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Bolivia — big changes planned for agriculture


While the Evo Morales government knows it must boost agriculture, it needs to reconcile the demands of two very different groups — the big farmers and the campesinos.

The fall in international oil and gas prices during the second half of 2014 will reduce high levels of growth originally projected for 2015 (around 5%).  As a result, the Morales government has decided to bring forward plans, outlined in the ‘Agenda Patriótica 2025’, to promote development in four strategic areas: hydrocarbons, mining, energy and agriculture.  

In January 2015, as the government began its third term in office, it called for a meeting of all those involved in agrarian production.  The meeting took place on 21-22 April in Santa Cruz, bringing together both large (particularly Santa Cruz agribusiness) and small producers (members of social movements and campesino producers’ organisations). 

State policy in agriculture 

State intervention in agrarian matters has fluctuated over time.  The Agrarian Reform of 1953 brought land reform to the highlands and inter-Andean valleys, benefitting campesinos and workers on the largehacienda estates.  Land in the eastern lowlands however was unaffected, leading to the growth of large estates in the hands of a few landowners and the early development of agribusiness. 

A second important moment was in 1962, when a ten-year development plan sought to introduce capitalist agriculture in the eastern lowlands (the so-called ‘Marcha al Oriente’).  A road was built from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, and there was investment in basic infrastructure such as sugar mills. Migration and settlement of people from the Altiplano was encouraged. 

After the imposition of neoliberal adjustment measures in 1985, the World Bank-supported project ‘Tierras Bajas del Este’ introduced large scale soya production in the eastern lowlands, leading to cultivation of over 1 million hectares of soya. 

During the early part of the Morales government (2006-2010), emphasis was placed on land titling and ensuring indigenous families and campesinos achieved access to land.  Land redistribution slowed down after 2010, though there is still plenty of land in state hands which has not yet been redistributed and unused land in the hands of large landowners. 

There are major problems of minifundismo (very small plots) in highland and valley areas, traditionally important Harvesting quinoaproviders of foodstuffs. In the lowlands, the tendency has been to produce food for export, particularly soya and other grains (sunflower, sesame, chia, etc.) on large extensions of land.  Under the constitution, new landowners cannot hold more than 5,000 hectares, though those who previously held tracts larger than this managed to keep their holdings.  Currently the area of cultivated land stands at 3.5 million hectares. 

The government’s proposal – the subject of discussion at the summit – is to expand the agricultural frontier by ten million hectares by 2025 and to increase agricultural and cattle production four-fold, making Bolivia a net exporter of agricultural produce.  The aim is for agricultural GDP to reach US$10.0 billion, compared to the current figure of US$3.0 billion. 

Two different realities, two sets of demands 

To increase land under cultivation by 132% to reach the 8.6 million hectare figure by 2025 (thereby increasing the volume of production by 141%), producers from the eastern lowlands made four key demands:

-that they be given a secure legal framework (including land tenure) and that the period between checks on whether land is being used productively (the application of the so-called Función Económica y Social – FES) be extended to more than the current two years.  (When land is found to be idle, the state can confiscate it.)

Soya plantation in Bolivia– that authoriisation for the use of genetically modified (GM) seed be expanded from soya to cotton, sugar cane and maize [1].

-that they be allowed to export without restriction (at the moment they have to take the domestic market into consideration).

– that the state build more relevant infrastructure, particularly roads.

Small producers and campesinos made other, different demands:

– that the programme of land reform and land titling be completed, with the state recovering all idle land.

 The hard work of campesino farming– that adequate support be given to family and campesino producers. (If this happens, CIOEC – the campesino producers’ organisation – promises to double production).

-that more infrastructure be built, particularly irrigation.

– that help be given to add value to products and to improve access to markets. 

Main agreements 

There was by no means agreement on all issues, with small producers and their organisationsthe campesino union (CSUTCB) amongst them, playing an important role in questioning the government’s proposals.  In particular, no deal was reached on the question of GM seed. 

These were the main agreements: 

– The period between FES evaluations on larger tracts is to be extended from two years to five, thus allowing bigger landowners greater access to credit.  According to Vice-president Alvaro García Linera, this would be for a trial period only; if successful it could be adopted longer term or, if not, the two-yearly FES could be re-established. 

– Small producers will be allowed to cut down up to 20 hectares of forest on their lands, up from the previous five-hectare limit.

– Land redistribution and titling will be given priority.

– Access to international markets will be facilitated, once domestic needs are met.

-Cattle ranching will be promoted, with a tripling of the number of cattle nationally.

– GM seed  for cotton, maize and sugar cane will not be allowed. (Nor did the summit approve a five-year trial period for these GM products, as proposed by big producers.)

– Higher priority will be afforded to providing access to water, the building of roads and supporting initiatives to add value.

-There will be greater provision of credit (both government and private).

 Issues arising 

Imports of foodstuffs have been increasing over recent years, with contraband from neighbouring countries also rising. It is recognised that it is important (and posible) to produce more food  but no concrete measures are proposed to increase substantially the planting of food crops to meet the needs of the domestic market. 

A large proportion of land under cultivation will be dedicated to the production of cash crops, such as soya (much of which is exported), vegetable oils and livestock feed.  Transnational companies, such as Monsanto, stand to benefit.

Pushing back the agricultural frontier (whether on existing properties or new land) will be achieved at the Street market in Boliviaexpense of native forest and probably collectively-held indigenous land too.  Larger landowners will have their ownership rights guaranteed without question for a longer period, irrespective of whether the land is used or not.  It seems likely that they will also benefit from the extension of areas under cultivation, thereby consolidating their hold on the structure of landowning. 

There appear to be no conditions placed on eastern landowners – whether small or large – to ensure they plant food for domestic consumption. Production of already established export cash crops is thus set to continue, without the government achieving a diversification of food production. 

State involvement will entail investment and the promotion of agricultural policies, without there being any guarantee that producers will pay more taxes into state coffers.

The arguments put forward by landowners regarding the benefits of the use of genetically modified seeds (improved production) have largely been refuted. It is today widely recognied that the main contribution made by GM crops is to lower production costs.  However, the debate regarding their use and the introduction of GM seeds for other crops will continue.

Structural problems, such as the large numbers of campesinos working very small plots in the Altiplano and inter-Andean valleys, will not be tackled under the new programme. 

[1] Since 2005 during the government of Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé the use of one kind of genetically modified seed for soya has been offiicially allowed (produced by the transnational company Monsanto), though, in fact, smuggled seeds were used from the mid-1990s onwards.  Since then both the agricultural production law of 2011 (Revolución Productiva) and the law of the environment (Madre Tierra) of 2012 have both prohibited their use (and planned for the eventual eradication of GM soya).  

*This is part of a larger briefing available here.


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