Venezuelan farmers squat 'British land'
evnuk at gaia.org
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]
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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