The Return of the State in Agrarian Development and its Contribution to Food Sovereignty in Bolivia

A summary of my paper in the Journal of Agrarian Change on the return of the state in Bolivia, and in general in Latin America!

  In the 20th century several Latin American countries turned to state control of agricultural production and commercialization to meet domestic demands for food (e.g. through marketing boards), but since the mid-eighties this state intervention declined due to a strong process of liberalization.  More recently, we see a return of the state in Latin America, driven by the so-called ‘New Left’, of which the Bolivian case is one example (besides Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela).  Once in power, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government officially rejected the dominant food regime led by large-scale industrial agriculture in the east of the country.  It prioritized peasant and communitarian economies and conceptualized the state as the main instrument to realize change.


A recent study led by CIAT in collaboration with the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University, and funded by the Collaborative Crop Research Program from McKnight Foundation, explored the current role of the Bolivian state to enhance food sovereignty.  It asked how the Bolivian state has tried to implement agrarian policies in the agro-chain as an alternative to the dominant food system in the country to benefit small farmers and national food sovereignty.

To address this question, the study examined the case of the Empresa de Apoyo a la Producción de Alimentos (EMAPA, Company for the Support of Food Production).  EMAPA, created in 2007 as one of the 18 new public companies financed with revenues from hydrocarbons and minerals, has to support production, commercialization, and stabilization of the agricultural market (rice, wheat, maize and soybean).  EMAPA offers seeds, agricultural inputs, and technical assistance to small and medium producers with 0 per cent interest loans and purchases from small and medium producers to offer an alternative to the vertically integrated systems of commercialization dominated by the agribusiness sector.



By focusing on EMAPA, we studied the capacity of the Bolivian state to intervene in rural development, to enhance food sovereignty, and to increase their control over regional elites and international non-state actors that dominate in Santa Cruz, the department where EMAPA concentrates most of its intervention. We examined three aspects of this state intervention for food sovereignty: a) The institutional arrangement to meet its goals; b) the relative autonomy of the state to formulate and implement alternative views on agrarian production and its independence from actors who may affect the fulfillment of its objectives; and c) the capacity of state organizations to carry out these alternatives that enable food sovereignty in favor of small farmers.


Far from the often-heard criticisms of the State intervention, this study shows how the Bolivian government has extended the much needed state’s support (credit and inputs) to places and people where it did not exist, helping small farmers to carry out agricultural production.  However, for the most part the findings question the lack of state leadership in generating technological changes to break small farmers’ dependency ties with the agro-industrial sector and adapt agricultural technology to local problems. It also makes clear the immense difficulties that the Bolivian government faces in bringing food prices under control and enabling food production for poor people, especially in the cities. These have included popular protests against EMAPA, the skyrocketing of food prices in 2008 and 2010 and the lack of state capacity to intervene in food production and commercialization.

If you want to read more about the findings of this study, please visit this link or e-mail us.

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