The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela, Part 1

One of the goals of the Venezuelan government and its 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 the Chavez administration to address issues of food sovereignty, but Venezuela is working against years and years of damage that has already been done.

By Anna Isaacs, Basil Weiner, Grace Bell, Courtney Frantz and Katie Bowen
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Defining Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is a relatively new concept. Originally coined and defined by the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, in Mons, Belgium in 1993, it is:

“The RIGHT of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the “dumping” of agricultural commodities into foreign countries. Food sovereignty organizes food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption. Food sovereignty includes the right to protect and regulate the national agricultural and livestock production and to shield the domestic market from the dumping of agricultural surpluses and low-price imports from other countries. Landless people, peasants, and small farmers must get access to land, water, and seed as well as productive resources and adequate public services. Food sovereignty and sustainability are a higher priority than trade policies.”[1]

Via Campesina, in its definition, clearly states certain specific issues that deserve more attention in relation to Venezuela’s current recovery of its food sovereignty. These issues are absolutely essential, not only in guaranteeing that local food needs be met by local food production, but also in protecting the cultural heritage of people who have invested generations upon generations in the same land. All over the world, where people have had land in their families for centuries, the land is being lost because of the dumping of heavily subsidized, imported foods onto their local markets. Farmers cannot compete and must give up their land. With those losses goes pride and the hope for locally based and supported food systems. Rising numbers of farmer suicides are the ultimate result of a system of global trade that strips away the land, its products, cultural heritage and pride. People are dying because they cannot afford to eat and farmers are dying because they cannot afford to feed.

Some of Venezuela’s obstacles to food sovereignty include: the speculative market that formed around buying and selling land; the transformation from individual landowners to conglomerate companies, and farmers to farm workers; and technology that has made a small farmer’s way of life economically unsustainable.

Economic History

The story of the Venezuelan economy deserves special attention because of the presence of oil. In order to understand the specific forces working against food sovereignty, we must travel to the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers arrived to Venezuela’s fertile grounds. Isabel Allende once commented on the fertility of Venezuelan soil: if she didn’t dust daily, she would arrive home to find a plant growing straight out of the dust on top of her furniture. The Spanish colonizers enslaved Africans and native peasants, and grew cocoa, coffee, sugar, cotton, and tobacco for export. At least 70% of the population lived in the countryside and 80% of the country’s revenues were attributable to agricultural production. After the War for Independence (1821-1839), strongmen, caudillos, who had risen through the ranks during the war won large estates called latifundios, and land was further consolidated into fewer hands.

In 1914, however, the country’s oil wealth was discovered, and within 50 years Venezuela’s economy had been completely reoriented. With two world wars, petroleum-based industrialization and use of personal vehicles, the world demand for oil increased dramatically. Instead of agricultural exports, the country exported oil, and by 1957 agricultural activity only accounted for 1.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most widely referred to as “Dutch disease”, the Venezuelan economy suffered from paralysis in all sectors not affiliated with oil. Domestic agricultural production could not meet domestic demand and the country quickly became a net importer of food. The countryside was no longer of service to the oil-rich policy makers and fell into a state of neglect. With another oil boom in the 1970’s, the Dutch disease only worsened. The increased importation of food crippled local agricultural production, leaving large groups of Venezuelans with no choice but to migrate to the cities where there was more hope of finding work. As a result, Venezuela is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with most sources estimating that approximately 90% of the population is located in urban areas. Today, any traveler can observe the effects: shantytowns, or barrios, crowd the hillsides around the more well-to-do city centers. Employment rates and infrastructure cannot keep pace with mass migration. Residents don’t always have water or electricity; roads, which are usually too narrow for automobiles to navigate, aren’t officially named or marked. In the overcrowded conditions, poverty festers.

In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez gave in to IMF policies. Pérez was required to apply the neo-liberal package: privatizing services, cutting social spending and subsidies, orienting the economy for export, and deregulating trade.[2] Venezuela’s economy was already oriented towards the export of oil, which destroyed internal agriculture production, caused a build-up of poverty in the city and created a need to import more food. But the new policies also demanded that social spending and subsidies be cut. With the government unable to subsidize Venezuela’s own oil, prices of everything, especially food and transportation, doubled overnight, and Venezuelans took to the streets rioting, in what is called the Caracazo. The Pérez government brutally repressed the rioters, killing thousands. Most observers believe that Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998 in direct response to failed neo-liberal policies and the repression of the Caracazo: Chavez’s victory symbolized taking back sovereignty and working for the welfare and needs of the people. Chavez won on a platform to eliminate corruption, fight poverty, and create a new constitution. The 1999 constitution, drafted by a popular assembly and approved by a clear majority of the population, is considered one of most progressive in world. It prioritizes food sovereignty, addressing food as a basic human right, not merely a commodity.

