This year the Venezuelan government plans to continue its pace of land expropriations in order to move towards what it terms “agrarian socialism”.
According to the 2014 national budget, the government’s National Land Institute (INTI) aims to expropriate 350,000 hectares of land this year.
This compares with the goals of 350,000 and 397,000 hectares of land to be expropriated in 2012 and 2013 respectively, after 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 would currently be over 4 million hectares. Private Venezuelan newspaper El Universal meanwhile claims that since 1998 the Bolivarian 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 under which in 1998 just 0.4% of landowners held over 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 construct a model of “agrarian socialism” where the latifundio model is eliminated and agricultural productivity is increased 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.
“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,” said INTI president William Gudiño at an agricultural conference in December.
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 around some land occupations as large landowners have resisted takeovers by local campesinos (rural workers), sometimes claiming that the INTI has not correctly compensated them for lands expropriated.
Certain landowners have also been accused of hiring assassins to murder campesino leaders and prevent land occupations. Rights groups estimate that over 310 campesinos have been killed in such conflicts and argue 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 an increase 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 both hectares under production and total tonnes produced of tomatoes, peppers, onions and carrots since 2005.
Land occupation in Apure state
The latest land occupation facilitated by the National Land Institute (INTI) is underway in the south-western state of Apure. Last weekend one hundred campesino families peacefully began the occupation of the “Hato El Porvenir” estate, formerly held by a large landowning family which appropriated the area in the 1920s.
Former president Hugo Chavez first promised the land to campesinos organised in local communal councils in December 2011, however it wasn’t until August 2013 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.
National campesino congress
Rural movements in Venezuela are also planning for the first National Campesino Congress in May this year.
On Friday 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 with campesino groups on 1 February.