Urban Gardens & Self Revolution

The rural life has been all but abandoned throughout the years in Venezuela, replaced by mass importation and consumption. Venezuela’s agricultural innovations have come out of a desire to create a viable alternative to the industrialized agriculture complex that has dominated. We, in the United States, can significantly draw from this government-supported and people-powered agricultural revolution.

By Matthew Higgins
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The rural life has been all but abandoned throughout the years in Venezuela. The connection between producing and consuming one’s own food has been replaced by mass importation and consumption. Venezuela’s agricultural innovations have come out of a desire to create a viable alternative to the industrialized agriculture complex that has dominated. The benefits that can come from these regional innovations can help the people maintain their own development. By taking up gardens, they are taking up arms, defending their independence towards food sovereignty. We, in the United States, can significantly draw from this government-supported and people-powered agricultural revolution by taking back the means of production. This revolution need be approached from a personal and collective point of view, from a holistic and political standpoint. Only then can real changes become reality.

Currently, Venezuela’s economy is dominated by oil. This has created a centralized reliance on one sector of the economy. There needs to be a diversification of the economy in order to create a decentralized struggle towards change. But this change comes from both the cityscapes and countryside. There is a clear distinction between the two, but which one holds more prosperity for the overwhelming majority of poverty-stricken citizens? Why does there need to be a choice between the two? What lessons can we in the United States take from the current effort in Venezuela to develop the agricultural component of the Venezuelan economy? Over time, fusing the small farms and the large cities into one is a way to reclaim a self and collective definition that can create an alternative to the preconceived blueprints that industrial agriculture has brought to communities all over the world.

The overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan population lives within the cityscapes. A main cause of such patterns can be attributed to an economic syndrome known as “Dutch Disease,” a “development that results in a large inflow of foreign currency, including a sharp surge in natural resource prices, foreign assistance, and foreign direct investment.”[1] A country catches this economic disease whenever a commodity brings an increase of income in one sector of the economy, which is not matched by increased revenues in other sectors of the economy.

Gregory Wilpert states:

The oil income causes a distorted growth in services and other non-tradables, while discouraging the production of tradables, such as industrial and agricultural products. The increased demand for imported goods and domestic services, in turn, causes an increase in prices, which ought to cause domestic production to increase, but doesn’t because the flow of foreign exchange into the economy has caused a general inflation of wages and prices.[2]

This inflation of wages and prices makes it makes it easier to import goods, resulting in a better buy from abroad than fair exchange from within.[3]

As the main economic perpetuator of this syndrome, Venezuelan oil generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue.[4] This has left a weakened agricultural sector for Venezuela, resulting in roughly two-thirds of Venezuelan food being imported. While over one-third of the population is poverty stricken (as of 2007)[5] the need for cheap, organically grown food is becoming a necessity, especially considering “in recent years, crude oil production in the country has fallen, mostly due to natural declines at existing oil fields” (EIA).[6] The finite availability of oil to sustain the economy and social programs, let alone feed the people, most of whom do not have easy access to fresh food, presents a problem.

So what solutions are in the present and foreseeable future?

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 Cuba went through what has been dubbed “The Special Period,” during which they developed organic urban gardens in their cities known as organopónicos. This was not out of dietary acknowledgement, nor consciousness towards the Earth, but out of a necessity to survive. Without oil to import from the Soviet Union and lack of imported foods, fertilizers, and pesticides needed for large-scale industrial farming, the implementation of the organopónicos came from the people constructing the alternative. Only after mass mobilization did the government sufficiently implement the construction of urban gardens into their policy, which still continues to this day. Cuba has seen enormous success from these gardens, with production growing at 250-350% per year (as of 1999).[7]

Venezuela’s current economic situation has not reached the extremity of Cuba’s dilemma after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the current economic trends are encouraging alternative agricultural growth similar to that of Cuba. The Venezuelan government acknowledges the need to implement alternative agricultural programs despite the lack of mass mobilization from the citizens. But there have been many instances of small, organic farms and urban gardens sprouting up all over Venezuela. The seeds of urban gardening have been planted and projects have been started through the government. The prize trophy thus far is the Organopónico Bolívar I; a 1.2-acre plot tucked into what used to be an empty lot right across from what is now the Hilton hotel.

