Anna Isaacs, Basil Weiner, Grace Bell, Courtney Frantz and Katie Bowen
Defining Food Sovereignty
During his expeditions with INIA Basil saw the work of rural communal councils. Through their communal councils, many agricultural villages and towns are organizing to develop transportation infrastructure in order to make production economically viable. Since isolation can threaten food sovereignty, this development is most urgent where dirt roads are all that connect remote villages to larger urban markets.. One such road lies in a mountainous region south of the city of Mérida in a cluster of small towns called Los Pueblos del Sur, or the villages of the south. The road is a patchwork; some sections are paved while others are virtually impassable without four-wheel drive. This patchwork road illustrates a very interesting dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. With increased autonomy over their territory through legally recognized communal councils, some communities have made it a priority to improve their section of the road. They have created plans; they have applied for and received government funds and they have paved the sections that pass through their community. Neighboring communities have not.
This can easily be seen as proof of the ineffectiveness of community-based development. A road that passes through many communities presents the challenge of consistency. But development initiated by one community may motivate others. People can learn from a neighbor’s example that they have the very tangible power to direct the development of their communities and their regions; they may decide to pave their own sections of road.
Education is central to building consciousness of farmers’ rights and urban peoples’ rights to food. Education in many social movements has been a tool to organize people. It is also a service that has been neglected in the Venezuelan countryside, leaving a whole constituency of citizens without access to schooling. Mission Sucre provides free higher education to poor and previously excluded people. The government expects the student body to grow to one million by 2009, with more than 190 satellite classrooms throughout Venezuela, especially in the countryside, where students are receiving higher education for the first time. In the small farming village of Bojo we observed a classroom affiliated with the Bolivarian University that offered courses in agro-ecology. Students are expected to use the knowledge gained in their course to serve the community, linking theory to practice. The director, Andrés Eloy Ruiz describes the teachers in these classes as “leader[s] of the process of learning but also…full participant[s] in the process of connection with a community in which, with the knowledge that both students and faculty have, the community’s problems can be resolved.” The Ministry of Higher Education is particularly interested in creating agroecological programs that specialize in studies useful to peasants, the indigenous and African descendants.
At the Simon Rodriguez University students are required to engage in the problems encountered in their communities. We heard from Maria Vicente that her worm cooperative in Mucuchies was benefiting from the help of agroecology students who came to her wanting to learn and asking how they could help. This shift in educational philosophy is creating professionals who are experienced in working in concert with the needs and priorities of communities.
Anna and Katie attended a three-day farmer’s conference in Mucuchies that was organized around the region’s problems with soil erosion. Students from the Simon Rodriguez University, many of them children of farmers, were at the conference to become involved in the political organization of their community. The conference was part of something larger we saw in Venezuela—a culture of workshops and sharing of knowledge. Soil erosion was becoming an economic as well as environmental problem for farmers in the region. This region is very special and seen as a model of success for what community organizing could look like in rural areas. Communal counsels, students, regional organizations like Instituto para la Producción e Investigación de la Agricultura Tropical (IPIAT), farming, processing, and vending cooperatives, and government services like INIA and INDER were organized into a larger Red de Comunicación Agrícola, or Network of Agricultural Communication, that had been meeting periodically. Because they were organized like this, they were able to mobilize by convening the conference to learn about erosion, techniques of agro-ecological production and recuperation of soil and water, and make agro-ecological farming the norm rather than the exception. In three days we learned the basic principles of agro-ecology. We watched presentations by regional activists like Lijia Para of Associacion y Coordinacion de Agriculturas de Rangel (ACAR), and experts like Fred Magdoff from Vermont and Miguel Angel Nuñez. We networked with others and learned about projects people were working on in the region, like reforestation and the rebirth of herbal medicine. Perhaps the most important thing I witnessed was farmers sharing their problems and successes in agro-ecological, small scale farming, and collaborating with students, government technicians, and experts in a beautiful participatory way. On the last day, people discussed goals for the region, one which was to stop using chemicals and large amounts of chicken manure fertilizers. As farmers, government workers, and activists alike received their diplomas for the completion of the course, we could see their excitement, looking forward to the changing future.
One of the most exciting schools we visited was the Latin American Institute of Agroecology “Paulo Freire” school in Barinas. The worldwide peasant movement, Via Campesina, that provided the definition of food sovereignty for this paper and the peasant movement in Brazil, Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST), approached Chavez in 2005 at the World Social Forum to create a farmers school in Venezuela. Chavez agreed and with Bolivarian University funding, donated 35 hectares of land expropriated from an privately-owned latifundio. Seventy students (48 male, 22 female) between 18 and 30 years of age from 7 Latin American countries were elected by the peasant movements of their countries and arrived to build their campus from scratch. Students from Venezuela are elected by the Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora.
