Opinion and Analysis: Economy | Land Reform
Feeding Ourselves: Organic Urban Gardens in Caracas, Venezuela
In the middle of the modern, concrete city of Caracas, Venezuela, Noralí Verenzuela is standing in a garden dressed in jeans and work boots. She is the director of the Organopónico Bolivar I, the first urban, organic garden to show its green face in the heart of the city of Caracas, Venezuela.
One afternoon while international crowds swarmed the city for the World Social Forum, I visited the "organoponic" garden to talk with Verenzuela about the garden’s place in the city and Venezuelan politics. To Verenzuela, the garden represents a shift in the ways that Venezuelans get their food. "People are waking up," she told the press. "We've been dependent on McDonald's and Wendy's for so long. Now people are learning to eat what we can produce ourselves."
Busy commuters might miss the corner of green between busy sidewalks at the Bellas Artes metro stop and the shiny skyscrapers of the Caracas Hilton. Still, if you pass by several times, your eye might wander toward the color of plants in the otherwise concrete city. At the edge of the garden, a squat concrete shed has a window onto the sidewalk. Inside, shelves display bunches of lettuce and carrots for sale to the public at much cheaper prices than found in the grocery stores.
This 1.2-acre plot tucked into what was an empty lot is part of a plan led by the government of President Hugo Chavez to shift the Venezuelan economy toward what it calls "endogenous development." Defined by its roots, the word "endogenous" means "inwardly creating," which is what the leaders of the Bolivarian Revolution would like to make the economy of Venezuela.
Since 1998, the government of President Hugo Chavez has embarked on wide ranging projects to redistribute Venezuelan resources and services. He has promised radical change to the eighty-three percent of Venezuelans who live below the poverty line in a country that is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. Chavez has redirected oil income from a large and wealthy management to a multiplicity of projects designed to improve social welfare. The scope of these projects range from programs aimed to address health and educational needs to the gardens, which are designed to change the modus operandi of the Venezuelan economy
In theory, an endogenous Venezuelan economy would be more self-sufficient and would favor products made in Venezuela by Venezuelans. "We have been exporters of raw materials and consumers of manufactured goods. One of the first objectives . . . is to put a stop to that game," says Carlos Lanz, an endogenous strategist for the Bolivarian Revolution.
The Organopónicos are inspired by similar projects that sprung up in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, this means that Venezuelans would buy and consume food grown in Venezuela, as opposed to the current situation in which, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Venezuela imports about 80 percent of the food that it consumes. The FAO, maintains that this has meant trouble for the poorest sections of society, and small farmers in particular.
The garden that I visited has been called a showcase for the endogenous program. Director, Noralí Verenzuela is used to being interviewed about her project, and understands her garden as a part of the endogenous effort. She tells me that the garden was created in 2002 as a cooperative that mimicked some garden cooperatives in Cuba. However, there were organizational problems; the 10 workers weren’t used to the physical labor, and they quit. It was then converted into a government project and inaugurated in 2003 as the Organopónico Bolivar I by President Hugo Chávez. Now the garden is supported by a variety of governmental and international ministries that make up the Special Program for Food Security (SPFS) for Venezuela.
The Venezuelan SPFS is one of 71 international food security programs initiated by the United Nations since 1996, but, unlike other SPFS’s, "Venezuela's SPFS is nationally owned and is one of the largest in Latin America, . . . [and] has been designed, planned and implemented by the Venezuelan government and the country's rural communities."  The main foci of the program are: management of water resources; intensification of crop production; production diversification and analysis of constraints faced by small farmers.
According to the FAO, the program is funded mainly by the Venezuelan government, with a significant contribution by the FAO, and a small amount from Cuban government. As a part of the SPFS, Chavez and the program directors have set a target of supplying 20% of Venezuela's vegetable production from these urban gardens.[] The Agriculture Ministry is also planning to plant 2,470 more acres of organic, urban gardens this year.[]
The Cuban government has also sent support in the form of agricultural specialists, as these gardens are a project with which Cuba has had experience. The program focuses in smaller projects as well, holding workshops to show people how to grow vegetables in raised beds or pots in their yards or houses for their own consumption.
Inspired by the Cold War
The modern urban organic gardens that inspired the Organopónico Bolivar I were not initiated by a government, but by Cuban citizens who desperately needed food.
After the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1989, which was the back bone of the Cuban economy, Cuba no longer had access to the 57% of food that it imported, or the fertilizers, pesticides and cheap fuel it needed for large scale industrial farming. During the ensuing economic crisis, Cubans in the city began to create their own organic urban gardens out of necessity, which came to be called organopónicos.
