Land Reform Conflict in Venezuela’s Strategic Water Source

Cooperativist ecological farmers supported by the Venezuelan government’s land reform programs were attacked last Thursday by armed and masked men who, the farmers say, were hired by large estate owners in the area to cut short the changes heralded by the “Bolivarian Revolution” in their rural Andean Mountain valley.

Mérida, August 8, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)– Cooperativist ecological farmers supported by the Venezuelan government’s land reform programs were attacked last Thursday by armed and masked men who, the farmers say, were hired by large estate owners in the area to cut short the changes heralded by the “Bolivarian Revolution” in their rural Andean Mountain valley.

“I sat with my daughter in my arms in our tent so they could not burn our things. They used obscene words and said they did not want people like us here and they would kill us and burn everything if we did not get off the lands,” reported Yuly Barrios to the state Attorney General last Friday.

Approximately 30 aggressors used machetes, metal pipes, and gasoline to rip apart the large tents in which the farmers live, sabotage the motor and wheels of the tractor they had obtained from the government’s Socialist Agrarian Fund (FONDAS), steal video and photographic equipment, and loot the small settlements, while the state police observed passively from a distance.

The assaults occurred in a forested valley called El Vallecito, which hugs an offshoot of the Mucujún River, a principal water source for the nearby city of Mérida and the entire Andean region.

Despite the quaint setting, the clash between politically opposed residents, like a pinched nerve shooting through the national nervous system, exemplifies the complex interplay of national priorities regarding food, natural resources, property, and citizen security, and is a reminder of the fierce tactics opposition forces are willing to use to destabilize government initiatives.

The dominant families in the valley, waving the banner of water conservation, have supported candidates from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) as well as opposition parties in the upcoming regional elections, urging them to fully restrict access to the area and otherwise leave the valley alone.  

The cooperativists, on the other hand, seek to transform the valley and “construct a society free of privilege and exclusion” by building a local network of state-funded social services, re-distributing idle lands to small organic farmers, reforesting the riverbanks, and providing ecological education to the community.

Mitigation of the conflict has been waterlogged by an indecisive, bureaucratic state government notorious for siding with landed elites while professing solidarity with both reformers and revolutionaries. While the Agriculture and Land Ministry has been a consistent ally of the cooperative farmers, the Environment Ministry has been slow to respond, and the red-shirted state governor, a major property owner in El Vallecito, has “neutrally” left the cooperativists to fend for themselves.

“We want to see a sign that here government exists, that there is organization here, that a state of law exists in this country,” cooperative member Gustavo González declared in a public meeting with state officials last Wednesday.

Background of the Conflict

For many years, the Chávez administration has confiscated idle farmland from semi-feudal plantations and converted it into cooperative farms run by community assemblies, industrialized food factories run by the state, and national parks. The Agriculture and Land Ministry estimates that 2 million hectares were re-distributed as of 2007, and 4 million more hectares are projected to be confiscated in coming years.

Hoping to be incorporated into these efforts, revolutionaries in Mérida began using vacant land lent to them by the state water company in El Vallecito to revitalize the community four years ago. They erected a vibrant community center equipped with a free computer lab, subsidized food market, community radio, multi-purpose meeting rooms, a pool, and sports facilities, with funding contributed by federal social programs known as “missions”.

(An infocenter in Mucujún) 

Much of the valley’s poor population has gladly accepted the services provided by the community center. Others, however, are hesitant to embrace the new neighbors who are not well-liked by the zone’s most powerful and wealthy families.

The vision of the cooperativists is to take the project a step further and construct a Nucleus of Endogenous Development (NUDE) in El Vallecito. Their fledgling NUDE, called Mocaqueteos, is an alternative communal structure in which integral solutions to food, environment, education, and social issues are constructed by local assemblies.

Mocaquetoes gained legal title to nearly 40 hectares of land in the valley in 2007, when national food shortages and worldwide food price inflation spurred the National Land Institute (INTI) to step up its confiscation efforts. Despite this, however, the dominant families of El Vallecito continue to demand that the “invaders” leave.

“In El Vallecito, there are rich property owners from Portugal, France, and the United States, but when Venezuelan creoles who are not from their family or class wish to cultivate the valley, those fascists reject us!” exclaimed cooperativist Franklin Mendoza in the meeting Wednesday.  

Mocaqueteos organizers allege that the valley’s elite are reacting to a breach of their longstanding class privileges. Indeed, a large portion of the confiscated lands were granted to family members of the estate owners more than two decades ago with the official purpose of building houses for workers in the local electricity plant. However, these lands were only used as a landing strip for model airplanes and other exclusive recreational activities of the owners.

(The rich landowners want to keep the lands for model airplane practice)

(The rich landowners want to keep the lands for model airplane practice) 

Environmental Concerns

According to the wealthy families, the health of the region’s chief water source is at stake. The zone around the river has been legally protected from environmentally unsustainable development for more than two decades, and thus cannot be conceded to the cooperativists, according to the federal land law, they say.

“We are not fighting for land, but for the water of Mérida,” José Espinoza, a spokesperson for the big landowners, told the local press in late 2007. “It is not that we are against endogenous development, but it should grow from the community and not from outside.”

