When flying over Bolivia’s highlands, the flat brown plains dotted by small farms seem endless. Travel east and the land slopes down toward the Amazon basin, as fields change to an eternity of jungle broken only by rivers that wend like copper wires through the deep green. The country seems empty, yet land ownership has been a contentious issue for more than 50 years in South America’s poorest country, and the one with the highest percentage of indigenous peoples.
Many South American countries have struggled with agrarian reform, but Bolivia’s situation is unique. Miguel Urioste, a researcher and former director with La Paz–based land rights NGO Fundación TIERRA, said, “It’s an indigenous revolution. That’s what makes the agrarian revolution in Bolivia different.”
A revolution in 1952 freed Bolivia’s indigenous people, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, from forced labor on large farms called haciendas. But it did not free many of them from poverty. Most of Bolivia’s 10 million people are concentrated in the western highlands, where Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples subsist on small-scale farming. For many people in this part of the country, the small plots their families were granted after the revolution aren’t big enough to sustain growing families, and with no hope for prosperity on these highland farms, more and more of the farmers are migrating to the cities, the eastern lowlands and neighboring countries.
Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, hopes to lift thousands of people out of poverty and lure Bolivians back from neighboring countries like Argentina with a program that gives more land to the poorest Bolivians. This year, the government says it will distribute 400,000 acres it currently holds, and it plans to give away more in the coming years. But it remains to be seen if the government program can diffuse tensions that have grown over the years and improve life for a substantial number of Bolivians.
Bolivia’s dry, high-altitude plains are a harsh place to make a living. During the rainy season crops like potatoes and wheat grow in small plots, and in the dry season herds of llamas and sheep pick across the rocky, brown landscape. Many families can no longer sustain themselves by farming this land, and some areas suffer from chronic water shortages. Sergio Hinojosa is a leader of the powerful indigenous highland organization CONAMAQ. “With climate change some areas are losing water, which is the worst thing that can happen, because without water we can’t live,” Hinojosa said. He supports the current government programs that move landless or under-landed people, mainly from western Bolivia, to government-controlled land. These available parcels offer people a chance to own a plot large enough to support a family, but most are located in the country’s eastern tropical regions, and he says people from the dry, cool highlands suffer from the sudden change. “The problem is that often people from the high plains can’t survive in the east. Many of them go and return, or get sick and die,” Hinojosa said. “That’s why some people remain with just a little land in the high plains.”
In addition to distributing government land the Morales government has vowed to break up mega-farms that lie unused and to redistribute that property to landless people. Many of those farms are in the eastern Bolivian region of Santa Cruz. Large farms there make up most of the country’s agro-industrial complex, and produce large amounts of soy. However, some large landowners use only a small percentage of their holdings, and the government is moving to confiscate that unused land. It has already appropriated land from some holdings, which has some of the large landholders talking about a revolution of their own, to either topple Morales, or secede from the country. “With our brother Evo Morales, a lot has changed,” Hinojosa said. “We’ve cut up some big landholdings, and we are going to cut up more. There are many foreigners in Santa Cruz who have to go, because they’ve taken huge pieces of land.”
The eastern lowlands are also home to dozens of small indigenous groups, many of whom live on large pieces of land called
Original Communal Land (Tierras Communitarias de Origen—TCO), which were titled to lowland indigenous groups in the 1990s. But the TCOs are increasingly the site of disputes as campesinos and lowland indigenous peoples clash over who gets to use the land, and how.
The difference between campesino and indigenous can be hard for outsiders to understand, but in Bolivia it is implicitly understood. Both groups are culturally indigenous, but many highland peoples have identified themselves as campesinos (peasants) since the agrarian revolution, said Douglas Hertzler, an associate professor of anthropology at Eastern Mennonite University. Isolated lowland indigenous peoples did not participate as actively in the 1952 revolution and instead embrace the term indígena (indigenous).
José Ortiz is president of CPILAP, which represents lowland indigenous groups in the province of La Paz, where many people live on TCOs. “Our people live from hunting, from fishing, and from collecting fruits, and above all we conserve the forests,” he said. “The campesinos have individual land titles, and those rights are for sale. Community lands like TCOs cannot be sold because they are collective.”
