Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Land Reform on Full Throttle

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Sep 1 2003 (IPS) - The Venezuelan government has distributed a total of one million hectares to 41,000 families in seven months as part of a land reform programme whose five-year goal is to settle 500,000 families on 10 million hectares.

On Sunday, President Hugo Chávez visited the farming town of Cubiro in west-central Venezuela, where another 212,911 hectares were distributed to 10,263 families, and 3.5 million dollars in loans were made available to small farmers. In addition, 19 tractors were delivered to 62 agricultural cooperatives.

The settling of more than 10,000 families on small farms around Cubiro marked the start of the second phase of the government’s land reform programme, during which 63,400 families are to receive a total of one million hectares.

But the government’s efforts have run up against staunch opposition from agribusiness and large landholders, and the rural workers’ struggle for land has been plagued by violence. A number of land activists have been killed by hired gunmen.

Despite several decades of agrarian reform, Venezuela remains one of the countries in Latin America with the greatest concentration of land, a legacy of the colonial era. As in most of Latin America, the majority of the farmland in Venezuela is divided among a few large estates or ”latifundios”, while campesinos are either landless or live on tiny subsistence farms.

According to the agricultural census of 1988, only six percent of the landholders owned seventy percent of the arable land.

So far 31,437 individual or collective ”land charters” have been issued as part of the agrarian reform programme, the president of the National Land Institute (INTI), Ricardo Leonett, told a news briefing Friday at which he was accompanied by campesino and indigenous leaders from several Latin American countries.

Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of Bolivia’s coca farmers and the head of that country’s leading opposition party, the Movement Towards Socialism; Rafael Alegría with the Vía Campesina movement in Honduras; Edigio Brunito with Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement; Juan Tiney with the National Indigenous Coordinator of Guatemala; and Blanca Chancoso with Ecuador’s Pachakutik Movement praised the land reform programme launched by Chávez early this year.

”At this pace, 10 million hectares of land will have been distributed in five years, and 500,000 rural families will once again become producers” of food, the president of the National Agrarian Coordinator, Braulio Alvarez, told IPS.

Just 14 percent – 5.8 million – of Venezuela’s 24 million people live in rural areas, including 500,000 who belong to 31 different indigenous groups.

”All of the land that we have distributed forms part of the nation’s 19 million hectares of land suited for cultivation,” said Leonett.

Federations of large landowners and stockbreeders claim INTI has fomented invasions or occupations of rural property that has been in their members’ families for generations. They have also brought lawsuits before the Supreme Court to challenge the ”land charters” issued by the government.

”The government is responsible for the lack of legal guarantees in the countryside,” complained the president of the stockbreeders’ association, José Luis Betancourt.

The first anti-Chávez business-labour work stoppage, held on Dec. 10, 2001, was triggered by the populist, left-leaning president’s decree of a ”land law” that paved the way for this year’s land distribution programme.

The business community, the country’s traditional parties and trade unions opposed to Chávez then held a series of protest marches in Caracas and other cities demanding that the president resign.

In April 2002, they backed a short-lived coup d’etat that removed him from power for two days. And in December and January, a two-month work stoppage and business shutdown unsuccessfully attempted to topple Chávez.

The government’s adoption of currency and price controls led to a scarcity of farm products this year, which was alleviated in part by goods imported by the state.

”We will defend, before the Supreme Court, the legality of distributing land that belongs to the state,” said Leonett. ”What has happened here is that landowners have fenced off public property, which they claim is their own.”

According to Bolivian lawmaker Morales, ”there is a parallel between the situation in Venezuela and that of Bolivia. But in the latter, it is the state that invokes the argument of a lack of legal guarantees, to defend the landowners and deny the rights of the 70 percent of the population who are Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní Indians.”

The update on the progress made by Chávez’s land reform programme coincided with a report that a human rights lawyer, Joe Castillo, was shot and killed last Wednesday by a hired killer on a motorcycle in the town of Machiques in western Venezuela, 50 kms from the Colombian border.

Castillo had accused a local rancher of organising and financing ”the murder of two land activists, Pedro Doria and Armando García, a year ago,” the National Agrarian Coordinator’s Alvarez told IPS.

The human rights lawyer was also active in issues involving indigenous and refugee rights, in the Episcopal Vicariate of Human Rights, part of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Caracas.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission put out a statement deploring Castillo’s murder, and the Venezuelan umbrella group Forum for Life, which links a number of local human rights organisations, said the murder ”clearly occurred in the context of the pattern of killings by hired gunmen.”

Vice-President José Vicente Rangel said at least 60 land activists have been killed in the past four years.

”Selective killings are a common practice aimed at putting an end to the campesino struggle for land. In Brazil, 48 rural activists have been killed, and more than 30 are currently in jail,” said Brunito.

But Betancourt said ranchers and large landholders have nothing to do with the deaths, arguing instead that ”It is the government that is failing to live up to its obligations to guarantee legal and personal security in the countryside, as demonstrated by the fact that there are currently 20 ranchers being held by kidnappers,” mainly in western Venezuela.

The governor of the southwestern state of Táchira, Ronald Blanco, said the government will suspend the constitutional guarantees of free transit, freedom of assembly, and the sanctity of home privacy along the western border as part of emergency measures aimed at clamping down on the violence in the area.

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