A Visit to Lord Vestey’s Ranch in Venezuela

I decided I would go to El Charcote, near San Carlos, as I had heard that there was a land dispute between a wealthy English Company and some campesino families who had occupied the land. I thought that perhaps our solidarity group could do something to support the campesinos in their struggle to stay on the land.

Thurs 8th September, El Charcote, San Carlos, Cojedes

I decided I would go to El Charcote, near San Carlos, as I had heard that there was a land dispute between a wealthy English Company and some campesino families who had occupied the land.  I thought that perhaps our solidarity group could do something to support the campesinos in their struggle to stay on the land.  El Charcote ranch is a 12,950 hectare piece of land which Agroflora, a subsidiary of the Vestey Group, claims to own.  The Vestey Group is vastly wealthy (Lord Vestey is the 56th richest person in the UK) and owns 13 farms in Venezuela alone, as well as land across the whole of South America.

They are known to have destroyed huge areas of rain-forest in Brazil in order to rear cattle which supply the meat for McDonalds.

Following the Land Act, passed in December 2001, 400 families moved onto the El Charcote ranch and began to farm it.  The Land Act stated that the government can expropriate farmlands if they are declared idle or if there is no evidence of rightful ownership. This would only apply to large areas of land (more than 5000 hectares) not under production. The landowners will then have a period in which they have to begin production and, if they fail to do this, the law says that the land can be bought by the government at current market prices.

This Act is intended to increase food production in Venezuela, where currently the vast majority of food is still imported (70%), and to address inequality, as presently 60% of Venezuelan farmland is owned by less than 1% of the population.  Since this Law was passed, the National Land Institute has redistributed 2.2 million hectares.

However, all of this has been state owned land and there has been no expropriation of privately owned land, so far.

As I had no contacts in San Carlos, I went to the nearest government building and asked where the National Land Institute (INTI) was.  When I arrived at INTI, there was no obvious reception desk and there were lots of people milling about.  I asked several people if I could speak to someone about the situation at El Charcote.  My name was given to the Coordinator of the Regional INTI.  I then spent the next few hours talking to people who were also waiting to be seen.  One group of campesinos I spoke to told me that they had been camping outside the INTI office for weeks as a protest.  They wanted legal ownership documents for the land they have been farming at El Charcote over the last four years. INTI are saying they must wait until the Court case with Agroflora is settled.  They said ‘The land belongs to us.

Bolivar liberated the land for the Venezuelan people.  The English Company, Vestey, are the imperialists now’.  The group told me they were being shot at every day.  I asked them if there had been any injuries and they said there had.  They believed Vestey were sending vigilantes to carry out the shooting.  They said they came in masks with guns and shot at them.  They also told me the police harass and abuse them and they believe Vestey give money to the police to do this.  The police frequently stop and search them and sometimes refuse to let them pass roadblocks.  They also said the local government and ministries are full of people who were previously in the opposition parties but joined the MVR (Chavez’s party) in order to maintain their positions.  They held these people, whom they called ‘infiltrators’, responsible for the delays in giving them their land entitlements.  At this point I was called in to meet with the Coordinator of the INTI Regional Land Office.

The Coordinator, the Regional Legal Officer and the Technical Director were all present in the office.  I explained that I was from England and wanted to set up a local solidarity group in my town and would like some information about the situation in El Charcote, to see if we could support the campesinos in any way.  The Coordinator, Reynaldo Ledón told me that in January, INTI had gone to the El Charcote ranch, accompanied by the National Guard, to determine whether the land titles were correct and whether any parts of the estate were idle.

This inspection showed that about 5,000 hectares of the ranch have been claimed illegally and that this land actually belongs to the state.  Though Agroflora says they have produced documents dating back to 1848, the documents are not valid because they were bought from people who had no legal claim to the land.  The inspection showed that, whilst some of the land is used by Agroflora for cattle rearing, large parts of the land are not being used for active food production.

The government is only asking for 800 hectares to be brought under production or sold. The Legal Officer said they would respect any legal documents that could be produced but that, so far, this had not happened.  He said Agroflora/Vestey had the right to any legal process that would prove ownership.

They explained to me that the state wants to rescue unused land and help people set up co-ops to make the land more productive.  At the moment, though, Agroflora uses some of the land at EL Charcote for cattle rearing, much of the meat produced is exported.  The people that are occupying the land are growing corn, fruit and vegetables, which is a much more efficient use of land. 

The Coordinator said, “The people here are so poor.  Some of them come into this office crying because they can’t feed their families.  It isn’t fair that they have nothing while this Company has land that is idle.”