Food Culture

Hugo Chavez and his government are among the first policy makers in the world to address issues of food sovereignty, but they are working against years and years of damage that have already been done. The present-day reality is that Venezuela imports 70% of the food it consumes. Pabellon, the national plate of Venezuela, is made of slow roasted, pulled beef, white rice, black beans with cheese, and fried plantains. However, Venezuela does not produce the entirety of its national meal; the majority of black beans and beef consumed in the country are imported. In supermarkets food prices are about the same as they are in the U.S., but Venezuela’s minimum wage is $11 US a day. This does not translate perfectly to the U.S. because many poor people in Venezuela don’t pay rent and there are no property or income taxes. Nonetheless, a high percentage of one’s income goes to food, especially for those living in poverty.

Compared to most of the nations of Latin America, Venezuela is relatively prosperous, and for the most part, minimum caloric intake is met. However, in many quarters, the diet is poor. We found it odd to learn that Venezuelans don’t eat many vegetables when their soil is so fertile and they could grow them all year long. Salad was rare. Fruit was readily available, but it was usually served as juice, with a lot of added sugar. You find a lot of processed flours, powdered milk, and hydrogenated oil—a diet similar to that consumed by many people in the United States. One of our classmates became sick and told her host-mom that she hadn’t been able to poop for the past 3 or 4 days. Her host-mom seemed to think this was normal. Upon my arrival to Venezuela, my host-brother wanted to take me out. I was expecting Venezuelan cuisine. Instead, we went to the mall where he professed his love for McDonalds to me. These experiences could just be a few extreme, isolated cases, but if Venezuelans had control over their food supply, would they be eating this way? Would they be connected to their luscious countryside and eat more fresh vegetables and less sugars and starches? Would they practice a more traditional food culture and less addiction to corporate American brands?

As campesinos were pushed off their land and flocked to the barrios to find jobs in oil and industry, Venezuela lost much of its traditional food culture and its ability to feed itself. In Venezuela, corporations have the ability to dictate what is eaten and create a demand for their products through marketing and media control. Venezuela has been colonized by food corporations. You can’t get away from Nescafe and Coca Cola. The “globalization” taking place around the world can also be called “Americanization”.

How is Venezuela moving forward to food sovereignty and away from the problems history has brought them?

1. Land reform

Article 307 of the constitution states:

“The predominance of latifundios iscontrary to the interests of society. Appropriatetax law provisions shall be enacted to tax fallowlands and establish the necessary measures totransform them into productive economic units,likewise recovering arable land. Farmers andother agricultural producers are entitled to ownland in the cases and forms specified under thepertinent law. The State shall protect and promoteassociative and private forms of property in suchmanner as to guarantee agricultural production.The State shall see to the sustainable orderingof arable land to guarantee its food-producingpotential.”

Likewise, the constitution specifies that it is the State’s obligation to promote the development of agriculture in Venezuela:

“The state will promote conditions for holistic rural development, with the purpose of generating employment and guaranteeing the peasant population an adequate level of well-being, as well as their incorporation into national development. Similarly, it will support agricultural activity and the optimal use of land, by means of the provision of infrastructure works, credit, training services, and technical assistance.”

Reforms to Article 471 of Venezuela’s Penal Code de-criminalize small farmers who occupy private lands. The Law on Land and Agricultural Development of 2001 is the legal framework of land redistribution, which President Chavez calls “a return to the countryside”. The law aims to tax unused property that could potentially be used for growing and raising food. It also redistributes unused government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives and expropriates uncultivated land for redistribution, while compensating private owners at market value. The size of uncultivated landholdings is limited to 50 hectares of high quality land and 3000 hectares of low quality land, with another four categories between these two extremes.

