Venezuela’s Radical Food Experiment

Venezuela’s Radical Food Experiment

Seeking “food sovereignty,” Hugo Chávez puts oil wealth toward a local, sustainable food system.


On a hillside overlooking Caracas, Venezuela, Pedro Echavez feeds sweet potato greens to his rabbits. These animals are raised for their meat, but their droppings also fertilize Echavez’s black bean and vegetable plots. This four-acre farm produces enough food to provide 80 percent of the diet for the sixteen people living in his community.

Echavez is one of the 680,000 farmers in Venezuela—30,000 of whom are urban or peri-urban farmers—who have registered to receive low-interest credit, tools and technical assistance, since January, through a government program called Mission AgroVenezuela. This new program is at the center of a radical way of thinking about agriculture as a tool for development, including the use of appropriate, affordable technology and the implementation of nonchemical farming.

Though there have been smaller agricultural investments in the country in the past, Mission AgroVenezuela is consolidating the effort and channeling more funds into new roads, irrigation, equipment and distribution—all focused on building a re-regionalized food system.

The Venezuelan equivalent of the US Department of Agriculture is overseeing the project. Yet, unlike the USDA, which gives around $20 billion in subsidies to the largest producers in the United States annually, Venezuela is giving
4.3 billion bolívares fuertes ($1 billion) in low-interest credit solely to small and medium-sized grain producers. Another
13 billion bolívares fuertes ($3 billion) is set aside for fruit and vegetable operations, as well as growers of crops like coffee, cacao and sugar cane. A portion of what farmers grow will be used to pay off the loans, and much of this produce will be locally packaged, processed and sold at state-owned supermarkets.

President Hugo Chávez’s leftist Bolivarian Revolution has embraced the idea of food sovereignty, or the right of a people to define their own food and agriculture policy. The food sovereignty movement is a global one, and the organization at the forefront, La Via Campesina, counts 300 million members. Venezuela is one of many countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Mali and Nepal, that have, in response to this grassroots movement, developed a legal framework for food sovereignty.

The Venezuelan Constitution, rewritten as Chávez’s first priority as president in 1999 and approved by 71 percent of voters, guarantees a secure food supply to the public and promotes sustainable agriculture as the strategic framework for rural development. It also states that the government should invest in financing, infrastructure and training to help increase food production within the country.

This focus on agriculture is a departure for Venezuela—and the commitment to food sovereignty remains largely aspirational in an economy still overwhelmingly dominated by oil. Since the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century, new wealth has allowed the country to import most of its food. In 2009 the agricultural sector represented just 4 percent of Venezuela’s GDP. The decline in agricultural production that coincided with the increasing dependence on oil wealth also facilitated one of the largest rural outmigrations in Latin America. As recently as 1960, 35 percent of Venezuela’s population could be found in its countryside. Today 94 percent of its population calls cities home, with many people ending up in the crowded barrios that dot the hillsides of Caracas.

In July, OPEC announced that Venezuela had surpassed Saudi Arabia in proven oil reserves. The Chávez administration is drawing on this wealth to fund its agriculture and food access programs, which have touched many Venezuelans even as they account for a relatively small sector of the economy. According to a 2008 World Bank report, GDP growth originating from the agricultural sector is about four times more effective at reducing poverty than GDP growth originating elsewhere. Embraced by the poor, these efforts are one reason Chávez has had popular support in the face of a CIA-backed coup attempt in 2002, an often hostile national press and a sixty-four-day strike led by the opposition in 2002–03.

* * *

At a community center in 23 de Enero, a northern barrio of Caracas, where one-third of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, Idelis Blanco, 53, a resident who works at the center, spoke about how food access in her community had changed.

“Before the revolution, we had no fresh food or supermarkets in the neighborhood,” she said. Now she rates her access to food as “excellent,” easily listing three state-owned grocery stores near her home.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2 million people (8 percent of the population) in Venezuela are undernourished. Like its close partner government in Cuba, which has had some success feeding the poor with urban farming, the Chávez administration has also made urban and peri-urban agriculture a key priority of Mission AgroVenezuela.

“Before, the government used to ignore the communities in the hills,” said Elvis Zerpa, national coordinator for Urban Agriculture Projects, referring to the barrios. “Now we have 3,000 people there working on urban agriculture projects, and are seeking to have 10,000 by the end of the year.”

With 6.5 million acres of arable land, a year-round growing season and 1,700 miles of coastline for fishing, Venezuela is well positioned to feed itself. Yet as of 2010, the country imports up to 70 percent of its food, up 10 percent since 2003. Officials say the increase reflects an effort to assure that everyone has access to food, which is subsidized and sold through state-owned stores, while the government ramps up local production. According to Ivan Gil, deputy minister of agriculture, Mission AgroVenezuela will reduce the need for imported foods this year by as much as 30 percent.

* * *

Monte Sacro, a 6,000-acre farm in a fertile, hilly region near the town of Bejuma, has seen real benefits from Mission AgroVenezuela.

“Beyond producing food, we are producing new men and women with a new quality of life,” said 27-year-old farmer Renee Aponte, one of thirty-two farmers in the co-op, eight of whom are women. “We’re trying to liberate the peasants, who are used to working in a system where they work and work for poor wages to enrich a few people.”

Previously owned by the Rockefeller family, the land was used in the past to produce buffalo, cattle and thoroughbred horses. Now, in addition to plantains, sunflowers (for oil), black beans and other vegetables, corn will be grown by the new landholders to be turned into flour—used to make arepa, a corn flatbread that is a daily Venezuelan staple.

