Venezuelan Rural Activists and National Land Institute Workers Arrested for Occupying Estate

Police in Portuguesa state, Venezuela, forcibly evicted more than sixty landless farmers and three National Institute of Land (INTI) workers on Friday from a section of a privately owned estate that the INTI had marked for re-distribution.   
Farmers in Portuguesa state (MINCI).

Mérida, April 21st 2009 ( – Police in Portuguesa state, Venezuela, forcibly evicted more than sixty landless farmers and three National Institute of Land (INTI) workers on Friday from a section of a privately owned estate that the INTI had marked for re-distribution.   

The eviction is emblematic of the clash between powerful landed elites and the government of President Hugo Chávez, whose 2001 land reform law permits the state to forcibly purchase idle sections of large private estates for re-distribution as a means to spur agricultural production.

Last week, officials from the INTI and the Socialist Agrarian Fund (FONDAS) announced they would gradually parcel out 926 hectares (2,290 acres) of underused lands on the privately owned El Rodeo Estate to a group of 86 landless families in Portuguesa state.

While INTI personnel were assisting a group of sixty farmers to demarcate a section of the territory last Friday, state police known locally as the Jungle Police staged an "ambush" and ordered the entire group to lie face down on the ground, according to alternative media reporters who have accompanied the farmers in their struggle for land.

The police briefly detained and then released the INTI functionaries and most of the farmers, but arrested and transferred Carlos Ortega and six other farmer rights leaders to the state capital Guanare to be tried for trespassing. Police and National Guard (GN) forces now occupy the disputed lands.

GN Lieutenant Colonel Gustavo Saluzzo, who commands the Portuguesa State Police, told the local press, "Our idea is to respect the law… while the land reform law says landed estates are not permitted, the law also establishes sanctions for those who invade private property."

According to independent media reports, Saluzzo has repeatedly threatened to jail Ortega, and United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Governor Wilmar Castro has publicly denounced the confrontational land "invasions" promoted by Ortega as a tactic to speed up the process of land re-distribution.  

Also, former Portuguesa Governor Antonia Muñoz, who is currently the regional coordinator of the PSUV, created the Jungle Police to be a special force to fight ecological crimes, but the squad has fallen under control of elite regional estate owners and has mainly been used to repress rural activists, according to independent news reports.  

On Saturday, a group of eighty allies of Ortega marched to the Portuguesa state police headquarters and demanded the release of the seven arrested organizers, who they alleged had been politically persecuted. The seven activists remain in police custody.

Since the 2001 land reform law was passed, 1,507 small or landless farmers in Venezuela have been arrested as a result of their struggle to gain legal title to lands, according to a growing network of farmers' rights groups nation-wide.

The rights groups, which advocate the reform of Articles 471 and 471 of Venezuela's Penal Code in order to de-criminalize small farmers who occupy private lands, also report that 214 rural activists have been murdered since 2001, most recently Nelson Lopez in Yaracuy state and Mauricio Sánchez in Zulia state in March.

Following the killings in March, several Venezuelan farmer rights groups held a joint conference in Caracas to form a united front against the politically motivated assassinations and arrests of rural activists, and to call for an end to impunity for "the landed oligarchy that is killing our brothers in the rural communities."

Agriculture and Lands Minister Elías Jaua attended the conference and promised to appeal to the Attorney General and president of the Supreme Court to accelerate the investigations of crimes against farmer rights organizers.

In an interview on the state television channel VTV Monday, Jaua said that 90% of the private lands re-distributed by the Ministry, which amounts to almost one million hectares (2.47 million acres), are now producing food, including meat, grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Recuperated lands are distributed either to state-owned Social Production Enterprises or to cooperatively run projects such as the Zamoran Farms, named after Venezuela's legendary farmer rights fighter Ezequiel Zamora, said Jaua. Zamoran Farms are now producing food on 155,000 hectares (383,000 acres) of formerly idle private land, the minister added.

After announcing the launch of the Ministry's "Operation Free Land and Men" aimed at recuperating more land in the states of Barinas, Amazonas, Miranda, and Aragua, Jaua said, "we are making a reality of the dream for which generations of humble farmers struggled: That the best lands of our country… be at the service of food production."