Reconnecting Agriculture to our Cultural Base: An Interview with Ana Felicien

A Venezuelan food sovereignty activist explains the need to combat agrobusiness’ complex web of domination in this interview with Venezuelanalysis.

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Campesino holds bean seeds. (Archive)
Campesino holds bean seeds. (Archive)
By Ana Felicien y Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis
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Ana Felicien works at Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research and is a founding member of the Semillas del Pueblo (People’s Seeds) movement. She researches in the areas of agroecology and food sovereignty. In this interview with Venezuelanalysis, we asked her about grassroots attempts to achieve food sovereignty during Venezuela’s crisis years, and the need to change both consumption patterns and food-agriculture systems in the transition to socialism.

In the course of Venezuela’s economic crisis, we have seen changes in people's consumption patterns. People are eating more plantain, cassava and whole-grain corn, among other things, and fewer processed carbohydrates. Do you think this is just a temporary change (a return to the “traditional Venezuela,” which the romantically-minded might delight in because of its picturesque qualities), or is it a real step toward greater food sovereignty? How can we work to assure that these changes in consumption and production patterns become lasting ones and thus steps toward sovereignty and socialism?

The changes in consumption patterns during these difficult times are due, firstly, to the crisis of the whole agroindustrial system, which connects production, processing and highly concentrated, homogeneous and commodified consumption.

In Venezuela’s case, that system is also highly dependent on imports of raw materials and technology, which makes the system highly vulnerable and unable to meet the food needs of the population (as we have seen in recent years).

On the other hand, the new consumption pattern is possible thanks to the availability of food harvested in campesino production systems. With far fewer resources, these systems have proven capable of sustaining production, even in the face of all the problems of infrastructure (for both production and distribution) that peasant agriculture confronts.

These changes occurred as a spontaneous and almost immediate response in the majority of the population. Although they point to a possible revival of foodstuffs that form part of our identity, there is an even greater challenge: to overcome the colonization of our consumption that makes us in Venezuela some of the biggest consumers of wheat and with one of the most homogeneous diets in the tropics, despite being a megadiverse country in biological and cultural terms. This diet results from a historical process of differentiation that has separated off indigenous, afro, and campesino agricultural systems, while favoring imported food from the metropoli: Spain during the colony and the United States after oil came on the scene.

It is not for nothing that Venezuela signed a reciprocal trade agreement with the United States in 1939 that lasted until 1972, making possible and encouraging duty-free imports of processed foods. A wide variety of products (Kellogg's Corn Flakes and All Bran, Kraft cheese, Klim milk, Lipton Tea, Quaker oats, canned and frozen meats, Coca-Cola, Campbells soup, among other items) began to arrive, which tended to create an American-style pattern of consumption in the country. These products were distributed in oil field commissaries and in supermarkets created by Rockefeller in the main cities. It profoundly changed the way food was distributed and consumed in the country because, although the target was the middle class linked to the oil industry, the supermarket (soon) became normal throughout the country as the main space of food distribution.

To progress in transforming our consumption habits, it’s necessary to understand these colonization processes and develop responses that, beyond being merely immediate or local efforts, could allow us to consolidate a more sustainable food model. However, despite efforts ranging from the agroecological movements to state institutions such as the Venezuelan School for Food and Nutrition, we have seen how the logic of dependence on food imports is reproduced even in the CLAP food distribution system, which is a project with an enormous potential for promoting consumption patterns that would reflect greater sovereignty. The key then is to promote these transformative initiatives and connect them to the principal food policy operating in this crisis situation, with a view to making a this into a process of change that comes from below…

You were part of the group that started the movement Semillas del Pueblo (People’s Seeds). Can you tell us about the movement’s aims and what it has achieved? What obstacles and problems have you encountered? Also, what is the importance of the seed law that was passed in 2015?

