The unfinished agrarian revolution
Evo Morales, elected in 2005, launched a new agrarian reform in 2006 that promised just such a challenge. Prior land reforms, after the 1952 Revolution, and then again in 1996, had distributed some land to small farmers, but were ultimately limited in their effects and did not address deeper structures of inequality. The 1996 reform, aimed more at creating conditions for a free market in land than in pursuing social justice, initiated a limited process of land distribution and Indigenous territorial demarcation. But in both cases, large land-owning elites appropriated the legal measures to consolidate their hold on ill-gotten lands or to prevent more radical forms of redistribution. The law passed by the Morales government in 2006 was more ambitious. It set criteria for “socio-economic” function, such that lands held for speculation or farms exploiting workers through debt peonage could be expropriated by the government. It stopped the auctioning off of public lands and established collective titling for Indigenous and peasant farmers, meaning that any distribution of state lands would no longer go to the wealthy. Finally, it allowed for the participation of peasant and Indigenous organizations in the process and gave the state more power to intervene. In short, it was indeed a “redirection” of the agrarian reform (Colque et al. 2016:215).
The effort was marked by the redistribution of publicly owned land, titling of Indigenous territories, and cadastral “cleaning up” (saneamiento) of contested claims. In parts of the country, the MAS used the land reform to advance Indigenous and peasant claims, often leveraging these against particularly troublesome political opponents (Gustafson 2020a). It was a conquest of the government that saw almost 85% of the country’s land “saneado” (with clear titles). A significant portion of the land that was redistributed went to Indigenous Peoples and small farmers. For example, over 50% of the land titled by 2014, almost 23 million hectares, were for the Indigenous “communitarian lands” (tierras comunitarias de origen [TCO]/ territorial conquests of years of struggle (Colque et al. 2016:185).
Yet the government of Evo Morales, although voicing a seemingly radical language of land reform and Indigenous rights, ultimately demobilized more radical demands for land and abandoned significant efforts to limit the amount of land held by the latifundists. As it sought to defend its hegemony, it redirected peasant political mobilization into state patronage rather than challenges to agrarian inequality. In addition, while the MAS had backed land occupations by peasant organizations, these radical efforts were eventually brought to a halt. There were also internal schisms. Many peasant organizations - primarily migrants from the Andes, or their descendants - wanted individual or family titles. Most Indigenous organizations, those largely in the eastern lowlands who shared a different agrarian history not characterized by insertion into commercial production, supported collective territories. The schism led to conflicts within the Morales government, which gradually sidelined supporters of collective Indigenous territories (Gustafson 2020a). Indigenous organizations had hoped to transform the TCOs into autonomous territories, but the new constitution limited Indigenous autonomies to existing municipal jurisdictions, and only to those where Indigenous peoples could muster a majority vote to convert them to autonomous municipalities (Garcés 2011). At this writing, there are only three out of over 300 municipalities in the country. In addition, the TCOs were not largely in economically productive lands and remain partly occupied by third-party (non-Indigenous) smallholders. In terms of large-scale expropriation of latifundias, this never really happened. Most lands redistributed were government lands. Many private holdings that should have been expropriated - due to their illegality or because they did not fulfill a socio-economic function - were left untouched (and, as below, granted more time to try to certify that they were actually productive). Evo Morales’s election challenged the absolute power of the eastern Bolivia agrarian elite, but it did not dismantle it. In fact, by 2010 or so, the Morales government began to make concessions to the agrarian elite in a bid for political stability. This included, paradoxically, increased titling of lands to those who were not poor peasants or Indigenous peoples and, as above, a general halt to more radical efforts to expropriate land that was not fulfilling a social and economic good (one of the criteria established in the 2006 law). The government approach to land shifted from a revolutionary stance to one that seemed focused on appeasing large landowners and using the land reform office to expand the patronage networks of the government (McKay 2018).
