Venezuela: Land reform faces violent attack in valley


Cooperativist ecological farmers supported by the Venezuelan government's land reform programs were attacked on August 7 by armed and masked men who, the farmers say, were hired by large estate owners in the area to cut short the changes heralded by the Bolivarian revolution in their rural Andean mountain valley of El Vallecito.

"They ... said they did not want people like us here and would kill us and burn everything if we did not get off the lands", reported Yuly Barrios to the state attorney-general the next day.

Around 30 attackers used machetes, metal pipes and petrol to rip apart the large tents in which the farmers live, sabotage the tractors they had obtained from the government's Socialist Agrarian Fund (FONDAS), steal video and photographic equipment, and loot the small settlements.

The state police observed passively from a distance.

El Vallecito hugs an offshoot of the Mucujun River, a principal water source for the nearby city of Merida and the entire Andean region.

Land reform and water

Despite the quaint setting, the clash between politically opposed residents — like a pinched nerve shooting through the national nervous system — exemplifies the complex interplay of national priorities regarding food, natural resources, property and citizen security. It is a reminder of the fierce tactics opposition forces are willing to use to destabilise government initiatives.

The dominant families in the valley, waving the banner of water conservation, have supported candidates from the pro-government United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) as well as opposition parties in the upcoming regional elections, urging them to fully restrict access to the area.

The cooperative farmers, on the other hand, seek to transform the valley and "construct a society free of privilege and exclusion" by building a local network of state-funded social services, redistributing idle lands to small organic farmers, reforesting the riverbanks and providing community ecological education.

Conflict mitigation has been hampered by an indecisive, bureaucratic state government notorious for siding with landed elites while professing solidarity with both reformers and revolutionaries.

While the agriculture and land ministry has been a consistent ally of the cooperative farmers, the environment ministry has been slow to respond.

The "red-shirted" (supporter of the government headed by President Hugo Chavez) state governor, a major property owner in El Vallecito, has "neutrally" left the cooperativists to fend for themselves.

"We want to see a sign ... that a state of law exists in this country", cooperative member Gustavo Gonzalez declared in a public meeting with state officials on August 6.

The Chavez government has, since the introduction of land reform laws in 2001, confiscated idle farmland from large plantations and converted it into cooperative farms run by community assemblies and national parks. The agriculture ministry estimates that 2 million hectares were redistributed as of 2007, and 4 million more are projected to be confiscated in coming years.

Hoping to be incorporated into these efforts, revolutionaries in Merida began using vacant land lent to them by the state water company in El Vallecito to revitalize the community four years ago. They constructed a vibrant community centre equipped with a free computer lab, subsidised food market, community radio, multi-purpose meeting rooms, a pool and sports facilities — with funding contributed by federal social programs known as "missions".

While much of the valley's poor population has gladly accepted the community centre, the new neighbours are not well-liked by the zone's most powerful and wealthy families.

The vision of the cooperativists is to take the project a step further and construct a Nucleus of Endogenous Development (NUDE) in El Vallecito. Their fledgling NUDE, called Mocaqueteos, is an alternative communal structure in which integral solutions to food, environment, education, and social issues are constructed by local assemblies.

Mocaquetoes gained legal title to nearly 40 hectares of land in the valley in 2007, when national food shortages and worldwide food price inflation spurred the National Land Institute to step up its confiscation efforts.

Powerful opposition

Despite this, the dominant families of El Vallecito continue to demand that the "invaders" leave.

"In El Vallecito, there are rich property owners from Portugal, France, and the United States, but when Venezuelan creoles who are not from their family or class wish to cultivate the valley, those fascists reject us!" exclaimed cooperativist Franklin Mendoza in the August 6 meeting.

Mocaqueteos organisers allege that the valley's elite are reacting to a breach of their longstanding class privileges.

A large portion of the confiscated lands worked by the cooperative were granted to family members of the estate owners more than two decades ago for the official purpose of building houses for workers in the local electricity plant.

However, the lands were only used as a landing strip for model airplanes and other exclusive recreational activities of the owners.

According to the wealthy families, the health of the region's chief water source is at stake. The zone around the river has been legally protected from environmentally unsustainable development for more than two decades. Thus, according to the federal land law, they argue the land cannot be granted to the cooperativists.

