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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolivia Begins Land Reform

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian President Evo Morales has begun a sweeping land reform plan by handing over 24,800 square kilometers of state-owned land to poor Indians.

Morales on Saturday marked the start of his "agrarian revolution," just weeks after his administration nationalized Bolivia's natural gas industry.

"We want to change Bolivia together," Morales told the thousands of Indians gathered to receive land titles. "Getting back the land means we're getting back all the natural resources, we're nationalizing all the natural resources."

Saturday's ceremony came after talks broke down between Morales and agribusiness leaders on his agrarian reform, which involves the distribution of 200,000 square kilometers of public land during the next five years.

The government is studying the redistribution of unproductive private land, while one farmers organization has said it would form "self-defense" groups to prevent such seizures.

The redistribution plans are heightening long-standing tension between the prosperous residents of Bolivia's agricultural lowlands and the poorer, mostly Indian people of the western high plains.

"The landowners, the foreign companies, the political parties that have always dominated this country took our land from us, and that's why we live in misery," Guarani Indian leader Wilson Chacaray said.

Alejandro Almaraz, Bolivia's vice minister of land, said the government would ensure sustainable land management. An unspecified number of titles were given Saturday to Indian communities rather than individuals.

The targeted state land already was set aside for redistribution before Morales took office in January. None of the land has been confiscated from large landholders. The government says it will eventually seize and redistribute privately owned land that is unproductive, was obtained illegally or is being used for speculation.

Farmers object to plans for private seizures and to the pace of the process, saying they fear possible mass deforestation could harm farms already in operation.

"They're going to carry out a political plan for something that first requires technical structuring, infrastructure and training," said Mauricio Roca, vice president of the powerful Eastern Agricultural Chamber.

The president is hoping to speed up a land reform process that has dragged on for more than a decade as an inefficient justice system slowly untangles title disputes.

Just under 90 percent of Bolivia's productive terrain is worked by only 50,000 families, leaving millions of Bolivians with little or no land, according to the government.