“The idea is to preserve the seed and not to wait until seeds come from Mexico, Brazil or somewhere else. If we achieve this, we have achieved independence. For so long they sold us the idea that foreign seeds are better [than Venezuelan seeds],” expressed Pablo Characo of Guanape, Anzoategui state along the Caribbean coast. A youthful elder and carrier of agricultural wisdom in his own right, Characo currently serves as one of the principal facilitators of the Seed Multiplication and Distribution workshop series.
In an effort to challenge the economic war, create access to nutritious and well-balanced food and build national sovereignty, communities like Characo’s are working to diversify and multiply their seeds. In Guanape, an historically indigenous Cumangoto community of farm workers, along with the national Seeds of the People Platform have begun a pilot program with nearly 20 participants (farmers and farming enthusiasts from across the country) to share and teach their traditional ways of harvesting corn.
VA attended the second session, 35 days after participants planted their first corn seeds to participate in this process, learn more about the current struggle for food sovereignty and delve deeper into the concerns and questions surrounding food, where it is and who is building access to it in Venezuela.
The Seed Multiplication and Distribution series is part of a larger popular movement driven struggle to defend native Venezuelan seeds and taken down corporate giants like Monsanto. In December 2015, Venezuelan grassroots movements accompanied by state institutions pushed forward the National Assembly approval of the Seed Law. After the United Venezuelan Socialist Party's defeat in December 6 National Assembly elections, social movements and socialist legislators acted swiftly to pass the Seed Law.
An outcome of Venezuela's popular legislative processes, the Seed Law is perhaps one of the world’s most revolutionary and insightful laws protecting seeds. Seeds are considered living beings and therefore it is illegal to patent and privatize seeds under any circumstance. The law centers around the seed’s critical role in the defense of Venezuelan independence and the quest to secure food sovereignty.
The majority of participants attending the workshop series are youth from Apure, Lara, Mérida and Trujillo states as well as Caracas. Each individual represents a collective committed to transforming Venezuela’s culture and economy around food. The series itself is broken up into 11 sessions over the course of several months to document the 120 corn growth cycle. Participants work in the fields learning how to make compost and attend to the crops in addition to experience driven conversations during meal time and in the afternoons and evening.
Informally, people discuss how they’ve grown potatoes, beans and other crops and the climates in each of their respective states. Venezuelan geography ranges from humid Caribbean climates to cooler frigid terrains like the Andean region. There are others that fall in between. Participants recognize and embrace the possibility for agricultural diversity in Venezuela and also discuss strategies of how to incite “enthusiasm” for greater participation in these types of programs.
In the case of Guanape, Characo and others have worked tirelessly to cross native Venezuelan seeds to create their own ideal variety of corn. For years, they have put to trial corn and made scientific assessments based on growth, size, texture, composition and other factors without genetically modified seeds or chemicals. The entire process is based on the integrity of the seed and carried out ecologically.
“I am 66 years old and I want to reach 120 years old. I am at the halfway point of life. But you all [pointing to the young participants] I don’t think you’ll reach 70 or even 60 years old. Those younger than you maybe 50. I have had the privilege of eating natural food, but all you’ve been exposed to is chemicals,” said Hugo Tapiquén, the farmworker presidential representative of Guanape, during one of the discussion sessions.
Over the course of 11 sessions, with brigades from across the country coming to work in the fields every two weeks and local community members participating almost weekly, on the 120th day, early December 2016, participants will see the corn in it’s final form.
“This seed is our product, that we, the conuqueros (farmers), produced. We didn’t have our own seeds to grow corn and we contacted a variety of state institutions for equipment and accompaniment. Around eight years ago, we were given 150,000 bolivares to consolidate our formation process,” explained Characo.
Additionally, Characo emphasized that “[This process] will transform our culture, show that we can produce our own seeds and that we can lower the production costs for farmers. This will better our quality of life especially in health and nutrition.”
Over the last two years, the economic war against the Venezuelan people has without a doubt increased the costs of basic goods and food either through national inflation or speculation from independent sellers. Notably, workshop participants told VA about the systematic attack on vegetables and grains that Venezuelans have drifted toward in an effort to move away from dependency on imported and processed goods.
“This has been a systematic attack carried out by experts. You name it, yucca, lentils, black beans, plantains, each time we try to improve our diets they raise the prices,” highlights Rafael Alvarado from Apure. “Little by little, food that cost 100 bolivares the kilo reached 500 or 1000 bolivares the kilo within a week,” he continued.
Despite apparent hardships, many Venezuelans have “taken advantage of the crisis” as one participant from Trujillo also states. In addition to this program, Venezuelans across the country have also turned to alternative economies such as trueke or bartering markets exchanging what they produce.
In Apure state in the Venezuelan plains, Alvarado explains that he and his community have worked to rescue four traditional bean seeds: the mosaic red seed, carrao bean (akin to a pinto bean), saint’s face bean (similar to black eyed peas) and the cuarentón bean (big forty bean named for its forty day harvest). When possible, they barter their seeds and beans for other goods that they currently do not produce.
In Alvarado’s case, he has also works closely with the Yaruro indigenous nation of the Caribe people in Apure to learn more about seed preservation and traditional farming practices.
Characo likewise highlights the role of indigenous knowledge in the example of Anzoateguí and the Cumantogo people. He simply yet poignantly explains, “We are the siblings, children and friends of the dead. Many times knowledge [of these practices] die and this workshop is important because we are sharing this knowledge.”
With this program, a total 10 communities across the country will carry out similar workshops after the pilot in Anzoategui. Communities in Apure, Lara, Carbobo, Caracas, Mérida, Miranda, Trujillo, Yaracuy and Bolivar states in addition to Anzoategui will design their own equivalents. Each site produces a different foods from beans and yucca to eggplant and peppers.
“The idea is to duplicate the workshop in other places and learn from other experiences. We want participants to produce all these foods in their own territories,” explains Adriana Requena, member of the Venezuelan Free of GMOs Campaign, part of the Seeds of the People Platform.
Requena continues, “We need to focus on smaller processes that we’re carrying out on a national level instead of turning to larger scale models.” Inherently, the process looks to slowly but surely guarantee access to a wide variety of foods for Venezuelans and ensure that communities build their agricultural skillsets. For far too long, Venezuelan farm workers have tried to reach the demands of an export agricultural model. Many participants explained, this is an unattainable scale for farm workers who have been historically displaced in the market by years of imports and processed foods.
“Our responsibility is to guarantee that we [Venezuelans] can eat and confront this crisis,” stresses Ana Felicient one of the program facilitators also with the Venezuela Free of GMOs Campaign.
Each site has committed to producing a certain amount of food and with that, seeds. Thirty percent of the seeds produced will be distributed across this network to begin farming in different sites.
“We’re defending ourselves. I know we are leaving a great example for humanity. We are living through a crisis and we’re defending ourselves,” asserts Alvarado.
Despite the corporate media’s constant denigration of Venezuela, people on the ground have taken the initiative to dispel myths and overcome looming intervention, an active economic war and food crisis. While the scope of this project is arguably small-scale and will take time, effort and widespread participation to address the nation’s larger needs, it is undeniably inspiring, practical and committed to doing just that.