Venezuela Defends Disputed Land Seizures
CARACAS — Venezuela Tuesday defended a plan to seize land from four private farms, including a UK-owned ranch and an eco-tourism reserve, after critics warned the move was illegal and would undermine investor confidence.
The government said this week it would confiscate parts of the four farms under left-winger President Hugo Chavez's agrarian reforms to redistribute rural land to the poor.
Chavez's aggressive campaign to enforce a 2001 land law allowing the state to expropriate idle farmland and confusion surrounding its application have stirred fears about illegal land grabs in oil-rich Venezuela.
"We have all the evidence and elements that we need to take the decisions that we have taken," National Land Institute director Eliezer Otaiza told a news conference. "Private property will be guaranteed."
But critics condemned the move as a politically motivated and illegal confiscation of property. "The Constitution foresees confiscation only in the case of drug traffickers or those who plundered the state treasury, not for farmers," Jose Manuel Gonzalez, president of the Fedeagro farmers' federation, said.
The authorities said El Charcote ranch owned by British meat producer Vestey and Hato Pinero eco-tourism farm had failed to show adequate ownership papers. Part of their land will pass to the state, but the farms have 60 days to appeal.
The land law is one of the most contested reforms introduced by Chavez after he was first elected six years ago promising to fight poverty. He later survived a coup and a national strike by opponents who accused him of imposing Cuba-style communism.
By law, the government can take back land if owners cannot provide required ownership titles and can expropriate private land judged not to be in proper production.
El Charcote and Hato Pinero in Cojedes state were among the first farms investigated at the start of this year after Chavez demanded authorities identify unused land for redistribution for rural cooperatives.
But local and national authorities have provided mixed messages. Cojedes officials recently said they planned to expropriate part of El Charcote, but the land institute later said the seizure was just to "rescue" public land at the farm.
Farming associations are also concerned that the ranches affected say they have not received formal notification of the government seizures.
El Charcote, operated by Vestey representative Agroflora, has said it has provided all legal documents. But the company says the farm has been overrun by pro-Chavez squatters who have slashed its meat production.
Nearby Hato Pinero has been recognized by local and foreign observers as a wildlife sanctuary and one of the country's most successful eco-tourism reserves.