Venezuelan farmers squat 'British land'

Gerrard Winstanley evnuk at
Wed Jan 19 18:09:54 GMT 2005

Dispute simmers between S American farmers & UK company, Vestey

Venezuela vows a quick decision about land rights
By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER [great name for a bad journalist]
Associated Press

EL CHARCOTE, VENEZUELA - Hundreds of squatters have moved onto this 
vast cattle ranch and planted crops in hopes the land will one day be 
declared their own, putting them sharply at odds with the British 
company that claims rightful ownership.

The long-running dispute — like many others across Venezuela — is 
reaching a critical point as the government promises swift action on a 
sweeping plan to give "idle" land to poor farmers.

Most of the estimated 600 squatters farming plots on El Charcote Ranch 
have arrived in the four years since President Hugo Chavez signed a 
law clearing the way for agrarian reform.

"I trust Chavez and believe he wants the best for us, but we are 
struggling, working land that may not belong to us in the end," said 
Santiago Arzola, 40, who farms watermelons, beans and sweet peppers to 
sustain a family of five.

A 1998 census found that 60 percent of Venezuela's farmland was owned 
by less than 1 percent of the population. The survey said 90 percent 
of farmland given to the poor under a 1960 agrarian reform had since 
returned to the hands of large landholders.

Squatters and ranchers are closely watching what the government says 
are imminent plans to "intervene" at El Charcote in one of the first 
major reevaluations of private farmland in recent years.

Government assessors are to arrive today at the ranch. Some are 
expected to survey the land by helicopter while others negotiate with 
representatives of the owner, Agropecuaria Flora C.A. — a subsidiary 
of the British-owned Vestey Group Ltd. and a major beef producer.

"We don't know what will happen when they come," Miguel España, a 54-
year-old ranch manager, said with a nervous laugh. "We try our best to 
coexist with the squatters while authorities decide what they are 
going to do with the ranch."

But coexistence has been marked by tension.

The squatters "cut barbed-wire fences, burn the grasses cattle feed on 
... and occasionally steal them," said España, who has worked at the 
ranch for 28 years.

He said the 32,000-acre ranch, 125 miles southwest of Caracas, boasted 
11,000 cattle four years ago. Now there are fewer than 5,000, and the 
work force has been reduced from about 50 to 30.

"Uncertainty reigns here," Espana said. "I know one thing for sure: 
This ranch will never be what it once was."

The Land Law of 2001 allows the state to expropriate and grant to the 
poor "idle" farmlands that are not put to adequate use, or properties 
that owners are unable to show they obtained legally.

El Charcote's owners insist they can prove rightful ownership dating 
back to 1830 and that the ranch is not "idle" but has simply been 
invaded by squatters.

Government officials, however, say property titles were obtained 
illegally and much of it really belongs to the state.

Officials say land reform should not immediately involve 
"expropriation," but rather dialogue with landowners and careful 
study. They also say the poor have been waiting long enough, and that 
change should help prevent violence.

"We have to recognize that we have not given a fast and timely answer 
to these poor farmers," said Luis Silva, regional director of 
Venezuela's Agriculture and Land Ministry. "We have a social debt with 

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