The National Land Institute (INTI) oversees the land redistribution process. It determines what land can be redistributed and who, out of those applying for land deeds, is eligible. Mission Zamora is a government initiative inspired by Ezequiel Zamora who was a crusader for land reform and peasants’ rights in the 1850’s. The mission is in charge of helping to organize small and medium producers and assisting them to receive land titles. When the work of these institutions started, 70% of cultivatable lands were in the hands of 3% of the population. By 2005 2.2 million hectares of state owned land had been redistributed to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives. One million hectares of private land had been redistributed, of which 90% are successfully producing food.[3]

Recuperated lands are distributed to cooperatively run projects called Zamoran Farms. The land is owned by the state, but it is considered the cooperative’s as long as it remains productive. Value added to the land, such as housing, tractors, livestock, recuperated soil or planted trees, is classified as productive and belongs to the cooperative.

We visited such farms in Venezuela. One was a 60-hectare parcel of formerly idle, stateowned land in Merida, which the government granted to small producers. 63 people showed interest in the land, but they did not complete the free workshops offered by the government mission, Vuelvan Caras, which educates people about how to form cooperatives. As a result they were not eligible to attain helpful micro-credits and benefits from the government. Disappointed, they tried to divide the land into individual family farms to create an association of producers, but they could not create consensus and many people left. Out of the 63, seven stayed to form the cooperative, now called Pan y Amor, or Bread and Love.

We visited another Zamoran farm in Tucaní. The land redistribution process there was entirely different. The land was formerly a 200-hectare, privately owned latifundio. 206 laborers in the region organized a Land Committee, a Comite de Tierra, and fought for four years with the help of Mission Zamora to obtain the land. On April 7, 2002, after 120 hours of workshops about cooperatives, the Comite de Tierra became the cooperative Beveré. In this case, the workshops were given by an enterprise called Cecosesur. As with Pan y Amor, the number of members decreased; 65 people lasted through the workshops. They received the title to the land from the National Land Institute (INTI) on October 12th and on November 15th, entered the land. We were told that 42 members make up the cooperative today because, while people want land, they are not interested in the social organizing that accompanies it.

Outside of Caracas, we were able to witness an actual land takeover. 20 years ago, hundreds of families were pushed off the land when the landowner suddenly decided to take it back. He had done nothing productive with the land, so the residents organized to reclaim it, along with the surrounding land, and farm it. They were approved by INTI and we had the opportunity to partake in the celebration of entering the land. There we watched members of the community, aided by El Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora (The Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front) break the chains of the property to march onto the land that would be their new home and livelihood. These battles are not easy ones; it is important to know that since 2001, 241 rural activists have been murdered. One of the recipients of the land told us, “If we tried to do this ten years ago we would have been beaten by the cops.”

The Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora was an organization we heard a lot about. We met Braulio, a Frente leader, who we have been in touch with since returning to the U.S. In an email he wrote about the organization’s goals: “to form, organize and mobilize agrarian communities using and defending our laws that are fundamental tools; and to orient people collectively to eradicate Venezuelan bureaucracy.” Braulio wrote, “We also work in other countries and we belong to the worldwide organization, La Via Campesina. We believe in popular power and that the government only is in control when it is obeying the people.” This “lead by obeying” philosophy is a quintessential tenet of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. To witness separate campesino movements in Latin America operating on similar philosophical grounds gave us a lot of hope and helped us see that work being done in Venezuela has global scope and implications.

2. Institutions

Land reforms under previous presidents failed because there was no support for farmers once they received land. Newly created government institutions, like the missions and ministries, act as the supporting structure for the land reforms. I mentioned Mission Zamora and Mission Vuelvan Caras (now called Mission Che Guevara) in the section above. Mission Zamora’s goal is, according to government documents, to “reorganize the ownership and use of idle lands with agriculture to eradicate the latifundio” by aiding those interested in reclaiming land.

We visited a Mission Che Guevara in Quibor. This mission gives people scholarships, and often health and housing assistance while they take higher education classes in technology, management, history, and cooperative values. It focuses on the Social Production Enterprise (EPS) model, defined as “economic entities dedicated to the production of goods or services, in which work has its proper and authentic value, with no discrimination associated with any type of work, no privileges related to certain positions or hierarchies and with equality between its members, based on participative planning.”[4] Cooperatives are preferred by the state but not required. The Social Production Enterprises are part of a larger plan for endogenous development, another Venezuelan-coined term, which counters neo-liberal development. While neo-liberal development promotes privatization of services in order to profit transnational companies, endogenous development promotes socialized services and localized production, organized by and for the collective whole. The Che Guevara mission that we visited functioned as a community center, but there were also community members paid by the government who were giving workshops on baking, canning, sewing, electronic repair, wood shop, soldering, and tourism, in order to strengthen the local economy and generate employment.

