Caracas, January 10, 2005—Over the weekend, Cojedes state governor Jhonny Yánez, with about 200 national guard and police forces, entered the El Charcote cattle ranch, which is owned by the British food conglomerate Vestey Group, Ltd. The “intervention,” as it is called in Venezuela, is meant to settle a land dispute between the government and the ranch.
|President Chavez announcing the land reform decree at a gathering of peasants from around Venezuela.|
The governor of Cojedes state says that the purpose of the intervention is to “establish order where currently there is anarchy,” in reference to the reliability of land titles in the state. The state government plans 15 other interventions of large estates, in which property titles are to be clarified.
The large number of National Guard troops and police officers that participated in the action were there to prevent any outbreaks of violence between the ranchers and a group of farmers who have been occupying a large part of the ranch for the past four years.
The manager of the cattle ranch, Diana Dos Santos, told the press that she is relying on the state government to solve the land dispute and that the action has not violated the ranchers’ human rights.
While the governor arrived at the El Charcote ranch with the security forces and other officials, a protest was taking place on the property, organized by the farmers who are occupying a part of the ranch. The occupying farmers said that they feared that the intervention was to dislodge them and to make room for 22 cooperatives that are slated to receive a part of the cattle ranch land.
The El Charcote ranch consists of 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of land and produces about 450,000 kilos of beef per year. The ranch’s managers say that production has dropped dramatically since the land occupation four years ago, when the ranch produced about 1.5 million kilos per year.
According to the Cojedes state government, the land titles of the ranch are not in order. In talking about the intervention, Governor Yánez referred to the Vestey Group as the “presumed owners.” A commission has now been set up to investigate the history of the Charcote land title and whether all of the land is actually being used. Unused agricultural land of over 100 to 5,000 hectares, depending on the land quality, can be redistributed according to Venezuela’s land law, which has been on the books since 2001.
So far, however, no land has been redistributed according to this provision. Rather, Venezuela’s land reform has until now exclusively involved the redistribution of state owned land. Land disputes, which have occurred in several cases, have always been disputes between the government and land owners, over who actually has title to the land in question.
If the Cojedes commission finds that the land titles are in order, but that the ranch does not use all of its land, then the government could decide to give a portion of the land to landless farmers. According to Venezuelan law, the current owners would have to be compensated at market prices for the redistributed land.
Rafael Aleman, the president of the land commission, however, says that it is not certain that the current occupiers would receive this land. “They could stay where they are or not. We will see, once the studies are done,” said Aleman.
This is why the leader of the occupying farmers, José Pimentel, is opposed to the state government’s actions because he believes that the governor will turn the land over to cooperatives. According to Pimentel, the land definitely does not belong to the Vestey Group because it was bought by Venezuela’s dictator Juan Vicente Gomez in 1936. All of Gomez’s land was later turned over to the state. “I have fought for 30 years to prove thispoint and it has been sufficiently demonstrated in documents that I possess,” said Pimentel.
Venezuela’s Agro-Food Alliance (Alianza Agroalimentaria) issued a protest against the state government’s action, saying that it is illegal and unconstitutional. Hiram Gaviria, the alliance’s president said, “This is a message that President Chavez wants to send to the farmers of Brazil, Colombia, and of other countries, so that they might copy what he calls his revolution.”
“Mission Zamora” Against Latifundios
Today, in a large event held in an indoor arena in Caracas, with thousands of peasants from various parts of Venezuela, Chavez announced the issuing of a new decree that would move ahead the government’s land reform process. The decree would create a national commission to coordinate with regional governments the assessment of the ownership relations, sizes, and usage of large landed estates in Venezuela.
The decree’s objective is to “consolidate the process of reorganizing landownership and usage, so as to progressively eliminate large poorly used landed estates [latifundios].”
According to Chavez, this decree would be the beginning of a war against latifundios. “A democracy that permits such a situation of injustice will lose its democratic character and will end up turning itself into a pantomime of democracy. A revolution that permits this injustice cannot call itself a revolution,” said Chavez.
The members of this new land commission will included the Ministers of Land and Agriculture, the Minister of the Environment, the director of the National Land Institute, the head of Venezuela’s military, and various state governors.