In response, Mocaqueteos organizers cite the law protecting the Mucujún, which says sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism, reforestation, and educational projects are permitted in the protected zone if approved by the Environment Ministry.

The cooperativists also brandish copies of Environment Ministry impact studies showing that 17 hectares of the lands granted to them are destined for re-forestation, and the NUDES intends to employ non-pollutive, water-saving agricultural techniques such as drip-irrigation.

Although the lands have been legally granted to the cooperativists, the Environment Ministry’s official stamp of approval still has not been granted.

“If you wish to cancel our project because you have proof of substantial environmental dangers, ok, we can understand that,” a Mocaqueteos member told the Environment Ministry representative in charge of the Mucujún River on Wednesday. “But we have made clear that we do not believe in agro-chemicals, and several of us including myself were trained in ecological farming in Cuba.”

The Environment Ministry official replied that the matter is not his fault because he came to his post as a replacement just three months ago. Betraying his lack of knowledge of the conflict, he accused Mocaqueteos of “improvising” and “provoking” the estate owners in Vallecito, even though the cooperativists have diligently abstained from violent recourse and carefully planned every step of their collective project.

Then, what seemed like a relic of the deeper problem at hand was unearthed. “Within the ministry, there is resistance to really participate with communities,” said the official. This admission revealed what had already been evident in state-level ministry’s bureaucratic bumbling.

Deeper Ideological Clash

Overall, the revolutionaries are convinced that the real issue is ideological and transcends local property and environmental disputes. They note that the estate owners and some state government officials have consistently opposed, boycotted, and sabotaged efforts that in any small way fell into line with President Chávez’s “Bolivarian” initiatives, even when public authorities explained that the cooperativists have legal title to the land.  

(Community council representatives explaining to opposition landowners that the cooperativists have legal title to the lands.)

Also, when the cooperativists formed community councils (a two year-old government initiative to deliver funds directly to organized communities), to address urgent problems such as run-down public lighting infrastructure in El Vallecito, the begrudged estate owners refused to participate.

Instead, they formed their own community council to defend their interests against the other community councils. Spokespeople for the elite community council widely denounced the “invaders” in the name of the whole “community” of the valley, attempting to divide and conquer the valley using a tool meant for community integration.

Prominent local newspapers, all four of which are aligned with the anti-Chávez opposition, have been all too willing to emphasize the plight of the dons of El Vallecito persecuted by revolutionary encroachers.  

In this hostile media atmosphere, Mocaqueteos has counted on support from Venezuela’s growing alternative media network, especially the webpage Aporrea.org. In July 2007, President Chávez himself answered the accusations made by local alternative media reporters. On national television, the president called on functionaries of federal ministries in Mérida to concretize the projects proposed by cooperatives in El Vallecito.

The struggle of the cooperativists was also reinforced last May when the well-known radical farmer self-defense group called the Ezequiel Zamora National Farmers Front (FNCEZ) wrote a letter to Environment Minister Yubirí Ortega, who has been focused mainly on Venezuela’s complex mining issues recently, to vouch for Mocaqueteos.

Mocaqueteos “has proven social, political, and community work, has obtained legal title to the aforementioned lands, and its productive projects have an agro-ecological focus and comply with the regulations of use of the Mucujún River bank,” the FNCEZ wrote.

Local environmental groups in Mérida who are critical supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution have not taken a public stance on whether Mocaqueteos should continue its project in el Vallecito. In late 2007, these groups vehemently opposed the construction of a scientific research facility proposed by the state oil company PDVSA on the bank of a nearby offshoot of the Mucujún River, on the basis that the river is protected by law.

Instead, these local groups have limited their solidarity to denunciations of the violent sabotage to which the rich landowners have turned to preserve their control of the valley.

Paramilitary Activity

This incident of paramilitary tactics used by elites to protect their property and carry out what the FNCEZ calls “social cleansing” is not isolated. Since the agrarian reform law favorable to rural workers was decreed by President Chávez in 2001, paramilitary hitmen have murdered more than 190 rural community organizers who dared to stand up to the local patriarchs, according to the farmer defense group.

The frequency of such murders in border states with Colombia, many of which are supplied with water originating from the Mucujún River, indicate possible connections among estate owners committed to defending their privileges. Mocaqueteos organizers say the geo-politically strategic nature of el Vallecito is a good reason to construct a NUDES in the zone to be vigilant in case local elites plan to exercise their control of the region’s chief water source to fortify anti-Chávez destabilization efforts.  

The paramilitary issue also raises questions about whether the lack of law enforcement and hesitance of state officials to take political risks in places like El Vallecito is purely the result of local negligence or connected to a larger breach in the government’s monopoly on the use of force.

In the end, the true risk-takers are the relatively powerless victims of last Thurday’s assaults, but the valiant organizers of NUDES Mocaqueteos show no signs that their convictions may be weakening. Despite the rockiness of their path, Mocaqueteos advances with firm resolve.

(Franklin Mendoza embracing Nucleus of Endogenous Development Mocaqueteos sign)