The Ministry of Popular Power of Agriculture and Lands (MPPAT) is made up of four departments: INDER, FONDAS, CVA, and INIA. The National Institute for Rural Development, INDER, works on infrastructure and construction projects like irrigation, drainage, bridges, and roads. We saw their plaques on completed projects everywhere along the rural roads. The Socialist Agrarian Fund, FONDAS, assists farmers through micro lending at little to no interest. Pan y Amor, for example, needed a tractor and the government gave them credits to buy one. They aren’t required to begin payment on the tractor until the land begins to produce. If farmers receive such credits, they are often required to sell their goods to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, CVA. This can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing because it offers a steady and fair buyer, in comparison to profiteering middlemen, but also leaves little space for independence and change. One of the CVA’s goals is to find markets for the products of small and medium farmers. In Quibor we visited a new plant that was comanaged by the government and workers from the community. They bought tomatoes, peppers, and onions from small and medium farmers in the region and made ketchup, salsa, and pasta sauce; they then sold these products to government subsidized food stores.[5] They are adding value to raw produce to develop food industries and create more jobs. A woman nervously approached us at the plant wanting to tell us something. She explained that before Chavez was elected, she worked as a migrant farm worker on latifundios, going wherever she could make enough to survive. She explained that as a single mother with three children, that kind of life was impossible, unbearable. Now she has steady work in one place. She threw her hands in the air and thanked Chavez for his compassion for the campesino. In 2008 the National Assembly allocated $379 million to a network of these “socialist” food producers. 21 agro-processing plants run by communities across Venezuela are currently coordinated by the CVA.[6]

The National Agriculture Research Institute, INIA, is particularly interesting to us. It is the participatory research branch that conducts studies and projects with farmers. If a farmer needs technical assistance, they can go to INIA and get it for free. Basil made contact with a team in the Merida office and went on several visits with them to the farms they work with. He explains that he was lucky in meeting this particular team (Angelica, Camilo, and Adrian) because they exhibit the amazing potential of INIA. We were introduced to Pan y Amor, a research plot in Zulia, and many small family farms in Pueblo del Sur. Pan y Amor struggled with their citrus production and asked INIA to help. INIA did this and more. Now with their help, the farmers are growing and studying the production of organic cocoa. Recently they started a new project of growing different varieties of yucca. The region is perfect for yucca production and the government, as a way to bolster internal production and processing of foods, is building a yucca-processing factory in the area. INIA is helping Pan y Amor conduct a yucca experiment on their land in preparation for this factory. The yucca grown there will be sold raw, but will also be processed into flour and a lubricant for oil drills. At the INIA research plot in Zulia, they are studying which varieties of plantains are more naturally resistant to pests and therefore require less chemical applications. This research was initially intended for a large plantation, but Beveré, the cooperative farm we visited in Tucani, was also benefiting from their research and was conducting a similar experiment on their land. In Pueblo del Sur, the INIA team is working with small family farms to study which grasses increase cows’ milk production. Angelica gave them the basic tools to conduct their own experiment to see which kind of grass made the cows produce the most milk. Each family ran its own experiment and by the end of a month, the cows were giving 5 litres of milk a day instead of 1. The goal of this experiment was not to increase milk production for commercial production, but to make sure small family farms remain self-subsistent. But the ability of small families to produce what they consume also has an impact on the amount of food the country needs to import.

The contact with small, rural farming operations provides opportunities for a very different kind of relationship between producer and researcher. There is a feeling of deep mutual respect. This is what is so significant about participatory research. A farmer told Basil, “Before, we only ever got help from scientists when they were writing their papers for school. They treated us poorly and only ever told us what we needed to do, never asking us what we needed help with.” We witnessed scientists encouraging producers to make sure their children went to school. The INIA researchers were always greeted more like family than professional associates. We also witnessed our friends at INIA spreading awareness about the opportunities that farmers have to organize to meet their needs. When one farmer complained about his irrigation difficulties, Angelica told him that he could get together with other farmers in the region, form a communal council[7] and apply for money to install more advanced irrigation infrastructure. After giving farmers seeds, Angelica explained that she wouldn’t give them anymore because the farmers need to be independent and claim the knowledge INIA is providing, like seed saving, as their own. This is in contrast to agricultural production since the Green Revolution, where seeds have been developed to terminate after a season, thus forcing farmers to rely on corporations like Monsanto to buy new seeds every year.