The Monte Sacro farmers seized this property in 2009 under the Land Law, a policy Chávez put in place in 2001 that specifies that idle plots of state land as well as large private estates are eligible for redistribution to peasant farmers. So far, this policy has enabled ownership of 2.5 million hectares of land—mostly latifundios, large tracts concentrated in ownership and either producing for export or idle—to shift to around 200,000 peasant farmers.

Land reform also sparked new problems. Since 2001, 255 peasants, including two children, have been killed in retaliation for land seizures. Three people have been jailed, but many say the government is not doing enough to protect peasants, who often resort to forming twenty-four-hour security details.

Chávez’s recent announcement that he is battling cancer has raised worries about the future of peasant-controlled land, but cooperative farmer Carmen Roja didn’t hesitate when asked if this had an impact on her work.

“We are willing to give our own lives to defend what we have built here,” she said.

Another early issue was getting the newly landed peasants’ produce to market. In a number of areas, the government has worked with trading partners to build local processing facilities, and markets have expanded beyond Venezuela through partnerships like Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which aims to avoid free trade agreements and produce needed goods locally.

“The statistics we care about are not the volumes of trade with other countries but the social effects of the work we are doing,” said Amenothep Zambrano, executive secretary of ALBA.

To address the need for breeding, processing and seed bank services, the government launched the Florentino Genetic Center in 2005. In addition to producing more than 8,000 tons of food per year, the facility has been cross-breeding cattle for strong traits in milk production. Seventeen mid-sized farms nearby now have access to affordable vegetable seeds and semen for artificial insemination of their cows, as well as two cheese processing facilities and a slaughterhouse. This focus on biodiversity contrasts starkly with the United States, where industry consolidation has left mid-sized farmers struggling to compete with large corporate farms, and where there is a lack of scale-appropriate processing facilities. At least four processing facilities similar to Florentino are being planned for other parts of Venezuela.

The goal at the Monte Sacro farm is to practice agroecology—diversifying crops, composting and using nonchemical pest control. Although the farmers have received specialized training from Cuban agronomists, the farm is still just beginning to make the transition.

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In the state of Yaracuy, another farm run collectively by eighty-five farmers is two-thirds of the way through a transition to agroecology. In addition, farmers are producing pesticide alternatives on-site—part of a long-term strategy under Mission AgroVenezuela to fund and research “biopesticides,” or nonchemical pesticide alternatives.

Maria Hidalgo, 64, gave a tour through the co-op’s laboratory—named after Manuel Antonio Heredia, a farmer from the community who died of pesticide poisoning. There they are producing beneficial insects and rice seeds inoculated with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), soil bacteria commonly used as a biological pesticide. Unlike genetically modified seeds that are engineered to include Bt—Venezuela banned genetically modified seeds in 2004—this lab uses traditional techniques that are effective and cost significantly less.

Yet, paradoxically, while money is being invested in education and alternatives, agrochemical use has increased as the number of farmers has gone up. Advocates blame the nationalization in 2010 of Agroisleña, the primary agrochemical distribution company in Venezuela, which has made the chemicals cheaper and easier to obtain. They hope the government will expand on projects like the Paulo Freire Latin American Institute for Agroecology, in Barinas, which is educating the children of peasants about ecological farming. But officials have argued that the shift in practices will have to take place slowly.

“There has been more consciousness about agroecological practices in the Bolivarian Revolution. People are seeking an agriculture that is more humane,” said Ricardo Javier Sánchez, president of FONDAS—Venezuela’s USDA. But “we don’t yet have enough biological inputs in sufficient quantities to replace agrochemicals.”

In cities, there has been an opportunity to start growing from scratch—and as a result, all urban agriculture projects are pesticide-free.

“Agroecology is the only option for the Bolivarian Revolution,” said Sara Medina, 52, a field technician working with urban producers in Caracas. “It is more than ecological agriculture; it is social, economic, political—and provides a level of independence to the poor.”

In the United States much of the investment in agriculture has gone toward technology. In Venezuela, whether through urban agriculture, building processing facilities, paving roads or breeding cattle, the philosophy is one of encouraging participatory democracy. Many have argued that this grassroots empowerment is crucial for food security.

Examples can be seen in Barlovento, an Afro-Venezuelan region in the state of Miranda, where workers’ councils decide on working conditions, pay and planning at a jointly Chinese/Venezuelan–financed chocolate factory. Controlling nearly 
2.5 percent of the Venezuelan cacao market, their collective decision to pay cacao growers a fair wage has forced multinationals to compete by raising what they pay per kilo.

Fishermen’s councils have also had success making decisions about local needs. Previously, fishermen had to sell their catch to a middleman, who could keep it on ice before it was sold at a higher price to the consumer. “Before the revolution, it was every fisherman for himself,” said Oscar Ramirez, a fisherman in Carabobo, a coastal state west of Caracas. Now councils have facilitated the building of government-financed ice houses that are controlled by the fishermen, who have also been extended credit for new boats and motors. In addition, fishermen worked together to push for a ban on trawling, a commercial fishing practice that can result in overfishing and ecosystem destruction. Catches are already up 16 percent since the ban went into effect in 2009.

Overall, however, the effort to build a local food system in Venezuela has yet to yield significant, quantifiable results. But if there is one theme I have heard repeated by farmers, citizens and officials alike, it is the need for patience. Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer living in Caracas and the author of The Chávez Code, said the revolution was slow because it is “inclusive and gradual, so people can get used to it.” Now, after years of small gains, Chávez is making agriculture a top priority. If successful, Venezuela’s experiment may yet prove that it is possible to think differently about how to feed a country.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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