JPEG - 27.4 kb

March 22, in the most significant step yet since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez declared "death to idle crop lands," the Venezuelan National Land Institute (INTI) officially re-appropriated parts of landed estates: El Charcote and Hato Piñero, due to a lack of documentation for proving their alleged ownership. A ceremony presided over by the Minister of Agriculture and Land, Antonio Albarrán, was held at the El Charcote ranch, during which the Venezuelan Land Institute distributed 140 land permits to poor farmers. The ceremony was attended by the entire Land Institute, as well as the governors of the states of Cojedes, Monagas, and Apure.

Passed in November, 2001, the Land Reform produced an uproar, both nationally and internationally, as to whether the Venezuelan government was infringing on property rights. This controversial issue was largely left on the back burner due to the fact that between its ratification and early January, 2005, only public lands were redistributed.

The land reform has the long-term goal of enabling small-scale farmers to produce sufficient crops for the internal market, thereby reducing Venezuela’s dependence on food-stuff imports and making the oil-rich nation as agriculturally self-sufficient as possible.

The Bolivarian Government took steps to deepen the land reform last January, instigating a campaign known as the "war against the latifundistas [idle landed estates]." "These people have been given the opportunity to demonstrate their property titles since 2003, but to this day they have not registered the legal documents; therefore, these lands were declared to be of public origin," declared the President of the National Land Institute (INTI), Eliécer Otaiza, with regard to Hato Piñero and el Charcote.

According to Otaiza, re-appropriating the lands of Hato Piñero and El Charote, which have been classified as "latifundia" or large idle landed estates, is an important step in carrying out and deepening the nearly four year old land reform. "The small farmers who were assigned the land permits have worked these lands for many years," Otaiza affirmed. Otaiza made it clear that the Land Reform is not about evicting latifundistas, but instead it revolves around a historic right to which these small farmers are entitled.

El Charote is a 32,000 acre cattle ranch in the state of Cojedes. It is managed by Agroflora, the local subsidiary of the British-owned Vestey Group. El Charote is one of Venezuela’s top beef producers. According to Vestey, the firm has documents dating back to 1830, proving they are the rightful owners. Additionally, the firm contends that the ranch is far from idle; it produces meat exclusively for Venezuelan markets and has always respected Venezuelan law.

Yet, according to INTI, the land titles offered by Vestey officials only prove their ownership as of 1850. "This is no expropriation," explained Rafael Alemán, an aid in the Cojedes state governor’s office, explaining, "We are recovering lands that were proven not to be private, but state property." Otaiza went on to explain that almost half of the ranch was deemed to be "unproductive" and thus a "latifundia," adding that the ranch will be distributed among 230 families who have worked the land for years. Both Otaiza and Alemán affirmed that Agroflora’s workers would be allowed to continue working on the ranch. "We are working as normal. I will do so until I’m told not to do so," stated Tony Richards, a British administrator at El Charcote.

According to Jaime Pérez Branger, the owner of Hato Piñero, "25 percent [of the land] is dedicated to cattle ranching and the rest is gallery forests and flood plains that cannot be used for ranching and are maintained as a reserve." Pérez Branger contends that he is the rightful owner of the 80,200 hectare ranch because his ancestors settled there in the mid-18th century.

This answer failed to satisfy the INTI, whose final ruling in the matter read, "[its] legal tradition does not have duly verified documents that demonstrate that it is private property." The INTI plans to certify part of the land as productive. However, the lack of documentation prevents Pérez Branger from being recognized as its owner. The idle part of the estate will be turned over to a small farming community, which has occupied a portion on the outskirts of the ranch for some time now. An endogenous development program will also be established.

Both ranches have two months to file an appeal in court. Otaiza has made it clear that the INTI is prepared to present their case in court and demonstrate that these are State properties and therefore, property of the Venezuelan people. Similar actions are expected soon at three other cattle ranches that are currently being evaluated.