* Dozens of peasants killed in tension over land reform
* Government-backed militias aimed to protect farmers
CARACAS, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Venezuela will train peasant militias that work with soldiers as tensions rise with landowners after a spate of shootings of small farmers, including two attempts on one man’s life this year.
While Venezuelan law allows reservist militias to carry weapons, Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua did not say whether the groups will be armed. He said they will be installed on farms from December.
"Don’t make us march with guns and swords in hand," Jaua said at a meeting in the rural state of Guarico late on Thursday. "We are ready to accept the challenge and face the landowning oligarchs, who should accept the responsibility of which path they chose."
Dozens of peasant farmers have been shot dead in Venezuela in the four years since the OPEC nation’s President Hugo Chavez started a land program that has stripped large landholders of millions of acres deemed to be idle or illegally obtained.
Lawmaker Braulio Alvarez, a peasant leader who has himself survived several murder attempts, told Reuters the groups would work with the army and will carry out intelligence.
"The militias are preventative and will work with soldiers to provide security on recovered farms," he said by telephone from a sugar cane plantation being expropriated.
Once a major exporter of coffee and cocoa, Venezuela’s farming sector withered when the oil industry took off in the 1920s. The country now produces beef and some grains but imports most of its food.
Rural businessmen and landowners are often the target of kidnappings and many feel threatened by the land reform.
One peasant leader, Jose Pimentel, is currently in the hospital after being shot in the head last month in the second attack on him this year.
Peasant groups have long complained the government has failed to protect their members, who are at the forefront of Chavez’s socialist revolution, from reprisals when landowners’ interests are threatened.
Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates and disputes in poor city neighborhoods and the countryside are often settled by the gun.
Peasant leader Pimentel organized hundreds of farmers to occupy the El Charcote farm the government later bought from Britain’s Vestey group. He is now involved in the occupation of another large farm.
Gunmen shot him in a government land office in September, after he survived multiple bullet wounds in March.
"The worst thing in this situation is that we know who is responsible but they never touch them," a still bandaged and weak Pimentel told Reuters from a hide-out after the first attack. "It’s like one’s life is worth nothing, like the life of the person with money is the one with value."
"We don’t want violence, we don’t want to think like them, but imagine if all the peasants armed themselves, how many of them are there and how many of us?" (Editing by Todd Eastham)