Venezuela: Battling Land Inequality and Farmer Exploitation

Venezuela’s battle against land inequality and the exploitation of small agricultural producers has increased in intensity recently as the Chavez government steps up measures to redistribute fallow lands in the area known as South of Lake Maracaibo.

Last week, one of the offices of the government agency in charge of carrying out Venezuela’s land redistribution became the target of vandalism in the town of Santa Barbara in the western state of Zulia.

The National Land Institute (INTI), constitutionally charged with surveying land tenancy and granting plots to landless farmers, saw its office building torched on Saturday in an act that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez qualified as  “terrorist”.

“We will respond as the constitution and the law demands. We’re going to accelerate the rescue of lands South of Lake [Maracaibo]. They will not intimidate us”, Chavez said during his weekly television program, Alo Presidente.

According to Venezuela’s Land Law, originally passed by decree in 2001, any lands reported by residents to be fallow or held illegally without title are subject to a technical inspection by INTI. If those lands are found to be unproductive or the alleged Venezuela: battling land inequality and farmer exploitation owner of the terrain is unable to prove legitimate title, the plots in question come under government control to be distributed to organized landless farmers, known in Spanish as campesinos.

Promoting Equality

The Land Law was passed in Venezuela with the expressed intention of promoting agricultural production and lessening the extreme inequality in land holdings that has plagued nation.

According World Bank statistics, before Chavez took office in 1998, Venezuela was home to

second greatest land inequality in Latin America. It was also known to import more than 70 percent of its food.

Efforts to democratize land holdings in the region South of Lake Maracaibo, one of the most unequal areas of the country, have been prioritized recently after the zone became one of the most affected by recent torrential rains that have left more than 100 thousand displaced.

In December, the government announced its intention to break up 16 latifundios –huge unproductive landownings– in the region South of Lake Maracaibo in efforts to respond to the needs of the displaced and engage in a productive reconstruction of affected zones.

Violence against land reform

The fact that the INTI office was targeted by opponents to the land redistribution initiatives comes as no surprise. Various INTI officials have been the victims of violent reprisals over the Law’s 9 year history including the shooting of Jose Huerta in the state of Zulia in 2002 and the murder of William Prado in the state of Guarico last August.

Campesino organizations have also reported the assassination of more than 300 small producers at the hands of hitmen contracted by landowners in opposition to the reform.

Rancher and landowner organizations have denied any links to the killings.  Although various paid assassins have been charged and sentenced for the crimes, not a single landowner has been successfully prosecuted for contracting the death of a campesino.

Organizations such as the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino  Front (FNCEZ) blame corruption in the legal system and the “good old boy” system that continues to exist on the local level between landowners, judges, and public prosecutors.

In response to the violence, the Chavez administration has proposed the formation of campesino militias to defend the landless engaged in the land reform initiatives.

On Sunday, the Venezuelan head of state called for the deployment of military officials in the area South of Maracaibo Lake to at least temporarily confront the violence.

“These criminals will not stop us”, Chavez said during his program. “They’re threatening INTI officials and campesino leaders. We’ll have to see what the opposition congressmen say about this – nothing, because they aid these acts”.

Farmers’ Support

In a show of support for the government’s land reform measures, members of the FNCEZ participated in a rally in the town of Santa Barbara on Monday.

“The struggle to free the lands South of Maracaibo won’t be stopped by anyone”, said campesino leader Francisco Javier Pulgar during the demonstration.

Arias Cardenas, congressional representative of Santa Barbara in Venezuela’s National Assembly, also spoke during the rally and affirmed the legality of the land redistribution initiatives of the Chavez administration.

“This process is developing within the mandates of justice and respect for the constitution. No one can say that government is acting outside the law with regards to the process of recovering land in order to generate employment and food”.

The rally was also held to commemorate 151 years since the death of Ezequiel Zamora, Venezuela’s equivalent of Mexico’s revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

“Today, General Zamora lives in the struggle of the people,” Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro declared.

Zamora, a general during Venezuela’s federal war and a proponent of land distribution, was assassinated by a traitor on January 10, 1860.

“We all know who has been using, for centuries, criminal violence and terrorism to maintain their privileges, to persecute people and to impede justice”, Maduro said on Monday in reference to the Venezuelan oligarchy. 

“Oligarchs, tremble! Long Live Freedom!” exclaimed Maduro and the hundreds of participants in Monday’s rally.