- Parent Category: News
- Category: International Indigenous Events and News
- Published: 12 February 2009
By Frank Bajak
The Associated Press 2-09
The man at the center of Bolivias land wars is an improbable figure: a tall, folksy Montanan whose vast holdings have been ordered confiscated on the grounds he treated workers as virtual slaves.
Ronald Larsen, 64, calls the claims unfounded and vows not to give up without a fight. For four decades, he says, he has fed and clothed workers who would otherwise live in squalor even educating their children.
Yet Larsen faces tough odds in fighting to keep his ranch, the last parcel of which he said he bought in 1973, four years after arriving.
He is a white patron a word meaning boss, landlord and master in a racially divided nation run since January 2006 by an Aymara Indian who grew up dirt poor.
President Evo Morales enacted a popularly approved constitution that would empower Bolivias Indigenous majority, in part by increasing their control over their traditional lands.
That includes the Guarani Indians who have worked for decades on Larsens 58-square-mile (15,000-hectare) spread in the remote Chaco region of southeastern Bolivia as cowpokes, cooks, tractor drivers and seasonal hands.
Human rights groups say an estimated 4,000 Guarani still live in virtual slavery in the Chaco, tending cattle or working corn, peanuts and sugarcane for wages as low as $40 a year. Tribal leaders last year claimed that 12 families on Larsens ranch lived in servitude.
Larsen insists he is not among the abusers, and alleges that former workers accusing him of indentured servitude signed statements under duress.
Were way over the minimum wage of $81 a month, he said in a telephone interview from the eastern city of Santa Cruz.
Because of the ranchs highly remote location, where telecommunications are scarce, the AP was unable to quickly reach any of Larsens accusers or employees. Officials plan to present evidence against Larsen on Monday, National Institute of Agricultural Reform secretary-general Juan de Dios Fernandez said Sunday.
Larsen became a symbol of resistance to Morales land reform campaign last year following a series of highly publicized confrontations with government agents.
His holdings are the biggest among the 139 square miles (36,000 hectares) that the government ordered seized Thursday from five eastern lowland families, which it alleges have broken the law by letting land lie fallow or by contracting workers in servitude-like conditions.
Landowners will receive no compensation in exchange for their property, the National Institute of Agricultural Reform said.
The seizure is apt to exacerbate a bitter, sometimes violent struggle between two Bolivias the poor arid western highlands from which Morales hails and the fertile east run by descendants of Europeans who are clamoring for autonomy.
On Friday, the head of the national cattlemans association, Guido Nayar, vowed unspecified civil disobedience to keep the government from carrying out its plan.
Twice in the past year, government agents raided Larsens ranch seeking evidence of servitude. In the first incursion on Feb. 29, they were widely reported to have been met by hostile, rifle-toting men including Larsen, who allegedly shot out their tires.
Asked about the incident, Larsen sidestepped the question.
My lawyer said, Youve got to stop talking about those measly tires, he said. But he did allow that one of his workers used a sharp tool to puncture the tires of two government SUVs so agents couldnt flee before neighboring ranchers confronted them.
On Nov. 21, the agents returned.
Sixty military guys with black ski masks and rifles came onto the property shooting, destroying a satellite dish, paintings and solar panels and writing obscenities on walls, Larsen said.
They occupied the ranch for a month and sent most of his workers fleeing, leaving hardly anyone to tend to his 1,800 head of cattle and his soy, popcorn and feed corn crops, he said.
Larsen says hell use all legal means to keep his land, which he says is mostly untillable mountainous terrain. He said he deeded the property in 2005 to his three sons, all Bolivian citizens one of whom won the Mr. Bolivia beauty pageant in 2004.
Morales, he claims, is more interested in getting access to natural gas and petroleum deposits that likely underlie disputed parcels than in restoring indigenous lands.
Its not about land and Indians. Its about gas and oil, Larsen said.
While Larsen insists he wont turn to violence, he says his neighbors might: Theyve said it on television: Were not leaving alive.
Larsen is also upset that the government recently began giving out food in Guarani communities to break the peoples dependence on him for employment, he says.
These people, their main thing in life is where theyre going to get their next bowl of rice, he said. A few bags of rice buys a lot of support.