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Beyond eminent domain

A wave a land-distribution policies washing across Latin America is testing property rights doctrines and policies in a region many see as a budding agricultural powerhouse. And, it comes as U.S. property owners contemplate June's Supreme Court decision extending governments' eminent domain rights.

In Kelo et al v. City of New London, the Court ruled property owners can be forced to sell out when a local government decides private property can serve a greater public purpose through private economic development. In this case, the city of New London, CT, condemned a number of private properties so a private developer could build a shopping center.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warns, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process…” Her warning becomes more ominous when you look to the south.

Center on Venezuela, where new laws forbid any private entity from owning more than 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) — and require all land to be “productive.” In one case, Venezuela's National Land Institute (INTI) is moving to seize control of the Hato Piñero cattle ranch declaring much of it as unproductive.

INTI says the family claiming ownership of Hato Piñero since the mid-18th century can't prove title. Portions of Hato Piñero's 195,000 acres will be given to squatters already living on small subsistence farms. A portion of the ranch will be declared a nature preserve while the ranch's current owners will be allowed to raise cattle under restricted conditions.

Ironically, Jaime Perez Branger, whose family owns Hato Piñero and two other large cattle ranches in the state of Cojedes, implements low-impact grazing rotations — a practice that regularly rests some tracts from grazing.

In what's become an international controversy, some conservationists say Hato Piñero is an example of how cattle ranching can co-exist with nature. Carving it into small cooperative farm holdings is environmentally unsound, they say.

The roots run deep

Venezuelan landowner groups claim domestic land-use policies are fueled by a powerful coalition of international environmental and human rights groups. They also blame Cuba's Fidel Castro, South American factions of the Catholic Church and infiltration by Brazil's Landless Worker's Movement — Movimento Sem Terra (MST).

MST's roots are buried in a clause of Brazil's constitution also requiring land to be productive. The MST, which backed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's initial agrarian reform platform, organizes “landless” people into cooperatives settling small plots on “unproductive” land.

Prospective settlers from big city slums sometimes wait months in shoddy, remote encampments for relocation orders. Motivated by MST's slogan — “Occupy, Resist, Produce” — innocent settlers often find themselves caught in deadly violence between MST organizers and landowners.

Few dispute claims that corruption is rampant within Brazil's land redistribution effort. After negotiating with local officials for land transfer, MST authorities hold the deeds in escrow to ensure peasant families don't sell their farms back to the landowners.

In Venezuela, the government claims the predominance of large unproductive tracts is creating a dependence on food imports. Landowners argue the efficiencies generated through private enterprise help stimulate the nation's economy, increasing income-generating exports.

A dead-end road

Meanwhile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay are liberalizing land ownership policies and installing degrees of populist agrarian policies.

History, though, shows few successes in agrarian reform based on land redistribution efforts. In Bolivia, where land reform laws followed the revolution of 1952, by 1970 only 45% of the peasant families ever received land. Nicaragua's agrarian reform under the 1979 Sandinista movement resulted in expropriation of large land holdings — mostly to returning Contra officers. Chile's land reform of 1970-73 failed when Socialist dictator Salvador Allende was ousted.

Of course, the poster child of agrarian reform is Cuba where land redistribution was central to the 1959 revolution. Land holdings there were expropriated by the National Institute for Land Reform, but few were ever redistributed.

Across Central and South America, these agrarian reform and land redistribution movements bear watching. These changing policies, coupled with populist ideologies that reject developed agriculture and favor subsistence systems, could sway the international balance of food production. They may drive countries into dead-end Cuban-style, central planning and government control.

The implications transcend global agriculture. These movements also form a template of what can happen when government intervenes too deeply into individual property rights. They show how far emboldened governments will go in seizing and redistributing property when armed with nebulous definitions of the greater good.