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VENEZUELA: Land Reform Tripped Up by Red Tape, Lack of Planning

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Mar 6 2006 (IPS) - The Venezuelan government has distributed more than two million hectares to 160,000 landless rural families over the last three years in an agrarian reform effort that has been marked by a certain lack of planning, say experts.

In the region of Aragua, to the north of Venezuela’s central plains, land and sheds were made available to small farmers for raising hogs and chickens, “but no animals were provided, and the financing hasn’t arrived yet, so we arranged for a private company to deliver animals to raise, and we are working for that company,” one of the farmers involved in the cooperative told IPS.

Some local farmers in the area complain that promised credit has not arrived, that they have not been trained to handle new machinery supplied by the government, or that they have not been given enough seeds.

The delays in financing are blamed on the age-old problem of red tape.

Farther to the south, in the central plains, cooperatives that have received credit have purchased trucks to transport their products long before the first crops they have planted on their new land are ready to be harvested.

The government of President Hugo Chávez has channeled 2.9 billion dollars into financing agricultural production, and the farm industry’s gross domestic product grew 2.6 percent in 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture stated in its report to Congress this month.

“Land has been assigned and resources have been distributed, but in a climate of improvisation, of incomprehension of technical decisions, and without integrating economic investment and the needs of the markets,” agronomist Jesús Salazar, a professor at Venezuela’s Central University, told IPS.

The new agrarian reform process “has moved forward without basic information: a land register, soil studies, socioeconomic projects and development plans bringing together the public, private and academic sectors,” Franklin Chacín, the dean of the university’s Department of Agronomy, told IPS.

The changes in the Venezuelan countryside are based on the land law that Chávez decreed in 2001, and which began to be effectively implemented in 2003, distributing land to cooperatives and families.

Last year, the authorities began to appropriate unproductive land from the owners of large estates.

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 limited number of large estates or ”latifundia”, while campesinos (peasants) 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.

“Either the latifundium dies, or I die in the attempt,” Chávez stated on several occasions in 2005.

He personally led the division of a private rural estate of 8,490 hectares, leaving 1,500 to the owner, preserving 2,700 as a protected area around a dam and reservoir, and distributing the rest to a recently created agricultural cooperative.

The land is not granted by the government as individual or collective property, but under an “agrarian charter” which gives the families or cooperatives the right and the duty to work the land, but not the right to sell it or pass it on to their heirs.

The notion of rural development “goes far beyond agrarian questions and the availability and distribution of land, although it is a very important element,” economist Daniel Anido, with the Agrifood Research Centre in the southwestern city of Mérida, commented to IPS. “Credit is also needed, as well as access to quality education and housing, and farmers need nearby roads, to transport inputs and the final product.”

These issues will be the focus of discussions from Tuesday through Friday in Brazil, at the second International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Venezuela “is in a privileged position, because it has talent, financial resources, and physical resources: some 36 million hectares of arable land, including 15 million hectares of forest that can be logged,” said Chacín.

Chacín, the coordinator of the country’s deans of agronomy departments, said “basic information is needed first, consisting of a land register, an inventory of estates, soils, water and infrastructure, and a legal census of the land.”

The Central University used a team of 100 people to carry out a study of that kind on a sample of 7,000 square kilometers of land (700,000 hectares, equivalent to 0.5 percent of the country’s arable land) in the region of Aragua.

The study, which took one year to complete with the support of regional authorities, will be available this year to design a rural development plan for that area.

The central government says it is drawing up an agrarian development plan. Several academics told IPS that they had discussed aspects of such a plan with the authorities.

“Without good basic information, erroneous decisions can be adopted, and especially if there is a high turnover in ministers (there have been seven since Chávez took office in 1999). I still do not see a genuine productive change in the countryside,” said Chacín.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, agricultural output in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, was similar to that of 1998, before Chávez came to power, with the exception of cereals and sugarcane, which are large-scale or highly mechanised crops.

In 2004, Venezuela produced 997,000 tons of garden vegetables (as compared to 984,000 tons in 1998), 991,000 tons of root vegetables and tubers (1,053,000 in 1998), 65,000 tons of coffee (66,000), 16,000 tons of cacao (18,000), 2.7 million tons of fruit (2.9 million), 528,000 tons of textile fibres and oilseeds (569,000) and 46,000 tons of cereals (34,000 in 1998).

Corn production in 2004, which totalled two million tons, was double that of 1998, while the output of all cereal crops combined was 3.7 million tons, as compared to 2.1 million tons six years earlier. Almost 10 million tons of sugar cane were harvested in 2004, up two million from 1998, with between 500,000 and 600,000 tons of refined sugar produced annually.

In addition, “we could produce more milk, meat and soybeans. Venezuela’s agricultural exports are limited despite our potential in all the traditional tropical crops like coffee and cacao and the newer crops like fruit and rice,” commented Chacín.

Venezuela, with a population of 26.8 million according to the state-run Statistics Institute, imports four billion dollars worth of food annually, said Chacín, representing a sizeable chunk of the country’s total imports of 17.3 billion dollars in 2004 and 23.9 billion dollars in 2005.

According to Anido, a study of 155 different foodstuffs found that between 40 and 65 percent of what Venezuelans eat is imported, while official figures show that 6,000 tons a month of meat are imported and a similar amount of milk.

Associations of cattle and poultry farmers have criticised the government’s heavy reliance on imports to supply meat, dairy products and edible fats to the network of state-run stores where three out of every five Venezuelan families buy food at subsidised prices.

“We are financing the agribusiness sectors of countries like Argentina and Brazil, and this could get even worse when we join Mercosur (the Southern Common Market),” stated Genaro Méndez of the cattle farmers federation.

Last year, Venezuela formally began the process of joining the Mercosur trade bloc, currently made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, which are all major beef producers.

In the meantime, a recent corruption scandal revealed that Venezuela faces other obstacles, in addition to an overly improvisational approach, in the search for justice and development in the countryside, owing to shortcomings in the follow-up and monitoring of projects.

One of the projects most enthusiastically promoted by Chávez is a sugar mill in his home state of Barinas, in the southwestern Venezuelan plains. The new facility, being built under the guidance of Cuban sugar industry experts, is designed to mill 7,000 tons of sugar and produce 600 tons of refined sugar daily, and was supposed to be ready to enter into operation this year.

But not only has construction been delayed. Of the six million dollars handed over to the regiment of Venezuelan Army engineers responsible for the project, a million dollars has disappeared, according to an audit conducted in February by a congressional commission made up entirely of ruling coalition lawmakers.

On Feb. 25, there was a new change in the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture, when Antonio Albarrán was replaced by Elías Jaua. While no official reason was given for the move, opposition groups and media attributed it to the corruption scandal.

The Venezuelan countryside “is being injected with a strong dose of populism together with improvisation, which will doom the campesinos to being dependent on the state,” maintained Salazar. “They are being given fish, instead of being taught how to fish.”

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