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Version française de cette page : VENEZUELA: entre marché et « réforme agraire », la colonisation des terres « vierges »

VENEZUELA: between the market and the « agrarian reform », the colonisation of « virgin » land

Two ways of accessing land ownership

The inception of the land tenure system in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America, was the papal bulls of 1493, which transferred land ownership, « discovered or to be discovered » to the Spanish Crown, without mentioning the tenure rights of its occupants.

Since then, tenure and private property were established from this public land through two channels and controlled by groups close to the central and regional powers (royal first, then republican):

  • A formal legal channel (colonial merced, sale of public land in the 19th Century, « agrarian reform » allocations since 1960, etc.) ;

  • An informal illegal channel (by occupation, usurpation or land invasion), generally regularised later (it was composición under the colonial rule, and was regularised through the « agrarian reform » tenure presently). This informal channel seems to have always affected a larger surface area than the formal channel.

Distinct phenomena. Colonisation, redistribution, legalisation

From the Spanish conquest until 1958, only a small number of plots were transformed into private properties annually. As a result, the majority of the land was held by only a few people (in 1961, 1.4% of farms controlled 71.7% of the agricultural surface area). This was a tenuous situation because tenure was mostly accorded in an informal way. The tenure system came to have this form by responding to the necessities of historical forms of farm production: hato, extensive livestock raising, and hacienda, which produced for the export market and started to decline in 1930 in favour of oil drilling.

Beginning in 1950, the internal market was expanding as cities were growing larger. Medium-sized farms were set up on public land in order to feed the growing urban population. Since these new farms were generally not established on historically cultivated lands, we can call this a process of « agricultural colonisation » by which the surface area of the country’s cultivated land increased.

The « agrarian reform » of 1958 affected around 200 000 peasants. However, the reform dealt primarily with public land, which constituted more than 80% of the land in question. Therefore, what is here called an agrarian reform is in fact, as often in Latin America, more like an expansion of the pioneer frontier onto so-called « virgin » land 1, more or less supported by the State, rather than a redistribution of land from large-scale farms for the creation of smaller ones.

Nevertheless, this policy permitted a democratisation of land tenure (the annual number of property deeds handed over by the state varied between 2,800 and 11,400) as well as its devolution. (The Gini index — with the value of 1 indicating the most unequal distribution — decreased from 0.85 in 1958 to 0.73 in 1997).

In practice, it was mostly middle-sized commercial farms that benefited from it because of the existing balances of power:

  • Small farms (<50ha) went from only 8 to 10.7% of the Agricultural Farms Surface Area (AFSA),

  • Average cultivations (50-100 ha) in-creased from 20.3% to 42.9% of the AFSA, and

  • Large farms (>1000 ha) decreased from 71.7% to 46.4%.

Agrarian reform and/or market

These results did not correspond to the publicised objectives of the agrarian reform. In fact, such growth of medium-size farms resulted from market transactions, whether formal or informal.

The real estate market has both a formal modality (primarily on private land), and an informal one on public land, and particularly on the land affected by the agrarian reform (which represented more than 50% of the AFSA). The real estate market is highly active (more than 4% of the AFSA is exchanged on the market annually, whereas the agrarian reform never affected more than 2% annually).

Regional differences

At the regional level, the types of agriculture and tenure systems are more varied. The “agrarian reform” dealt more with previously uncultivated public lands than with areas historically occupied by hatos or haciendas. In particular, 40% of uncultivated public land was affected by the agrarian reform, either through the regularisation of occupied areas or through the officially illegal purchase of agrarian reform lands. At the same time, only less than 20% of the historically used hatos or haciendas were affected by the agrarian reform. Essentially, the groups affected by the agrarian reform are the following:

  • Medium size commercial producers having farms made up of public lands or lands acquired on the formal, or more often informal, market. They are often of an urban origin (or are foreigners).

  • Livestock breeders: the hatos were slowly modernised, as much by the evolution of existing farms as by the emergence of new producers (they, too are often from the city).

  • The former haciendas disappeared: weakened by the 1930s’ crisis, their former landowners often converted to activities related to the development of the oil-producing industry (sale of drilling rights, importation commerce, real-estate, etc.); their haciendas were seized by the agrarian reform or were fragmented into average-sized farms.

  • In mountainous areas, small and medium-sized traditional farms developed their commercial market production (coffee, market-garden produce, flowers).

Currently, small farmers are asking for land awards under essentially two situations:

  • In areas recently where the production value was recently enhanced (like the states of Zulia, Barinas, Portuguesa), where landless farmers claim a part of the public land occupied since the 1960’s by medium-sized commercial producers. We can make the connection between this situation and the 1960-1980 land policy de-bate in Venezuela. The confusion between an agrarian reform and the extension of the pioneer frontier onto virgin land is very common in Latin America. For the «agraristas», the agrarian reform should have been executed exclusively on private land, and not on public land. In addition to the necessary land redistribution that one expects from an agrarian reform, the way that new lands were incorporated into the frontier poses another problem. The colonisation of virgin lands played a determinant role in structuring the farming sector (50% of the Area of Cultivated Lands). Such confusion rendered the State incapable of organising a process by which the pioneer frontier could be extended by small farmers.

  • For a few years now, the inhabitants of peri-urban zones have become important actors on the agrarian scene: they demand land for their dwellings. In particular, their demands concern areas that have been affected by the agrarian reform twenty or thirty years ago.

The current perspective

Discussions are currently centred on a new agrarian reform, but the different actors concerned do not seem likely to reach an agreement in the near future. It is probable that this legal text will be reformulated: since the «ley de tierra» (land legislation) does not take into consideration the past 40 years of agrarian reform and colonisation of virgin land, it is not surprising that its goals are inappropriate and its application poses all sorts of problems.

What to learn from this experience? 2

This rapid survey of the way land issues in Venezuela were handled illustrates an aspect of a situation frequently found in Latin America.

Very unequal land distribution often calls for a process of redistribution, which would be a genuine agrarian reform.

However, the existence of a vast farming frontier and the constant expansion of cultivated surface areas are very important for a nation’s agricultural economy. In such a context, the market shapes the future landscape of the farming sector in ways that are not always optimal. Public policies including state intervention are often necessary to ensure that the expansion of the pioneer frontier goes hand in hand with the creation of viable small farms.

Moreover, pioneer frontiers are often the theatre of serious conflicts about the appropriation of resources, wood, land, water, or about the cultivation or transformation of illicit products. Violence and human rights violations occur frequently. 3

Classic agrarian reform mechanisms are thus not appropriate; it is a question of avoiding the development of new latifundia, not of remedying their existence.

What is needed then are « restrictions on farm size » 4, in the sense this term is used in Europe: a public policy for the award of plots on newly settled lands, with possible intervention on the real estate market or other markets, as a way to establish settlements of small farmers, permitting the modernisation of commercial family farming together with the use of natural spaces and the preservation of biodiversity.

Olivier DELAHAYE is Profesor of the Central University of Venezuela. Department of Agronomy.

Editing and commentary: Michel MERLET

Translation: Mary Rodeghier (AGTER) 2007.

1 Occupation by indigenous populations has almost always been disregarded in such frontier situations in Latin America (note from the editorial team).

2 Note from the editorial team

3 See the situation in Colombia and the Bolivian, Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon.

4 Called « Politique des structures » in France.


  • DELAHAYE, Olivier. 2001. Políticas de tierras en Venezuela en el siglo XX. Caracas, Ed. Tropykos.