Anna met another team in the Merida office who was experimenting with a bacterium, as an ecological alternative to chemicals, to eliminate a butterfly larva that was killing the corn and cruciferous crop in the area. Another man named Javier was working with a strand of mushrooms called trichodherma harziaunum to kill mushrooms that were destroying broccoli, cauliflower, and potato crops.

3. Food Factories

Just as with land takeovers, there hasbeen much organizing to take over importantpoints of food production and distribution. Wevisited the town of Barlovento where familycooperatives grew cacao. The producers in thearea understood that they were losing profit:they sold their cacao on the world market asa raw product and they bought back chocolatebars, the finished product, at a 100% priceincrease. They realized the importance ofendogenous development and in 2004, thecommunal council[8] made a proposal to thegovernment to build a cacao processing factory.The government approved the proposal andbuilt a state of the art processing plant. Thegovernment and the communal council eachowns 50% of the plant; however, the communalcouncil has complete control over how the plantfunctions. The government can’t tell themwhat to do except to demand productivity.

The people of Barlovento aredescendents of Africans who escaped thebondage of slavery. Their shared heritagehas created a close-knit community. Thepeople who work as farmers are often familymembers of those who work in the factory,and some people may do both. Because ofthis, there is close cooperation between thefarms and the factory. Cacao is bought fromsmall and medium farms at a fair price andsurplus realized from factory productionis reinvested in the whole system (fromfarming to processing) or divided equallybetween the farmers and factory workers.

Another example is the factory ofthe Italian multinational company Parmalat.When they abandoned their milk plant, theVenezuelan government bought it fromthem for $372 million. It is another exampleof a “socialist” producer supported by theCVA. It has the capacity to produce 1 millionliters of milk per day, but currently, is onlyoperating at 6% of its capacity.[9]

4. Subsidized food

Children all over the world “die because of illnesses that are practically always preventable and curable at a rate of over 30,000 per day, 21 per minute, and 10 every thirty seconds. In the South, the proportion of children suffering from malnutrition is upwards of 50% in quite a few countries, while, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a child who lives in the First World will consume the equivalent of what 50 children consume in an underdeveloped country throughout his or her life.” This statement was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the opening of the seventh G-15 Summit on March 1, 2004. Mercal, PDVAL, comedores populares, and casas de alimentacion are all methods the government is using to stop hunger.[10]

In December 2002, Fedecámaras, Venezuela’s chamber of commerce, and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company called for what looked like a general strike, but was actually a lockout of employees. As in the United States Venezuela’s production and distribution of food was heavily controlled by international corporations. These food corporations supported the lockout, as an attempt to get Chavez out of office by creating instability in the country. This attempt of sabotage resulted in closed supermarkets, growing malnutrition, and food shortages across the country. On his television show, Aló Presidente, Chavez made clear how dangerous Venezuela’s lack of food sovereignty and vulnerability to the major food corporations was. Mission Mercal was created in response to this danger. It is a chain of government-subsidized grocery stores that sell meats, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, bread, cereal, pasta, rice, flours, tomato sauce, fruit, coffee, margarine, oil, sugar, and salt, all priced 39% below traditional supermarkets. They buy directly from Venezuelan producers or import what isn’t produced in Venezuela to eliminate the intermediary. The current goal is to buy 40% of food from small and medium local producers. They have also developed large storage spaces and distribution and transportation networks to combat food speculation, hoarding, and sabotage. The stores also provide jobs for the communities. Some Mercal stores, such as the one Katie went to in Monte Carmelo, are run by the community. They organized through their communal council to obtain money for the initial capital, and run it like community supported agriculture in the U.S., where customers receive packages of food weekly.

