BARINAS, Venezuela, Jun 14 (Tierramérica) - "As
far as you can see, there was not one litre of milk produced, not even
an ear of corn," says José Tapia Coirán, turning with his arms
outstretched, pointing to the horizon of the Venezuelan savannah dotted
by trees. "Now we produce 500 litres of milk per day and we harvested
one million kilos of maize."
He is referring to the
achievements of the Brisas del Masparro co-operative, set in the plains
of Barinas, in southwest Venezuela. Coirán, as he is known by everyone,
is a former day labourer and tractor driver for large farms in the
area, and is now the co-operative's president.
"Once there was a forest here, but the large estate owners
took all the lumber. They left a few trees and thousands of hectares of
stubble that we are cleaning up little by little and planting with
forage grass and maize," says Coirán, adding "they had abandoned this,
left it lying fallow, and that is why we took it over."
He and his fellow co-operative members show this reporter vast
stretches of plains that are as flat as a billiard table amidst weeds,
a marsh here and there, pastures and fields being ploughed for
planting, underscoring the co-operative’s explanation that what they
had occupied was unproductive land.
We come across flocks of herons, scarlet ibis, and some
flickers. "We want to conserve all that we can. We decided not to take
down any trees, but rather get rid of weeds and pests as we progress,"
says Miguel Méndez, another co-operative member.
President Hugo Chávez launched a "war" against large estates
with a 2001 land act that laid the groundwork for a government
"recovery" of rural land whose private ownership and productivity could
not be proved. There continue to be clashes over land between large
landowners and small farmers.
In 1999, large rural estates covered six million hectares in
Venezuela. Two million hectares have been confiscated by the
government, which handed over 60 percent of that to more than 100,000
rural families, according to official figures.
Furthermore, 98,500 farms that cover 4.3 million hectares have
been regularised through the agrarian charter, which grants possession,
but not ownership, of the land, which belongs to the government.
The Santa Rita "hacienda", or rural estate, on the banks of
the Masparro river, extends across 31,000 hectares but has no more than
1,800 head of cattle, according to the co-operative. Peasant groups
occupied it in 2002 and 2003, and the government assigned them some
16,000 hectares, leaving the rest to the former owners.
The co-operative that has made the most progress is Brisas del
Masparro, with 56 members on 803 hectares. Five years ago they received
a loan of 156,000 dollars that was invested in cattle, horses,
equipment and inputs, and in the first crops.
They now have a double-purpose herd, for meat and milk, based
on crosses between Cebú and Holstein breeds acclimated to the tropical
A large house once used as a bunkhouse for labourers and as a
storage facility by the former estate has been turned into a community
centre. The first impression is one of disorder. A pile of tractor
parts in the yard marks the only point in the area where there is a
signal for the satellite phone.
Pigs and chickens follow a young man as he rubs the kernels
off corn cobs. Another man cleans the floor of the corridor, which is
also the site of co-operative assemblies. It has been a while since the
walls have received a fresh coat of paint.
In the back are a kitchen and a large dining table for those
who are working on a given day and the families that have settled in
improvised homes in the surrounding area. On one wall there are faded
posters of Chávez and of the Salvadoran revolutionary Farabundo Martí
"We are socialists. We work as a community, according to the
abilities of each, and we take turns so that we aren't always doing the
same thing, and to learn about everything. We realised that if we were
each on our own it would be very difficult to get ahead and leave
behind our days as labourers, as employees enriching someone else,"
says Neptalí Quintana, who for many years worked in artificial
insemination of cows on the region's large ranches.
He is leaning against a fence of the dairy, where children are
milking cows for the second time today. "We get about five litres of
milk per animal per day -- above the average" in the area, which is
less than four litres per cow, says Quintana.
Every day, the co-operative donates 20 litres of milk to the
two small schools nearby. "We provide the cup of milk that each child
needs," says Méndez proudly.
