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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Venezuela land reform gets going
By Iain Bruce
BBC News, Venezuela

Peasant occupation
Peasants who have occupied farms hope to benefit from the reform
El Charcote, a British cattle ranch in central Venezuela, has been singled out by the government as the launch-pad for its new push towards land reform.

Much of the ranch has been occupied by peasant farmers for several years.

As you head down the main farm road, you see the makeshift shacks of the most recent arrivals on either side.

Many have the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag fluttering from a pole. Several display posters of Che Guevara.

By the main farm buildings, manager Tony Richards says the disruption has already cut his production by two-thirds.

There's no food in this country
Juan Pablo Flores
Farm occupier

"Every single field in Charcote has got at least one family living in it. There's children running around, so the cattle are stressed all the time and it's made it extremely difficult for us to fatten the animals."

A couple of kilometres further down, Juan Pablo Flores and a group of peasants are stacking sesame into bundles to dry.

They occupied this part of the ranch 15 months ago. This is their first harvest.

Land aplenty

The government says land reform should help Venezuela grow more of its own food.

"There's no food in this country," says Juan Pablo.

"All the flour has to be imported. Even though we have the land. Just because 'Lord Beefsteak' is sitting pretty with so much land here in Venezuela."

This is a reference to Lord Vestey, head of the British meat group Vestey's. The group has 13 cattle farms in Venezuela occupying a total of 350,000 hectares, or 3,500sq km (1,350 square miles).

Maria Herrera
The government is going to help us set up co-operatives, so we can work together to get agriculture going
Maria Herrera
El Charcote farm

In March the Venezuelan Land Institute declared that Vestey's and the owners of three other ranches here in Cojedes state had failed to provide adequate proof of ownership.

It therefore regarded all four farms as state property.

On the far side of El Charcote, Maria Herrera is collecting the eggs from her chickens. She came here from the city five years ago, looking for work. She already has fruit trees and sweet peppers planted in her yard.

Soon she hopes the authorities will approve the loans she and her neighbours need to begin producing maize together.

"Venezuela's oil isn't going to last forever," she tells me.

"The government is going to help us set up co-operatives, so we can work together to get agriculture going. Because that's what will give a future to our children."


President Hugo Chavez's specially appointed Land Commission has handed over provisional occupation papers to 120 of the families who, like Maria's, are occupying this part of El Charcote.

But they will have to wait for permanent deeds.

You begin on the land. The problem is where do you stop?
Jaime Branger
Farm owner

Vestey's and the other land owners were given 60 days to appeal against the decision that the land is not theirs.

Captain Eliezer Otaiza, the man put in charge of Venezuela's new land reform, says that whatever happens in the courts, the government wants the ranchers to continue raising cattle on a part of the land.

He believes an effective, but peaceful, land reform in Venezuela is the key to building a new, more self-sufficient economy.

And he thinks it could be an inspiration throughout the region. "If we succeed in this, if it's not too traumatic and it really produces change, with jobs and progress, then I think it'll be something others want to study. In Brazil, for example, it could have a major impact," he says.

But Jaime Branger, whose family owns two of the farms affected, feels a dangerous precedent is being set.

"You begin on the land. The problem is where do you stop? What happens if you have a second home? What happens if you have two or three factories? Is one of them too many? Should one of them be given to social productive uses?"

Many big owners see this land reform as the start of a wider assault on private property.

The government insists it is impossible for Venezuela to grow enough food for the poor, as long as so much land is in the hands of so few.

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