Mérida, April 13, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- The Venezuelan army occupied 32 farms in the western state of Lara last Thursday, sparking protests from local sugarcane producers, after the National Land Institute (INTI) expropriated the lands as part of the government efforts to boost national food production amidst global shortages.
INTI President Juan Carlos Loyo called the intervention a "rescue" of idle farmland aimed at the "agricultural reactivation" of the area outside the state capital Barquisimeto, in accordance with the 2001 Land and Agricultural Development Law.
The law is based on Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, which deems large, idle estates known as Latifundios, "contrary to the interests of society" and opens the door to their taxation or expropriation.
Only 20% of the 2,460 hectares (6075 acres) occupied Thursday are productive, Loyo claimed, assuring that those existing crops will not be disrupted.
The local sugar producers association, however, rejected what it called the "militarization" of private lands of 12 families. Alfredo Arévalo, the state director of the association, alleged that nearly 80%, or 1,900 hectares (4,693 acres), of the occupied lands are in full production of sugar cane, which he said was an "ancestral" crop in the region.
Early Friday morning, a group of landowners blocked a major cross-state highway with trucks and tractors to protest the measure. Police used tear gas to disperse the protestors, arresting 6 people and detaining 2 big-rigs, according to national news reports.
Loyo called accusations of militarization a manipulative "media campaign", and insisted that the military’s function is "preventative occupation" meant to "protect the lives of INTI personnel who will be tasked with launching productive projects in the short term."
Loyo said he personally inspected the lands 20 days prior, confirming that "idle" is an understatement of the "state of abandonment in which they were found."
While property owners fear that compensation will not be offered for expropriated lands, INTI state director Pedro Moreno said if owners can prove within 60 days that they have legitimate title to the land, indemnity will be calculated from their records.
The issue of indemnity invokes the controversial Article 90 of the land law, which says the government does not have to compensate landholders for land they acquired illegally or illegitimately. This article was originally annulled by the Supreme Court, then reinstated when the law was reformed in May 2005.
Samira Saab, director of the National Federation of Sugar Cane Producers (FEDENAGA), opposed the expropriations and called for "dialogue" between the government and local producers.
Sugar cane has been the predominant crop in the area for over 400 years, and the state of Lara produces 30% of Venezuela’s sugar, Saab accounted.
"If the state has a plan for [crop diversification in] the valley that we do not know about," Saab said, "I’d like to see the plans," because "there are mechanisms that can be applied, but the only way to do it is in consensus."
The lands expropriated Thursday will integrated in to a state-owned Social Production Unit (SPU) and sugar cane will be maintained as one of the principal crops, according to Loyo. The SPU in Lara will join the 78,000 hectare (193,000 acre) El Frío farm that was expropriated and converted into an SPU last month in southwestern Apure state, as part of a growing national network of SPUs based on the principals of "agro-ecology," Loyo asserted.
Saab also criticized government price controls on food, saying they "contradict" the increased government financing of the agricultural sector by limiting growth while the country imports 70% of its food.
Venezuela`s Minister of Planning and Development, Haiman El Troudi, acknowledged Tuesday that the agricultural budget hike and decreased income tax last year were not as effective as they could have been at increasing production while controlling inflation because they did not treat "all the factors."
However, new subsidies are being considered for producers to help reduce inflation in foods not subject to price controls, "with the intention of protecting the most vulnerable population," El Troudi announced.
Also, Agriculture and Land Minister Elías Jaua announced Thursday that 1,995 agricultural machines that the government had bought from China, Brazil, and Argentina had arrived and will soon be distributed to help make idle lands productive.
Saab, however, said the machines, subsidies and other government investments will not be enough because "laborers are nowhere to be found… Venezuelans do not want to work in the countryside, but rather as street vendors, Venezuelans have become unaccustomed to agricultural work."
Minister Jaua said Thursday’s expropriations are part of an "offensive" against Latifundios. Government redistribution of private lands began in mid-2005, while up until that time over 2 million hectares of idle public land had been converted for production.
Several prominent estate owners have offered to peacefully negotiate the surrender of a portion of their lands to the government, while others, including some of those whose land was expropriated Thursday, have declared they will take the government to the courts.
According to an Agriculture and Land Ministry report from last October, 2 million hectares (4.95 million acres) of idle land have been "rescued" from large estates. 45% of these lands have been designated national forest reserves. Of the remaining 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres), 90% have become productive. According to Jaua, there are an estimated 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) left to expropriate from the large estates, a quarter of which the ministry aspires to expropriate in 2008.