Semillas del Pueblo grew out of a process of collective construction and popular debate concerning the new Venezuelan seed law. This process began in 2013, with those of us in the Venezuela Free from Transgenics campaign working with other organizations to promote a popular debate in favor of the new law and systematize it. The aim was to get the law to protect seed varieties pertaining to peasant, indigenous and afro-descendant groups in a differentiated system that includes – besides the certified seed produced by public research institutes and companies – the seeds, knowledge and organizational forms of the farmers, who, as we said before, are putting food on our table. The result of this collective work was a law that, on the one hand, opposed patenting and transgenics seeds and, on the other, promoted ecological agriculture.

It was an unprecedented law for the [Latin American] region, since recent years have seen more and more concentration in the business of industrial seed production, supported by changes in national seed laws that favor this monopolistic tendency. Because South America is where there has been the greatest expansion of transgenic crops, this new law has received a great deal of international recognition. By contrast, inside the country, seed importers have attacked it. Moreover, the defunct [opposition-controlled] National Assembly recently approved a new seed law, which of course favored industrial seed producers.

After the 2015 law’s approval, we organized a network of agroecological farmers and movements that had participated in the popular debate process. This network is comprised of urban farming groups, organizations of small rural producers (from the western and eastern region of the country), food distribution organizations that connect rural and urban areas, and researchers focused on agroecology and food sovereignty. Last year, we were somewhat weakened by a series of difficulties, and we are now reconfiguring our efforts to focus on connecting with the work being done in communes and in producers’ networks, with the idea of advancing seed production.

There are a number of grassroots organizational projects doing very important work in this area. They are democratizing access to seeds, (which, just like food, has been heavily monopolized and frequently smuggled). Of these efforts, the project Pueblo a Pueblo (People to People) stands out. That project, involving community organizations in the rural and urban areas, brings together seed production, food production and food distribution at fair prices. The project gives political content to the seed issue, by connecting it to key efforts in guaranteeing the right to food during the current crisis.

We continue to work hard on getting the law implemented, concentrating mostly on teaching, promoting and activating seed production spaces, but we have also made efforts in the areas of communication and awareness‐raising. No doubt there should be a greater effort in defending the new legislation and it must be done fundamentally by spreading awareness of law. The current situation urges us to do so.

Imported seeds (especially of garden vegetables) have practically disappeared, entering into the illegal economy. Meanwhile, seeds for more traditional crops, which have always been under popular control, have become more important in campesino production. This is key for any project aiming to change food and agriculture. Such a project needs to prioritize the genetic resources that small farmers have maintained and will maintain, not by the seed industry. In that sense, the law is more than a law: it is a plan for action to gain seed sovereignty.

However, despite the many grassroots efforts to produce seeds by the farmers, the rapprochement with state institutions has been practically nil, even with those institutions created by our own law. Bringing the two together is a pending problem.

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A sign calling for the passing of the 2015 Seed Law reads “Free seeds for a free people.” (Alba TV)
A sign calling for the passing of the 2015 Seed Law reads “Free seeds for a free people.” (Alba TV)

Constructing socialism is not only a matter of inheriting capitalism’s productive forces. It is also necessary to transform them. That is because, under capitalism, productive forces are subordinated to a quantity-based system and one that promotes false or fabricated needs and planned obsolescence. Can you connect this requirement of altering productive forces in the transition to socialism with the Venezuelan context and its food system?

As we discussed initially, the current food crisis offers powerful and clear evidence that monopolistic agroindustry is unable to provide food for the majority. There is no choice but to change, and what we consume daily shows it! Today workers are securing food through distribution circuits that are connected to campesino production, whether through intermediaries or through various forms of consumer organization. It’s virtually impossible to buy the goods sold in supermarkets at speculative prices, meaning that that model has failed.