In five years, the students will graduate with professional degrees. There are eleven professors that teach classes from epistemology to physics, agricultural history to biodiversity and plant life. The institute is named after the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, universally known in the field of popular education. The pedagogical method fuses university studies with the traditional knowledge and culture that each individual and the collective holds. “The result should be that the political thought of pedagogy is committed to the social dynamic of the popular struggle.” When Anna asked what the students wanted to do after graduating, most said they were going back to their families to farm, become leaders in social movements, and do community organizing.
A student named Orlandiz told us his family and other families took over land in Zulia and formed a farming cooperative with the help of Mission Zamora. He became active in Frente Zamora and they elected him to go to the school in Barinas. As he was teaching us how to grow yucca, he was asked whether he had known how to do this before going to university. He replied, “I, shamefully, am the son of a campesino, so I always knew how to plant yucca but I didn’t know why I was doing it. Now I am testing what I learned before and am more connected to it.” At the school, students are learning to be proud to be farmers, learning how important they are to society and using that power to organize around their rights as producers of labor and consumers of the fruits of the earth. Sixto, from Brazil, sported a MST shirt that said: “organize, produce, feed.” The goals of the school are similar: produce food to become self-sustaining, organize politically, and work within the community while learning academically.
The land that was given to them by the Venezuelan government serves as a ground for experimentation. In one area an old yucca field had been allowed to grow wild to let the land recuperate from the chemicals that the previous latifundio used and to see what grew there naturally. In another area, they were using the Mexican growing model of intercropping beans, corn, and squash. As the need for more classrooms grew, the students started constructing classrooms out of straw and mud as an exploration into native, sustainable architecture. We helped them build a pond for the ducks and advised them to learn about plants that purify and hold water. The next day they started to do this. This mentality and interest in experimenting was prevalent, and was often carried over into community work. For every 16 weeks spent on campus, 6 are spent in farming communities all over Venezuela participating in innovative, experimental projects. By funding a school that serves all of Latin America, Chavez has received a force of young enthusiastic students who are working on Venezuelan projects while catalyzing an agrarian movement throughout Latin America.
9. Food systems outside of the government
While the government is doing as much as it can to advance towards food sovereignty, there is also plenty of room to work outside the government towards these same goals.
Cecosesola is an umbrella cooperative in Barquisimeto that incorporates 80 organizations in 5 states. It was started in 1967 by 9 cooperatives who wanted to provide affordable means of burying the dead. By the 1970’s it evolved into a subsidized bus transportation service. By 1984 Cecosesola had reorganized to provide mobile food markets. This method of selling directly to people was highly successful and led to the idea of having permanent distribution areas in the city.
Now Cecosesola has 3 ferias, or markets, where food and other household necessities are sold. Their cooperative is the largest network of food production and distribution in the country. During our time in Barquisimeto, we worked at the feria in the center of the city. The cooperative is a wholesale distributor of fresh produce supplied by 12 farmer associations and 12 food processing associations, all within a 5-hour drive.
What makes Cecosesola so influential and important is the price of the food they provide, their direct connection with their associated producers, and the methods they’ve developed to create egalitarian relationships among their members. The cooperative was created in the 1960’s in order to provide affordable necessities to communities. Today, Cecosesola works directly with local growers and the price it pays for produce is based on what it costs the farmers to produce; in this way the cooperative pays the farmers a fair price for their produce. Cecosesola’s prices are approximately 50% of the prices found in supermarkets and estimates are that their produce uses 80% less chemicals. In a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, over 55,000 families get their weekly supply of food from the cooperative.
At Cecosesola the members of the cooperative meet to decide what wage they should all receive in relation to their costs and profits. Cecosesola’s financial information is completely transparent and since job rotation is practiced, most members have a good understanding of every aspect of the cooperative’s functioning. Cecosesola makes an annual profit of 1.5%. 1% is to counter inflation and .5% is invested back into the cooperative and used for social benefits for the members. Some examples of this are the clinics they maintain in different areas of the city, and a state-of-the-art health center, still under construction, which will serve those who work at the feria, their families, and associated producers. The services of the clinic and health center are available to the general population as well, with fees set to recoup the costs of service.
Las Lajitas is a small farm near Monte Carmelo and Bojo in the state of Lara, near Barquisimeto. It is the organic branch of a larger cooperative, La Alianza. La Alianza is one of the many producers in the country that are associated with the Cecosesola project. Some of us worked for three weeks at Las Lajitas and had the opportunity to see both how the farm is organized and run internally and how it interacts with the larger, regional Cecosesola food system.
