Arriving in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, the first thing you notice is the extensive swathes of mountainside covered with poorly built, crowded, ad-hoc homes – known locally as the barrios. Caracas’ shanty-town barrios were built in response to the influx of migrants from the countryside during the twentieth century. As Venezuela struck oil in the 1920s, it became easier and cheaper to use oil money to import foodstuffs and so many small farmers lost their livelihoods and poured into the capital in search of work. Years of agricultural neglect followed leaving Venezuela dangerously reliant on multinationals for their food supply and distribution.
Over the last 12 years, the socialist government of Hugo Chavez has been attempting to rebuild Venezuela’s agricultural sector and has included the radical concept of food sovereignty into the country's new constitution. Food sovereignty is a concept that originates in the global south and presents a positive alternative to our broken global food system which is dominated by the multinational food companies who grow food in a way that is unsustainable, leads to hunger and damages the environment. Food sovereignty is about valuing locally produced food and the work and knowledge of the people who produce it, reclaiming democratic control of our food system and practising sustainable methods.
Being a food campaigner for the last few years I’ve become acutely aware of the problems of the global food system: food speculation, land grabs, biofuels, supermarket domination etc. Food has been reduced to an asset class or a fuel for cars and the value of food has been sucked out by multinationals leaving producers struggling to make a decent living. My trip to Venezuela has provided me with glimpses of what could happen if food sovereignty is given prominence. Where the production of local, organic, fresh produce is prioritised and a decent living is accorded to food producers. Over the next few months we will be sharing these stories and examples in different ways but for now I just want to give an overview of food sovereignty in Venezuela through three of the people that I met on the way:
Emiliano Sarmiento, a former landless farmer from Yaracuy state, proudly showed us round his farm co-op which he and 84 families had received 10 years ago as part of the government's land redistribution policy. His 690 hectare farm was impressive, boasting an on-site biological lab to develop agroecological organisms to control pests and an administration block. He grows white maize, avocados and has an orchard of citrus fruits as well as cattle. However, everything he showed us came at a cost. After occupying the land in 2002, the local authorities who were from the opposition party used the police to attack Emiliano and his fellow families involved in the occupation. It was only after several years of fighting and obtaining the official papers of ownership, that the attacks stopped and they were finally able to concentrate on building the farm. He is currently waiting for state funding to get hens to lay eggs, get a greenhouse and open a nutritional centre. “We also want to start a school for teaching agriculture so that people can learn how to grow and feed themselves and we also eventually want to be able to process the food here ourselves.”
Nerio Chavez is a fisherman in the remote coastal town of Chuao. The Venezualan government banned industrial fishing ships three years ago. No longer having to compete with large scale trawler ships, the local fisherfolk have been able to use traditional artisan methods of fishing. This is much more sustainable, has improved local fish stocks and provided a decent living to the local fishermen. The fishermen are represented through their local community council, which is a form of participatory democracy on a local level, and through the council have been given resources such as nets, motor boats and a cool storage facility. The state are also in the process of developing a large fish centre in the next town to help with getting the fish to market.
Luisa is a homemaker with four adult sons in El Valle, Caracas. She has transformed a small communal area in her urban housing estate into a growing space for lettuce, avocados, papaya and herbs. She has been supported by CIARA – a state-backed organisation tasked with increasing food production in cities which has given Luisa tools and equipment and has even sent her on a course in Cuba to learn about growing food. The food is for her family but she also distributes the produce locally to her neighbours. “The food I grow is much better quality than what you can buy in the shops and completely fresh as the food doesn’t have to travel a long way. Sara [who works for CIARA] brings me the soil and seeds that I need. The course in Cuba taught me about artisan seed production and so I am starting to dry my own seeds and save seeds too for next year” Luisa's small plot is just one of 100 city growing spaces in the area of El Valle in Caracas.
There’s still a long way to go for Venezuela. It's got decades of agricultural neglect to reverse and only a few years of agricultural reform under its belt. There are still issues of corruption at every level, issues of rural violence in response to land reform and the battle for agroecology at a national level is still being fought. But Venezuela is a country in transition. Changing a food system involves challenging very powerful and vested interests and is not something that can be done overnight or in just a matter of years, it may take generations. The people that I met on the way are already experiencing some of the benefits of food sovereignty and we stand in solidarity with them to fight for a more sustainable and just food system.