But to take steps toward a real transformation, it’s necessary to make our food sovereignty projects more coherent. Here we have to face some challenges, such as:

1) Identifying the political subject of food sovereignty in Venezuela. This means recognizing the project of food sovereignty as a demand both of the working population (which was produced through processes of proletarization and migration towards the cities), and of the farming communities (made up of indigenous peoples, peasants and afrodescendentes) who have continued to produce. Especially important is the practice of cultivating small family plots (called conucos in Venezuela) as a form of resistance to the processes of appropriation, subordination and displacement that the growth of agro-industrial production leads to.

2) Reconnecting agro-food systems to their biocultural base; overcoming dependence on imported technologies and inputs, including seeds; and struggling for the diet to become more diverse and suited to local conditions. Crops that do not require large amounts of inputs or depend on imported seed are key in this effort as are the various agroecological methods used by campesinos to maintain them. Of course, this has consequences for urban consumers, who are called upon to reconnect our consumption habits with those processes that can lead to greater autonomy.

3) Influencing public policy so that it favors food sovereignty and not agribusiness, which tends to be involved in hoarding and smuggling. We must occupy the spaces where public policy is made and recover those spaces of decision-making that we once had. Agricultural policy, during the recent years of crisis, has been totally disconnected from campesino production. We have seen a large number of subsidies and agreements that favor the private sector and do not benefit the common people at all. The struggle over policy-making is very important for obtaining food justice.

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Agroecological plot in Mérida state, Venezuela. (Otras Voces en Educación)
Agroecological plot in Mérida state, Venezuela. (Otras Voces en Educación)

In Venezuela, as in much of the world, women and children are the group most affected by poverty. What is the role of women in Venezuela’s economic crisis today? I would say that, on the one hand, they are most affected by the crisis. On the other hand, it is women – young women, mothers, and grandmothers – who are often most active and creative in responding to the crisis, inventing solutions every day.

Both in the countryside and in the city, women have played the role of caregivers to the whole society. In the CLAP, in the networks of family producers, and in consumer organizations, women have assumed leadership roles. This has been one of the keys to Chavismo: women’s participation is central to popular organization. It also shows us the way patriarchy shapes the economic war: the concentration of wealth, together with smuggling and hoarding of food and other products of first necessity are expressions of patriarchal violence against the people who have benefited from Chavista social policies and are the most vulnerable ones in the current crisis. For that reason, only those solutions that break with patriarchal domination and with the use of food as a weapon of war and social control (not those that reproduce and strengthen such domination) constitute the real path to overcoming the crisis.

Colette Capriles has referred to biopower (the Foucauldian concept) in relation to Venezuela’s government programs. For her, these programs are a form of social control, using food and medicine. However, that way of seeing things overlooks the real network of biopower in our society, which involves giant corporations such as Polar and Cargill, with their patents, publicity, and distribution networks. Can you comment on this?

Of the current social programs, it is the CLAP that brings together all the contradictions in our agro-food system and also the possibility of emancipation. The CLAP network distributes imported transgenic foods (with a predominance of refined goods). Also, in many cases, it creates a new level of organization that is separate from the community ones. Finally, it involves subsidies to agroindustrial business for buying raw materials, and makes little or no effort to incorporate national production.

Given this complexity, it’s important to see the CLAP program in context: it is a response to a crisis in which our national consumption pattern, as we pointed out earlier, is highly homogeneous, involving refined flours and fat, dependent on agroindustrially-processed foods that are distributed mainly in large supermarket chains. This is not particular to Venezuela but a global trend in which the world’s diets are becoming less diverse and agribusiness is increasingly concentrated in a handful of companies that have monopolistic control of agriculture and food.

Despite this, many reports show how peasant family farming produces more than half the food consumed in the world. As we pointed out earlier, in our country, campesino agriculture’s contribution is also very important. Thus current efforts to guarantee access to food must be based on that concrete reality, and they must begin to displace the spaces controlled by agrobusiness that form part of our daily life: our dishes, tastes, and gardens. Those are sites of domination, and it is there that we should concentrate efforts. We firmly believe that one way of doing this is to bring together food sovereignty projects with concrete interventions in those areas of everyday life where the contradictions mentioned above are reproduced.