"Cuba's agricultural scientists had been researching organic farming before the Special Period, but the government was caught off guard when organopónicos started sprouting spontaneously," reports American farmer Peter Rosset, co-director of Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California. The government jumped on board when it became evident how successful the small gardens were, and now the Cuban scientists try to keep up with these backyard farmers. Eventually, most of Cuba’s large-scale, mono-cropping, export-oriented farming system was converted to an alternative food production system using low-input, sustainable techniques.
The Cuban government now states that 50 percent of the vegetables produced on the island come from urban gardens. By the end of 2000, food availability in Cuba had reached daily levels of calories and protein considered sufficient by the FAO. In Havana, 90% of the city's fresh produce now comes from organic local urban farms and gardens. By 2003, consumption of diesel fuel was down by more than 50% of 1989 levels, and chemical fertilizers and synthetic insecticide use were both less than 10% of former levels. Instead, bio-pesticides, soil treatments and beneficial insect breeding are used to protect crops. Scientists and farmers are feeling so successful about their gardens that they claim that, even should the blockade fall, they will not shift their methods back to industrial monoculture.
In Venezuela, any sanctions imposed by the socialist-wary U.S. Government could result in similar problems, thus President Chavez’s interest in Cuban methods of self sufficiency. During Chavez’s presidency, he has used Venezuelan oil as an offering of solidarity to many allies, including Cuba. An energy agreement he created now supplies the island with up to 53,000 barrels of oil per day, and has made Venezuela into Cuba's most important trading partner. In exchange, the clinics, schools and technical projects initiated by the Chavez government are all visited, advised and staffed by Cuban doctors, engineers and technicians.
The gardens are just a small part of Chavez’s work to rectify larger land problems in Venezuela. Currently, less than 2% of the population owns 60% of the land. Because of the success of the oil industry, Venezuela’s agricultural sector has been long neglected. This is not to say that there is a lack of arable land, but production is only 6% of the GDP, and "Venezuela's agricultural sector is the least productive in all of Latin America." This has created the "exogenous" situation that Venezuela finds itself today, importing 80% of food consumed. In contrast, the United States, agricultural imports account for 13% of total food consumed, though the percentage is rising.
Part of Chavez’s program in Venezuela has been to officially give the land to the people who need it, and in many cases, are already using it. He has worked actively to redistribute land in the cities by giving squatter communities the titles to their land, and has promised to redistribute rural land. His most notable action has been the seizure of unused foreign owned ranches without offering to pay the previous owners. One of the first ranches to be transferred to squatter ownership was a British-owned cattle ranch called El Charcote, which was given to farmers in early 2005. In terms of agricultural production, Chavez’s proposals have also banned genetically modified seeds, as well as created a seed bank for the preservation of indigenous crops around the world.
Creating the Garden in the City
For Noralí Verenzuela, the story of the Organopónico began in Cuba she was studying social work and went on a two month long government sponsored trip to Cuba in 2003. She was thrilled by the garden programs she saw in Cuba. When she got back, she was excited to hear Chavez talking about public organic gardening as a possible solution to Venezuela’s food importation problem. When a government-employed relative of hers told her about the Cuban-inspired project at Bellas Artes, she immediately asked to join.
Now neat rows surround a water tank in concentric circles of companion planted beds. As we walked between the rows I saw lettuce, peppers, bok choy, beets, carrots, a green called verdolaga (similar to purslane), eggplants, Chinese cabbage, and a variety of herbs. Plague preventing such as chives and calendula were interspersed decoratively. For such an international collection of plants, the weeds were staunchly Venezuelan. As we walked around the garden translating plant names and uses back and forth from Spanish and English, Verenzuela pointed out a slim stalk of amaranth in the bushes on the side. The ancient native grain locally called "Caracas grass", was the main sustenance of the indigenous people, and was therefore burned by the Spanish. Though the garden doesn’t cultivate it, she says that it is a powerfully nutritive plant, and that the healthiest seniors she knows all eat it faithfully.
Before the garden was there, the open lot was a security concern for its owner, the state owned Anauco Hilton hotel. Five security guards were hired to monitor the space, and the walls around the garden still sport the barbed wire that was used to keep purported vagrants and drug dealers out. Now the Anauco Hilton pays the workers’ salaries and one security guard to monitor the territory. The garden is also home to two tranquil guard dogs which have been well trained not to dig up the beds. When I asked several veteran street vendors nearby about the security concerned, they all agreed that the area was less dangerous. They liked being able to buy the cheap vegetables, too.
The seeds, tools and supplies used in the garden are paid for by the government. In addition to the regularly paid staff, the garden accepts drop-in unemployed workers from nearby barrios, such as Caricuao, who can work and take home vegetables. Much of the recent barrio population in Caracas has migrated to the city from the countryside, and know how to perform agricultural work. According to Verenzuela, the climate allows for the gardens to be productive year round. When crops are harvested, the beds are empty several days at most before new crops are planted.
