Venezuela accelerates land reform

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Since the beginning of 2011, over 2.7 million acres have been rescued from large landowners and redistributed to small farmers or turned into cooperatives

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by Chris Carlson
Venezuelanalysis, Nov. 20, 2012 

The Venezuelan government has accelerated its policy of land expropriations so far this year and intends to continue this trend in 2013, according to budget information from the National Land Institute (INTI).

Documents from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate that more than 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) have been taken over or redistributed by the government since the beginning of 2011, a 200 percent increase from the amount recovered in 2010.

For 2013, the budget approved for land expropriations by the National Land Institute has been increased to allow for 397 thousand hectares (980 thousand acres) to be taken over by the government next year, a 13 percent increase over 2012.

A total of 350 thousand hectares (864 thousand acres) were approved for 2012, although the numbers indicate that the total has greatly surpassed this number so far this year.

“We are continuing and intensifying the policy of recovering lands,” said Minister of Agriculture Juan Carlos Loyo recently.

Venezuela has long struggled with highly concentrated land ownership, and an abundance of very large farms, known as “latifundio,” that are characterized by low productivity and underutilization of the land.

The 2001 Land Law was intended to combat this problem by allowing for the expropriation and redistribution of unproductive “latifundios.” In 2005 the National Land Institute began to carry out the policy of “rescuing” land from large landowners who have historically occupied public lands without legal title.

“We’re not expropriating lands, we’re recovering them,” said Loyo.

It is estimated that the Venezuelan government has recovered more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) since 2005, whereas the country possesses a total of around 30 million hectares (74 million acres) of agricultural land.

The lands are then either redistributed to smaller farmers, or used to form farmer’s collectives on state land as a part of what has been called “Agrarian Socialism”.

New head of INTI draws criticism

The intensification of the land expropriation policy coincided with the return of Minister of Agriculture Juan Carlos Loyo to the head of the National Land Insitute (INTI). Loyo had stepped down from INTI earlier this year citing health reasons, but was reappointed last month by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The National Federation of Cattle Ranchers (Fedenaga) criticized the reappointment of Loyo, citing complaints from recent years when Loyo headed the organization.

“Mr. Loyo was the one responsible for the policy of taking over farms and productive lands,” said president of Fedenaga, Manuel Cipriano Heredia. “Now this same official is both Minister of Agriculture and head of the National Land Insitute.”

Cattle ranchers have stridently opposed the government’s land policies in recent years, assuring that they create insecurity for agricultural producers and worsen production.

“Government intervention of productive farms for political reasons has significantly decreased production,” said Heredia. “We have proof of farms that were at their maximum capacity and after being taken over have been destroyed.”

Loyo led a contentious takeover of 67 farms south of Lake Maracaibo in the state of Zulia in 2010. Landowners in this region have recently expressed concern that more lands will be taken over after squatters invaded two farms there.

Cattle ranchers claim that only 5 percent of the expropriations carried out by Loyo in recent years have been indemnified so far.

Yet despite the claims of government opponents, statistics indicate that agricultural production has expanded significantly in recent years, especially in dry grains. Cattle production, however, has seen slow growth.

Minister Loyo also announced that Venezuela will be using its recently launched satellite, Satellite Miranda, to monitor agricultural lands across the country. Satellite imagery will allow the government to oversee the use of around 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of agricultural land, and determine how land is being utilized.