In the 1960’s a small group of European Catholic missionaries came to the region with the intention of working with the communities to help solve local problems. Following the principles of liberation theology, the priests worked in close cooperation with farmworkers in the region to confront issues of poverty: hunger, malnutrition, exploitation and landlessness. La Allianza was created, and eventually obtained land and became an important agricultural producer for the region. Their association with Cecosesola has brought in reliable income for decades. The associates at Las Lajitas explained that this association was created, the most they could get for a kilo of potatoes was two bolivars; the same potatoes would end up in an urban supermarket settling for bolivars per kilo. Instead of an “invisible hand” that threatens the economic viability of the production of food, producers and vendors meet every 3 months. Once the price of labor and all other inputs (seeds, fertilizers, water, electricity) are calculated, a price is decided based on how much it costs to produce.
Regional integration is very well established in this food system. Food produced at Las Lajitas goes to 8 de Marzo, the women’s pasta making cooperative and or to Moncar, a women’s sauce and jam making cooperative. These processes of adding value to locally produced raw materials have bolstered the local economy.
While Cecosesola is autonomous and unaffiliated with the government, La Allianza does accept government assistance. INIA has worked with them on on issues related to soil health and quality, seed saving techniques, worm technology and micro-rizome experiments. They have been instrumental in helping the farm become organic. Some of the farmers have been involved in national and international outreach efforts to share the knowledge they have acquired through their 40 year process of learning.
8 de Marzo is a women’s cooperative in Palo Verde that sells whole wheat and vegetable-derived pasta to Cecosesola. This cooperative was primarily founded by women. Many rural women in Venezuela carry a double burden; they work for low wages outside the home, but they also put in long hours of unpaid domestic work, and in addition, many are single mothers. In rural areas migrant farm work pulls families apart, leaving women to care for the home and children. 8 de Marzo has significantly benefited the economic lives of the women who work there.
8 de Marzo has also closed the gap between poor producers and poor consumers. They work closely with the people they buy from and sell to in order to create a network of cooperation. They source vegetables from Las Lajitas to support organic farming in their local economy. They set their wages just above minimum wage so that their product can be sold at affordable prices. There are many benefits that have been socialized and localized: food stamps are provided by the cooperative that are spent at a store which is owned by their members and which carries their products. Women members are paid by the cooperative to care for each others children. 8 de Marzo decides collectively what they need and want. In this model, there is a space to discuss women’s issues, labor, economics, food systems, and the environment, and to build their collective political power as women, campesinas, workers, and people.
The cooperative Bervere in Tucaní has struggled with selling their produce at fair rates. They are far away from Cecosesola and felt that selling to them was not profitable. They also sold their produce to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, but they waited 9 months for payment—CVA is a slow moving government program that is still in its infancy—only a year old. It was easier and more reliable for Bevere to sell to intermediaries even though they received lower prices. It is obvious that the connection between producer and consumer is what needs the most improvement; it is the part of the food system that is the weakest. We visited Barrio San Juan in Caracas, where the Colectivo Revolucionario de San Juan actively sought out small farmers outside the city and by eliminating intermediaries was able to sell produce at a farm stand at the base of the barrio. The small profit made by the collective is being used to build a community center where the farm stand can expand into a large open-air market. Every Sunday some of the money is used to cook a huge pot of soup and the whole barrio is invited to eat and spend time together in order to strengthen the community. As the project continues, a comuna is developing, including communal council members, the collective, the farmers, and those interested in running the cooperative food market. The cooperative food market is a great example of a Social Production Enterprise that will further endogenous development between the producer and consumer. The space where the market will one day stand is now just rubble under a highway overpass, but neighbors shows up regardless to play dominoes and bingo, and talk politics. They are building the energetic foundations of an important community space.
Further Problems: World Food Crisis
Since 2003, household poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half, from 54% to 27.5%. As Venezuela’s poor obtain more spending power, they are able to consume more than ever before (some say 400% more), contributing to inflation. In three years alone, from 2004 to 2007, consumption more than doubled from $24 billion to $52 billion. On a global scale, from 2002 to 2007, global consumption of milk rose by 14.3% while the number of milk cows rose by only 1%. Production has not kept up with consumption. President Chavez commented, “The impact of tighter food supply is already evident in raw food prices, which have risen 22% in the past year… wheat prices alone have risen 92%”. When most of one’s income goes towards food, as it does in Venezuela, these numbers are very damaging, with the damage falling disproportionately on the poor. Venezuela’s problem is part of a larger food crisis worldwide, where inflation and food shortages are reoccurring. For example, in 2007, when many bakeries in Mexico went out of business due to rising wheat prices, protestors took to the street. Mexico imports over 60% of the wheat it consumes. Recently, Afghanistan asked for $77 million in emergency food aid. The Philippines have had difficulty in meeting their rice quota after a 40% rise in the price of rice. This crisis is new and baffling: never have we seen these patterns without war, drought, or natural disasters.
