Bolivia launches sweeping land reform program

AP , LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

Sun, Jun 04, 2006 - Page 7

President Evo Morales launched a sweeping land reform plan yesterday by handing over roughly 20,000km2 of state-owned land to poor Indians, the government said.

Friday's announcement came after talks broke down between Morales and agribusiness leaders on the president's so-called agrarian revolution, under which he pledges to distribute some 200,000km2 of land -- an area roughly twice the size of Portugal -- during the next five years.

The government plan is heightening long-standing tension 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 unused state land located in the fertile eastern lowlands.

Alejandro Almaraz, Bolivia's vice minister of land, praised the initial hand-overs, saying the government will ensure the sustainable management of the land and no forests or protected natural areas would be touched.

"It's land that has no legal problems," Almaraz said, "and we believe that it's not right to try to block this measure when it's going to help many poor people that have been waiting and need this land to improve their life."

Parts of the plan are disputed, however, as the government says it will eventually seize and redistribute privately owned land that is unproductive, was obtained illegally or is being used for speculation.

Farmers also object to the pace of the process, saying they fear possible environmental damage from mass deforestation could harm farms already in operation.

"They're going to carry out a political plan for something that first requires technical structuring, infrastructure and training," said Mauricio Roca, vice president of the powerful Eastern Agricultural Chamber.

Roca said the chamber does not oppose land reform, but prefers a more gradual redistribution program combined with agricultural training.

Agribusiness leaders said on Friday they had cut off dialogue with Morales because the government refused to make any concessions on its proposals.

Officials said Morales yesterday also would sign executive decrees speeding up redistribution, which has already dragged on for more than a decade as an inefficient justice system slowly untangles title disputes.