UK Company Defends Land Rights in Venezuela Reform
CARACAS, Venezuela Representatives of Britain's Vestey Group, whose large Venezuelan cattle ranch is targeted in a government land reform drive, Wednesday rejected charges that it left land idle and illegally held public property.
In its first response to government plans to inspect its El Charcote farm as part of a program to redistribute land to the poor, a Vestey subsidiary said it owned the property and complained its ranch had been overrun by squatters.
Venezuelan authorities plan to send troops and police Saturday to carry out a survey of the 32,000-acre El Charcote farm as part of left-wing President Hugo Chavez's campaign for agrarian reform.
Agroflora, the Vestey subsidiary that operates El Charcote in central Cojedes state, said it would welcome the measure to prove it owned the land and to show that pro-Chavez squatters had taken over parts of its property.
"We will accept this intervention process, providing it is legal, in order to show the land is not idle and to show El Charcote farm has been illegally invaded," the company said in a statement printed in a national newspaper.
"El Charcote farm is private property in accordance with Venezuelan law," it added.
Vestey, a privately owned British company, has extensive cattle ranching operations in Latin America.
Chavez's rural reform project has stirred fears of possible expropriation of private estates in the world's No. 5 oil exporter, which had been rocked by conflict over the populist leader's rule until he won an August referendum.
Under the 2001 land reform law, the government can take over plots judged unproductive or idle and redistribute them. The law says landowners must be compensated, but farmers fear the reforms are threatening property rights and investment.
El Charcote was one of several private estates named in recent government decrees calling for state intervention in idle land. Authorities say the farm is using at least 8,650 acres of state land and is not in proper production.
Agroflora, one of the country's largest beef producers, says 80 percent of its land is taken by squatters. It said on Wednesday it had property titles dating back to 1830 that had already been accepted as legal by Venezuelan authorities.
The British government has urged Venezuela to resolve the invasion disputes at the farm.
Elected in 1998, Chavez has vowed to use the nation's oil wealth to finance social programs to reverse years of inequality. He says millions of acres of land are idle. But critics say his policies are slowly edging Venezuela toward a Cuba-style communist state.