From the 2001 Land Law all the way to the nationalization or creation of companies such as AgroPatria or Pedro Camejo (1), the goal was to ensure the sector was not subjected to the whims of the market and to support small and midsize production, especially from popular power organizations.
In recent years, an economic crisis heavily exacerbated by US sanctions has driven a liberalization of economic policies. The Venezuelan countryside has been no exception.
One hurdle after another
The tools that once propped up campesino production have disappeared step by step. The so-called “strategic alliances” have seen companies that supplied seeds and fertilizers (AgroPatria) or tractors (Pedro Camejo) transferred to the private sector. This new scheme benefits large-scale producers above all.
In cases like sugar, state-owned mills have likewise been handed over to private owners, with devastating consequences for cane growers.
The latest blow has been the government decree that diesel be sold at 50 cents a liter, a price that might be unaffordable for many campesinos. Amidst severe fuel shortages, diesel had been available either through a rationing plan or via the black market, but little by little the sale at “international” prices has become widespread. Diesel is crucial for agriculture, fueling tractors to plow the land and trucks to transport harvests.
Pueblo a Pueblo brings together some 270 campesino families in the center-west part of the country. Its main goal is to link directly with organized urban communities to distribute food at fair prices, without intermediaries.
Though diesel at 50c/L has been made “official” recently, Miranda said that in states such as Trujillo the alternatives are buying it at US $2 a liter from smugglers or enduring queues that could last for weeks.
“This price has a knock-on effect on all budgets and transportation costs. This will mean a larger burden for the people and another source of inflation,” the Pueblo a Pueblo member claimed, adding that whatever subsidized fuel remains has been directed to large-scale producers.
Andrés Alayo, spokesman from the Campesino Struggle Platform, also stated that “production costs are sky-high” for campesinos presently.
“Between the dollarized fuel, the very expensive inputs and plowing, etc., producers are in a very delicate situation,” he summed up.
For his part, Miranda stressed that even under difficult conditions, campesino families continue producing and providing a large percentage of the food that is consumed. In his opinion, the current circumstances have led to an expansion of agroecological practices and alliances between grassroots organizations. Pueblo a Pueblo currently has a program with the Ministry of Education and urban collectives to supply some 250 school canteens across the country.
Still, hurdles for small and midsize production are just part of the picture. The flipside is a playing field that is ever more tilted in favor of large landowners and agribusiness.
Cartels and dumping
“The fastest growing sector in Venezuela in recent years has been agroindustry,” Alayo told Tatuy Tv. The growing influence of large conglomerates begins to be felt.
In recent weeks there have been several protests from corn producers who demand that the government regulate harvest prices. Though some institutions, including the vice presidency, pledged to address the concerns, there has been no answer thus far.
According to the Campesino Struggle Platform spokesman, there are clear “cartel” dynamics at play. “For agroindustries it is very cheap to import corn, and they use that to set prices that are completely impossible to meet for national production.” Alayo highlighted that it the state’s prerogative to “intervene” and protect its sovereignty.
The Platform, which played a key role in the 2018 Admirable Campesino March, does not rule out another massive mobilization in defense of campesino rights in the coming weeks.
Miranda expressed a similar opinion: “monopolies put pressure on the government,” which not only fails to support campesinos but leaves the market to be ruled by business sectors. “It is a perspective that sees food as a commodity that is becoming more and more prevalent,” he concluded.
A further “threat” for rural producers has been the reopening of the Venezuela-Colombia border. According to Alayo, campesino groups from the Andean region are sounding the alarm bells over a “massive dumping” of Colombian goods, especially vegetables.
“If our campesinos end up bankrupt, Colombian agribusinesses will take over the market and hike prices,” he warned.
For his part, Miranda explained that Colombian produce has informally crossed the border in recent years by just paying covert “taxes” to what was then the government-appointed “protectorate” in Táchira state (2). Nevertheless, he believes the regularization of border crossings and the levying of import/export customs tariffs on both sides will eventually mitigate the impact of food coming from Venezuela’s neighbor.
Potatoes are a priority foodstuff for Pueblo a Pueblo. “Colombia has free trade agreements that saw its market flooded by foreign potatoes (e.g. frozen french fries) which then had consequences on this side of the border,” he detailed, stating that Colombian potatoes were much cheaper than Venezuelan counterparts.
Gustavo Petro’s customs policies and the reactivation of Venezuelan production after the pandemic have allowed Pueblo a Pueblo to once again set up its “potatoes for life, not for capital” program. Campesino organizations store potatoes for months at high altitude before releasing them on the market at fair prices to tackle speculation.
A (genetically) modified scenario
The rise of agribusiness in Venezuela has been quite visible, and it has even been showcased in government broadcasts. There are large tracts of land that grow two products above all: corn and soy. But this practice has another facet to be taken into account: the use of genetically modified seeds.
“Campesinos have denounced the presence of GMO seeds in different parts of the country. This violates the 2015 Seed Law,” Esquisa Omaña told Tatuy Tv. She is a member of the “Venezuela Free from GMOs” campaign.
The organization has not had access to the alleged seeds but has called on Venezuela’s National Seed Commission (Conasem) to investigate the complaints. However, according to Omaña, there is currently “no capacity or interest” from institutions to address the situation.
The activist, who is also a researcher at the CiECS center in Córdoba, Argentina, said that a common practice involves bringing in corn labeled for consumption which is then repackaged and sown. While the use of genetically modified seeds is illegal, importing genetically modified food is not.
“The issue of food sovereignty is key, but even beyond that the consequences of GMOs have been well established,” Omaña affirmed. “The seeds come with a technological package, with chemicals such as glyphosate that contaminate the air and soils. This is the deadly agribusiness model,” she concluded, referring to studies that show how toxic substances end up in soft tissue.
The “Venezuela Free from GMOs” campaign has argued that packaging legislation, alerting consumers to the presence of GMOs, is a priority. Similar laws have been enacted in Europe and elsewhere.
At the same time, Omaña brought up the importance of “working on public consciousness” to generate healthier consumption habits. By shifting more towards legumes (e.g. beans), tubers (e.g. sweet potato) and musaceae (e.g. plantains) that are not associated with agribusiness, people will in turn be less vulnerable to its interests.
In a context where sanctions are firmly in place and there are positive signs of economic recovery, it is just as clear that there is a reconfiguration process going on that surrenders protagonism to the private sector and multinational corporations.
In what concerns food production, agribusinesses have become the main actors, with the government openly calling for foreign investment in the sector and offering all possible advantages. It is a “pragmatic” vision that imposes capitalist logic, or allows it to impose itself.
On the other side stand campesino families, some of them organized and others not, facing growing difficulties to go on producing. The lack of state support is worsened by the cartel practices of corporations and the penetration of GMOs. The threats to Venezuela’s food security and food sovereignty keep growing.
But at the same time, campesino movements have shown time and again that they are ready to struggle and fight, be it to accelerate radical changes or to resist attacks against the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution.
In 2010, Chávez nationalized seed and fertilizer supplier AgroIsleña over repeated complaints that it abused its monopolistic market position. It was renamed AgroPatria. In recent years, the company was plagued by corruption accusations and was transferred to private corporation AgroLlano 2910 in 2020. Pedro Camejo was created in 2007 to supply tractors, transportation and technical support to rural producers. Beginning in 2019, its plants and assets were transferred to regional governments which in turn passed them on to the private sector under “strategic alliances.”
Blaming a lack of cooperation and hostility from opposition governors, the Maduro government appointed so-called “protectors” to four states where Chavismo lost gubernatorial races in 2017.