The president had already declared a state of emergency across the region, but had hesitated to call it a disaster because it could hamper his plans to redistribute as much as a fifth of Bolivia's land to the poor. 

The land reform law, which was passed last November, gives the government the power to seize land deemed idle or fraudulently obtained, but declares disaster areas exempt from biannual land inspections.

Vocal opposition

Local leaders in Beni and Santa Cruz, home to both Morales' most vocal opposition and much of the agricultural land he intends to redistribute, had sought a broad disaster declaration that according to some interpretations of the law would have exempted their entire states from the inspections, even areas unaffected by the floods.

72,000 families have been affected
by months of heavy flooding [AFP]
But federal officials on Wednesday were drawing up a list of the areas to be included in the disaster declaration - limiting its scope and leaving its impact on the land reform programme unclear.

Months of heavy rains have swamped a vast floodplain running from the Bolivian Andes to the Amazon basin. The flooding has drowned some 22,500 head of cattle and destroyed an estimated 494,000 acres of cropland.

Morales has pledged to build 1,000 new houses in Trinidad, the state capital of Beni.

He told a cheering crowd: "We are ready to work.
 
"If the money [for disaster relief] needs to be increased, we will increase it, because we are talking about defending the lives of our fellow Bolivians."

The president has called for preparations for a potential evacuation of Trinidad, whose outlying neighborhoods have been underwater for weeks, but the centre of the city may be spared by a slightly raised highway around the city.