Land Dispute Between English Company and Venezuelan Government Resolved

In Venezuela, Agroflora, a large British agricultural company, and government officials appear to come to an amicable agreement over two contested ranches, one of which is being converted into an endogenous nucleus.

Caracas, Venezuela, April 3, 2006—Last week, England’s Agroflora agreed to sell one of its ten ranches to the Venezuelan government and cede another in an accord which ended a months long battle between the company and state, reports the AP.

According to the wire service, Omar Benitez, a lawyer for Agroflora, said that the government will pay the company $4.2 million for the 50 square mile El Charcote ranch and also receive the 166 square mile San Pablo Paeno ranch.

The combined market value of the farms is at least $11 million, according to Reuters.

“Agroflora wins because it feels it is making a contribution that will benefit the country and allow it to continue conducting business in Venezuela,” said Agroflora president Diana Dos Santos.

Venezuelan officials also spoke favorably of the deal. According to the AP, Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s Land Minister, said the agreement showed that the state and private sector could reach a “friendly accord” amid land reform efforts.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez also praised the handover on his weekly television show “Alo Presidente”. “We are recuperating land for Venezuelans, who have started to be owners of their land and are recovering their dignity.”

However, relations between Vestey Group, the parent company of Agroflora, and the Venezuelan government have not always been so cordial. When the government threatened to take over the El Charcote ranch last year, saying that the land was partially idle and that there were problems with its title documents, billionaire Lord Vestey, the owner of the group, stood outside a cocktail party for Venezuela’s new ambassador to London saying that Venezuela had “done a Zimbabwe,” according to England’s Daily Telegraph.  Zimbabwe’s controversial land confiscation program is widely seen as a failure do to squatters’ lack of training and resources.

The company had also taken the case to international arbitration, according to Reuters. A spokesperson told the news agency that the deal requires the government to guarantee the company productivity certificates and title deeds for its other farms. In turn, the company will eventually drop its suit.

Richard Vivas, the Director of Venezuela’s National Land Insitute said they were still investigating the title deeds to other ranches. "They donated the San Pablo Paeno farm and we are paying for the El Charcote land and repairs, and we will keep examining the title deeds of other Agroflora farms in Venezuela," he said.

According to the Venezuelan government’s ABN, Agroflora also signed an agreement with the Venezuelan Ministry of Agriculture and Land to work towards transferring agricultural and livestock technology. “Agroflora has a lot to teach [so that Venezuela can achieve] a better quality of meat and livestock weight and has advanced a whole process of adaptation of foreign species,” said Donald Lamont, Britain’s ambassador to Venezuela.

The former San Pablo Paeno ranch, now an endogenous development nucleus, will be used as a research ranch for students, professors, and researchers, Agriculture and Land Minister, Elías Jaua said on “Aló Presidente.” Also involved in the project is the Technological Institute of Mantecal, which offers free programs to its 420 enrolled students. Endogenous development nuclei are special areas the Venezuelan government designates because of their potential for economic development based on the resources that already exist in the area, but which receive some limited government start-up support.

Chávez also said that the community where the ranch was located should be involved in the development of the José Cornelio Muñoz fund, according to the Venezuelan government’s ABN. “The intention of this fund is to form part of a cooperative, now that the work of agriculture is a consideration of new socialism,” said Chávez on Aló Presidente. “The [government’s free health program] needs to come here too. We have to make a city so that the people who work in the fund live here, that there are schools and health services,” he said.

The Venezuelan land reform program has been criticized for not protecting private property, which is a constitutional right in Venezuela. The government has repeatedly said that lands which are in use and for which owners hold legal titles will not be subject to seizure.

However, conflicts between landowners and peasants squatting on disputed land have erupted regularly and paramilitaries working on behalf of landowners have murdered 164 peasant leaders in recent years, according to the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front.