Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, on Monday ordered a nationwide revision of land titles in an attempt to regulate an expanding but thus far chaotic programme of land redistribution.
Since coming to power six years ago, Mr Chávez has promised to carry out an agrarian reform as part of his self-styled “revolution”. Yet in spite of a surge of land invasions, an official plan is only now being developed.
According to an official census, 60 per cent of agricultural land is owned by just 1 per cent of the population. Ranchers say that large estates are far more productive than small holdings, which Mr Chávez is seeking to foster.
“Any self-respecting revolution cannot permit such a situation,” Mr Chávez said on Sunday. “That's a sign of feudalism.”
The government's first target was seized at the weekend, with the official “takeover” of El Charcote, a 32,000-acre cattle ranch belonging to Lord Vestey, an English meat tycoon.
Lord Vestey's properties in Venezuela, including several other estates, form the country's biggest meat producer.
Under orders from the pro-Chávez governor of the province of Cojedes, 200km west of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, about 200 troops accompanied a commission tasked, in theory, with evaluating the estate's productivity. Rafael Alemán, head of the commission in the Cojedes province, said it would determine within 90 days which areas of the estate were genuinely productive.
“Landowners have nothing to fear if it's their property and it's productive,” said Mr Alemán, sporting a T-shirt with an image of Che Guevara, Latin America's revolutionary icon.
If the land is deemed idle, or if the property titles are found to be invalid, the state may confiscate and redistribute the land. The chances that the commission will find El Charcote productive appear to be low. Lord Vestey says his family bought the property in 1903. According to Diana Dos Santos, administrator of the Vestey cattle ranch, illegal squatters have occupied as much as 90 per cent of the estate.
In recent weeks, several other pro-Chávez provincial governors have begun moves towards taking over estates. Dozens of estates across Venezuela are expected to be “intervened” in the coming weeks.
Although a land reform law exists, no rules regulate the process, a situation that Monday's decree by Mr Chávez is supposed to tackle.
So far, the process has been chaotic. In Cojedes province, two rival peasant-group factions, some aligned with the local governor and others opposing him, are at odds in their hunger for land.
“I'm hoping to get a plotof land from the government before someone else getsit,” said Baldemar González, a local peasant. “The English company has no right to be here.”
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