With various governmental and international ministries making up the Special Program for Food Security in Venezuela, the Chávez administration and program directors have set a target of supplying 20% of Venezuela’s vegetable production from these urban gardens.[8] This will help to ease the need of having foreign markets feed the people of Venezuela. The direct connection to the food is a direct connection to the land which one lives on.

While this means of local food production goes against the grain of global economics, imports/exports, and hard data that is a part of the free market and trade society we live in, it is a viable alternative. In the process of staying alive (and consequently maintaining the Cuban Revolution) the Cuban citizens mobilized and made possible the continuation of food security and autonomy outside of the everyday flow of importing and exporting.

Cuba survived economic downturn but also benefitted greatly from the creation of the organopónicos. The benefits go far beyond solutions to hunger. This wide range of benefits that is exemplified through Cuba is far reaching through Venezuela and can benefit all who garden. Such benefits come to those who work for them.

The Organopónico Bolívar I in Caracas, Venezuela was originally started by a cooperative of 10 people that maintained it but were not used to the physical labor and subsequently quit. The government then restored the project and has used it as the first in a chain of organopónico projects. There is hard work involved in sustaining a way of life when not relying heavily upon the import/export industrial complex.

That is why there is such an importance for the Venezuelan government to educate the people about the creation and maintenance of such projects and also the wide range of benefits these projects provide. Urban gardens, while eliminating hunger, and the excessive transportation of food can also provide a more aesthetic, calming, and spiritual approach to the means of production by working with the natural world. This practice is defined as Horticultural Therapy (HT) and is praised for its curative efforts, particularly for people with mental illness. It can also be a very meditative and reflective time that can help lower blood pressure, promote a mental and physical workout and foster optimism in watching the fruits of one’s labor grow.[9]

By developing local food production there are not only the mental and physical benefits but also a shift in defining one’s self. This shift sees the labor process as the mode of self-definition. According to Karl Marx, “man forms himself by changing the world; he appropriates it, refashions it according to his ‘needs,’ and thereby projects, materializes, and verifies himself in the objects of his own labor.”[10] When reshaping the land that was originally vacant in order to better project, materialize, and verify one’s self through growing food, people will feed both their stomachs and their definition of who they are.

Within cityscapes it is difficult to appropriate and refashion the world according to an individual’s quest for self-definition when the cities are pre-designed. The crosswalks and traffic lights impede and control the flow of vehicles and people, the parks are predesignated, and the skyscrapers control the horizon. City planners plan the streets while the majority walk the streets.

The barrios (the Venezuelan equivalent of a poor community) are the result of mass migration to the cities while displaying the turbulence of poverty. But at the same time they show how citizens can vastly change the horizon of a city. These shacks are constructed using whatever material is available and whatever hillside is vacant. What if there were materials and space to build gardens? How much more would the city horizons change? While constructing a shack is widespread through the cityscape it has come at the cost of an abandoned rural sector.

Have the city and countryside disintegrated? There has been mass migration to the cities but they just foster another style of harshness. In the wake of the mass rioting and military suppression of the 1989 Caracazo and some statistical analyses claiming Caracas as having one of the highest rates of violent crime in Latin America, which place is better to live in?

The scope of the city life versus the rural life needs a reorientation to have the city life and the rural life. Both settings have their flaws and benefits. If we as a global community are to expect the romanticism of connecting with our food and the progression that the cities foster, a middle ground needs to be devised.

In order to bring about this middle ground, planting gardens is a basic component. Build a community garden. Exchange surplus food within your community. Start with the basis that it is still possible to connect with the soil. The fundamental development of this shift in attitude can help entrain the brain to be a more effective and assertive mode of production and regain how we interact with our surroundings.