"But if in addition to communally owned animals one of us has
a cow or a horse, or gets a pig, it can be raised with the others and
sold by the individual owner. Some portion will be given to the
co-operative, but we don't oppose that sort of ownership. What we do
want is the land and other life-sustaining projects," says Coirán.
The income "is used for the expenses that are also shared, for
production or for food, and each member receives an additional 400
bolívares (186 dollars) per month as an advance of what would be due
for their role in managing the co-operative at the end of the year,"
explains Iraima Benaventa, a young mother of two who is in charge of
Benaventa, who is taking part in a secondary-level distance
learning programme, records the purchases that another member has
brought from the city -- pasta, rice, cattle vaccines -- and supervises
the younger members in clean-up and kitchen activities. The meal today
is rice and beef.
Brisas del Masparro will begin construction this year of
housing units for 56 families, with a self-construction plan backed by
the government. "We will build them together in the style of a little
town in order to facilitate and reduce costs of services like water,
electricity and gas, with a sports field, a town square and a community
centre, and perhaps even a pool," says one member.
Las Piedras, one corner of the Masparro co-operative, is an
hour's drive from Barinas, the regional capital, passing by Sabaneta,
President Chávez's birthplace. Then comes another hour of driving over
open land and gravel that the co-operative members are requesting to be
paved in benefit of the entire community.
"The farms in this sector were very unproductive five years
ago. But with our efforts, the government programmes arrived. The road
was opened up, a land plan was begun, possession papers were given to
individual farmers or co-operativists, and credits were granted," says
In Las Piedras "we went from nearly zero to 21,000 litres of
milk per day (national output is 1.3 to 1.7 million litres daily,
according to different sources). Now there are people raising more
cattle, planting maize, fruit trees and pastures," says the co-op
Caracciolo Ramírez, an independent farmer, has around 40 hectares near the co-operative’s land.
"The government has helped with agrarian charters, with some
financing, and with the road. I will do some home improvements, my
oldest daughter began university -- I am seeing the results," says
Ramírez, offering this reporter a cool oat drink with ice under the
porch roof at his brick home.
Meanwhile, the co-operative is preparing a larger area than
last year to plant maize, building a new cow barn and refurbishing the
old one for mechanised milking, and seeking financing to install some
cooling tanks that will help them benefit more from each litre of milk.
"All around the world there is a food crisis. They want to
take food and make it into fuel. We don't agree with that and we pay
back the government's support by producing more food. This country
can't continue feeding the people based on imports when there is so
much land waiting to be worked," says Coirán.
In the 2004-2007 period, Venezuela's food production grew 3.4
percent, from 18.9 to 19.6 tonnes annually, according to government
But former agriculture minister Hiram Gaviria points to how
much is still lacking: in per capita terms, Venezuela today produces 88
percent of the food it generated in 1998, he told Tierramérica.
A long way from Barinas, across the Atlantic in Rome, world
leaders gathered Jun. 3-5 at the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) summit to debate ways to overcome the current food
At the former Santa Rita hacienda, thousands of hectares
"recovered" by the government were handed over to other co-operatives
or small farmers' associations that have not had the same success as
Brisas del Masparro.
"We hold assemblies for the zone and we offer support. Even
farther away, to Apure (in the country's far southwest) we have taken
our experience and the young milk cows we have produced, which we sell
them at low prices, but the individualism of many people means that
what they are looking for is their own land," says Coirán.
Back in Barinas, one such individual, Alejandro, accompanies
Tierramérica through the countryside. "We want to form a co-operative
to work, but each one has his parcel of land that is free to be sold.
With the agrarian charter, the land can't be transferred and will
always belong to the government."
But Alejandro says that the neighbours of Brisas del Masparro
are sympathetic to the experiment of the co-operative, and would like
to take it as testimony of what can be achieved when working together.
"They have their reasons, the support of the revolutionary
government, and that's good, but what will happen tomorrow if the
government changes? One wants a piece of land to work, but also to
leave to one's children," he says, as the orange sun sets over the
plains of southwest Venezuela.
(*Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent. Originally
published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the
Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service
produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development
Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)