SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia—Smoke from gunpowder and tear gas lingered in the air as rival members of a local farmer’s union engaged in a brutal conflict over the Movement for Socialism (MAS) Party’s distribution of free land to party supporters on Dec. 13.
Police arrested three combatants while five were injured in the conflict.
For the past 15 years, rural members of the MAS party have relocated to the Santa Cruz department in droves over the offer of free farmland from the government, which began in 2006 after former socialist President Evo Morales declared an “agrarian revolution” and distributed over 6 million acres of land to poor indigenous farmers.
However, frustrated local farmers in Santa Cruz are pushing back since the land handouts have primarily gone to supporters of the MAS party who are immigrating from other departments.
“These guys [the MAS] only give land to people from the west, but the land is here. We are here!” Santa Cruz farmer Jorge Parada told The Epoch Times.
Parada said the distribution in his department was unfair and that if his people (farmers from Santa Cruz) traveled to a western department like Cochabamba, it would be completely different.
“They wouldn’t give us anything if we showed up there, but we’re from Santa Cruz and we get nothing?”
Angry farmers accused the MAS party supporting boss for the Federation of Farmers and Workers Union in Santa Cruz, Marcos Miranda, of selling land illegally from the same program. Miranda lost his seat to Hebert Justiniano in a contested election back in November, which initiated the conflict between left- and right-wing members of the union.
The disputed land grant program originated in the 1960s, when the Bolivian government hoped to develop the untapped land resources in rural Santa Cruz—and build up the population—by offering incentives for people to move there from more populated western departments. It was also touted as a way to redistribute the wealth of a handful of rich landowners to poor indigenous groups.
“We feel betrayed by the government,” Rene Vaca told The Epoch Times.
Vaca explained one of the grievances over the land program is the decisions are being made by the MAS in La Paz.
“Lands are being given away here. Those decisions need to be made by the local [departmental] government,” he said.
The socialist land grant program has come under political fire in recent months after a group of armed militants seized control of lands near the town of Guarayos in Santa Cruz on Oct. 28. Prospective farmers with guns attacked journalists and police upon arrival for questioning their ownership of the land, which culminated in a seven-hour hostage scenario.
Congresswoman for the Chiquitania region of Santa Cruz, Maria Alvarez, denounced the incident in a session on Nov. 3, calling the socialist government supporting farmers who participated in the attack “an armed militia” and demanded an immediate stop of the invasion of lands in Santa Cruz by opportunistic land seekers.
Alvarez described them as an “armed militia camouflaged as poor farmers.”