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.