You've got decaying leaves, rocks, worms and that smell, damp and rich. On a larger scale, dirt becomes even more powerful: land, where we build our homes and where we grow food, not to mention the emotional connections we have with the places where we live.
But in Bolivia, many indigenous people don't own land. Until a few decades ago, they were forced to work as sharecroppers or even slaves on other people's farms, and this is particularly true in tropical Santa Cruz state.
Ignacia Patude(ph) is a Chiquitano Indian who spent most of her life as a slave. Now, she lives in an indigenous reservation. Her grandson cuts grass with a machete as she speaks.
Ms. IGNACIA PATUDE: (Through translator) In the past, we had an owner who called us his servants. He sent us about, gave us orders, told us what we were going to do. Our lives were the rubber harvest and field work.
MURPHY: But that's been changing. Indigenous farmer Evo Morales came into office in 2005. And his administration gave Iganacia Patude's community a land title.
(Soundbite of cheering)
President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: President Morales believes most indigenous Bolivians are poor because they don't have land. For the past few years, he's carried out what he calls an agrarian revolution, a series of reforms to make land ownership possible for more people.
After his reelection a few weeks ago, Morales' government started to carve up some of the biggest estates in the country. The government says these properties are illegally held.
Miguel Urioste is the director of the NGO Fundacion TIERRA. He works on land issues. Urioste says that Bolivia's problems with land ownership began during the Spanish conquest, nearly 500 years ago, and only got worse during the dictatorship of the 1970s.
Mr. MIGUEL URIOSTE (Director, Fundacion TIERRA): During this period, the government distributed at least 12 million hectares of land to people they don't even pay a penny. It was free. It was a political favor. The majority of the owners of land in Santa Cruz, they don't have legal documents to certify their property. In an indigenous country like Bolivia, the big paradox is that the big landholders are not indigenous.
MURPHY: This is the issue Morales aims to solve. The big property owners are furious about his reforms.
Mariano Aguilera belongs to an old, landowning family and is president of the country's largest sugar cane refinery. The Aguileras control tens of thousands of acres of rich farmland.
Mr. MARIANO AGUILERA: (Through translator) This land belonged to my great-grandparents. Then my grandparents inherited it, then my father and his family and now us. What we do here is about hard work. It's not about politics or a free ride. People who come here to work, serve and make progress, there's no issue, but not the people who come here to take our land, to take advantage of what we've made.
MURPHY: And, says Aguilera, families like his are prepared to go out fighting.
Mr. AGUILERA: (Through translator) No one is going to just stand by while someone takes away their inheritance and a lifetime of work, that's for sure. And if we have to take up arms, whatever is necessary, we're going to do it because we are not willing to lose.
MURPHY: But as Fundacion TIERRA's Miguel Urioste points out, for most Bolivians, these reforms are long overdue and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Mr. URIOSTE: Having land in Bolivia gives you a lot of power. And especially now, when there is an environmental crisis, energy crisis, that means that the land all over the world is increasing their price and their value.
MURPHY: In Bolivia, land that went for $200 a hectare a few years ago now sells for $2,000. That would have been a small fortune for anyone here in the settlement of Pueblos Unidos. Before Morales came into office, this community of about 200 families spent years roaming the countryside, looking for land to farm. In 2007, the government gave them 16,000 hectares; some of it appropriated from a large estate.
Sixteen-year-old Abram Stejas(ph) has been with the community since he was 10. Back when his parents worked as sugarcane harvesters, they couldn't earn enough money to buy land. Today, Abram is at the family plot, burning brush and plowing.
Mr. ABRAM STEJAS: (Through translator) The worst moment was when we were marching, looking for land, when there was nowhere to go, no shade, nothing to eat. There was nobody to help us, nothing. It took a lot to get this land.
I think I'll still be here working. That's what I fought for, for this land and to be here working the land.
MURPHY: Abram finishes his work and leads the horse back home. The sun is setting, and kids are playing in the river. Women pump water from a well to wash dishes by candlelight. And then, one by one, the candles are snuffed out.
It's just a dot in the Amazon Basin. But for the people who live here, owning this piece of land means everything: the shadows of the mango trees, the stars, and the smell of freshly plowed dirt.
This is Annie Murphy for NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.