Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bolivia: Farmers Planning 'Self-Defense' Units

This is crazy...

Bolivian farmers plan 'self-defense' units
Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivia's largest agribusiness group said Wednesday it would form "self-defense" units to defend land it fears the country's new leftist government will confiscate to give to the poor.

The National Farming Confederation said in a statement that it rejected President Evo Morales' land reform policy and said he "was trying to destroy the country's productive apparatus."

The Morales administration rejected the idea.

"The government cannot accept their announcement because these groups are illegal and border on being criminal," said Alfredo Rada, a deputy minister in charge of coordinating between the government and the country's civil organizations.

The group did not detail what they meant by "self-defense" groups, but in other parts of Latin America, the term has been used to describe armed citizens groups.

In a separate statement Wednesday, Morales' government said it would move forward with its plan to redistribute more than 77,000 square miles of land over the next five years. It reiterated that it would only confiscate land that was not being farmed, was obtained illegally or was being used for speculation.

The figure in Wednesday's statement was larger than the 54,000 square miles officials had used earlier.

The National Farming Federation blamed the government for creating a climate of uncertainty that could unleash confrontations between Bolivians.

Its members refused to attend a meeting called by the government last week to discuss the issue, saying the Morales administration was allowing illegal land invasions in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, where much of the land targeted for redistribution is located.

Rest of article here.

My thoughts:

1. Land in the Eastern part of the country is a disaster waiting to happen, and these tensions were going to break out one way or another. You have Bolivian and Brazilian agri-business interests, you also have local indigenouos people with their claims, and then you have colonists from the highlands who stake out claims all throughout the territory. That is even without including an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

2. Land Reform efforts have proceeded in growth and spurts in the past 50 years, but tthe Eastern area was left untouched, due to the need to have some sort of agricultural production - Bolivia was a net importer of food despite rich land. The MNR government -despite what some Cruce~os say- actually devoted significant resources to make that happen.

3. I do not buy the idea that the eastern elite (including Santa Cruz landowners) are some sort of self-sufficient, self-made, bastion of enlighment. Fact is many of the large landholdings in the east were free grants the Banzer administration gave out to supporters. Large land purchases were also a convenient way for some to launder dollars in the Miami Vice era. But, the reality is that for the past 15 years, collectively they have invested well in new technologies and farming technologies, and have produced a very efficient and relatively dynamic export sector.

4. Less reported is the fact that the Banzer administration also supported "colonization" efforts by Western highland residents into the area. As a map of Bolivia shows, there is land in the east. The formal and informal colonization became a flood, because of dislocations in the mining sector and the poor land in the highlands. Many have established farms and formed their own towns.

5. The problem with agribusiness is what constitutes "idle" land. Landed elites in many Latin American countries - particularly in an export-oriented agricultural economies- held vast tracts of land idle for speculative purposes, to keep it out of the hands of rivals. They would hide it by keeping cattle on the grounds. But on the other hand, there are solid economic reasons for keeping productive land idle, particularly when dealing with fluctuating market demand and funds available.

6. The land reform projects the past 15 years have focused on formalizing land staked out by colonists, land held by the indigenouos and the agribusiness holdings. But the problem is that the land seizures pushed into agribusiness holdings, and some of the colonists - and indigenous movements - were organized by the without land movement. So these seizures began taking a more overtly political tone, and many of them received the support of NGO's who pressed their case before the government. And MAS, while not directly involved at first has capitalized on this movement.

7. As the article states, the government and legal system have been slow in getting the claims of record resolved. That produces frustration in everyone involved.

8. So there is basically a siege mentality among some landowners, who at this point they have little trust in Evo. The small stakeholders also are frustrated, because to some extent they have followed the rules. The landowners fear that the without-land movement could become stronger with the arm of the government behind them.

9. The problem is that you have a classic pattern of a landed elite forming para-military groups. This has happened in El Salvador and Colombia. The Bolivian State does not control chunks of its own territory. Evo Morales demonstrated that well in El Chapare for years. And if the government were to encourage and/or arm militias in that part of the country, you could have the basis for a Civil War.