Caracas, Venezuela, March 14, 2005—Venezuela’s National Land Institute announced the impending redistribution of five ranches on Saturday, in a controversial settlement dealing with both private and public land. The five ranches are, El Carcote, Piñero, Coco, Borges, and Hacienda Sanz. This could mean the redistribution of private land titles for the first time since the land reform law was passed in November, 2001.
The El Charcote ranch is owned by the British meat-producer Lord Vestey, through its local subsidiary Agroflora. In January of this year, state Governor Jhonny Yánez ordered the National Guard and state police to ‘intervene’ in the property to prevent disputes between ranchers and occupying peasants from getting violent. A group of farmers have been occupying a portion of the land for the past four years.
Critics have accused the government of failing to respect private property rights. The Land Law, passed in 2001, was one of the Venezuelan government’s most controversial measures since President Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998. General strike in 2001, led by Venezuela’s principal chamber of commerce Fedecamaras and the traditional labor federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), cited the land reform law as one of their primary grievances.
According to the Land Law, only underutilized or idle land is subject to expropriation. So far the reform has focused on public land, giving private land owners a grace period to put their land to use.
In the event that private land-owners fail to make their land productive, the law states that high-quality private land over 100 hectares (roughly 250 acres) or low-quality land over 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) can be expropriated—with the government compensating the owners at market price.
On January 10, 2005 President Chávez launched a new campaign to speed up the land reform. Since the land reform was passed in 2001, 2.2 million hectares (4,940,000 acres) publicly held land has been re-distributed. Under the new campaign, the “war against the landed estates [latifundistas],” underutilized private property will also be targeted.
But according to the National Land Institute (INTI), much of the land on the five ranches in question is not private. INTI President Eliécer Otaiza has affirmed that all five ranch-owners have failed to provide adequate documentation proving their land title. Those portions of their properties for which they do not have proper documentation will by default be declared public and will be subject to redistribution. Whatever property the owners can prove title to, will be subject to taxes, according to its use.
In a communiqué released on Saturday, INTI declared the Piñero ranch “a landed estate [latifundio], according to the parameters of the law.” The statement continued, noting that the Piñero ranch was unable to provide adequate documentation proving ownership, concluding that “this property is not private.”
In their report on the land in question, INTI announced, “the first revolutionary decision of the directorate was with respect to the Piñero ranch.” The “presumed owners” of the ranch, according to INTI, were unable to provide documented proof of ownership, supporting INTI’s claims that 80-90% of the 80,212 hectares (198,000 acres) of Piñero ranch, is in fact public land. Otaiza said the recovered land would be distributed to cooperatives and small farmers.
INTI’s investigations with respect to the other four ranches revealed that portions of land claimed by El Charcote, Coco, Borges, and hacienda Sanz were in fact public. Another roughly 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) are expected to be recovered from these ranches.
Since 2001, Venezuela’s land-reform has repeatedly run up against the apparent mutability of land title. Initially distributing only underutilized public lands for cultivation by cooperatives and individual families, many small farmers given title to land were subsequently driven off by paramilitaries and gunmen. Neighboring latifundistas—large land owners—claim title to the land, often with no legal basis, and have been accused of hiring armed thugs to intimidate would-be settlers.In many instances activists and community leaders associated with the land reform have been murdered. Reports vary as to the number of activists killed since 2001, ranging anywhere from 100 to over 200.