Verenzuela herself returned to Cuba as an official representative in 2005 to study the urban gardens and find systems to emulate back in Caracas. She was intimidated by what she saw as a monumental success. "But we are still young," she says, "We can’t help it if their beets are twice as big, we’ll get there"
The Bolivar I garden considers itself to be linked with Cuba, and often has Cuban agricultural scientists visit and help. Amongst the gardeners, there are two Cuban agricultural engineers, women who come to help improve gardening procedures.
However, program directors are quick to insist that the gardens are made for a Venezuelan, not Cuban reality. "It's not a Cuban model," said Cojedes state governor Jhonny Yanez, a Chavez ally leading the land reform charge. "It's a Venezuelan model based on an oil economy that can feed itself."
Opposition to the Garden
Although the Organopónico Bolivar I garden has become an established part of the city, they city hasn’t always met it with open arms. The garden project has been criticized as a hypocritical publicity stunt by both Caracans and international environmentalists. While the garden might be seen by environmentalists as a nice gesture, they cite Chavez as a threat to the environment, due to his dependency on the oil industry and the refining of Venezuela’s sulfur-heavy crude. Government contracts with oil companies Petrobras and Chevron Texaco have focused on drilling in the Amazon. However, the most direct assaults on the garden have come from anti-Chavez Caracans themselves.
Many Venezuelans who are opposed to the Chavez administration, often called the Opposition, meet all government projects with distrust and derision, if they admit that the projects are happening at all. While Chavistas are stereotyped as poor Venezuelans from the barrios, the Chavistas call the Opposition los esqualidos, or the squalid people, and stereotype them as wealthy oligarchs. During my time in Venezuela, I found that the situation is not that simple. I spoke with people in the barrios who were skeptical of Chavez, and a businessman flying to New York City who was very supportive of Chavez. Talking to a range of Venezuelans is a dizzyingly inconsistent experience. Both Chavistas and those in the Opposition that I met believed that they were in the majority and that the other side was completely corrupt.
Still, the claims made by the Opposition are more difficult to swallow. All of the Opposition supporters I spoke with believe that they are the majority, and that Chavez has absolutely no support in the country. This is in spite of the fact that elections (deemed fair by international observers) show that Chavez consistently receives 60% of presidential votes. Chavez has won 9 elections, a recall referendum and was reinstated by massive popular protest after he was kidnapped in an attempted coup in 2002. I was told that Chavez’s endogenous economic policies are driving out foreign investment and that he will bring the country to economic ruin. In some cases, opposition supporters tried to convince me that Chavez is embezzling the oil money that is supposedly going to social programs, and that there are no social programs going on at all. During my visits to the barrios, schools, medical clinics, government subsidized markets and community radios were in construction or in full swing.
Ingrained in the culture of the wealthy opposition is a sense of entitlement to the resources that they have always had, and a belief that poor Venezuelans live the way that they do because they are lazy and racially inferior. Some of the wealthiest opposition supporters are concerned that their property might be taken away, as has happened to foreign owners of unused countryside. One man approached me on the subway and missed his stop to tell me that he was being secretly banned from government jobs for voting against Chavez in the 2004 referendum.
One of the most ridiculous claims of the opposition (and the most repeated in the U.S.) is that Chavez is restricting the freedom of the press. The fact is that most media in Venezuela is owned by the opposition. The television stations and newspapers ridicule and rail against the government on a daily basis, and some stations seem to dedicate themselves to it. This is not to say that the pro-government paper and TV station are less biased, but they are the minority.
The garden hasn’t been immune to this political divide either. In the first few months of its existence, the garden saw some sabotage (from the Opposition, according to Noralí Verenzuela), in which some plants were robbed. At other times, people stood outside the gardens and protested, and the workers ended up calling the police. Some Caracans have also complained about the smell of the manure imported from the country. The press ran stories saying that the vegetables were contaminated and unsafe to eat. Late last spring, workers found a huge snake, which someone had slipped into the garden at night. The gardeners have taken these attacks in stride, partially because it has become evident that the organopónicos represent much more than simple gardens. "As a pilot project," Verenzuela noted, "it [the garden] can't be allowed to fail."  In some cases, workers even found practical uses for the weapons of attack. In November, workers found some very destructive goats, which were let in to the garden by the Opposition, according to Verenzuela. Before the goats were able to do too much damage, workers caught, killed, barbequed and ate them as an afternoon barbecue. Perhaps this is the organoponic interpretation of ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
Recently, according to Verenzuela, the attacks have stopped, and the garden has become an accepted part of the landscape. In fact, Verenzuela says that some of their most faithful customers are opposed to Chavez. "We are making food, and food is not political," claims Verezuela. "Besides, they know that our food is better."
