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Ranchers hit out at land reform in Bolivia

President Evo Morales has asked large landowners to voluntarily relinquish some of their holdings to poor Indians but this property re-distribution is proving unpopular.

Morales claims that vast tracts of land are lying fallow and he argues that it should be given to indigenous Indians. At the weekend he handed out 34 rural titles from five large ranches to poor Guarani Indians and small farmers in the Alto Parapeti region in the south east of the country.

Some of it was property confiscated from a US rancher Ronald Larsen who is one of several landowners in the wealthy eastern lowlands who is opposed to the government's actions.

Larsen has become a symbol of resistance against Morales' land reform and has lead a series of confrontations with government inspectors. The Guarani Indians had worked for decades on Larsen's 15,000 hectare property as cowpokes, cooks, tractor drivers and seasonal hands.

Now a new law will limit future private landownership to about 12,350 acres and Morales is urging those with larger properties to give up tracts voluntarily. If they don't it would seem that the land can be confiscated. In Larsen's case he has been accused of employing the Indians in conditions of semi-slavery.

'There are people who don't want to end large landownership. Those people should voluntarily give up their land to people who have none. Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency,' Morales said.

But Larsen, originally from Montana and settled in Bolivia in the 1960s, 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 and even educated their children.

'They've singled me out as an American. But we're not just going to walk away like a bunch of sheep,' he said.

But Morales, who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, is determined to push the reforms through. He is from the Aymara Indian tribe and is a former leader of coca-leaf farmers.

'It is not that these lands were not in production, but that they were the site of human rights violations against the Guarani, who will now be their new owners,' Morales said at a ceremony to hand over the land.