Venezuelan Campesinos Call for Support, Investigation After Massive Fire

The Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Council accused a powerful local landowner of deliberately starting the blaze.
fire los tramojos
The fire in Los Tramojos has left campesino families struggling to feed their cattle. (Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Council)

Caracas, January 22, 2024 (venezuenalysis.com) – A Venezuelan rural collective has urged the Nicolás Maduro government to provide support after a fire consumed its lands.

The Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Council reported that most of the 2,900 hectares of Los Tramojos land plot burned in recent days, leaving 33 campesino families in precarious conditions. Los Tramojos, in Guárico state, has been the stage for a symbolic grassroots land struggle in recent years.

“We lost nearly everything,” council spokesperson Ramón “Niño” Soto told Venezuelanalysis on Sunday. “Houses, fences, water fountains and corrals turned to ash.”

Most important, Soto stated, was the burning of pastures which now left the campesino collective unable to feed its approximately 800 cattle. “Cattle rearing is our most important activity right now,” he added. “Our herd grows to around 2000 heads every year, and there is nowhere to graze.”

Soto explained that several farmlands in the area, spanning thousands of hectares, were likewise covered by the blaze. The campesino activist went on to call for economic support from the government.

“We are not going to surrender, we want to produce. But we have had little backing over the years and we have just suffered terrible losses,” the spokesman said.

However, he also demanded a thorough criminal investigation into the incident. Soto claimed that the fire started on Wednesday in a neighboring property belonging to local landowner José Elías Chirimelli after his workers set garbage ablaze as a purported preliminary step to prepare the land to sow corn. The flames then spread out of control due to dry conditions and strong winds.

“It is not possible to grow corn in the present cycle without proper irrigation systems,” Soto affirmed. “We have no doubt that this fire was intentional to hurt us, and it ended up destroying a lot of infrastructure and pasture in the area.”

The Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Council has reportedly filed complaints with the local detachment of the National Guard (GNB) as well as the forensic unit of the police (CICPC).

The Land Institute (INTI) sent a commission on Monday to assess the damage. It diagnosed that 80 percent of Los Tramojos had burnt, with surrounding farms experiencing similar situations.

The rural organization has had a longstanding fight against Chirimelli to secure its right to Los Tramojos. After rescuing the unproductive farmland and working it for several years, the campesino families were evicted in 2017 when Chirimelli presented titled deeds that were later proven to be forged.

With support from popular movements, the Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Council staged protests and filed demands before Venezuela’s judicial authorities. After nearly five years, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the grassroots collective, which received 2,900 out of the 4,800 hectares in Los Tramojos, with Chirimelli taking over the rest.

Nevertheless, tensions remained and escalated significantly with the assassination of Carlos Bolívar in March 2023. He had been a longtime campesino activist and one of the leading figures in the Los Tramojos struggle.

Bolívar’s assassination sparked outrage and calls for justice. Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced soon after that authorities had executed nine arrests in connection to the case.

However, campesino movement sources told Venezuelanalysis that the judicial process has not progressed and that the “intellectual authors” remain at large. 

Rural collectives have repeatedly denounced landowner violence in the countryside. The Campesino Struggle Platform, which groups several grassroots organizations, estimates that 350-400 campesino activists have been killed since the approval of the Land Law in 2021, most of them in targeted assassinations that have gone unpunished.

Update: Ramón Soto told Venezuelanalysis that the fire remained active on Tuesday morning, heading south towards the Portuguesa river, and that over 30,000 hectares had burnt in the area.