Venezuelan officials and troops began seizing 47 private ranches on Friday as President Hugo Chavez pushes ahead with a socialist-oriented effort to take over big swaths of agricultural land.
Agriculture Ministry officials began taking control of the land accompanied by soldiers and pro-government farmers. Together the ranches in western Venezuela cover more than 93 square miles (240 square kilometers) -- about the size of the city of Seattle, Washington.
"We're going to rescue the best lands for our people," Agriculture Minister Juan Carlos Loyo said on state television, noting that some of the lands are under water from recent torrential rains.
Loyo wore a pistol on his belt and a T-shirt with an image of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara as he addressed a group of officials and soldiers. "Right now, you are part of an army, of a collective ... that is going to liberate lands," Loyo said.
Chavez, a close ally of Cuba who is trying to lead Venezuela toward a socialist system, announced plans to take over the ranches in western Zulia and Merida states on Dec. 8, saying "those are national lands" and arguing the owners had illegally taken them over the years.
He made no mention of possible compensation to people he called "land-grabbers."
Chavez has said the government will make land available to the poor and also use it to house thousands displaced by recent floods and mudslides.
The leftist leader has ordered the expropriation of a growing list of businesses, paying compensation for some but not all. Business leaders have counted more than 200 businesses seized in the past year. Chavez's government also says it has taken over more than (5.6 million acres) 2.3 million hectares of rural land.
The government has said it is redistribuing overly large estates and land that is not adequately used. Critics argue the land seizures have hit productive farms, are hurting agricultural production and forcing the oil-reliant country to boost food imports.