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New land law sparks debate
Andrés Cañizález
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The challenge for the government is to ensure that the new agrarian reform is effective.

President Hugo Chávez has made the new Land and Agrarian Development Law the banner of his administration, drawing sharp criticism from the business sector, livestock farmers and agro-industry.

Chávez signed the law on Nov. 12, one year after he had been granted special legislative powers, which he used to pass four dozen laws. It went into effect on Dec. 10, coinciding with protests launched by Fedecámaras, the country’s largest business organization, which called an unprecedented national strike to press for a review of a series of laws that the group claimed the government had imposed without consultation.

While Chávez, who has been in office since February 1999 (LP, March 15, 1999), has frequently spoken out in favor of Venezuela’s campesinos and agrarian reform, the administration’s official actions have not been consistent with his words.

In October 1999, the president reduced the rank of the Ministry of Agriculture, making it part of the Ministry of Production and Commerce. Two years later, he announced that it would be reactivated "to give greater importance to agricultural development." In January, he made the agency a ministry again.

In mid-2000, the government closed the state-run National Agrarian Institute and created the National Land Institute, which officials said would be more in tune with the times. More than a year passed, however, before the new agency opened for business. On Jan. 6, Chávez named his brother, Adán Chávez, who had been his personal secretary, to head the institute.

In 2000, Chávez was granted special power to implement a land law, but he did not take advantage of the opportunity. He received such powers again last year and finally signed the measure into law on the last day the powers were in effect.

The country’s last agrarian reform law, which took effect in 1961, left a legacy of failure. It neither resulted in equitable distribution of land nor led to policies of sustainable agricultural development that would ensure campesinos a decent livelihood.

According to official figures, the government distributed 11.5 million hectares to 230,000 families between 1961 and 1998, the date of the last agricultural census.

According to the non-governmental Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action (PROVEA), however, much of the land distributed in the past four decades ended up in the hands of producers who owned between 50 and 1,000 hectares. As a result, while this producers held 23 percent of the country’s farmland before the agrarian reform, the figure had risen to 42 percent by the end of the century. Small farmers, who were supposed to benefit from the law, held 4.9 percent of the land before the reform and only 5.9 percent after it was implemented.

"The agrarian reform process implemented as of 1961 transferred enormous quantities of land to people who should not have benefited," PROVEA said in its 2000-2001 annual report.

The new law is meant to address the legacy of decades of inequitable land distribution. According to a study by the Central University of Venezuela, 70 percent of Venezuelan land is in the hands of only 3 percent of farm producers. Only 4 percent of the arable land is under cultivation, while 30 million hectares lie idle.

Only 12 percent of Venezuela’s 24 million people live in the countryside. A high rate of migration from rural to urban areas is linked to lack of opportunity and increased poverty in the countryside, as well as the importance that petroleum production has had in the country’s economy since the 1930s.

According to the Central University of Venezuela, there is an average of 1.3 doctors for every 1,000 people in rural Venezuela. More than 35 percent of rural Venezuelans are illiterate, just over 35 percent of the houses have water service and only 40 percent of households have sewer service.

Inequitable distribution of land, which is rooted in the colonial era, has been aggravated by the lack of government commitment to land reform, as well as the failure of campesino organizations to represent their members’ interests.

Many poor rural families who received land through reform efforts were later forced to sell or rent their property to wealthier landowners because they lacked access to loans and advice about crops and economically sustainable farming techniques.

According to Marino Alvarado, a lawyer and human rights activist, the new agrarian reform law puts some restrictions on large landholdings while attempting to encourage agricultural development linked to national food security. Alvarado disagrees with critics who say the new measure is too rigid.

"It ends up giving landowners the right to holdings of more than 5,000 hectares, as long as they are under cultivation and the production is linked to the government’s food plan. The law is meant to provide land to farmers who either have no land or have small, unproductive holdings," he said.

The new law requires property owners to put fallow land into production and calls for production of crops necessary for food security. It also allows for expropriation of land through a legal process in cases of "public interest."

This has prompted criticism from landowners and agro-business interests, as the law does not include clear criteria for indemnity in cases of expropriation. Nor does it establish payments for people who have farmed land to which they do not have official title or invested in production or buildings. This could affect not only large landowners, but also small farmers.



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