“[The] remarkable feature of the brain appears to be the physiological basis for the possibility of transforming our minds. By mobilizing our thoughts and practicing new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the way our brains work. It is also the basis of the idea that inner transformation begins with learning (new input) and involves the discipline of gradually replacing our ‘negative conditioning.”[11]

If we not only practice new ways of thinking, but new ways of acting and new ways of creating our surroundings, we can begin by transforming the negative conditioning that is content with just food security.

Food security implies not living in hunger or fear of starvation. But the practice of endogenous development (meaning inwardly developing) within a country can play a remarkable role in long term goals of producing and distributing food within one’s own country. This “is based on local peoples’ own criteria of development, and takes into account the material, social and spiritual well-being of peoples”.[12]

There are clear and emergent examples cropping up all over the global map to create an alternative to the agricultural status quo. In northeastern Venezuela there is a community called “Lolokal” that defines itself as an “Adventure, Health Community, and Retreat Center dedicated to sustainable living, education, community service, and getting people outside”. They are 100% off-grid, practicing agnihotra farming techniques[13] as well as solar food preservation, producing 90% of their food consumption with grey water filtering systems. They also have a health center with yoga, massage and natural homemade remedies.

People and government are beginning to create the initiative that holistically binds the inner and collective revolutions that are transforming the agricultural status quo. Negating industrialized agriculture through small organic farms, urban gardens, and most importantly holistic gardening takes the struggle of socialism for the 21st century and bridges the connection between a societal revolution and personal growth. This growth and practice of knowledge is embodied in the Bolivarian Constitution and process that is occurring now through endogenous development.

Venezuela is at a pivotal moment. Imminent change to food production may not be the case for Venezuela as of now but as with Cuba, circumstances can change quickly. To grow from these past and present experiences is something that we can all draw from. It is our responsibility as global citizens to germinate these seeds of knowledge and create the alternative within our own communities.

Matthew is a student at the Evergreen State College  in Olympia, Washington. Last year, he spent three months studying in Venezuela with Evergreen's academic program Building Economic and Social Justice. This article appeared in a collective book project produced by students in the program.


[1] Ebrahim-Zadeh, Christine. “Back to Basics – Dutch Disease: Too much wealth managed unwisely.” Finance and Development Mar. 2003.

[2] Wilpert, Gregory. “Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Government as Usual?” Voltaire Network. 17 June 2005. Thierry Meyssan. <http://www.voltairenet.org/en>.

[3] Ibid

[4] Alvarez, Cesar J. “Venezuela’s Oil-Based Economy.” Council on Foreign Relations. Ed. Stephanie Hanson. 9 Feb. 2009. <http://www.cfr.org>.

[5] Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. National Statistics Institute (INE). Measurement of poverty, as households and individuals, 2000-07. <http://www.ine.gov.ve/pobreza/LIhogares.asp>.

[6] United States. Energy Information Administration. Department of Energy. Venezuela: Oil. 1999. < http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/Venezuela/Oil.html>.

[7] Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis. Rep. no. 12. Oregon: Subterranean, 1999.

[8] Howard, April M. “Feeding Ourselves: Organic Urban Gardens in Caracas, Venezuela.” Towards Freedom. 10 Aug. 2006. Robin Lloyd. <http://www.towardfreedom.com>.

[9] American Horticultural Therapy Association. <http://www.ahta.org>.

[10] Bookchin, Murray. “On Spontaneity and Organization.” The Edge of Adaptation: Man and the Emerging Society. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. USA: Spectrum Books, 1973. 159-76.

[11] Cutler, Howard C., and HH Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998.

[12] Comparing and Supporting Endogenous Development. <http://www.compasnet.org>.

[13] A process of purifying the atmosphere through specially prepared fire which comes from the Vedas, the most ancient body of knowledge known to man and womyn.