PDVAL markets, on the other hand, are run by the state oil company, PDVSA, and sell essential products at nationally regulated prices. They are mobile, smaller markets. We often saw PDVAL trucks selling to crowds of people in parking lots or plazas. Comedores Populares are popular cafeterias that offer large healthy lunches for five bolivars (about $2.50) or for free if you aren’t able to pay. Basil and I ate at one in Mérida and were pleasantly surprised. We saw men and women of different economic levels and classes all eating together. Casas de Alimentacion (basically soup kitchens) are community-run cafeterias that operate out of individual homes. Katie went to one in Palo Verde. She explained to me that women from the community used funds from their communal council to make lunch everyday for people who were in need. The government’s 14,000 Mercal stores and 6,000 soup kitchens comprise 22% of national food distribution currently. Per capita food consumption of Venezuelans has grown from 370 pounds of food per year in 1998 to 415 pounds per year now. The recommended amount of food that each person should consume per year is about 440 pounds. We in the U.S. average 1800 pounds per year.[11]

5. International trade of goods and knowledge

In the face of crippling free trade agreements enforced by the United States, Venezuela is working to make new alliances, based in mutual agreement and cooperation. In our visit to Beveré in Tucaní, we saw Veniran tractors that were made in Iran specifically for Venezuela. The plan is not just to import tractors from Iran, but to be capable of manufacturing tractors in Venezuela by acquiring necessary equipment and engineering skills to do so. Beveré also had a Cuban agronomist, veterinarian, and accountant stationed at their farm as a part of the agreement of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Chavez proposed ALBA in 2004 as an alternative to the U.S. proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic join Venezuela in ALBA. The Cubans stationed in Venezuela provide technical assistance but also teach cooperative theory. Cubans have also provided greenhouses to Venezuela in exchange for discounted oil. A regional farmers organization in Mucuchies, Produción Agroecologia Integral (PROINPA), was working with Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) scientists on a project on potato seeds. The construction of Cuban greenhouses was critical to the success of the project and Anna witnessed Cubans working with ULA scientists and PROINPA farmers to jumpstart the production of potatoes and protect the biodiversity of the potato seeds. In Caracas we saw a beautiful urban garden inspired by those in Cuba. The CVA has created five food factories (similar the tomato processing plant we saw in Quibor) through economic accords with Cuba, and has launched a corn processing plant in cooperation with Iran and Nicaragua. The cacao plant in Barlovento was also trying to utilize ALBA to trade its chocolate products within the region. PDVAL signed a 12-year milk importation contract with the Argentine dairy cooperative Sancor in order to provide food products that are currently scarce.[12]

6. Getting tough with agro industry

In 2004 President Chavez’s rhetorictowards big business agriculture surprised theinternational community. Upon receiving wordfrom Via Campesina that Monsanto was goingto plant 500,000 acres of transgenic soybeans,Chávez called for the termination of theproject and declared that genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs) are contrary to the interestsand needs of the nation’s farmers and farmworkers. In reaction, he ordered that the landthat was to be used for the soybean planting beplanted instead with yucca, a widely recognizedindigenous crop. He also announced plans for aproject to create indigenous seed banks in orderto ensure availability, security, and diversity ofseeds for peasants worldwide.[13]

Chavez was standing up to thecorporation that produced Agent Orange duringthe Vietnam War, the bovine growth hormonerBGH, and the pesticide “glyphosate” which isused by the Colombian government against cocaproduction and rebel groups. It has destroyedlegitimate farms and natural areas like thePutomayo rainforest, and poses a direct threatto human health, includingthat of indigenouscommunities.[14] Sadly,Monsanto does continue tooperate within Venezuela.This is because if anenterprise is productive,the government has notchallenged their right tooperate. That was obviouswhen we drove through a plantain latifundio inZulia that stretched formiles and was ownedby a large companythat sprayed its fieldsby airplane. However,if your company is notconducting productivebusiness, the governmentwon’t hesitate to pounce. While we were inVenezuela Polar was found to be hoarding riceand Cargill was evading price controls on rice.The government took temporary administrativecontrol of a Polar plant in Guárico state andexpropriated Cargill rice plants for 90 days asa warning.