We discussed what people in the UK could do.  They said they would like us to write letters to the press, to the company and to the government.  Also, they asked me to find out some more information for them about the company. I then said it would be good if I could go and visit the ranch.  The Coordinator immediately replied, “Right, let’s go!” and got up from his desk.  I was a bit taken aback as I didn’t expect him to spend any more of his valuable time with me but I think this indicates how important they consider the situation to be.  We were driven to the ranch in an INTI vehicle with a chauffeur and security guard.  On the way there, I discovered that Reynaldo Ledón, the Coordinator, had only been in post four days.  There had been six previous coordinators.  All had been asked to leave because they had not been able to resolve the situation at El Charcote. Reynaldo was a long term member of the Communist Party.  He told me how he had not even been able to speak when the opposition was in power and how he had been tortured and harassed for his beliefs.

When we arrived at El Charcote, there did not seem much to see though it was obvious that the land was being farmed as there were large productive areas of corn, fruit and vegetables.  There were also some small houses made from wood, daub, and tin.  At one point, we had to stop the vehicle and walk as the road was too damaged to continue.  We soon met up with a family coming in the opposite direction who said there was no point in continuing as the road was too bad and you would have to wade through the mud.  We walked back with the family and they told us that they had come to live there four years ago from a neighboring state and were living quite well at a subsistence level.

However, they had not been able to harvest their crop of corn this year because they could not get the equipment up the road.  They had asked the local government to mend the road but the government said they did not have the money.  When the family discovered they were talking to the INTI Coordinator they said that they had heard all the people living on the land would have to form cooperatives.  They did not want to be part of a coop as they had worked the land for four years and felt it was theirs.  They did not want to share it with other people.  The Coordinator said no-one would have to share their land.  They would just be asked to join up with others to share work and tools etc.  But this would all be voluntary, no-one would be forced to do this. 

When we got back to the vehicle, we drove round to the other side of the estate where we came across a number of parked vehicles and a crowd of about 200 people gathered under a tree by the side of the road.  Reynaldo Ledón said ‘Oh they’re having a meeting, lets go!’  His security guard told him not to go, but he said ‘Why not?’ and got out of the car without waiting for a reply.

He walked into the centre of the meeting.  I tried to stand at the edge, but was called into the centre of the group, as well.  I was a bit nervous about this as I thought they might not trust me and they might not be too happy to meet an English person.  Reynaldo was introduced and started to talk about how he supported them and then he introduced me as “a revolutionary from England.”  I immediately launched into a speech about how unjust the situation was, how the land should belong to the Venezuelan people, how unhappy the people in England would be if they knew what was going on here and how we would do whatever we could in solidarity.  They gave me a huge round of applause, much to my relief.  Then a discussion about the legal aspects of the situation took place, with different people quoting from different laws, the previous land law, the current land law and the constitution.  Reynaldo was arguing that they needed to wait until the outcome of the court case before official papers could be given out.  This would ensure the land could not be taken away from them again.  The campesinos were arguing that some people already had papers and were registered as cooperatives.  The National Director of INTI had promised them their papers in 15 days, that was three weeks ago.  (I believe these were temporary papers which could be issued while the court case progressed but I was not able to clarify this).

Reynaldo repeated that the judicial process had to take place first. The people were very angry but were also joking with him.  They asked him which side he was on.  He said he was on their side and that he would do what he could for them.  He said he would ring the head office as soon as he got back.  They said that was good because if he did nothing they would soon come and occupy his office.

At one point, a member of the group said ‘It’s important that the woman from England knows we are being provoked by the English Company. Last night we were shot at 400 times in the night – it was like fireworks’.  People in the meeting were nodding in agreement and repeating similar things.  They said that blood could run if something was not done.  They also said that, during the coup, 1,000 British Soldiers had been on the land.  They then began to shout ‘Out English!’.  I felt really ashamed and quite upset that people still needed to shout this.  Then one of them said ‘except her!’ pointing at me, and everyone laughed.

On the journey back, I was told that a few years ago the State Governor had arranged for troops to evict most of the people occupying the land. The farmers then took over the regional offices of INTI and demanded to meet with the president. After a delegation met with Chavez, the peasants were allowed back on the land they had been using. I was also told that when the campesinos originally occupied the land the English company had shot at them, killing several people and wounding many. I asked what was being done to protect them now and I was told ‘Nothing, they can protect themselves’.

I later read that over 120 campesinos have been killed by landowners in Venezuela since 1999.

Karen Hill is a Venezuela solidarity activist from Bristol.