Seizing land, seeding chaos in Venezuela

Food sovereignty is not a new concept. It originally appeared at the 1996 World Food Summit by La Vía Campesina. The idea was that a nation should gain control over its own food production to reduce dependency on foreign capital, imports and technology.   By 2008, in the wave of leftist governments that came to power in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, the term took on a new meaning.

In its new, leftist rebirth, food sovereignty was defined as a country’s capacity to balance the inherent discriminatory effects of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 1995 Agreement on Agriculture (AoA).  The agreement allowed countries and markets, like the U.S. and the EU, to maintain agricultural and food subsidies and other measures that place developing country agricultural producers at a disadvantage, not just in those markets but also in their own domestic markets.

Within the vagueness of the original concept of food sovereignty, the new claimants to the term injected new meaning. Venezuela carved its own path with the Via Campesina movement. The Bolivarian agricultural model of the food sovereignty established “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural system.” It was presented as a complete package solution that would reduce rural poverty, consolidate fragmented markets, and better integrate food production chains and market, not only in Venezuela but globally. In this effort, the government devolved control from the national to the local level or from the state to the “people” in a process of revolutionizing food production.

In the name of food sovereignty, Venezuela became the first Latin American country to implement structural changes in land access to address public needs. Notions of “entitlements” and “redistribution” of land ownership were promptly recognized within the socialist platform. Under the concept of “endogenous development” (or locally generated development), community-state ties were redefined and expected to evolve into a more locally oriented vision of food production. Based on participatory production, the government invested Venezuelan oil wealth to integrate the marginalized sectors of society into the “social economy.”

Domestic companies were asked to prioritize social needs, de-emphasize capital accumulation, and enhance working conditions via non-exploitative labor relations. However, the state-sponsored agrarian assistance proved to be self-serving, marred by corruption, and stymied by a short lifespan. Based on invasions of private lands and on a generous injection state-sponsored subsidies and credits—that were never really expected to be repaid—agrarian cooperatives and social production became the central focus of production. But these new social companies didn’t have many requirements or conditions to fulfill. Any person willing to form a joint cooperative, move to a rural region, and ask for funding—by highlighting the importance of agricultural development for that specific community—could get funding for his or her project. In return, the only obligation the government demanded was for the recipient to reinvest at least 10% of the profit in the communities’ urgent needs. One of those urgent needs quickly became the elderly. As as a result, elderly women soon assumed the role of spokespersons between the government and the community and became deeply engaged in the cooperatives.

When ¡Exprópiese! became trendy

Over time, the Venezuelan government’s expropriation agenda came to drive food production and the food industry. According to Article 302 of the 1999 Constitution, the state is permitted, “for reasons of national convenience,” to have complete control of all oil and hydrocarbon activity and other private assets of public interest. Conditions worsened with a 2001 land law that permitted the expropriation of large tracts of lands or latifundia. Targeted latifundia were defined ashigh quality idle agricultural land over 100 hectares” or lower quality idle agricultural land over 5,000 hectares. Ten years later the government opportunistically changed the meaning of latifundia as “a piece of land larger than the average in its region or land not producing at 80% of its productive capacity.”

Redefining latifundia had sweeping consequences in centralizing state power, regulating production in private farms and limiting the size of individual landholdings to redistribute unused lands to peasant families. On a whim, but with the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by the law, Chávez could demand a private cattle ranch to abandon its lands, stop producing meat, and instead install a sponsored cooperative to produce sorghum. The justification for these measures was in Chavez’s self-declared war on social inequality in which, before his election, 75% of Venezuela’s rural poor population possessed only 6% of land, while the top 5% possessed 75% of the estates.

Chávez’s denunciation of food producers and retailers became common as did the violation of property rights of small and large landowners as the government seized assets. In a specific case, the government demanded that the British Vestey Group, a meat producer in the region for over five decades, shift its production to cultivating sorghum. The Vestey Group took the case to court to demand $100 million in compensation against the Venezuelan government that had violated its 50-year landholding.

Despite the confiscation of 139 farms, by 2005 the government’s aggressive efforts at land redistribution had failed to produce much change; 50% of agricultural land was still owned by the latifundistas, who made up only 5% of the rural population.

Eventually the compensation of expropriated land entered a legal limbo. Under the slogan ¡Exprópiese! Chávez openly encouraged landless Venezuelans to invade large estates even before the legality of the expropriation law had been approved, further undermining private property rights in Venezuela.The measure also gave an implicit license for people to invade or seize supplies from alleged hoarders, release them to the market, and lower the prices. The extra-legality and arbitrary conditions in which lands were seized and transferred created chaos in commercial farming and ranching sectors.

There was also the problem of compensation of confiscated property. Although the government promised to compensate private owners at market rates in the local currency, former owners expected payment in U.S. dollars and had no interest in receiving devalued bolivars or government bonds—whose value declined as inflation rose. Over time the movement of uncompensated, arbitrary expropriation expanded.   The government determined that the state was not obliged to pay for the investments made in the expropriated land by its former landowners. And realizing that they would not be sanctioned, cooperative associations and chavistas started seizing even non-idle land. Finally, in 2010, the Supreme Court even granted immunity to landless Venezuelans that invaded private farms under the argument that those properties were now property of the state.

By 2008, the National Land Institute reported that 4,380,147 hectares of land were “recovered” from large landowner and “re-distributed” to 101,594 families and cooperative-owned farms. By 2010, the government declared seizure of 5.5 to 7.5 million hectares of farmland (out of 27 million acres accounted for cultivation) or, the equivalent of 20% of Venezuela’s total productive farmland, though the redistribution of land to small farmers never resulted in the increase in food production or its supply.

Far from increasing the amount of food available, the nationalization of the food industry deteriorated food access. The reasons were multiple and ranged from the ill-planned business model, to gross incompetence of state personnel, to the lack of investment in infrastructure. According to official estimates—and despite the massive injection of petrodollars into the agricultural sector—real growth in agricultural productivity decreased by -1,7% from 1998 to 2011. While the state Popular Ministry of Agriculture and Land reported having increased the production of maize (6.1%), black beans (7.2%), onions (4.3%), melon (3.0%), palm oil (2.2%), and potatoes (2.7%), the National Confederacy of Agriculture and Livestock Associations (FEDEAGRO) released far less optimistic figures showing evidence that agricultural productivity dropped from 2007 to 2011 including maize by -40.3%, rice by -38.9%, sorghum by -82.6%, sugar cane by -33.6%, coffee by -46.5%, potatoes by -63.5%, tomatoes by -31.0%, and onions by -24.6 percent. FEDEAGRO also reported that the farming recession worsened after 2011 due to the increase of imports of agricultural products, the reduction of profitability because of prices controls and the state’s intervention of private lands. The report directly blamed the failures of the state-led Agropatria mission for agricultural development.

As local food production declined, no one—not even the incumbent President Maduro—attempted to revive it. The harvesting of miles’ worth of empty, fertile land now seems untenable due to the lack of infrastructure, machinery and personnel training.   The result has been massive food shortages across the country. Even if Chávez fulfilled a short-term nutritional goal to redistribute food from middle class detractors to poor supporters—a generous conclusion—the breaking up of production units and food market has exacerbated long-term food security for all the people of Venezuela.

Andreina Aveledo, Venezuelan, graduated from the University of Bern, Switzerland and worked as a researcher for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). She is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology. Her research interests are food security, food sovereignty, political economy and the politics of control.  You can follow her @AndreinaAveledo