"We are not fighting for land, but for the water of Merida", Jose Espinoza, a spokesperson for the big landowners, told the local press in late 2007. "It is not that we are against endogenous development, but it should grow from the community and not from outside."

In response, Mocaqueteos organisers cite the law protecting the Mucujun, which says sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism, reforestation and educational projects are permitted in the protected zone if approved by the environment ministry.

The cooperativists also brandish copies of environment ministry impact studies showing that 17 hectares of the lands granted to them are destined for reforestation, and that the NUDE intends to employ non-pollutive, water-saving agricultural techniques, such as drip-irrigation.

Although the lands have been legally granted to the cooperativists, the environment ministry's official stamp of approval still has not been granted.

"If you wish to cancel our project because you have proof of substantial environmental dangers, okay, we can understand that", a Mocaqueteos member told the environment ministry representative in charge of the Mucujun River at the August 6 meeting.

"But we have made clear that we do not believe in agro-chemicals, and several of us including myself were trained in ecological farming in Cuba."

The environment ministry official replied that the matter is not his fault because he came to his post as a replacement just three months ago. He accused Mocaqueteos of "improvising" and "provoking" the estate owners in El Vallecito, although the cooperativists have diligently abstained from violent recourse and carefully planned every step of their collective project.

"Within the ministry, there is resistance to really participate with communities", the official acknowledged — revealing what was evident from the state-level ministry's bureaucratic bumbling.

Ideological clash

The cooperativists are convinced that the real issue is ideological and transcends local property and environmental disputes. They note that the estate owners and some state government officials have consistently opposed, boycotted and sabotaged efforts that in any way fell into line with Chavez's "Bolivarian" initiatives — even when public authorities explained that the cooperativists have legal title to the land.

Also, when the cooperativists formed communal councils (a two year-old initiative to deliver state funds directly to organised communities) to address urgent problems such as run-down public lighting infrastructure in El Vallecito, the estate owners refused to participate.

Instead, they formed their own communal council to defend their interests against the other communal councils. Spokespeople for the elite communal council widely denounced the "invaders" in the name of the whole "community" of the valley, attempting to divide and conquer the valley using a tool meant for community integration.

Prominent local newspapers, all four of which are aligned with the anti-Chavez opposition, have been all too willing to emphasise the plight of the dons of El Vallecito persecuted by revolutionary encroachers.

In this hostile media atmosphere, Mocaqueteos has counted on support from Venezuela's growing alternative media network, especially

In July 2007, Chavez himself responded by calling on functionaries of federal ministries in Merida to make a reality the projects proposed by cooperatives in El Vallecito.

The struggle of the cooperativists was also reinforced in May when the well-known radical Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) wrote a letter to environment minister Yubiri Ortega, who has been focused mainly on Venezuela's complex mining issues.

Mocaqueteos "has proven social, political, and community work, has obtained legal title to the aforementioned lands, and its productive projects have an agro-ecological focus and comply with the regulations of use of the Mucujun River bank", the FNCEZ wrote.


This incident of paramilitary tactics used by elites to protect their property and carry out what the FNCEZ calls "social cleansing" is not isolated.

Since the agrarian reform law favourable to rural workers was decreed by Chavez in 2001, paramilitary hitmen have murdered more than 190 rural community organisers who dared to stand up to the local patriarchs, according to the FNCEZ.

The frequency of such murders in border states with Colombia, many of which are supplied with water originating from the Mucujun River, indicate possible connections among estate owners committed to defending their privileges.

Mocaqueteos organisers say the geo-politically strategic nature of El Vallecito is a good reason to construct a NUDE in the zone and to be vigilant in case local elites plan to exercise their control of the region's chief water source to fortify anti-Chavez destabilisation efforts.

The paramilitary issue also raises questions about whether the lack of law enforcement and hesitance of state officials in places like El Vallecito is purely the result of local negligence or connected to a greater challenge to government authority.

In the end, the true risk-takers are the relatively powerless victims of the assaults, but the valiant organisers of NUDE Mocaqueteos show no signs that their convictions may be weakening. Despite the rockiness of their path, Mocaqueteos advances with firm resolve.

[Abridged from]