In 2003 the Venezuelan governmentset price controls on about 400 basic foods.Manufacturers claim that food shortages areoccurring because the price controls have notkept up with inflation. The government arguesthat the fall of the U.S. dollar and speculation onthe market is leading to the instability. Problemswith hoarding and smuggling to Columbia haveensued, where manufacturers can turn a 300%profit.[15] Also, food manufacturers are evadingthe price controls by producing non-regulatedfoods and decreasing production. Anna wastold, “Imagine you can’t find any milk, but youcan find all the sour cream and yogurt you want.”Rice was a growing problem: the prices wererising and the shelves weren’t being restocked.As a result, in February 2009, Chavez orderedthe military to temporarily take control of allthe rice processing plants in the country andforce them to produce at full capacity. Polar,Venezuela’s largest food processor, claimedthat the regulated price of plain rice was belowthe cost of production, and therefore it wasreasonable that 90% of the plant’s productionwas non-regulated, flavored rice. Polar alsoclaimed that because of the shortage in rawmaterials, they could only operate at 50%capacity. The government claimed otherwise,saying they found two months’ worth of rawrice in the plant’s storage. In March 2009,Chavez set minimum production quotas for 12basic foods that were subject to price controls,including white rice, cooking oil, coffee, sugar,powdered milk, cheese, and tomato sauce. Healso has raised the regulated prices of another10 basic foods; however, the regulated pricesmust stay current with inflation or corruption willcontinue.[16]

The battle continues: these privatecompanies do not want to cooperate with thegovernment and are more concerned with theirprofits than the wellbeing of the people. Let menote here that Cargill reported nearly $4 billionin net earnings in 2008, a 36% increase overthe previous year, while the number of peoplesuffering hunger worldwide increased to a record923 million.[17]

7. Regional organizing through consejos comunals and the comuna

The following information is taken from Josh Lerner’s extensive article, “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” published in March 2007. We had a chance to meet Josh in Venezuela, where he was working in barrio Pueblo Nuevo in Mérida. He was a muchappreciated resource in our studies.

Since 2006, Venezuelan neighborhoods have been organizing themselves into communal councils, a form of participatory democracy where the community has the responsibility over decisions that affect them. Each urban council contains about 200-400 families, each rural council has at least 20 families, and each indigenous council is about 10 families. All decisions are to be made in citizen assemblies with a minimum of 10 percent of residents over age 15. These assemblies are to elect leadership, financial management, and monitoring committees, as well as committees based on local priorities (health, education, recreation, land, safety, etc.). Money is funneled to the communities that need it without corrupt government officials interfering. By law, communities can receive funds directly from the national, state, or city governments, from their own fundraising, or from donations. In turn, the councils can award grants for community projects or cooperatives. Officially, communal councils are to send project proposals directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, which gives the go-ahead as long as they are legally valid. However, councils often send projects to their municipality for review first. Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already formed throughout the country. As of 2007, 300 communal banks were established, which have received $70 million in micro-loans. Thanks to these funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community projects, paving streets, creating sports fields, building medical centers, and constructing sewage and water systems. Some leaders have proposed that the councils replace city and state governments entirely, or work parallel to them.[18]

The comuna is a fairly new idea. It is a larger social network of communal councils and cooperatives that can combine resources to work on larger projects that benefit more people. Infrastructure committees from several communal councils might decide to work together to build new sewer systems or several communal banks may decide to co-lend start up capital for a cooperative that addresses a need like distributing food. The comuna, hopefully, will have more resources to invest in Social Production Enterprises that can generate employment and produce what the community is in need of, thus furthering endogenous development.

Agroislena is a Venezuelan based agrochemical corporation that has a very strong presence in certain areas of Venezuela. Mérida state is one of these areas and during our time in the Merida countryside, in Mucuchies, we saw many Agroislena “tiendas” or shops. For decades, small farmers in the region have depended on this company for most of their agricultural inputs such as seeds, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. The agricultural areas suffer some of the most devastating rates of topsoil erosion in the world precisely because of the heavy reliance on chemical inputs that have historically exacerbated erosion issues. It is also important to state that a significant portion of the products sold at Agroislena stores are bought from U.S, European and Canadian multinational agribusinesses such as Cargill and Monsanto.

With the Chavez administration’s stated goals to promote locally based endogenous development around food production and distribution, and the local urgency to address the problems of chemical input dependence and subsequent erosion, locally based grassroots solutions have begun to emerge. The local production of organic alternatives to multinational chemicals serves as a very effective strategy for communities to pinch the markets of the large corporations. Maria Vicente is one of the community organizers and activists behind the initiative. She showed us the work of their communal council: new drip-irrigation systems that used less water than the sprinkler system they had before. She and some other women were also working to organize a cooperative trash pickup service that was quite comprehensive. Anti-litter posters hung up around the town and they had taught residents how to separate their trash from reusable materials. Food was separated for compost, which was in turn made into a worm fertilizer, hummus, and teas by the women. They had also set up childcare services for the children, which offered healthy meals and health care. Instead of chemical fertilizers or chicken manure (which was also imported from a different region of the country and caused contamination of the waterways), local producers were buying compost made by the women’s cooperative. The monetary price is a small fraction of the imported inputs, the compost does not contribute to erosion, and it is reported to be highly effective. It may make a nominal difference in the bottom line of agroindustrial companies, but the positive local impact is tangible and transformative. It is in the grassroots where the spirit of the Bolivarian revolution truly resides. With the sprouting of locally based solutions to local problems, the theoretical concept of sovereignty begins to take physical shape.

