[Hpn] Squatters, ranchers face off

William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Tue, 18 Jan 2005 07:51:51 -0500


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 Squatters, ranchers face off
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 By Christopher Toothaker
The Associated Press

 January 18, 2005

 EL CHARCOTE, Venezuela * Hundreds of squatters have moved onto this vast
cattle ranch and planted crops in hopes the land will one day be declared
their own, putting them sharply at odds with the British-owned company that
claims rightful ownership.

 The long-running dispute -- like many others across Venezuela -- is
reaching a critical point as the government promises swift action on a
sweeping plan to give "idle" land to poor farmers.

 Most of the estimated 600 squatters farming plots on El Charcote Ranch
arrived in the four years since President Hugo Chavez signed a law clearing
the way for agrarian reform.

 "I trust Chavez and believe he wants the best for us, but we are
struggling, working land that may not belong to us in the end," said
Santiago Arzola, 40, who farms watermelon, beans and sweet peppers to
sustain a family of five.

 A 1998 census found that 60 percent of Venezuela's farmland was owned by
less than 1 percent of the population. The survey said 90 percent of
farmland given to the poor under a 1960 agrarian reform had since returned
to the hands of large landholders.

 Squatters and ranchers are closely watching what the government says are
imminent plans to "intervene" at El Charcote in one of the first major
re-evaluations of private farmland in recent years.

 Government assessors arrive Saturday at the ranch. Some are expected to
survey the land by helicopter while others negotiate with representatives of
the owner, Agropecuaria Flora C.A. -- a subsidiary of the British-owned
Vestey Group Ltd. and a major beef producer.

 "We don't know what will happen when they come," Miguel Espana, a
54-year-old ranch manager, said with a nervous laugh. "We try our best to
coexist with the squatters while authorities decide what they are going to
do with the ranch."

 But coexistence has been marked by tension.

 The squatters "cut barbed-wire fences, burn the grasses cattle feed on ...
and occasionally steal them," said Espana, who has worked at the ranch for
28 years.

 He said the 32,000-acre ranch, 125 miles southwest of Caracas, boasted
11,000 cattle four years ago. Now there are fewer than 5,000, and the work
force has been reduced from about 50 to 30.

 "Uncertainty reigns here," Espana said. "I know one thing for sure: this
ranch will never be what it once was."

 Zinc-roofed shacks made of dried mud, timber and bamboo stalks now overlook
meadows where cattle graze. Poor farmers have put up their own barbed wire
to keep herds from trampling corn, eggplant, plantains, squash and melon.

 The Land Law of 2001 allows the state to expropriate and grant to the poor
"idle" farmlands that are not put to adequate use, or properties that owners
are unable to show they obtained legally.

 El Charcote's owners insist they can prove rightful ownership dating to
1830 and that the ranch is not "idle" but has simply been invaded by
squatters.

 Government officials, however, say property titles were obtained illegally
and much of the property really belongs to the state.

 Officials say land reform should not immediately involve "expropriation,"
but rather dialogue with landowners and careful study. They also say the
poor have been waiting long enough, and that change should help prevent
violence.

 "We have to recognize that we have not given a fast and timely answer to
these poor farmers," said Luis Silva, regional director of Venezuela's
Agriculture and Land Ministry. "We have a social debt with them."



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