The TCOs are relatively new. Until the early 1990s, a long-standing colonization process was moderately successful in Bolivia, but that colonization didn’t take into account the rights of the indigenous people of the lowlands. In the 1990s, lowlands people demanded recognition of their lands with a 35-day march to the government center of La Paz, which resulted in government recognition and formation of the TCOs. “Today the peasants say that we are large landholders, because we have land reserved for our grandchildren, because we have large territories,” Ortiz said. “But as years go by we continue growing so we need a large territory.” He points out that residents of TCOs live mainly from hunting, fishing and collecting fruits in season. To continue living this way, they need larger pieces of land than do people who live by farming.
Ortiz says that people who come from the highlands seeking land to farm can benefit from government resettlement programs, but that many others come to the TCOs just to exploit raw materials like wood. Illegal logging is a widespread problem on TCOs, and one that is hard to stop on these large and isolated tracts of land. Despite the fact that they cannot legally settle there, the eyes of people looking for new farmland and the eyes of those looking for quick profits are fixed on the TCOs. “People are beginning to think of the TCOs as the new places where they can find land,” said Esteban Sanjines, director of highland programs for Fundación TIERRA. “The TCO areas nearest to the high plains are most at risk because they’re the easiest to reach.”
Louisa Bargas Gonzalez plants a seed in a field blackened by burnt trees and grass, the very first seed she has planted on her own land. Like many people in this year-old community in the dense eastern Bolivian jungle, Bargas Gonzalez is a Quechua Indian from Bolivia’s western highlands. Along with hundreds of others she migrated here as part of a government program, and struggled to form a community and plant crops.
Crecencio Rocha is general secretary for the settlements of Puerto Morales Ayma, where Bargas Gonzalez lives. “The people who are here in the settlement with their houses and land are people who before didn’t have enough land, or didn’t have any land to work,” he said. “There are others in the program who were affected by natural disasters, like rivers flooding, and those whose land was exhausted and couldn’t even produce enough to sustain the family. The distribution of land in Bolivia was poorly organized by former governments—that’s why you see some very small farms and other very large farms. There have been erratic politics in this, but with the current government, those politics are being reformed according to national consensus. You can no longer acquire a huge farm, but we are also going to have to reduce those existing large farms more, because there is little land left for our campesino brothers.”
The settlers who occupied land formerly controlled by the government faced resistance from people in the nearby towns and cities. In fiercely regionalist Bolivia, some accused the government of moving its supporters from the western highlands into the opposition-controlled east to swing the vote in the region. Today the settlers live peacefully with their neighbors, but some fear that increased settlement will spark conflict.
With or without that tension, life in the settlements is not easy. The government provides transport, food and temporary shelter when a settlement is founded, but does not quickly set up infrastructure such as running water, electricity and roads. In Puerto Morales Ayma, the whole community of several hundred people bathes and washes clothes in just two small, clogged streams. As many as 50 percent of the people who first found communities like Puerto Morales Ayma leave in the first year, unable to withstand the heat, living conditions and backbreaking work of clearing jungle by hand to plant their first crops. Still, those who remain are thankful that they have land to call their own.
But government-sponsored settlements are just a part—and perhaps just a small part—of eastward migration in Bolivia. Many people simply move east from the highlands and begin to plant crops and built homes on the edges of TCOs—where legally only members of the TCO have the right to live. Sanjines said settlers on TCOs initially don’t face the strong resistance they would meet if they occupied what was formerly private land held by a wealthy family, because the people who live on TCOs move with the seasons. “The colonizers settle a little bit, settle a little bit more, and after a month no one has said anything so they continue,” Sanjines said.
Though the government vows to continue its settlement programs, it may not be moving fast enough. “In the high plains the question, ‘Why do the indigenous on the TCOs have so much land and we have none?’ is gaining force,” said Sanjines. “It’s taking on the characteristics and the conditions of a powerful conflict. The indigenous in the lowlands are beginning to see the settler from the highlands as an invader and an enemy, and that’s going to have consequences, sooner rather than later.”
For now many highland and lowland leaders call for unity among indígena and campesino groups, and say government resettlement programs are the best hope for avoiding conflict and improving living conditions. Whether the Bolivian government can move resettlement forward on a large enough scale and dedicate sufficient resources toward its success to reduce tensions will be a crucial question that may decide whether Bolivians can live in peace and prosperity.