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Huge chavez moves on land reform { April 3 2005 }

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Conservation threat seen in Venezuela
Reserve lands to be turned over to farmers
By Brian Ellsworth, Globe Correspondent | April 3, 2005

HATO PIÑERO, Venezuela -- For more than 50 years, this conservation and ecotourism center on the plains of central Venezuela has worked to preserve the region's unique wildlife.

Tourists come from around the world to marvel at the furry capybara, the world's largest rodent; at tapirs, hooved mammals that bring to mind a cross between a pig and an anteater; and at such endangered species as jaguars, with their grace and their telltale leopard-like spots.

While the Hato Piñero reserve has gained support among conservation biologists around the world, they say its efforts face a threat on the home front: A land reform campaign has pledged to break up large landholdings, and to redistribute the property to smaller farmers.

The government of President Hugo Chávez is expropriating at least six ranches, including more than half of the 195,000 acres of Piñero. Much of the land is likely to be turned over to landless peasant farmers.

The government says the farmers, many of whom have never owned land, will be able to grow staple crops to boost food production. Government leaders say the campaign is meant to redress the social injustices of previous corrupt governments.

''This is our historical fight for independence, ending the privilege of large landholders. It's part of the fight to throw off the yoke of colonialism," said Eliécer Otaiza, president of the National Land Institute, the regulatory body that is overseeing the land redistribution.

Otaiza and other government leaders have suggested that some conservation work might continue at Piñero, but conservationists have raised doubts about the pledges and say the ranch's delicately managed ecosystem will suffer if the state takes over the land on the ''llanos," the plains.

''Carving up a ranch like Piñero into small holdings will destroy the conservation value of this area," Dr. Thomas Struhsaker, a research scientist at Duke University in North Carolina, who specializes in tropical ecology and conservation said via an e-mail message.

''This will also mean the world will have lost one of the few remaining examples of the llanos that is still reasonably intact."

As the land campaign gathers steam, Chávez is riding a wave of popularity, after a resounding victory in a recall referendum last August that ended a violent 2½-year political crisis.

Taking up the thorny issue of land reform, which has been a central concern for Latin America's leftist movements -- is a politically symbolic move for Chavez, who has promised to end the privileges of the wealthiest families.

The National Land Institute has given farmers land titles to property on at least two ranches, including the 32,000-acre, British-owned cattle ranch known as El Charcote.

Piñero's owners have about 40 days to contest the government's expropriation decision, and they plan to take the case to court.

Piñero was founded in 1949 by Antonio Julio Branger, who from a young age dedicated himself to creating new breeds of Venezuelan cattle. In the early '80s, he pioneered the concept of sustainable ranching that could accompany wildlife conservation and tourism, a model now used in other ranches around the world. Piñero is widely acclaimed by US-based environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Foundation.

But Otaiza and other officials have questioned the validity of Piñero's land titles as well as its conservation efforts.

''The supposed environmental conservation that they say they have in Piñero is not they way they describe it," Otaiza told reporters recently. He objected to having a private foundation operate an ecological reserve, insisting that this be put into the state's hands. The government has not established plans on how to manage the ecotourism operations.

Land institute leaders also accuse Piñero of massive deforestation, and they say workers on the ranch suffer under slave labor conditions. Piñero officials deny the accusations.

For many Chávez supporters, Piñero represents a walled-off natural fortress that serves as a playground for Venezuela's rich and famous, as well as for dollar-bearing foreign visitors. Tourists pay about $100 per day to stay at the ranch, roughly what the average Venezuelan makes in a month. As a result, landless peasants in the area view the conservation efforts as a ruse to protect privilege, rather than to preserve an ecosystem.

Peasant squatters such as Luis Alberto García, 34, see the Branger family as overprivileged landowners and they question the value of the conservation.

''Sure, they have some animals there," García said recently in a blue zinc shack on a neighboring ranch. ''But they want to control all of Venezuela, and things just aren't like that; they have to learn to share."

García said he and other farmers have been threatened repeatedly by landowners and security forces in the six years they have lived on the Brangers' property.

Antonieta Branger, the daughter of Piñero's founder, who now lives in the city of Valencia, said in an interview at the ranch's small hotel that she is confounded by the government's efforts, and that she believes Hato Piñero is in grave danger.

''My father could have invested his savings in Caracas or in the United States, but he decided to build this ranch because he believed in the Venezuelan plains," Branger said. ''I just don't understand why the government wants to roll back all the work he did."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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