In Monte Carmelo some of us witnessed examples of really exciting community based organizing around food sovereignty issues. Irrigation and transportation infrastructure, organic, cooperative agriculture, regional networks of food producers and experiments with soil building worms and micro-rizomes are all examples of the activity in this small community. At the center of many of these projects is an amazing woman named Gaudi. Gaudi is acutely aware of the history of food in Venezuela. As a campesina, she has spent her life inside of an economy that has prioritized importation over local production. She has not only witnessed the slow and steady loss of local food autonomy, but she has suffered from it. For Gaudi, the seed is at the center of this story, and her work with seeds in the community has been extremely important, not only in encouraging the use of locally produced and adapted seeds, but in rescuing local awareness, identity and pride in that which is uniquely Venezuelan. In concert with the Lara state office of INIA, Gaudi and her community helped organize an annual festival dedicated to celebrating, honoring and sharing local seeds. The day of the campesina seed is now an official holiday in Monte Carmelo and its organizers hope that it spreads across the country.

When you visit Gaudi in her home, she will show you two things. She will show you a painted mural of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator from Spanish rule, that hangs on her inside wall, and she will show you her seeds. Her collection is impressive, but what may be more impressive is that many homes in Monte Carmelo are also small banks of local seeds. Instead of relying on agricultural stores for their seeds, the people of Monte Carmelo are working towards food sovereignty by localizing their production, storage and distribution.

Here, we have included the Declaration of the Campesina Seed, which Gaudi wrote:

Declaration of the Campesina Seed

We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with

the campesinos and campesinas of Monte Carmelo, declare:

That we are the nutritious hope of our people.

That for centuries we have filled stomachs,

pockets, marusas, bags, and granaries.

That we are part of the Venezuelan people,

because we are all together at breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner.

That, besides being nourishment, we are also medicine

and happiness for the campesinos and campesinas.

That we create and give life when our love merges

with the love of the humble and unassuming people of the fields;

and that we love being grown as we were grown in the past,

without being mistreated.

That, despite the persecution and mistreatment we have received

from other seeds that are more powerful than us,

we are still curled up safely in Monte Carmelo.

That, with courage and bravery we have resisted the harshness

of herbicides and insecticides that have been spread over us.

That we are born from the womb of Mother Earth

and we cry with her because she’s damaged and unloved.

That we love being caressed by fresh water once we are sowed.

That we are friends of the insects, birds and microorganisms that

sing us songs of love and fertility

in the voice of patriotism and national identity.

For these reasons and many more we proclaim to the world:

That we need to unite with all the seeds in the world,

especially those in Latin America and the Caribbean.

That all of us seeds should organize ourselves in cooperatives

in order to defend our existence.

That those who aren’t familiar with us should get to know us,

so that they can help us reproduce and support us in our struggles for justice.

That the creation of indigenous Seed Banks

should be promoted in every Venezuelan village.

That love for us should be promoted in schools, high schools, universities

and all other centers of education.

That girls and boys should play with us when they are washing us for dinner.

That, as nourishment, we should never be missing

at the tables of any Venezuelans.

That the campesino seeds should be able to enjoy life

with men, women, boys, girls, and young people

in an environment free of contamination

by toxic agricultural substances and industrial waste;

and to avoid, by any means necessary, being displaced

by imported and transgenetic seeds;

and to be ourselves, with our own flavor, color and aroma.

The seeds of Monte Carmelo, together with their hardworking friends,

the faithful inhabitants of this village;

declare that this day, October 29th,

is the Day of the Campesino Seed

so that it will be celebrated

every year on this date in all of Venezuela,

with the respect and appropriate honors that signify

that this is a memorable a day for the Venezuelan people.

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. Please see "The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela, Part 2" for the continuation of the article.


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