March for Land

Cartulo Seas Soari smelt of beer and swayed as he spoke to me. "It was the first time I was in the Presidential Palace and it was amazing. We filled the whole building, it belonged to us." He had spent the night dancing and drinking in the university sports hall in La Paz. He had good reasons to celebrate.

For on Tuesday night, the Bolivian Government completely unexpectedly passed an amended land reform bill that aims to redistribute up to a fifth of the country, land that it designates as "unproductive" land in the hands of a small minority of rich landholders. It passed the law, the same day as 10,000 indigenous and campesino farmers descended on La Paz in four different marches that have crossed the country.

The last time I met Cartulo was in his hometown of Trinidad in Beni, where his organisation CIDOB (the confederation of indigenous peoples of Bolivia) was involved in an innovative project of using internet to help equip indigenous peoples in their struggle for land rights. He had marched five times, including most famously the 1990s land march, which put land redistribution on the political map. And now he was back in La Paz after marching for 28 days. "I feel good." "My feet don’t even hurt," he smiled.

On the day of the vote, I had headed out to Guaqui, a rural province on the altiplano near the Peruvian border to do some interviews for a book chapter I am currently writing on debt and Bolivia. I arrived as all the villagers were cycling down with aluminium canisters of milk strapped on the back of their bikes to be delivered to a milk plant. In the background the Cordillera mountain range disguised itself as clouds, merging with the horizon. I talked to a tranquil Valeriano Avaros as he stood in his field of oats swaying gently in the wind, who with his four hectares fed his family of ten. For him land was not an abstract thing, but part of his life, his very being.  The villages had sent all their community leaders to the march.

Yet Valeriano is relatively lucky as many rural Bolivians don’t have any land. According to the Catholic church, 70% of Bolivian’s population have access to 4% of the land,  whilst 50,000 families control 90%. Whilst there was important land redistribution in 1952, over time land had become concentrated in a few hands (latifundios) whilst in many poor communities it had been divided over and over again until the plots were too small (minifundios) to sustain families.

Meanwhile in the East of the country which has the most land, there was almost no redistribution in the 50s and much of the land was taken on especially in the 70s and 80s by businessmen, European and Brazilian immigrants often depriving indigenous communities of their communal lands in the process. The landowning elite were supported by the World Bank in the so-called Lowlands Project as a bid to build agro-industry especially soya as part of their strategy for export-led development and with a view to generating money to pay debt service payments.

In 1990, the indigenous communities of the East put the land issue back on the political map with a gruelling march across Bolivia to La Paz. A law, called INRA, was passed that was supposed to help indigenous communities confirm rights over communal lands and to start redistribution. Yet it was notoriously inefficient and slow. Consequently with a large base amongst social movement, MAS committed itself to amending the law with an aim of redistributing all "unproductive" land  which apparently make up a fifth of the country.

Yet when Congress passed the law amendments, the opposition senators (in the only chamber where they have a majority) decided to boycott proceedings. They were backed by some civic groups (dominated by landholders) in the East who threatened strikes and civil disobedience. It is perhaps not a coincidence that several of the senators are major landholders themselves with thousands of hectares. Meanwhile the four marches edged ever closer to La Paz enduring boiling temperatures during the day, torrential downpours and freezing nights. The march continued even when three marchers tragically died (two as a car collided with them, and one woman struck down by lightening)

I, to be honest, couldn’t see a solution. Redistributing land directly affected the economic interests of many of the rich elite in the country. Meanwhile indigenous and farmer movements were adamant that they would not accept anything less than the proposed changes to the land law. Gregorio Santoya in Guaqui was typical of the belligerent but just position of the indigenous movements: "If Evo backs down or the Senators stop this law being passed, then we will if necessary march on Santa Cruz to take on the landlords ourselves." 

On my return to La Paz, I headed up to the Presidential palace where thousands of marchers were lined up outside the Palace, with indigenous muticoloured "wiphala’ flags, textile cloths filled with coca leaves, and banners announcing where they were from.  "We will stay here until we get justice" said one indigenous woman as she breastfeed her baby. "How can it be just that one man can have hundreds of thousands of hectares whilst others have none?" People I talked to on the streets expressed their support. One street seller said: "We are behind them. Their cause is just." Yet I still went home wondering how they could win.

But to my surprise, in a pattern that is becoming familiar here, the Government suddenly managed to pull a solution out of the bag. Each senator here has a "supplente" who can vote if the Senator can’t attend for a particular reason. In an almost undercover operation, they managed to persuade two suplentes who were indigenous and apparently under a lot of pressure from their constituency and one Senator to switch sides for the vote. With a strong police presence, they snuck them into Senate and hurriedly passed not just the land reform law but four other laws which had been held up by the Senate boycott.

I turned the TV on just as the Senators emerged at about 11am. The Presidential Palace courtyard was packed with every balcony filled with indigenous groups cheering. I watched transfixed as various of the march leaders spoke. Teodocia Ruiz, from the Bartolina Sisa campesina (farmer) movement said: "We have suffered but the struggle has not been in vain. We are full of happiness and won’t stop here but will continue struggling alongside Evo Morales. We are millions." Isaac Avalos, from indigenous movement CSUTCB said: "Many asked why are we marching when we have a Government supporting us. But although we have a government, we don’t necessarily have power. Today we showed the movements have power and we have a new law."

Vice-Minister, Almara (I think) is his name to cheers said: "This will be a day remembered for many years as he day the wiphala and the tamborita entered the palace victoriously to claim from the first Indigenous President the instrument of their liberation."

The next day, the papers were full of the victory, as well as the anger of landowners and the right-wing party PODEMOS who said it would damage production. There was also lots of speculation about the deals that MAS must have made to win. As one of my friends said: "It was tactically brilliant, but I feel uneasy about how it was done as those sort of machivelean tactics can become a norm rather than the exception, tainting politics and helping the machiaveli’s rise to the top." I also feel that making the law work and deliver land redistribution will be a hard struggle with landowners saying they will militarily defend their land, whilst land redistribution could equally be held up in bureaucracy, corruption and legal fights

Yet there is no doubt it took the wind out of the sails of the right, whose planned strike on Friday in eight provinces only partially succeeded. Still the confrontation of forces is far from over.

The battle moves now to the Constituent Assembly – where the lines are equally drawn. The right wing parties are saying they will accept nothing less than two-thirds approval for all decisions in the assembly, whilst MAS is sticking to their mixed-vote proposal saying two-thirds approval for everything will lead to a veto by a small minority protecting their interests. Across the country, middle class women are going on hunger strike (plus Burger King owner Samuel Doria Medina of the UN party who probably has enough fat reserves to last a good few weeks). Meanwhile social movements are descending on Sucre to bolster the government.

Bolivia’s politics are never dull.