Mérida, June 17th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan National Assembly passed a reform to the Land Law on Tuesday night which increases the ability of landless tenant farmers to obtain land and strengthens the state’s power to convert large, idle estates into food producers.
When the law was originally passed in 2001, it had the objective of eliminating large estates, or “latifundios” as they are called in Spanish, and redistributing the land to poor peasants. This week’s reform added a new objective: Eliminating the contracting or renting of land cultivation to third parties.
Latifundios and contracted agricultural labor are “contrary to justice, equality, public interest, and social peace in the countryside,” the law now says.
People or groups of people who have occupied or worked as tenants on privately owned lands for three years or more will be given special priority by the National Lands Institute (INTI) for the confiscation and transfer of the land to their name.
Communal Councils, peasant councils, and “any other type of collective organization,” are now included among the groups of people recognized as legitimate occupants of privately owned lands. These groups have the right to the “self-management and co-management” of their lands and to participate in “strategic, democratic, and participatory planning” of “integral and sustainable rural development.”
The law prohibits the eviction of farmers from the land they are occupying or working on as tenants at the time of the law’s passage. Farmers who occupy land after the law’s passage with the intention of cultivating the land and gaining title to it are also protected, unless INTI determines their occupation to be illegitimate or unjustified and evicts them.
The reform also changes the definition of a latifundio. While the original law defined a latifundio as any estate larger than 5,000 hectares (12,250 acres), the reformed law says a latifundio is a piece of land that is larger than the average in its region or is not producing at 80% of its productive capacity. This capacity is to be determined “in accordance with the plans and policies of the national executive, in the context of a regime that favors the common good and social function [of lands],” the law says.
The original law explicitly subjected private lands to the government’s policy of converting Venezuela from an oil-dependent food importer to a self-sufficient, diverse economy. But the reformed law goes even farther, establishing in Article 13 that the state will give special preference to “the peasants who have the willingness and aptitude for agricultural production in harmony with the plans and agrarian programs of the National Executive.”
Article 13 goes on to say the government’s land redistribution project is based on “the socialist principle according to which the land is for those who work on it.”
To put further pressure on large estate owners, the reformed law requires that proof of private land ownership be demonstrated by “a perfect sequence and linkage” among documents that must have been granted by state entities including the former National Agrarian Institute, government ministries, the military, or the Spanish Crown.
National Assembly Legislator Mario Isea told the press on Tuesday, “This law creates a legal platform for the state to re-order the use of land toward the agricultural vocation and thus be able to satisfy, in the medium and long term, the food needs of the Venezuelan population and not just a specific sector interested in enriching itself at the cost of environmental destruction and the exploitation of peasants.”
However, the violent reaction of opponents of the law – mainly the wealthy elite that traditionally controlled the country before the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998 – suggest the government may need more than a legal platform to succeed in its land reform efforts.
These opponents, claiming the law violates the right to private property that is protected by the National Constitution, launched a coup d’état against Chavez the year after the original law was passed.
Also, hired gunmen have assassinated an estimated 225 landless peasant leaders as they organized to occupy and gain title to sections of large estates since 2001. The estate owners are presumed to be behind the killings, but not one person has been convicted, due in part to the estate owners immense control over regional courts and military divisions.
The murders have driven several large peasant organizations, all of which are strong supporters of the Chavez government, to organize armed militias for self-defense, hold protests, and demand stronger action by the government to convict the killers and protect landless farmers who seek the benefits of the Land Law.
Article 15 of the National Constitution guarantees the right of individuals to own private property, but says the state shall place restrictions and obligations on that property “in the service of the public or general interest.”
Article 15 also guarantees “fair compensation” to all expropriated property, a provision with which the Chavez government complied as it confiscated 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of land from private owners between 2001 and 2009. The land has been either turned over to small farmers or used for state farms and research laboratories.