Ecologists oppose government land reforms of the Hato Piñero, dedicated to cattle ranching and rich in plant and animal life.
Credit: Hato Piñero
Agrarian Reform Reaches the Forest Edge
By Yensi Rivero
The land intervention policy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could hurt nature preserves that are that are rich in biological resources, warn environmentalists.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- The Venezuelan agrarian reform initiative of President Hugo Chávez has a ''green'' Achilles heel. What on the one had seeks to foment social justice and food production, on the other could hurt virgin forests that are home to species in danger of extinction.
Since December, the regional authorities, encouraged by presidential decrees to attend to the land demands of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers, have ''intervened'' with military backing in dozens of large rural estates that hold forests and savannah floodplains. The aim, they say, is to verify who own the lands and what they are being used for.
In the past few years, the government has distributed around two million hectares to 135,000 families, but there are still another 400,000 families waiting for a plot of land to farm, agrarian leader Braulio Álvarez told Tierramérica.
On the environmental front, however, the alarms are sounding. ''We are not against ensuring land for farmers, but we ask that the lands that are home to a great diversity of species be respected,'' says Marieta Hernández, activist with the non-governmental Audubon Society of Venezuela, a partner of BirdLife International.
''We are worried that they are destroying virgin forests that could never be recuperated,'' she told Tierramérica.
The intervention decrees, which aim to speed up reform of the 2001 Lands Act, affect ''urban, rural or farmable lands, public or private, that are idle or encompassed in a latifundio (large estate of thousands of hectares), or in ownership disputes, and with distribution problems."
''The intention is not to expropriate lands, but rather to assess the conditions of some properties in order to reactivate their productivity and foment endogenous development and agro-food security,'' said José Gregorio Briceño, governor of the eastern state of Monagas, one of the 21 regional leaders (out of 25) who support Chávez.
''The problem is that 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,'' said the head of the governmental Lands Institute (INTI), Eliécer Otaiz, a close adviser to the president.
A typical case is the Hato Piñero, 80,000 hectares in the central state of Cojedes. Part of it is pastureland for 12,000 head of cattle, but most is floodplain savannah or riverside forests, along the tributaries of the Orinoco River.
Hato Piñero is home to all the animal species of the Orinoco plains and has won fame as birdwatching site to catch a glimpse of the endangered yellow-knobbed curassow (Crax daubentoni), and as an ecotourism destination for visitors from Venezuela and abroad.
"An intervention in the Hato would affect biodiversity, because within its boundaries one finds 27 percent of the bird species in this country as well as wildcats like the jaguar (Panthera onca), puma (Puma concolor) and the tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus); and its list of flora has 2,025 types of plants," Edgar Useche, executive director of the Hato Piñero Foundation, said in a Tierramérica interview.
Furthermore, ''we are the second leading employer in Cojedes, after the state, and a significant portion of the population who work in ecotourism or with the livestock would be left without jobs," he said.
The decrees allow production by the 'hatos' (cattle ranches) to continue during the period of ''intervention'', a term that has not been explained sufficiently but which implies a review of the land titles and verification of whether they are being used efficiently.
The government is not only looking for more land to distribute to small farmers, but is also compelling landowners to develop productive plans for their properties. In the case of untouched natural areas, intervention might lead to the government taking the management reins.
In defense of the official approach, Álvarez, agrarian leader, said, ''many of the environmental crimes have been committed by rural businessmen. It was a crime to appropriate huge extensions of land, for private ends, and also leave so many people without the possibility for work.''
INTI's Otaiza agrees. ''Many big landowners have damaged the land, cut down trees, and sold the lumber, which is a public good. Because of their individual actions, much of the forest has disappeared."
However, environmental groups believe there are cases of successful environmental management by individuals and that, in any case, not all lands are productive from the traditional economic point of view.
''If an individual manages the land well, intervention of the ranch should not be permitted,'' said Audubon's Hernández, especially when ''there are many national parks under government management that are totally neglected.''
The ecologist group Vitalis said in a statement, ''Not all lands can be occupied'' and that to ensure sustainable development ''we must conserve water sources, which we need to survive, as well as all other natural resources.''
An official with the Ministry of Environment, who requested anonymity, said what is needed is ''an integrated management plan so that nobody has to lose anything.'' The source admitted, however, that ''sometimes, in putting land into production, it is a serious blow against biodiversity.''
As a first step, experts suggest conducting a detailed inventory of the properties that hold reserves of flora and fauna.
Without these lists in hand, ''occasionally the environmental argument is used to justify land ownership,'' said Jorge Hinestroza, professor at the University of Zulia, in northwest Venezuela.
* Yensi Rivero is a Tierramérica contributor.