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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Waiting for promised land
By James Ingham
BBC News, Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez's government is pushing ahead with a programme of land seizures which he describes as a drive towards socialism - taking over parts of huge privately-owned estates and handing them to the poor.

But the scheme is angering both the big landowners and those promised new property.

Giant plains of Los Llanos
The government is seizing privately-owned land in Los Llanos
In the west of Venezuela the northern reaches of the Andes flatten out into Los Llanos, the giant plains that dominate the landscape.

This is cattle-raising territory.

The farmers here provide much of the beef that this meat-loving nation consumes.

But life can be tough. In the dry season not a drop of rain falls for weeks. In the wet season, much of the land is underwater.

Sitting tight

On the edge of Barinas - the largest city in the region - a group of families sit under a tarpaulin by a main road, next to a track that leads onto private land, which they are hoping will soon be theirs.

Mana Gisela Perez comes here every afternoon.

When I ask her why she is so keen to acquire the land, she explains that the area where she lives now is terrible.

It is near a fast-flowing river which she says often floods her home. She invites me to see for myself.

Mana Gisela Perez
Mana Gisela Perez lives in a shack made from corrugated iron

"Please don't judge my house," she says "we're really poor."

It is dusk as we approach. Dogs play and chickens scratch around outside.

Her home is a simple one-room shack made from corrugated iron.

The youngest of Mana's five children greets me with big smiles. Inside, her husband is cooking dinner on a small gas ring. They tell me they cannot live like this any longer. They desperately need help.

President Hugo Chavez, whose face beams out from a tiny TV in the corner of the room, is their only hope.

Government land seizures

Hundreds of miles north-east is Hato Paraima, a huge private reserve, owned since the 1930s by the Branger family.

James Branger
James Branger's family has owned a huge estate since the 1930s
At this time of year, the grass and trees are a lush, deep green.

It is a thriving farm complete with a seed production centre. But it is half as big now as it was a few years ago.

Hato Paraima was one of the first pieces of land to be expropriated by the government. Javier and Jamie, who run the family business, tell me how one day the army came to take away the land.

"We had no choice. We got some compensation but only after they'd forced their way in," they said.

We go to see some of the 11,000 cows they still have on the farm. They are being corralled by whip-cracking, hollering cowboys.

"We need 24 acres per head of cattle to provide enough grass for them to graze on," Javier says. "The government said we only needed a tenth of that. That's nonsense. This land is dry and acidic and you can't grow anything else."

A little way along the road, I get to the area that was taken over. It is not in such good condition, but a few houses are dotted around in the scrubland.

Pedro Ramoya Pidera
Pedro Ramoya Pidera was promised his own land seven years ago
The first person we come across is Pedro Ramoya Pidera. He is in his 80s and is living in a rented shack on the land which was taken over by the government.

"This was meant to be temporary," he says. "I was promised my own land seven years ago but I still don't have it. I'm waiting. What else can I do? I have nowhere else to go."

Success stories

Down another track there is better news. Some cows are being milked by hand.

The lady squeezing the udders gets a bowlful from a moody-looking cow.

I chat to her friend, Rocky Basques, who owns the cows. Rocky has a new red brick house built by the government and a plot where he can grow enough to feed his family. It is hard work but he seems happy.

"We waited six years but it's worth it," he says.

Rocky is one of the success stories. The government says there will be many more.

Back in Caracas I meet Orlando Zambrano who belongs to a government organisation that aims to move poor people from the cities to the countryside.

It seems a little unlikely, but he says a million people have moved so far.

Mr Zambrano is young and full of socialist ideology. He is not interested in making money. Instead he teaches people traditional farming methods, which he says protect and preserve the countryside.

Growing revolution

The ranchers I met told me again and again that they could look after the land better and get more out of it than the campesinos - the peasants or the incomers from the city.

Mr Zambrano said this was a lie to ensure they get to keep their land.

He admitted his group had a lot to learn, but he said: "We're going to work this land with love."

But not everyone shares his principles. There are many stories of people who have taken over land and, instead of farming it, have sold it on at a profit after a few months.

Mr Zambrano sighs when I put this to him. "You're right," he says.

"Bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption are evils that weaken President Chavez's revolution," he says.

Despite this, this is a revolution that is moving forward faster now than ever before.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 21 June, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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