Fri, Aug 04, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Bolivian president gives out tractors, land

REFORM Evo Morales distributed at least 50 tractors and 15 plots of land while promoting a proposal that would allow the state to seize idle land

AP , UCURENA, BOLIVIA

Bolivian farmers and Movement Towards Socialism supporters talk in front of new tractors Bolivian President Evo Morales donated in the village of Ucurena, Bolivia, on Wednesday. Morales traveled to the symbolic center of the Bolivian land reform movement to give out land and tractors to peasant farmers and promote his ``agrarian revolution.''

PHOTO: AP

President Evo Morales handed out titles for farmland and tractors made in Venezuela and Iran to Bolivian peasants on Wednesday as he drummed up support for his ambitious agrarian reform.

Morales drove into town on a Chinese tractor bedecked with flags and covered in confetti. Behind him followed a convoy of tractors manufactured in a joint venture between Venezuela and Iran and sold to Bolivia by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The government announced plans to distribute as many as 500 tractors -- made in Venezuela, Iran, Spain and China -- as well as 2,000 individual land titles. At least 50 tractors were handed out on Wednesday.

The trip to the symbolic center of Bolivia's land reform movement was intended to celebrate a proposed law that is part of Morales' far-reaching "agrarian revolution," but Congress has yet to vote on the controversial measure. It was in this dusty farming town on the high plains near Cochabamba that Bolivia's first agrarian reform was launched in 1953.

"The idle lands in eastern Bolivia that have been run by political interests and powerful families, these lands must be returned to the Bolivian state so that they can be redistributed," Morales said. "That is our great desire."

Morales used the occasion to press Congress to allow the government to seize private lands found to be unproductive, obtained illegally or used for speculation. Morales' proposed bill would alter the bylaws of the National Institute on Agrarian Reform, or INRA.

"I've talked with some of the union and indigenous leaders," Morales told the crowd. "`If they don't change the INRA law in order to expropriate idle lands and return them to the Bolivian people, then what good is the Congress?' they ask me. `If they don't change the INRA law, the Congress should shut down.'"

Congress had invited peasant farmers, indigenous groups and agribusiness leaders to debate Morales' bill and other proposals to change the INRA yesterday.

Felix Chavez, a farmer in the Valle Alto region that surrounds Ucurena, sat grinning on his new red tractor after Morales' speech. He planned to drive the tractor three hours home to his village, where the machine would be shared by 80 people who together farm about 40 hectares.

"I'm going to plow," he said with a happy shrug. "I'm going to plant some wheat, some corn. Some potatoes."

Chavez and his family farm 5 hectares of their own. With an ox-driven plow, it takes nearly four months to plow and sow his land, he said.

The new tractor will cut the work down to just three weeks.

Morales kicked off his campaign for the changes in June by handing over roughly 24,800km2 of state-owned land to poor Indian groups.

On Wednesday, he handed out about 15 titles, without indicating the amount of land.

Before his term ends in 2011, Morales has pledged to redistribute 200,000km2 of public land -- an area roughly twice the size of Portugal.

Just under 90 percent of Bolivia's productive terrain is worked by only 50,000 families, leaving millions of Bolivians with little or no land, according to the government.

The redistribution plans have heightened long-standing tensions between the prosperous residents of Bolivia's agricultural lowlands and the poorer, mostly Indian people of the western high plains. Much of the terrain targeted for reform is uncultivated land located in the fertile eastern lowlands.

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