Thu, May 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Bolivia's wealthy expresses alarm over land reform

AP , LA PAZ

Leaders in Bolivia's wealthiest region expressed alarm after the leftist government announced plans to redistribute up to 140,000km2 of land to the poor -- starting in about three weeks.

The majority of the land to be redistributed -- an area roughly the size of Greece -- lies in the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz Province, an agricultural region that is the impoverished Andean nation's economic engine.

The powerful Santa Cruz Civic Committee published a letter on Tuesday asking Bolivian President Evo Morales to work with Provincial Governor Ruben Costas and local business groups to reach a consensus on the land reform.

"We should be part of the creation and definition of such policies," the letter stated.

Costas himself said that he would launch a parallel plan for "democratic and egalitarian" land reform.

Morales, whose government has close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has set May 31 as the date to begin redistributing between 107,000km2 and 140,000km2 of land the government says was obtained illegally and is not being used to grow crops. The area is roughly one-tenth of Bolivia.

Ten years ago, Bolivia's government ordered the National Institute of Agrarian Reform to distribute 1 million km2 of land, but so far only 17 percent of this has been handed over.

"Our objective is to take back land that isn't being worked. The policy of the government is directed toward not just aiding the right to property, but encourage agricultural mechanization," said Hugo Salvatierra, Bolivia's rural development minister.

Santa Cruz Province, where the land lies, contributes one-third of Bolivia's GDP.

It's also where most of the large and legally dubious landholdings exist, according to the government.

Much of the land in question was given away in the 1970s when Bolivia was under dictatorship, especially during former president Hugo Banzer's rule from 1971 to 1978.

In recent years, landless movements in Santa Cruz increasingly have been pushing their way onto properties, often triggering violent standoffs with landowners.

The land reform announcement comes just a week after Morales nationalized Bolivia's natural gas industry, sending troops to guard installations, and as the campaign to elect members of Bolivia's constituent assembly heats up.

Morales is hoping his party will win a majority of the seats for the assembly, which will rewrite the Constitution starting in August.

In office just three months, the leftist Morales has already had several confrontations with the business-friendly Santa Cruz leaders, who have long clashed with the central government and demanded more autonomy.

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