ACHACACHI, Bolivia (Reuters) - As Bolivia erupted into violence this month over President Evo Morales' leftist reforms, the future of farmers like Julio Mamani hangs in the balance.
By Eduardo Garcia
Mamani, 44, lives in an adobe shack, burns cow dung to heat up his food, and works other people's land for food and money, feeding his family on the equivalent of $2 a day.
Frost, drought and hailstorms regularly wipe out crops on the windswept Andean plateau where he lives, about 50 miles north of La Paz.
"Because I don't own land I feel like I've got nothing in life," Mamani said. "Thanks to Evo we're going to have a piece of the land that belongs to big land owners."
Dozens of families in Achacachi have been promised land in the tropical lowlands in eastern Bolivia under Morales' land redistribution plan.
But that plan, along with his broader socialist agenda, set off a violent reaction headed by big farming families in the agricultural heartland of the east.
The opposition blocked highways and occupied dozens of government buildings. The government has issued different numbers for the number of people killed, while local media puts the number at 13.
Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, has increased state control of the economy and has distributed nearly 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of land to hundreds of indigenous peasants.
So far, he has handed out only government land, but a proposed new constitution would slash the limit on land ownership to up to 5,000 hectares (12,360 acres) from 50,000 hectares (123,600 acres), which would lead to the redistribution of private land.
Traditionally, Bolivia's wealth was in the silver mines high in the Andes, but in the 1960s families from Europe, Asia and elsewhere moved into the eastern lowlands and turned them into a breadbasket of soy, sugar, rice and beef.
The country remains divided between poor indigenous people in the western highlands and whiter, wealthier people in the fertile lowlands. About 1 percent of landowners hold 66 of agricultural land.
"Not for a minute have we hesitated in our rejection of agrarian reform," said Guido Nayar, head of an influential agriculture federation in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold.
"They want to limit property for those who produce food but not for those who produce drugs," he said, a reference to coca leaf, the main ingredient of cocaine. Morales, a former coca grower, has promoted the legal use of coca leaf, which Indians use in rituals and chew to ward of hunger.
Almost every country in Latin America has tried at one time or another to break down a system where small elites own most of the land. Those elites traditionally fought back and even toppled the presidents who instituted agrarian reform, sometimes with U.S. backing.
Earlier this month, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and accused the United States of endorsing opposition protests in a bid to destabilize Morales.
Nayar said the government was using a 1950s model for agrarian reform that runs counter to modern, consolidated agriculture, a criticism echoed in places like Mexico, where redistribution has resulted in plots that are too small in some cases even to support a family.
But Morales has won the support of other Latin American leaders, who will discuss Bolivia's situation on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, and has vowed to forge ahead with his plans.
After taking office in January 2006, he first nationalized the energy sector, mining projects and the country's main telephone company and used the proceeds to fight poverty. The measures have been popular nationally, despite the resistance in the east, and he won 67 percent backing in a vote in August.
"We're starting the repossession process. It will be the end ... of large idle land holdings," says Cliver Rocha, head of the government land reform office.
The government wants to help more than 200,000 families by redistributing 8 million hectares (19.77 million acres) of land by 2011. To do so it will need to complete surveys and then seize land it determines is idle or owned illegally.
Rocha said the new campaign's focus is land grants to groups of landless Indians, "the historically dispossessed." Unlike in Bolivia's last big land reform effort, in 1953, people will not be able to sell their land, which will prevent speculation, he said.
Some 180 families are better off after moving to Santa Cruz, establishing a community called "Pueblos Unidos" on state land, said Silverio Vera of the Landless Movement, a land rights group.
"We have a school, small clinics, water tanks and we are sowing ... The families are doing well because we have access to work."
In Achacachi, where nearly 100 percent of the people voted for Morales in August, Mamani said he was hoping for a better life for his three children in Santa Cruz.
"With land and hard work we'll be able to move forward," he said, standing next to the dried manure he uses for fuel.
He won't miss the bitter cold of the Andes, where his family has lived for generations, he said. "I'm going to take a small picture of the mountains as a souvenir and I'll be fine looking at the picture."
(Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Additional reporting by Raymond Colitt in Santa Cruz; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eddie Evans)