Continuity and change in Bolivian land politics and policy

Bret Gustafson


This chapter is an overview of the main issues shaping contemporary political struggles over land in Bolivia. The chapter draws on the work of Bolivian researchers with a focus on continuities and potential changes before and after the tumultuous political upheaval of 2019 and 2020. The chapter critically engages the legacies of the government of Evo Morales and sketches out the primary areas of conflict that Bolivian activists and movements are facing going forward. The chapter begins with a general context and traces land policy during the government of Evo Morales, illustrating a shift from a more progressive approach to land reform (roughly 2006 to 2012) toward a conciliatory arrangement with eastern Bolivia’s agro-industrial elite (from 2013 to 2019). Four areas are examined in more detail: gender and land; the battle over GMOs, the fires in the Amazon, and Indigenous territorial autonomies. I then turn to the political upheaval of 2019 and 2020. When Evo Morales was forced to resign in November of 2019, an interim government took over that was by and large a direct representative of the agro-industrial elite of the east. I describe various ways that the interim government used the capture of the state to further advance the interests of wealthy landowners. I conclude by considering how the return of the MAS in November of 2020 may or may not bring a return to progressive land policy.

General context

Bolivia’s population was mostly rural until the mid-1980s, but this rural to urban migration accelerated further in the 1990s and 2000s. Economic growth, albeit concentrated in urban areas, attracted more migrants, with Bolivia in 2020 being about 70% urban. But a relatively high proportion of 30% of the country still lives in the rural area.1 About 54% of the rural population lives in poverty, with 35% in extreme poverty (CEPAL 2019; Mamani 2020a). In the Andes, lands are simply too scarce to sustain new generations. Combined with climate change, water scarcity and soil erosion - as well as the impacts of mining in some regions - rural survival has become challenging in much of the highlands (Mamani 2020a). In eastern Bolivia, the expansion of large-scale agro-industry has occupied significant swaths of land. Despite some new rural settlements and land titles granted to smallholders, rural communities still struggle to get access to credits and inputs, and often end up sending new generations to the city or abandoning the land. Yet urban life is increasingly equally challenging, given the high levels of un- and under-employment. Andean migration to eastern Bolivia has long offered a safety valve, yet increasingly the availability of new land is limited both by local opposition and the spread of agro-industry.

In eastern Bolivia, the most economically productive lands are increasingly monopolized by large-scale agro-industries, mostly producing for export. Researchers from Fundación Tierra estimate that of the 3 million hectares of arable land in Bolivia, 1.3 million are planted in soy and around 700,000 in corn, sugar cane, rice, or wheat, most of that controlled by big agro-industries. The remainder, around 1 million hectares, produces most of what the country eats. Land inequality is high. About 800 large landowners have holdings of 5,000 hectares or more, while 787,000 small producers have holdings of 50 hectares or less. In the case of soy, the inequality is dramatic. Of the large producers, 2% control 70% of the land, a handful (20%) have mid-size properties of less than 1,000 hectares, and 78% are smallholders, with less than 50 hectares (Fundación Tierra 2020). This creates what has been called a dual structure in the land. On one side, there is large-scale capital-intensive agro-industry, focused primarily on soy and cattle, and to a lesser extent sugar cane, much of it destined for export. On the other side are food-producing smaller holders producing for the domestic market. Recent years have seen the expansion of small- and medium-scale farms producing for the market as well, especially in the regions of settlements north of Santa Cruz and in emerging alternative crops, such as quinoa, as well as coca, fruits, vegetables, and others. Yet even with this tripartite structure, a highly unequal distribution of land and agrarian power persists even in the wake of 14 years of the presumably progressive agrarian policies of Evo Morales (Colque et al. 2016). If the urban economy is not able to absorb labor, the country will need to do more to create economic opportunities for

Bolivian land politics and policy 83 rural communities, which will require challenging the expansion of the agro-industrial elite.

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