By CARLOS VALDEZ, Associated Press Writer
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivia’s largest agribusiness group said Wednesday it would form "self-defense" units to defend land it fears the country’s new leftist government will confiscate to give to the poor.
The National Farming Confederation said in a statement that it rejected President Evo Morales’ land reform policy and said he "was trying to destroy the country’s productive apparatus."
The Morales administration rejected the idea.
"The government cannot accept their announcement because these groups are illegal and border on being criminal," said Alfredo Rada, a deputy minister in charge of coordinating between the government and the country’s civil organizations.
The group did not detail what they meant by "self-defense" groups, but in other parts of Latin America, the term has been used to describe armed citizens groups.
In a separate statement Wednesday, Morales’ government said it would move forward with its plan to redistribute more than 77,000 square miles of land over the next five years. It reiterated that it would only confiscate land that was not being farmed, was obtained illegally or was being used for speculation.
The figure in Wednesday’s statement was larger than the 54,000 square miles officials had used earlier.
The National Farming Federation blamed the government for creating a climate of uncertainty that could unleash confrontations between Bolivians.
Its members refused to attend a meeting called by the government last week to discuss the issue, saying the Morales administration was allowing illegal land invasions in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, where much of the land targeted for redistribution is located.
The government land redistribution plan is heightening tension that has long existed between the prosperous residents of Bolivia’s agricultural lowlands and the poorer, mostly Indian people of the western high plains.
Much of the land targeted for distribution is unused state land located in the fertile eastern lowlands.
Arable land that isn’t being farmed has been subject to redistribution for more than a decade under Bolivian law. But relatively few poor have benefited, largely because the inefficient justice system hasn’t been able to untangle title disputes.
Land reform efforts that began 10 years ago have been slow and Morales wants to speed up the process by giving out plots of less than 124 acres and making it easier to obtain titles.
Just under 90 percent of Bolivia’s productive land is worked by only 50,000 families, leaving millions of Bolivians with little or no land, according to the government.