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viernes, febrero 25, 2005

This land is my land, this land is your land.. (El Charcote update)

The government has completed its investigation of the El Charcote Ranch, held by the British Vestey group, and found that 5,212 of the ranch's 12,000 hectares actually belong to the state. (That's the state of Cojodes, in the central plains of Venezuela.)

The state government intends to take back this portion of the land, as well as 800 additional hectares that are legitimately owned but were determined to be idle. The government will compensate Vestey for the market value of these 800 hectares, but may charge rent for the 80-plus years that Vestey has been using the 5,212 hectares of allegedly state-owned land. Vestey can appeal the decision (both the expropriation and the ownership judgment, I think) in court. The expropriated land will be used to create peasants' cooperatives (presumably made up of the peasants already squatting on El Charcote land).

El Charcote is far from the only estate in question. The government of Cojodes state is investigating 17 estates comprising a total of 280 thousand hectares, and says it has found proof that 60 thousand hectares are actually government property.

This all comes as a result of Venezuela's 2001 land reform law, which gave governments the right to use or expropriate large tracts of agricultural land which were lying idle. Though the law seeks to redistribute land for the use of peasants, its main focus is not redistribution, but production; Venezuela currently imports most of its food, and self-sufficiency is a much-yearned-for goal.

Of course, opponents are crying "communism!" at these measures, while the real communists and Marxists complain that the measures don't go nearly far enough and that the owners of expropriated land shouldn't be compensated.

So far it seems to me that the implementation of the law, at least in the case of El Charcote, has been well balanced. The government is trying to maintain good relations with the landowner insofar as it's possible, while adhering to the principle that idle farmland will be made available to those who will work it. The questions are: will the land reform program manage to substantially increase productivity and move the country towards food self-sufficiency? And will it provide better opportunities for campesinos (especially the large numbers of farmers currently squatting on unused plantations) and, perhaps, slow the massive migration from the country to the cities? Both of those are tremendous challenges to undertake.

On Thursday the owners of El Charcote (specifically Diana Dos Santos, the president of Agropecuaria Flora, which is the Venezuelan arm of the Vestey Group) rejected the government’s claims regarding the estate. They said that they bought all the prporty in 1830 and none of the title belongs to the state. Regarding the 800 hectares to be expropriated, they countered that the ranch is totally productive, with not a single hectare going unused. I suspect this means they’re going to duke it out in court.
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