On March 15, 2009, Bolivia redistributed over 94,000 acres of land, mostly to indigenous farmers, after the nation passed a constitutional referendum this past January. President Evo Morales said that the redistribution encourages people to put country over profit and ends human rights violations against indigenous people. Bolivia seized the redistributed land from five big ranches in Bolivia’s wealthy eastern lowlands. Morales explained that, “It is not that these lands were not in production, but that they were the site of human rights violations against the Guaraní, who will now be their new owners.”
The land transfer followed the January approval of a new Constitution. Key reforms in the governing charter include an entire chapter devoted to indigenous rights that stresses the importance of ethnicity in Bolivia’s makeup, the establishment of an indigenous system of justice that has the same status as the official existing system and where judges will be elected and no longer appointed by the Congress, and a 12,355 acre limit on land ownership. “Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency,” Morales said.
In an effort to appease wealthy landowners, Morales did not make land limitation retroactive. Despite this concession, four of Bolivia’s nine regions voted “no,” on the constitutional referendum. The greatest opposition to the reform and land redistribution was in the eastern lowlands region, where most of Bolivia’s wealth is concentrated. Opposition strongholds in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, easily defeated the referendum. “The ‘No’ vote has put the brakes on the fools who wanted to destroy our country,” argued opposition leader and Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas. Bolivians, however, approved the referendum by 61%. During the celebration of the referendum’s victory, Morales announced: “[h]ere we begin to reach true equality for all Bolivians.”
Morales – an Aymara Indian and former leader of coca-leaf farmers – is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and enjoys broad support amongst indigenous Bolivians. Morales enjoys particular popularity amongst the Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní indigenous groups that suffered centuries of discrimination. In fact, only 50 years ago, indigenous people of Aymara and Quechua descent were prohibited from entering the central square of La Paz. The new constitution aims to establish what some Bolivians are calling a “plurinational state.” The goal is an all-inclusive society where different groups coexist, and where everyone enjoys full legal protection. “Today, from here, we are beginning to put an end to the giant landholdings of Bolivia,” Morales said.