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Landlose bilden eine eigene Organisation

Die brasilianische MST und die bolivianischen Landarbeitergewerkschaften standen Pate: auch in Bolivien haben sich nun die Landlosen selbst organisiert - die Organisation heisst ebenfalls MST. Wie es dazu kam, was sich die Menschen erhoffen - das berichtet Peter Lowe in einem (englischen) Artikel für die newsletter "Weekly Update on the Americas" Nr. 641 vom 12.5.02

Bolivian Landless Give Birth to a Movement


Leading two tired kids by the hand and carrying her youngest in a cloth on her back, Juana Ortega arrived on foot in this southern Bolivian provincial capital, the destination of a 175-mile protest march. "My children are heavy," she said, not even mentioning the one she had been carrying in utero for almost nine months. "But I do this out of necessity. We need land."

Ortega, 31, and her children had been riding in a crowded truck or walking in the sweltering sun for six days since leaving their hut in Pananti, one of eight landless settlements on the Chaco, a low-altitude plain east of here. The Ortegas were among 150 families that converged from the settlements for the march, organized by Bolivias two-year-old Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), which took its name and many of its tactics from the Brazilian group famous for occupying idle farmland.

In Tarija, the marchers demanded titles to their parcels. But the government ignored them for a week, until they occupied a National Institute of Agrarian Reform office March 6. Officials quickly called the police, who fired tear gas and clubbed protest leaders.

As Ortega ran from the building, she stumbled and fell hard. Four days later, back in her hut in Pananti, her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth.

The death was just the most recent tragedy for the settlement. Last October, Ortega was among 350 women and children who lived along a parched riverbed without food or shelter for three days after dozens of landowners and paramilitary thugs tried to dislodge landless communities in the area. The following month a paramilitary gang massacred six settlers in Pananti. Despite Bolivias 50-year-old agrarian reform law and recent government promises, Pananti residents do not expect titles for their plots anytime soon, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks.

Conditions are similar in the other landless settlements on the Chaco, the poorest part of South Americas poorest country. But the MST is pressing forward. "What we are doing here in Bolivia is not illegal," says Ermelinda Fernandez, president of the group Chaco chapter. "We are struggling together, on the basis of our reality, to recuperate what has always been our land."

BOLIVIAs LANDLESS MOVEMENT follows a half-century of dashed rural hopes. In 1952 a revolutionary government banned forced labor and gave some land to campesinos. Since then, however, most Bolivian regimes have favored export farming and large estates while ushering in transnational firms such as Syngenta, the Swiss seed and chemical giant. Free-market policies have kept most of Bolivias 8 million inhabitants in poverty.

Former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada 1993-1997 administration banned large estates that serve no social or economic purpose, attempted to reduce corruption in the agrarian-reform agency and streamlined the legal framework for redistributing abandoned land. Despite the reforms, the Sanchez government did not manage to wrest a significant number of plots from large landholders, known here as latifundistas and patrones.

His successors, Hugo Banzer Saenz and Jorge Quiroga Ramirez, who assumed the presidency last August, have not done much better. "On the Chaco," Fernandez says, "agrarian reform has only strengthened the hold of the patrones and not resulted in the distribution of land to those who work it."

Today 4.5 percent of the nations landowners own 70 percent of its agricultural acreage, according to the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center, a nongovernmental organization based in the central city of Cochabamba. As they wait for the value of their idle parcels to increase, an estimated 100,000 landless agricultural workers live in extreme poverty. "There are still haciendas where 30 peons work from sunrise to sunset for a completely inadequate salary," Fernandez says, citing daily pay as low as $1.41. "They have no alternative because they have no land of their own."

Perhaps nowhere in Bolivia is the problem more glaring than in Yacuiba, the municipality that includes Pananti and runs along the Argentine border. Just 25 families own 80 percent of the municipalitys land, according to the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDH), a Bolivian nongovernmental organization. Another 3,000 families have no land.

The disparity prompted the Gran Chaco Campesino Federation, the local arm of the Sole Union Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), to start organizing landless workers to occupy underused plots instead of waiting for government action. In the first takeover, the Ortegas and 140 other landless families occupied Pananti, an abandoned 235-acre property, in May 2000.

Most of the families had lived and worked for years on plantations nearby. The MST was formed at a conference the following month in Yacuiba, the municipalitys largest town, 25 miles south of Pananti. Since then, landless workers have founded seven other settlements on the Chaco, and the MST has organized new chapters in the provinces of La Paz, Potosy and Santa Cruz. MST President Angel Durano says another is in the works in Cochabamba.

Headquartered in La Paz, the capital, the MST has coordinated actions with farmers battling U.S.-backed coca eradication programs in the Chapare, a jungle region in central Bolivia. The group also cooperates with trade unions, indigenous organizations and others interested in social justice for campesinos.

And the MST is developing ties with Brazil Landless Rural Workers Movement, the worlds largest and most successful agrarian-reform group, which has grown to an estimated 500,000 families since forming in 1984 (see Stage Might). The Brazilian group is planning to send a delegation to Tarija in June for the Bolivian MST annual meeting.

BOLIVIAN LATIFUNDISTAS ARE NOT HAPPY about the movement. One of their groups, the Gran Chaco Stockbreeders Association (Asogachaco), has called for violence against landless people. The Chaco settlers, in turn, have fought off eviction attempts by police and soldiers. Last October about 80 landowners and at least seven masked paramilitary thugs, wearing military uniforms and carrying military weapons, burned down huts in a landless community called Los Sotos. Then they threatened settlers in Pananti. Neither the landowners nor the masked men were punished, says Fernandez, the local MST leader. "The authorities did nothing."

That was just a warm-up. Shortly after dawn November 9, as unarmed Pananti settlers walked to their fields to prepare for corn planting, paramilitary gunmen ambushed and killed six of them and wounded 21. The injured included Ortegas husband, Mario. Later that day, some of the survivors fatally beat a man they had identified as a ringleader of the attack. Responding to the incidents, authorities arrested nine landless campesinos and five people linked to area landowners. The five were quickly released, while the landless remained in jail. (Fernandez herself was jailed December 18, just three days after giving birth. She was released on bail three days later.)

Bolivias interior minister, Leopoldo Fernandez, ordered an investigation of nearby police and army troops who failed to prevent or stop the violence. And a communique from NGOs that work with Bolivian campesinos alleged that a variety of government officials and institutions were complicit in the massacre for failing to resolve land conflicts quickly. On November 20, the government promised to release the jailed MST activists and grant landless people titles to 21,000 acres, including Pananti.

But attacks on landless settlers have continued. On December 11 army troops fired on campesinos occupying an estate in Santa Cruz Province, just north of the Chaco. Human rights activists say at least two campesinos died in the violence.

The terror in Pananti disrupted corn planting, so the community has no harvest this year. Ortegas husband and many of the familys neighbors are working as low-paid day laborers on nearby farms. MST lawyers, meanwhile, have started a slow legal process to win land titles for the settlement. "We had had to work very hard to recuperate the communitys stability," Fernandez says.

A few days before losing her baby, Ortega explained why she had joined the march with her three children. "I decided to do it for them," she says, "for the land they will need to survive."

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