Gender and land
Despite the recent improvement of the economic indices in Bolivia, a significant sector of the population continues to live in poverty. Of this group, those who continue trying to eke out a living on rural small-holdings include a significant population of around 1.6 million women in the Andes. Because men often migrate to the city, leaving
Bolivian land politics and policy 85 behind the women in the communities, researchers have referred to a “feminization of the rural,” which, by extension equates to a feminization of rural poverty (Mamani 2020a). For decades, scholars have argued that one of the fundamental issues of gender inequality in Latin America revolves around unequal access to land for women (Deere and León 2001). It has been argued that land ownership is not only a key to subsistence but is also tied to political subjecthood (Lastarria-Cornhiel 2009). Traditional forms of collective ownership, such as the ayllu in the Andes, or non-privatized customary use of the commons may have allowed for more equitable access for women. Yet collective titling can just as easily marginalize women - or pit women’s interests against Indigenous interests (Deere and León 2001). At any rate, once privatized regimes of individualized land ownership were established, the impact has been to deepen gender inequality because individual titles were largely written in the name of the male as the head of household. In this way, even ostensibly revolutionary projects of land reform could cement male power further. Such was the case of the 1952 Land Reform in Bolivia, which established individual ownership through male heads of household and organized peasant unions (sindicatos) to mediate relations between land, communities, and the state. The ayllu form persisted in some areas, but male title-holding and the sindicato structure cemented deeply patriarchal forms of state politics onto Andean life. Furthermore, over time, individual land-holdings were increasingly subdivided among heirs, leading to out-migration and the phenomenon known as “minifundia” - families whose land consists merely of tiny plots or rows of land that do not allow for subsistence.
With the neoliberal era voicing the discourse of “gender equality” fit into a liberal model of market-oriented reform, the issue of co-ownership (joint titling) was introduced in the 1996 land reform legislation, the so-called Ley INRA (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria). Deere and León (2001) argue that the so-called “engendering” of neoliberal land reform was largely aimed at legitimating a broader process of market-oriented policies and establishing formal legal equality for women and men. Yet, as they did elsewhere, neoliberal economic policies did not produce substantive equality. In the case of Bolivia, neoliberal reforms ushered in a period of growing poverty and inequality that did little to redistribute real structural or economic power to the poor, much less to women (Farthing and Kohl 2006). Furthermore, while the neoliberal INRA Law set out the criteria of gender equality, it did not mandate joint titling or establish firm procedures for pursuing it, such that it came down to decisions made by land functionaries and communities at the moment titles were written up - spaces largely dominated by men. The INRA process did little to inform women of their rights or train its own personnel in the issues of gender equality in titling. Other challenges, including illiteracy, lack of state IDs, and the functionaries’ lack of knowledge of Indigenous languages also limited women’s participation (Lastarria-Cornhiel 2009:2016-2018; 224). The main goals of the 1996 reform were to encourage the formation of a free market in land, not to redistribute land or power to women and the poor. By the time INRA began to rethink its approach to gender, the entire neoliberal project had begun to collapse.2
The 2006 Agrarian Reform law passed under Evo Morales sought to address this in part by implementing joint titling more forcefully. What this meant is that the historical pattern of titling lands only in the name of men, as the head of the family, would be transformed such that all titles for nuclear families were to be written as co-owned by women and men. The process had a significant impact. Of the 2.1 million beneficiaries of land titling tied to the reform, about 46% are women (Mamani 2020b). As such, almost a million women are now recognized as full or joint owners of land. Although women have gained some access to legal titles, there is still much more to be done to translate this ownership (or joint ownership) into effective power. In some areas, women were titled marginal or unproductive lands. In political organizations, women are often excluded and women remain subject to high levels of domestic violence. There are notable exceptions, of course, such as the women’s branch of the national peasant movement, known as the “Bartolinas” (Confederation National de Mujeres Campesinas Indigenas Originarios de Bolivia “Bartolina Sisa”), which has been an influential political actor. Many women from this organization took prominent roles in the MAS government. Yet challenges remain. During the MAS government, several initiatives aimed at addressing these issues were implemented, with uneven success. These included laws aimed at curbing domestic violence, racial and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. Nonetheless, implementation challenges in rural areas, along with some community opposition from male leaders, has limited their reach. Despite more parity for women in urban political spaces, including at the national level, the need for more assertive agrarian policies to ensure legal security, support rural agrarian projects for rural women, and secure women’s roles as political administrators of their lands is clear (Mamani 2020a, 2020b).