Venezuelan Farmer Activists March Against Killings by Estate Owners

Thousands of farmer rights advocates marched in Guarico, Venezuela on Thursday to demand an end to impunity for the killings of 220 farmer organizers since the 2001 Land Reform Law was passed.
"With Chavez, Homeland, Socialism, or Death," reads a banner at Thursday's march (FNCEZ website)

Mérida, October 3rd 2009 ( — Thousands
of farmer rights advocates marched in Guarico, Venezuela on Thursday to demand
an end to impunity for the killings of 220 farmer organizers since the 2001
Land Reform Law was passed. The march was sparked by two recent attacks
presumed to have been planned and paid for by large estate owners against
well-known land reform activists.

Just outside the state headquarters of the National Land Institute
(INTI) on September 11th, two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot José
Pimentel, a leader of the Simon Bolivar National Farmers Front, in the body and
the head, placing Pimentel in critical condition in a hospital emergency room.

Two weeks later, eight armed men attacked a group of 28 families who
had collectively occupied idle sections of a large estate and were in the
process of obtaining legal land titles from INTI. The assailants beat several
people, destroyed property, shot one leader of the group twice in the legs, and
ordered the group to leave the estate, according to a report by the Ezequiel
Zamora National Farmers Rights Front (FNCEZ), which is named after the
legendary 19th Century land reform fighter.

Since 2001, the government has redistributed more than two million
hectares (5 million acres) of idle or underused land to small farmers and
state-owned enterprises for food cultivation, for the most part by opening up
state-owned land and also by expropriating some idle privately owned land.

During this process, however, hundreds of prominent land reform
organizers have been attacked, illegally detained, or killed, in what appears
to be a campaign led and financed by large estate owners to exterminate those
who challenge their privilege and dominion in rural areas.

Following the September attacks, the president of the Farmer
Federation of Venezuela, Miguel Moreno, declared that his organization and many
other national farmer organizations were in a state of emergency, and remain on
24-hour vigil to protect the lives of their comrades.

Moreno praised the government's efforts to redistribute land, but
criticized the judicial system, saying only a handful of investigations of the
attacks against farmers have proceeded, and there have been no convictions thus

"We accompany the commander and president [Hugo Chavez] in his policy
against the large estates," said Moreno. "We do not want to move toward an open
confrontation or war in rural zones… we firmly believe in the institutions,
we believe in our government […] But we are tired of being the ones who die."

National Assembly Legislator Braulio Alvarez, who is also a national
farmers' rights organizer, connected the killings of farmers to the infiltration
of paramilitary groups from Colombia into Venezuela. "We denounce with
revolutionary morale the paramilitary activities and hired killings," he said
in a press conference in the Foundation for Training and Innovation to Support
the Agrarian Revolution (CIARA).

Alvarez also demanded that the Ministry of Justice and Internal
Affairs and the Attorney General's Office open a special investigation and
provide protection to farmer rights activists. "How long is the flagrant
impunity going to continue?" Alvarez asked.

Officials from INTI, CIARA, the Agriculture and Land Ministry, and the
United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), as well as all major farmers rights
fronts echoed his demand.

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) also called for "an exhaustive
review of the proceedings on the farmers' cases, through the agrarian courts,"
but warned that the "opposition sectors" which are responsible for the crimes
are in some cases "embedded in the structures of the state." These culprits
"utilize police functionaries from the [national investigative police] CICPC,"
said Eduardo Linarez, the National Secretary for Agrarian and Farmer Affairs of
the PCV.

In addition to demanding action by the state, several farmer rights
fronts have gradually united forces on the regional and national level. With
the support of national PSUV officials, including Agriculture and Land Minister
Elias Jaua and Guarico Governor William Lara, these new federations plan to
hold a series of assemblies and form armed militias in order to organize and
defend themselves against attacks.

"We already have our own organization. What we're going to do now is grassroots
reinforcement in the communities and rural settlements," said Argimiro
Berroterán, a spokesperson for the National Farmers Front in Miranda state.
"The idea is to travel around the whole country to discuss the concerns
expressed by different farmer groups, in addition to re-launching this front as
an organizational tool in defense of our achievements and for the deepening of
the revolutionary process," he added.

Minister Jaua, who is also a regional vice president of the United
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), spoke to the crowd at Thursday's march.
"We must consolidate popular strength in rural Venezuela and among the
fishers… in order to prepare the conditions for the formation of a great
popular and revolutionary organization in the National Fishers and Farmers
Front, to concretize the deepening and construction of the Bolivarian
Revolution," said Jaua.

According to Jaua, farmer militias may be formed as early as this
December for the purpose of farmer self-defense in rural Venezuela. "The
Bolivarian government is willing to confront the oligarchy and the large estate
owners by way of the law… but if they insist on continuing to act on the
fringes of the law, violating our Bolivarian Constitution and murdering
farmers, then there will be an armed response," said the minister.

Many farmers' fronts,
including the FNCEZ, have advocated armed self-defense for years. The
invitation to Thursday's march that the FNCEZ posted on its website calls for,
"THE PEOPLE IN ARMS, conscious popular power organized into farmer militias and
coordinated by the National Bolivarian Militia and directed by our Bolivarian
Armed Forces, in socialist patrols directed and coordinated by our PSUV… with
the indisputable leadership of our partner, President Hugo Rafael Chavez