Two Views of Justice Fuel Bolivian Land Battle
Owners Dig In to Protect Turf as Peasants Push to Benefit From Reforms

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

OKINAWA, Bolivia -- Choei Yara sleeps in a boxy room in the back of his roadside dry goods store, and the lump under his thin pillow is a loaded .45-caliber pistol. It is intended for a specific emergency: an attack so sudden that he'd be unable to reach the pump-action shotgun that leans against a bare concrete wall, just five feet away.

He's not afraid of the store being robbed, but he believes that the piece of paper stating that he owns about 1,400 acres of fertile soil is the kind of thing that can drive men to violent extremes. Property in Latin America is more unevenly distributed than anywhere on the planet, and Bolivia is no exception. But this month the country began a project to shuffle ownership rights affecting 20 percent of its land area, giving most of it to the poor. And tensions are starting to boil.

Those with land are starting to dig in to protect their turf. Those without it, emboldened by the recent government announcements, are taking over more properties on their own, without government approval.

"I've worked this land for 30 years, and I have never had a problem until this past year," said Yara, 63, whose family was among the Japanese immigrants who founded this community in eastern Bolivia after World War II. "But now I get death threats from the landless peasants, and they are threatening to kidnap my family. No one respects private property anymore, not even the government."

On June 9, one man was shot dead and more than a dozen were wounded in clashes as local authorities tried to evict peasants from land they had taken over in western Bolivia. Two days before that incident, two men were shot in similar circumstances in the central region. In this eastern province of Santa Cruz, agricultural organizations have threatened to form self-defense groups to protect farm property if the state tries to take it away. And across the border in Brazil, where property-related violence has been a problem for decades, a federation of landless peasants stormed the parliament building in the capital on June 7, breaking open the glass doors and demanding agrarian reforms.

The conflict in Bolivia is firmly rooted in the stark inequities that President Evo Morales says his "agrarian revolution" is designed to correct. About 90 percent of Bolivian land is owned by the wealthiest 7 percent of the population. Imbalances like that have helped make Bolivia South America's poorest nation: About 63 percent of its citizens -- and nearly 80 percent of its rural population -- live in poverty.

Morales has said much of his nation's land is not being used productively, and he complains that large swaths were given to wealthy elites during the dictatorships of the 1970s. Under his plan, if the government deems land unproductive or obtained illegally, it is subject to confiscation and redistribution.

The tension now, however, is concentrated not so much in the places where land is clearly unproductive as in the places where the definitions of productivity are more subjective and open to argument. Like Yara's place.

Armed Guards

Standing behind a rusty pan scale, Yara tilts his head slightly and eyes customers warily when they enter his store, where sacks of potatoes and rice sit on worn planks in the middle of the floor. The way he figures it, he's one unjust decision away from losing everything, and these days he sees injustice in a lot of familiar faces he used to trust.

" 'Bolivian land should be for Bolivians' -- that's what they're telling me now," said Yara, watching one of his daughters weigh rice he'd grown on his land. "It's not right. I've always been supportive of Bolivia. I pay all my taxes. My children are Bolivians, and they're married to Bolivians. I sacrificed a lot to get that land."

Yara took out bank loans three decades ago, paying about $80,000 over the years for his deed. But in the past year, landless peasants have moved onto the fringes of his property, bringing in tractors and planting their own crops on it. He said they told him it was their right to take it because it was unproductive; he said it was just between growing cycles. He sued the peasants twice in local courts, he said, and won both times.

But Yara said that two months ago, Bolivia's minister of rural development -- who oversees the land reform plan -- called him and told him he must remove the 10 armed guards who were protecting his property from a takeover by Bolivia's federation of landless peasants. Yara reluctantly sent the guards away, and now about 50 members of the group, the Landless Movement, are occupying about one-fourth of his property. They keep telling him they'll take more soon, he said, and they promise bodily harm if he doesn't let them have it.

"Now I only have four bodyguards, who I pay to look after me and my family," he said, "but not the land."

Farm guards are a touchy subject around here. After a Santa Cruz agricultural group suggested this month that self-defense squadrons might be the best way to resist what they consider unjust reforms, the government responded by saying it would not tolerate private armies roaming the countryside. Masanori Toguchi, a farmer who helps operate a grain mill across the road from Yara's store, said he recently hired a team of armed guards, effectively clearing out a group of landless peasants who had taken over a portion of his property. The guards are "more or less trained," he said. He wasn't sure where his lawyer found them.

"They don't have phones, and they're kind of hidden," Toguchi said. "We don't really know who they are."

Promises of Land

From Yara's store, a dirt road winds for about 10 miles between freshly planted wheat fields before surrendering to weedy overgrowth. After cutting through the middle of a field of nine-foot-high sugarcane, a clearing comes into view: a dirt expanse dotted with dozens of shacks made of sticks and palm fronds. Of the few hundred people living here, about 80 count themselves as members of the landless federation.

Carmelo Ortiz is one. With eight children, his one-room hut is too crowded, so one afternoon last week he searched for fronds for a half-completed addition he hopes to finish in the next couple of months. His daughter wrung a shirt dry over a plastic bucket of cloudy water. One of his sons, stepping out of the dim hut and blinking in the sun, picked a square of mud from his cutoff jeans.

When he can, Ortiz helps local landowners in their fields, earning about $4 for a day's work. But he has dreams of being his own boss, growing his own crops, on his own piece of land. He was part of the group that took over part of Toguchi's land for three months earlier this year, and he was with them when they decided to retreat after hearing about the armed guards. Just last month, he said, he saw guards on another farmer's property shoot at a group of peasants.

Why a farmer who already has a lot of land would get so worked up over sharing part of it, he and others said, is unfathomable to the campesinos in the village.

"God created the resource of land," said Luciano Winchaca, a local campesino advocate who has helped the Landless Movement with its quest for land. "It should be divided equally for everyone, not be given to somebody because they speak better Spanish or come from a certain family. We all have the same rights. These people don't understand the will of God."

That said, most of the landless here say things have never been better. When Morales was elected in December, Ortiz and his neighbors threw a party that lasted all night. With his promises to redistribute the wealth of Bolivia among the poor, Morales is nothing short of a folk hero in the village of Okinawa.

"Everything is changing for the campesino," said Ortiz, 40, who is confident he will get a plot of land in the coming months. "We have hope now -- we haven't had that with any government in the history of this country."

Large-scale land reform has been tried in the past in Bolivia, and it failed miserably because of a lack of resources and political will. The country's first agrarian reform plan was passed in 1953, and another was tried in 1996. After nearly $100 million was spent in an attempt to redistribute 250 million acres during the past 10 years, only 17 percent of the target areas changed hands.

Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez -- an ideological ally of Morales who has promoted smaller-scale land reform in his country -- has pledged financial support. But Bolivia will have to find a lot more money to keep the current effort from joining the long list of failed agrarian reforms in Latin America.

If Ortiz gets a piece of land, for example, he will still need equipment to work it and money for additional supplies and seeds. Ortiz calculates that for each acre of land, he would need about $200. He's not sure where that money would come from, and the government has not yet offered specific details on credit and support programs for the new landowners.

"I have lived like this all my life," Ortiz said, nodding to his hut, where his 8-year-old son was helping his 12-year-old daughter carry water. "But we can't live like this forever."

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