U.S. rancher at center stage in Bolivia land dispute

Frank Bajak, Associated Press Writer
2/25/09

The man at the center of Bolivia’s 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.

“They’ve singled me out as an American,” Larsen told The Associated Press on Saturday. “We’re not just going to walk away like a bunch of sheep.”

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 recently that would empower Bolivia’s indigenous majority, in part by increasing their control over their traditional lands.

That includes the Guarani Indians who have worked for decades on Larsen’s 58-square-mile 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 Larsen’s 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.

“We’re 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 ranch’s highly remote location, where telecommunications are scarce, the AP was unable to quickly reach any of Larsen’s accusers or employees.

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 the government ordered seized Jan. 5 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 Jan. 6, the head of the national cattleman’s association, Guido Nayar, vowed unspecified “civil disobedience” to keep the government from carrying out its plan.

Twice in the past year, government agents raided Larsen’s 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, ‘You’ve 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 couldn’t 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 he’ll 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.

“It’s not about land and Indians. It’s about gas and oil,” Larsen said.

While Larsen insists he won’t turn to violence, he says his neighbors might: “They’ve said it on television: ‘We’re not leaving alive.’”

Larsen is also upset that the government recently began giving out food in Guarani communities – to break the people’s dependence on him for employment, he says.

“These people; their main thing in life is where they’re going to get their next bowl of rice,” he said. “A few bags of rice buys a lot of support.”

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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