Fossil Fuel Dependency Creates Contradictions Worldwide
Chavez has said that one of the causes of rising food prices may be global warming. Oil revenues are being invested into agricultural production, but what is oil, a fossil fuel, doing to agriculture in the long term? Fossil fuels contribute to global warming, which is predicted to contribute to the world food crisis. According to a new study at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researchers found that in the past two decades, warming temperatures have caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion for major food crops. While there is a lot of work being done to develop more understanding of agro-ecology, the production of petro-fertilizers has not slowed down. We drove past an industrial complex that produced the petro-fertilizers, brandishing the state oil company’s name, PDVSA. As we passed the complex, our professor’s partner explained to us that PDVSA fertilizers were being traded with Cuba, marking a disappointing regression from agro-ecological farming since 1989 when trading with the former Soviet Union collapsed.
Another factor, as Chavez says, “is Bush’s crazy plan to use food to make fuel.” He is referring to the United State’s policy of using subsidized corn for the production of ethanol, which caused the global price of corn to increase by 44% in 2008. In response, Chavez banned corn exports to ensure that corn would be used only for consumption. Evo Morales, president of Bolivia has said, “Agro-fuels are not an alternative, because they put the production of foodstuffs for transport before the production of food for human beings. Agro-fuels expand the agricultural frontier destroying forests and biodiversity, generate monocropping, promote land concentration, deteriorate soils, exhaust water sources, contribute to rises in food prices and, in many cases, result in more consumption of more energy than is produced.”
Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty
Relying on food imports may alleviate the short-term crisis of food shortages, but will not ensure a long-term solution that leads to food sovereignty. This has to be achieved by entrusting workers and communities with the power over their own food production and distribution. While Mercal is concerned with feeding the hungry through subsidized commodities that foster food security, the mission as of now doesn’t tackle issues essential to food sovereignty like fair trade, land degradation through chemical use, culturally appropriate and healthy foods, or building endogenous development—because they can import, buy from transnationals operating in Venezuela, or buy from large latifundios. To help overcome food shortages, Chavez lightened restrictions on the importation of 50 products. This will not achieve sovereignty over Venezuela’s food system. While the minister administering Mercal might request a larger budget to import more beans, the minister of INIA might be more interested in figuring out how to increase bean production within the country. Even if a nation was secure in its bean production, if its security was brought about by a government-owned food system that hired people to work in government farms, factories, and distribution sites, then food sovereignty would only be obtained on the national level, rather than the local level. In this classic socialist sense, the state could control all the means of production and create complete food security. But socialist agricultural development looks very different than this in Venezuela. The food sovereignty movement is, essentially, socialism decentralized. The Venezuelan government is a supportive facilitator for the projects that cooperatives and communities decide they need for themselves.
However, the immediate need for food security can and does delay the larger movement for food sovereignty. The debate and contradictions forming around food security and food sovereignty are taking place worldwide. For example, Ecuador’s constitution states that food sovereignty is a priority but they also allow GMOs into their country. MST of Brazil is an internationally known organization that has gained political recognition and power, but Brazil is also one of the largest producers of soy for export.
It is interesting to look at how the numbers mirror each other: 80% of people in poverty, 90% urbanized, 70% of food imported, 70% of land in the hands of 3% of the population, and 2% of GDP based in agriculture. The problems of food and poverty are connected. They do not represent a nation that is sovereign or sustainable. In the case of Venezuela, these numbers are also a result of neo-liberal development. The examples presented in this paper, of new laws, new techniques, new organizing are examples of what Venezuela calls endogenous development, which represents a different model of development for agriculture, for people, and for the nation—development that is communal and local and ensures the people’s sovereignty and sustainability. For one of the first times in Latin American history, there is synergy between the efforts of the government and people because through participatory democracy, the people have become their own government. They rightfully aim to be sovereign from foreign corporations and US imperialist intervention. This sovereignty has bubbled over to all sectors, one of the most important being food. One of the goals of the government and the people is a food system that is just and sustainable, that is able to provide what people need. Based on the examples provided here, it is certain that great strides have been made in the 10 years of Chavez’ administration. Agricultural production has increased by 24%, corn production by 205%, rice by 94%, sugar by 13%, and milk by 11%.
The Bolivarian movement, symbolized and led by Hugo Chavez, is working towards a different set of ideas, principles and goals. Just like healthcare and education, access to food is a constitutionally protected basic human right. The Venezuelan Food Security Law states:
“It is indispensable to guarantee to all Venezuelan citizens access to quality food in sufficient quantity. For true and revolutionary rural development, it is necessary to overcome the traditional market conception of foods and agricultural products. This vision is a detriment to the fundamental right that all Venezuelans have to feed themselves.”
The government and the people of Venezuela share a common perspective about what their problems are and how they should go about solving them. When people are given the tools and the freedom to produce how and what they want, they inevitably begin to create a society that has the interests of its very designers at the center, the interests of people and their sovereignty.
The authors recently spent three months studying in Venezuela with the academic program Building Economic and Social Justice of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
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