Some thrive, others sink on land "rescued" by Chavez

* Loans, organization and machinery help some farmers

* Others struggle with sodden land, bureaucracy

* British Vestey family to leave Venezuela after century

By Frank Jack Daniel

EL CHARCOTE, Venezuela, Oct 20 (BestGrowthStock) – With red
harvesters shearing rice and tall corn across the vast farm it
should be a happy day in this young community, but Idelmaro
Ceteno looks decidedly grumpy as the machines circle his land.

Ceteno, 61, is one of nearly a thousand farmers given land
five years ago by the government of President Hugo Chavez on
the El Charcote farm, a vast cattle ranch that until then
belonged to one of Britain’s wealthiest families, the Vesteys.

He has about 60 acres (24 hectares) of prime land and
access to cheap government loans to plant two harvests a year.
State enterprises rent him farm machinery and sell him seeds,
fertilizer and insecticide, all at low prices.

But he says yields could be 50 percent higher if El
Charcote — which means “big puddle” in Spanish — were drained
and if loans arrived soon enough to plant at the right time.

“I have a harvest, sure, but ideally we’d be producing
more, looking for higher yields for sustainable agriculture,”
Ceteno said, wearing a red shirt and cap in support of Chavez’s
socialist party. “We recovered this land to grow on it.”

El Charcote became a symbol of Chavez’s socialist
revolution when he sent soldiers to seize it in a 2005 push to
break up major ranches and repopulate rural areas largely
abandoned since Venezuela’s oil industry took off in the
1920s.

The government recently bought the last 500,000 acres
(200,000 hectares) of Vestey land and 130,000 cattle, part of a
new drive by Chavez to increase state control of food in South
America’s top oil producer.

In the last five years, the state has expropriated and
redistributed millions of acres of land deemed unproductive or
without proper titles.

Chavez says the policies are boosting food production and
easing rural poverty but critics say they have been a major
failure.

The huge Vestey land-holdings were always going to be a
target for the pugnacious son of poor teachers looking to
bolster his standing as a nationalist and socialist.

El Charcote has met some of Chavez’s goals. The economy in
Las Vegas, a town next door to the farm, has been revitalized
by the influx of peasant families with government funds and
produce to sell. But it also symbolizes government missteps.

Much of the land is on a sodden flood plain. Only farmers
on high ground can plant, and only well organized groups of
peasants have won programs teaching them to grow rice and to
build roads to their new hamlets. Others languish in squalor.

Several thousand acres at El Charcote are now planted with
rice and corn, and harvesters fanned out last week to bring in
the crops. The former ranch house has been converted into a
busy village school, teaching about 150 children of the peasant
families who live in mud-floored adobe and tin shacks.

“We’ve done well here, we’re working and producing,” said
Carlos Rojas, resting with his brother, several chickens and a
pig in the shade of a bamboo stand, preparing to harvest 60
acres of rice.

BAD PLANNING

But many of the farmers who came to El Charcote from across
Venezuela hoping to grow arable crops have not fared so well,
finding their entire harvest wiped out every year by flooding.
Critics of Chavez’s drive to break up big ranches say most of
them are in swampy plains only suitable for raising beef.

“I lost one loan because this land flooded. The second
credit the same, that was beans. This patch is not for
planting, it’s for cattle,” said El Charcote farmer Angela
Epinayu, 44, whose tin shack is adorned with a poster of
Chavez, who was born in a similar dirt-floored rural house.
Tall weeds surround her hut and cover the unplanted acres.

Lord Sam Vestey, chairman of the Vestey Group, is a friend
of Britain’s Prince Charles and rides behind the Queen in
parades as her Master of the Horse. His company has owned land
in Venezuela since 1903, but has been forced out by the latest
Chavez purchases.

While the government has channeled more funds to
agriculture than its predecessors, the land redistribution
drive has failed in making Venezuela self sufficient and it is
now more than ever reliant on imported food.

Official statistics say food production is up 25 percent in
the last decade — numbers that are disputed by some farmers’
groups. Any rise in output has not met the increase in demand
following Chavez’s programs to put more food on poor plates.

The government paid $4.2 million for the 32,000 acre
(13,000 hectare) El Charcote ranch and will likely give Vestey
considerably more for the remaining ranches.

Like many El Charcote farmers whose wet land is better
suited to ranching, Epinayu is waiting for government help to
buy cattle and equipment. El Charcote’s ditches and rivers are
silted up and the government should drag them so that rain
water flushes away, farmers here say.

“This is not working as it should be,” said Clavier Tovar,
32, his feet planted in a trailer filling with 17 tonnes of
white corn freshly harvested from his plot with a government
combine. “Only this area has been planted, the rest is idle
land. If this were used properly it would be so beautiful.”

El Charcote, divided into lots that average 30 acres, also
has success stories, of farmers who have pulled themselves up
by the boot straps and pushed the government to build them
roads and power lines. They have dug wells, planted rice on
soggy ground and corn on dryer land.

Luis Marin, 51, works with his brother and son-in-law,
flicking fertilizer from sacks into a field of rice for one of
the many cooperatives at El Charcote. He has a broad grin on
his face after he splashes down with water after a hot
morning’s work.

“We’re happy, we’ve got everything. We dug wells, and
electricity recently arrived in our sector,” he said. “We’ve
received credits to grow corn in the rainy season, now we’ll
grow sorghum with a credit for the dry months.”
(Edited by Kieran Murray)

Some thrive, others sink on land "rescued" by Chavez