Venezuela: Land reform push in campaign for 'agrarian socialism'

January 26, 2014
A new land occupation facilitated by the National Land Institute underway in the south-western state of Apure. Photo by Victor H

The Venezuelan government plans to continue its land expropriations this year in its push to move towards what it terms “agrarian socialism”.

In the 2014 national budget, the government’s National Land Institute (INTI) sets its aim to expropriate 350,000 hectares of land this year.

This compares with the goals of 350,000 and 397,000 hectares of land the government sought to expropriate in 2012 and last year respectively. The government began to increase the pace of land expropriations in 2011.

It is estimated that in the decade between 2001, when former president Hugo Chavez passed a law promoting land redistribution, and 2011, the INTI expropriated 3.6 million hectares of agricultural land.

With the lands expropriated since then, the total amount of expropriated land since 2001 is likely to be more than 4 million hectares. Private Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, however, claims that since Chavez was elected in 1998, the government has expropriated more than six million hectares of land.

The expropriations are part of a policy to break up the system of large-scale estates called latifundios. This system meant that in 1998, just 0.4% of landowners held more than 7 million hectares of the 30 million hectares of arable land in Venezuela.

Many of the expropriated lands are transferred to small-scale farmers or become collectively owned land managed by cooperatives, community councils or communes.

The government says it wants to build a model of “agrarian socialism” under which the latifundio model is eliminated and agricultural productivity raised through smaller scale farmers planting a variety of local crops. It hopes this model will lead to food sovereignty, where the country produces 100% of its basic food needs.

INTI president William Gudino said at an agricultural conference in December: “No government that aspires to solve the problem of feeding its people can allow land to be concentrated in so few hands, even less when production is deficient.”

Venezuelan farmers are also supported with training, equipment and logistics by the government’s Agro Venezuela Mission and nationalised agricultural supplies company Agropatria.

However, conflicts have arisen about some land occupations. Large landowners have resisted takeovers by local campesinos (rural workers). Some have claimed the INTI has not correctly compensated them for lands expropriated.

Certain landowners have also been accused of hiring assassins to murder campesino leaders and stop land occupations. Rights groups estimate more than 310 campesinos have been killed in such conflicts. They say that due to local judicial impunity, these crimes go largely unsolved.

Meanwhile the country’s conservative opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), claims that expropriated lands are unproductive and the policy is an “enormous failure”.

Nevertheless, official statistics show a rise in agricultural output and land under cultivation in recent years.

In 2012, Venezuela produced 100% of national consumption of basic vegetables after showing a sustained increase in hectares under production and total tonnes produced of tomatoes, peppers, onions and carrots since 2005.

The latest land occupation facilitated by the INTI is underway in the south-western state of Apure. Recently, 1000 campesino families began the peaceful occupation of the “Hato El Porvenir” estate, formerly held by a large landowning family that had appropriated the area in the 1920s.

Chavez first promised the land to campesinos organised in local communal councils in December 2011. However, it was not until August last year that the INTI began the expropriation procedure.

The INTI’s projects team is now working with the campesinos to develop the estate. Initiatives include a genetics centre to improve the quality of cattle herds and the foundation of a local Campesino University.

Rural movements in Venezuela are also planning for the first National Campesino Congress in May this year.

On January 10, 200 rural workers from around the country met in Cojedes state to organise the conference and discuss the role of campesinos in social change.

“It’s about analysing and proposing the role of campesinos in the transformation of society,” said Tatiana Paug, who works for the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation.

Resolutions from the meeting included the need for a united and autonomous campesino organisation, emancipatory education for campesinos, and comprehensive social security for rural workers.

The gathered campesinos sent the resolutions to President Nicolas Maduro, who is set to meet campesino groups on February 1.

[Reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.]

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