Property tug of war hits Venezuela

The owners of Hato Piñero, a 200,000-acre nature reserve, are in a land dispute with the government.

Jaime Branger's great-great-grandfather was the first in his family to reach the shores of Venezuela. It was the end of the 19th century, and he had set off from Corsica to Panama to partake in building the canal - but got sidetracked and ended up here. He married a local woman, saved pennies working as a mapmaker, and soon began buying plots of land: a few acres here, a small farm there.

In time, the acres added up, and when, in 1950, "Don" Antonio Julio, Branger's great-uncle, inherited several of the family holdings, he became one of the biggest landowners in the country. He created a successful cattle ranch with 11,000 cows, along with a private nature reserve that has become a mecca for bird-watchers from around the world.

Now the government wants to take it all away.

"He loved this place," says Jaime, the Don's strapping nephew, who today oversees the family's 200,000-acre cattle farm, called Hato Piñero. "He would be heartbroken now."

If President Hugo Chávez has his way, Hato Piñero (, along with other large private land holdings across the country, will soon be parceled out as part of Venezuela's "revolution for the poor." Mr. Chávez's land-reform program envisions impoverished peasants and families from city slums coming to the countryside to farm expropriated land the government has deemed underutilized.

The plan, depending on one's perspective, makes Chávez either Robert Mugabe - the Zimbabwean leader who took land from wealthy farmers and gave it to the poor, only to see the country's agricultural sector and economy take a nosedive - or Abraham Lincoln, who through the 1862 Homestead Act turned the dream of property ownership into a reality for the masses.

Either way, says Steve Ellner, a professor of politics at Venezuela's University of the East, "What is clear is the old system needs changing. But whether this is a viable new model is unclear."

Much land in few hands

In this oil-rich country of 25 million, just 3 million people live in rural areas, and most food - including staples like beans, corn, milk, sugar, beef, and chicken - is imported. The government says 97 percent of rural land is owned by just 10 percent of the population.

When Chávez's land-reform bill was passed in November 2001, it helped trigger massive protests by opposition groups, paralyzing the country that winter. The issue then died down, as the government began redistributing its own massive land holdings first. All told, 5.4 million acres - of some 27 million acres - of unused government land was handed out to 135,000 poor families.

Then last January, private landowners were told their land was next. Letters were sent to medium and large landowners demanding property titles be produced dating back to 1848 (the year private land holdings were first registered). Inspectors from the National Land Institute (INTI) fanned out across the country to "investigate" what the lands were being used for and by whom.

At Hato Piñero, two-dozen men showed up with maps and GPS devices and stayed for a month: measuring, surveying, eating, and sleeping at the ranch. Meanwhile, Mr. Branger put together a seven-person team of lawyers and historians to prove his family's ties to the ranch. So far, his team has handed over transfer-of-ownership documents dating back to 1884, but have not been able to get earlier records certified because they are in the National Archive where there is one lone transcriber.

In mid-March, INTI made its assessment: Five ranches, including Piñero and nearby Charcote - one of Venezuela's top beef-producing ranches, owned by Vestey Group, a British food company - were to be redistributed. The lands were deemed public property and "mostly unproductive," according to the INTI statement. The owners had two months to respond before action was taken.

"We believe that the land agency has been badly advised," Diana Dos Santos, president of the Vestey subsidiary here, said at a press conference last month.

Days before the May deadline, Branger and others appealed INTI's decision in the courts, temporarily slowing down any action against them. "At the end of the day, the government can do whatever they want to us and our land," admits Branger, "but we will not give them any excuse to catch us [napping]." The Vestey Group, meanwhile, may take the case to international arbitration under a Venezuela-British investment-protection agreement.

In Hato Piñero's case, there is an additional element at play. As Branger explains, 75 percent of the land is gallery forests and flood plains that cannot be used for ranching and are maintained as a reserve. Nature lovers from around the world come here, paying $100 a night, to catch a glimpse of tapirs, yellow-knobbed curassows, and jaguars. Branger and other environmentalists are concerned that a government takeover of the land would lead to the depredation of areas in need of protection.

Chávez supporters argue, in turn, that the Brangers are using their conservation efforts as a ruse to protect privilege rather than the ecosystem. "No private owner can manage the biological and forest reserves for their own benefit, exploiting as a tourist business this resource that belongs to the whole country," INTI President Eliécer Otaiza said last month. "This land belongs to all of us."

The Abraham Lincoln of Venezuela?

Unlike other, unsuccessful, land-reform programs in the 1970s, the Venezuelan government this time is promising to form cooperatives, instruct the new farmers, and forbid resale of the land. Initially, at least, the government will be the legal owner of the land. Because of this, says Seth DeLong of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, the proper historical parallel with what Chávez is doing is Lincoln during the Civil War.

"As with the Homestead Act, the Chávez government retains ownership of the land until such time as the land is deemed productive by the country's Land Institute," he says.

Far away from Hato Piñero, in Caracas's poor Pinto Salina neighborhood, Manuel Romero has heard about the government offer of land to the poor. Though he is not sure exactly how or what he would farm, he is vaguely interested, he says, in "anything that will bring in more money." He currently makes about $80 a month - more than most Venzeualans, 60 percent of whom live on $2 a day or less, according to government statistics.

His eldest daughter, Nuri, laughs at the idea. "What us? Ranchers?" she teases. "Perhaps Chávez can work such magic."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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