Sunday, January 09, 2005

Venezuela to seize aristocrat's cattle ranch

By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas and Henry Tricks in London
Published: January 7 2005 22:04 | Last updated: January 7 2005 22:04
Financial Times

Venezuelan authorities backed by troops are on Saturday expected to
seize a 32,000-acre ranch owned by Lord Vestey, an English aristocrat
and meat tycoon.

The move, the first in what is likely to be a number of
Zimbabwe-style expropriations of big estates, appears to signal a
renewed radicalisation in the leftwing government of President Hugo

Lord Vestey, known as "Spam" to friends because his family's wealth
comes from the meat trade, is one of Britain's richest men and a
close friend of Prince Charles.

With interests that have ranged from overseas cattle ranches to a
chain of butchers' shops, his fortune was estimated last year at
£750m ($1.4bn, ¤1.07bn).

But the value of the Vestey Group has declined recently, and it has
written down Venezuelan assets. The company had net assets of £78m in
the last published set of accounts in 2003, down from £105m in 2002.

Nevertheless, the Vestey Group remains one of Venezuela's largest
meat producers. Its El Charcote estate in the lush
cattle-ranchingpastures of Cojedes, a state west of Caracas, is one
the country's most modern. When his lands were first seized in
Venezuela in 2001, Lord Vestey staged a one-man protest outside the
Venezuelan embassy in London. He is now reluctant to discuss the
matter in public, due to its sensitivity.

On Friday, Alfredo Toro Hardy, Venezuelan ambassador in London, said
the ranch was among those in Venezuela considered "partly idle" and
its property titles were not considered to be in proper order. That,
he said, prompted the need for an investigation.

For the past four years the property has been partially squatted by
poor farmers.

"We've been in Venezuela for just over 100 years and we hope to be
there for some time yet," Lord Vestey told the Financial Times. The
land had been bought by his great grandfather in 1903, he said.

Land reform has faded in most of Latin America since the early 1980s.
However, since his election six years ago, Mr Chávez has vowed, as
part of his self-styled "revolution", to attack an "oligarchic"
system of land tenure in Venezuela. This week his government urged
regional governors to press ahead with the programme by
redistributing land to poor farmers and landless peasants. Critics
complain that property rights are being disregarded, with no mention
of any compensation for landowners.

In addition, agronomists argue that in regions with relatively poor
soil, large areas of land are needed to graze a herd of cattle,
creating a false impression of large tracts lying idle.

Ranchers also say that productivity is far higher on big estates,
such as El Charcote, than on the small farms that the government
wants to encourage. Eliezer Otaiza, director of Venezuela's National
Land Institute and one of Mr Chávez's political allies, said at least
100,000 plots would be redistributed in the next six months.

The show of "revolutionary" force expected today appears intended to
make an example of the Vestey estate.

"The full weight of the armed forces and the police will be present
to implement the first phase of the land mission," said Alexis Ortiz,
Cojedes's attorney-general.

The "takeover" of the El Charcote estate is concerning other
landowners. As one Venezuelan cattle-rancher yesterday put it: "It's
deeply worrying. I'm certainly going to look at selling my cattle and
ranch while I can."


Post a Comment

<< Home