Strengthening the nation’s agricultural production and improving working conditions for small farmers in the country was the main focus of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s weekly television program, Alo Presidente, last Sunday, March 13th.
Transmitting from a recovered farming estate in the western state of Zulia, south of Lake Maracaibo, Chavez announced a plan to invest 450 million bolivars ($104 million) in the region and spelled out an eight point program to develop the zone’s economic and social potential.
“At last, the revolution has arrived South of the Lake to liberate the land”, Chavez said during the 371st broadcast of his popular television show.
Traditionally dominated by large landowners with little incentive to develop the land, the region south of Lake Maracaibo, popularly referred to as “South of the Lake”, is one of the most fertile agricultural zones in all of South America.
After heavy rains displaced thousands of residents and devastated much of the nation’s agricultural production late last year, the government ordered the occupation of 47 mostly fallow estates in the region as part of its relief efforts.
The move has also formed part of a larger reconstruction plan designed to advance the economic potential of some 24 thousand hectares (59 thousand acres) in the area while ensuring essential food production for the nation.
As outlined on Sunday, Chavez’s eight point development program for the land will focus on increasing dual purpose livestock operations and milk processing plants, the advancement of low intensity ﬁshing, and the increased sowing of plantains, the starchy banana which represents a key Venezuelan staple.
A team headed up by the Agriculture and Land Ministry will also work on issues related to the administration of the initiatives as well as security, land democratization, and infrastructure.
According to ofﬁcials working on the region’s development projects, government land expropriations have led to major improvements in the working conditions of the farmers in the area who were forced to endure conditions of “near slavery”.
Joel Morales, Vice President of the state-run Venezuelan Agricultural Corporation, reported that workers on some plantain estates, many of them immigrants from neighboring Colombia, had been paid below the minimum wage and were excluded from all social security beneﬁts.
Morales informed on Sunday that salaries for the agricultural workers, known in Spanish as campesinos, have increased by 124 percent since the Chavez administration ordered the takeover of the estates.
“The job is providing more for [the campesinos] everyday. They’re being digniﬁed and all of their rights are being recognized”, the ofﬁcial said.
Jojana Muñoz, an agricultural worker from one of the haciendas recovered by the government explained how her situation has improved as a result of the takeover.
“[The government] has provided us with a home. Now we live like decent people. Before, there was no privacy and we couldn’t express ourselves”, she afﬁrmed.
Muñoz also related how her previous living situation limited her chances to improve her opportunities through education.
“When I began to study at the university, the boss told me that I had to decide whether I wanted to study or to work because he couldn’t allow me to come home at night after the classes”, he recounted.
Another worker, Juana Sanchez, also gave testimony on Sunday to how the working conditions have changed since the government’s intervention in the region.
“Before, we used to earn only six bolivars ($1.39) for a basket of plantains. Now we have all the beneﬁts that the law grants and a digniﬁed salary”, she commented.
The government has also assisted 276 other producers in the region by forgiving thousands of dollars worth of loans to those who had lost harvests as a result of the rains last year.
Another 407 campesinos, Chavez explained on Sunday, will beneﬁt from more than 32 million bolivars ($7.4 million) in grant money for agricultural production, provided through the nation’s Agrarian Bank.
“These producers are going to sow plantains, passion fruit, Japanese potatoes, corn, and cacao”, he informed.
Dispelling myths that he is attacking private property as Venezuela’s conservative opposition alleges of the government’s agricultural development initiatives, Chavez drew a distinction between small landholdings and massive estates.
“The enemies of the revolution, the capitalists, say that Chavez came to put an end to you [campesinos], to put an end to property… There’s good property and bad property just like everything in life. The bad property, their property, is destructive while your property is good because it constructs. Long live small, family properties because they don’t exploit or have slaves like the large estates”, Chavez said.
According to Land and Agricultural Minister, Juan Carlos Loyo, the government has recovered more than 2.5 million hectares (6.1 million acres) of land that had been held illegally by estate owners.
Seventy-two percent of these lands have been redistributed to campesinos and are now producing food for the nation, Loyo informed on Sunday.
“In Venezuela, there are 450 thousand small, medium and large estates which add up to about 30 million hectares (74.1 million acres)” of fertile land, the Minister reported.
VIOLENCE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
The struggle of the campesinos against the large estates has been particularly sharp South of Lake Maracaibo.
Chavez pointed out that more than 60 small producers have been assassinated by mercenaries and paramilitaries in the region since Venezuela’s passage of the Land Law in 2001.
In total, more than 200 farmers have been murdered since the nation began to undertake its agrarian reform program.
Although wealthy landowners are widely understood to be behind the contracted killing of farmer activists, not one estate owner has been convicted for the murder of a campesino to date.