Snakes in the Garden
Cynics of the endogenous and organoponic programs have asked why so much energy is being focused in organic, urban gardening when there is so much fertile, unused farming land available in the rural areas. The national farmers' federation Fedeagro, which unites 52 smaller local chapters of farmers’ unions from around the country, says it is not opposed to the urban food program, but it is concerned about what it perceives as a lack of governmental support for the farming sector. "The problem is that it looks as though the government is concentrating all its efforts on these city farming plots, and yet the national sector remains in the state it's in," said Fedeagro's technical adviser Nelson Calabria.
According to the FAO, 92 percent of Venezuelans currently live and work in urban centers and a mere 8 percent in rural areas, which means that, were Venezuela to need to feed itself, the vast majority of the population would be in better shape if cities were also a viable option for food production. At the Organopónico Bolivar I, Verenzuela pointed out that the idea of urban gardens was a radical one for many Venezuelans. Journalist Magdelena Morales writes of the "the derision of critics," who scoff at Chavez’s suggestions that barrio (slum) residents "should raise crops and chickens on their balconies and rooftops." As Verenzuela explains to me, "We are showing people that a garden is possible in a city."
Another concern that skeptics have had about urban gardens is the very real question of pollution. Some opposition-experts have claimed that the exhaust laden air of the center of the city center "contains concentrations of carbon monoxide and lead that could contaminate growing plants." This idea crossed my mind as well, and I asked Verenzuela what their response at the Bolivar I had been. She led me over to a white machine mounted on a post in the middle of the garden. This, she told me, was the garden’s pollutions meter (catalizador de contaminación), and a technician comes every 15 days to take a reading. She didn’t tell me what the acceptable levels were, but indicated that they haven’t had any concerns so far.
A Better Alternative
In Havana, Cuba, where most of the produce available is produced in Organoponic gardens, some residents have complained about quality and availability of produce. Luckily, the Bolivar I is under a little less pressure, because at this point it is only one of many options for Caracans. Verenzuela says that many Caracans choose to buy their food there because it is fresher and cheaper. As Verenzuela explained to me, all agricultural produce in Caracan supermarkets is transported from the countryside and, by the time it is available to the city consumer, it is expensive and often damaged. Local supermarkets don’t offer a large variety of organic vegetables, and what is there is very expensive compared to the produce at the Organopónico Bolivar I.
The availability of fresh produce is even credited for a change in local dietary habits. Nearby, the housing by the highway is occupied by foreigners, many European and Asians who, according to Verenzuela, often eat more vegetables than the typical Venezuelan. She gives the example of when the garden took to growing bok choy; at first, Venezuelans had no idea what it was, but after they saw how many Asians were buying it, they started to try it as well. Now lettuce and bok choy are big sellers, and the garden market often runs out. Venezuelans nearby weren’t big vegetable eaters; the traditional meals are big on meat and fried starches. However, like their Cuban counterparts, the presence of cheap green produce has led Caracans to eat more greens, says Verenzuela. In Cuba, the increased vegetable consumption has reportedly contributed to a 25% decline in heart disease.
According to Verenzuela, Venezuelans are beginning to realize the risks that agricultural pesticides present. Chemicals are used indiscriminately in Los Andes, the main agricultural region. Verenzuela stated that commercial farmers in Los Andes don’t always follow directions for chemical usage. Farmers sometimes treat their crops and harvest them on the same day, which has led to cancer and infertility in the region. Still, when I asked some street vendors buying their vegetables from the little store by the metro exit if they were happy to be buying organic vegetables, they raised their eyebrows. "Sure," said a jewelry maker, "but we like these vegetables because they are cheap!"
More than a Garden
At the Organopónico Bolivar I, there are big plans for the future. Verenzuela would like to sell rabbits, make pickles, and sell potted ornamental and medicinal plants. As it is, Verenzuela regularly provides tours and hosts study groups of university students at the garden. Students studying agriculture at the newly formed Bolivarian University are required to visit and work in the organopónicos.
The garden has also become a safe haven for some local kids. One young girl played quietly in the garden while I visited. "Her father is a street vendor," explains Verenzuela "there were some problems, and she started hanging out here. She has her toys here, and we take her to school, and she does her homework here afterwards. She likes it here."
I take a last deep breath of fresh air before going back onto the crowded street. "Sometimes the people in the city look twice at us if we go out in our farming clothes to do some errands," Verenzuela says in her oasis of green in the middle of the concrete city. "Working here has really changed my life. I’m kind of out of touch with the soap operas and the news, but I like it."
April Howard is a history teacher and journalist currently living in Bolivia. Email April.firstname.lastname@example.org
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