Controversy over Venezuela Ecotourism and Cattle Ranch Expropiation Deepens

The Venezuelan government's declaration that Hato Piñero, famous for its ecotourism business, cannot prove its ownership title and that a portion of the land would be turned over to peasants has unleashed a storm of controversy because the government accuses the owners of environmental crimes, not protection.

Caracas, Venezuela. April 9, 2005 (— According to the president of Venezuela’s National Land Institute (INTI), Eliecer Otaiza, the Hato Piñero cattle and ecotourism ranch will be both “recovered” and protected, as part of Venezuela’s quest to redistribute land.

Last month, following an investigation in order to beging to implement the Law on Land and Agricultural Development approved by the National Assembly in November 2001, the INTI declared that the family claiming ownership of Hato Piñero -known among environmentalists for containing a nature preserve and for its ecotourism business- could not prove its actual ownership title of the land. Accordingly, the land is to be declared state land and a portion of the Hato’s 195,000 acres will be redistributed to peasants, many of which have been already farming there. Another portion of the land, which is being used for productive cattle ranching, may be continued to be used by those who claim to be its current owners. Finally, a third portion of the land would be declared a national nature preserve.

The land law affects only unused land, which is either taxed heavily or expropriated. It forbids any individual to own more than 5,000 hectares. The law also aims at repossessing many hectares of state land illegally occupied. An “intervention commission” from INTI determines which portion of land is being used for productive activities in the large estates being investigated.

The government claims that the ownership of large portions of land by few individuals, which use very little of the land for agriculture and cattle ranching, is largely to blame for the country’s dependence on food imports. Venezuela imports more than two-thirds of the food it consumes.

In order to redistribute the land to peasants, the government encourages the formation of cooperatives, which receive low interest loans, and machinery from the government. However, up until now, only public land had been redistributed to pesants. “The Venezuelan government has redistributed about 2.2 million hectares of state owned land to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives,” noted Seth DeLong of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in an article titled Venezuela’s Agrarian Land Reform: More like Lincoln than Lenin.

International controversy over Piñero

The INTI decision to expropiate Hato Piñero, launched an international controversy over the land as many conservationists came to the defense of the large estate, saying that Hato Piñero is an exemplary private land holding in terms of how it managed to reconcile cattle ranching, nature preservation, and ecotourism. For example, in an article that appeared in the New York Sun, Dr. Thomas Struhsaker, a research scientist specializing in tropical ecology at Duke University in North Carolina, was quoted as saying, “Carving up a ranch like Piñero into small holdings will destroy the conservation value of this area.”

Otaiza, of the National Land Institute, vehemently disagrees, however, saying that mining and deforestation activity has taken place on the land and accused the currnet owners of having committed environmental crimes. He has asked the attorney general’s office to look into the situation. Also, the governor of Cojedes state, Jhonny Yanez Rangel, said that the claimed owners of Hato Piñero are hiding behind the “shield” of environmental protection, even though only 12,000 acres of the estate’s 195,000 acres are being used as a nature preserve.

As for proving the land’s ownership, the family that claims title to the land says that it has been in the family’s hands since the mid-18th century. The hato as it is today, though, was founded in 1949 for cattle ranching and in the 1980’s a part of the land was turned into a nature preserve, with thousands of rare plant and bird species and other wildlife.

The INTI, however, says that the family had not presented sufficient verifiable documents to prove their ownership. As a result, the land will be declared to be public and not private land. The 18,000 acres that are currently being used for cattle ranching, though, may be continued to be used for this purpose, but the official ownership title to that portion of the land remains to be discussed.

Another accusation that the INTI has leveled against the Hato Piñero is that it discovered 24 wells on the land, which are draining away too much of the land’s groundwater. Also, three cemeteries were found, one of which was of indigenous peoples and where an archeological excavation has taken place. Otaiza went on the say that his investigations found that some rivers had been re-routed and that the human rights of workers on the land had been violated.

The owners have denied all of these accusations, saying that what appeared to be mining activity was actually an effort to use gravel on the land to repair roads that were destroyed as a result of the flooding that took place at the end of 2004. With regard to the grave site, they say that they know of these sites, but that they were set up or excavated in agreement with local authorities.

Furthermore, the current administrators of the Hato say that rather than the 12,000 acres the government claims are nature preserve, it is actually 90,000 acres that are environmentally protected and 37,500 acres are used for grazing, instead of the 15,000 certified by the INTI. The rest is either used for light grazing or is unusable for agricultural purposes because it consists of rock formations.

According to the INTI only the land that is currently occupied by the Quebrada de Agua community, which is currently farming land on Hato Piñero would be officially redistributed to this community. The environmental ministry would then take over the current nature preserves and the 15,000 acres now certified for cattle ranching will be allowed to continue to be used for this purpose. A final decision on the matter of the ownership status will be made by mid-May, until which time the current claimants to the land’s title may challenge the Land Institute’s decisions.

Letter Writing Campaign Involves Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.S.

Last month, while talking in private to two individuals in Boston during a social event, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, offered to send to high ranking Venezuelan officials any report from academic or scientific institutions regarding the environmental importance of Hato Piñero. According to Alvarez, the offer unleashed a flood of emails, “not from scientific institutions, but mostly from opponents of the Venezuelan government.” Alvarez says that the Hato Piñero owner himself asked people to send emails to Alvarez, along with copies to the media, in order to pressure the government. Alvarez says that his offer was used by Venezuelan local media to attempt to portray him as being opposed to his government’s land reform policies, a charge that he denied in a letter sent to Venezuelan daily El Nacional.

Ambassador Alvarez said he was making a selection of messages received by him, which express a genuine concern for the environmental issues regarding the case of Hato Piñero, in order to pass them along to Venezuelan officials. (The El Nacional article and Alvarez’s letter in Spanish can be found here.)

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