Rural Women and the Future of Campesino Life in Venezuela: A Conversation with Emma Ortega

A long-time rural activist talks about the ongoing struggle to protect Venezuela’s small producers.

Emma Ortega loves working in the fields when she is not studying rural land tenure in Venezuela or struggling for the rights of campesino women. Recently, she served as a deputy of the National Constituent Assembly (2017-2020). In this exclusive interview with VA, Ortega talks about the origins of what she calls the “Fordist” model of land management in Venezuela and the role of rural women transforming the country’s agrarian production. In dealing with these issues, this veteran activist combines her academic knowledge of the subject matter with ample on-the-ground experience.

You are the daughter of urban workers. So, how did you end up joining the campesino movement?

My connection to rural Venezuela began to grow when I went to the Manzanita campesino settlement in Lara in the 1970s as part of a literacy brigade. That is when I began to understand the inequalities and injustices that campesinos experience.

The first battle I took part in was the struggle to get Corpomercadeo – which was the state institution that bought farmers’ harvests – to pay in full for campesino’s crops. Taking advantage of the fact that small producers didn’t have a way to weigh their crops, Corpomercadeo had been paying for only a fraction of the product.

We organized people so that the campesinos in the area could weigh their own crops, thereby avoiding the theft of their labor. Of course, that led to a lot of repression. In fact, the National Guard came to my home and gave me 24 hours to leave Lara state. Fortunately, I got help from some very committed comrades in Barrio Unión in Barquisimeto, and they protected me. The people of Manzanita also gave me support, and I was able to return to the settlement shortly after.

Eventually, I returned to Aragua, where I had been born and raised. That is when I fully committed to rural life. One day I was walking by some fields and I said: this is where I’m going to live. And so it happened: I bought a small plot of land and while working the land I began to study land management and the unjust structures of land tenure in Venezuela. I was very inspired by Ezequiel Zamora, Emiliano Zapata, and the great Pancho Villa.

All this happened while we were struggling to keep the land in our hands. Capitalist interests in Venezuela operate by phagocytizing productive land, so we [small group of campesinos in the area] were forced into defending our plots with sticks.

Today I continue to live on that same plot, as a small producer. In my community, we have the slogan: Many hands on little land, with technology. That means it is not enough to have the INTI’s [National Land Institute] land tenure title, we also need means of production and technology to go beyond mere sustenance farming.

When it comes to rural Venezuela, the most urgent task is to consolidate the spaces that campesinos possess. We must stop the restoration process and consolidate production in the lands that are in our hands.


Can you talk to us about the overarching logic defining land management in Venezuela?

The prevailing logic of land management in Venezuela is that the city has the right to phagocytize the campo. Of course, this favors the interests of a very small sector, not the needs of the social majorities. It tends to erase the principle of small production, the life of campesino families, and the culture and philosophy of those who work the land.

The most visible evidence of the prevailing logic is the Law of Urban Planning [1989], which prioritizes the city over the campesino family that produces in the city’s outskirts. Also, it should be noted that the Urban Planning Law is “organic,” meaning that it overrides any non-organic law, including the Land Law [2001].

The law is applied in a truly brutal way. Campesinos living and producing in a peri-rural area [non-developed areas near an urban center] can be given notice letting them know that they engaged in an illegal activity and must vacate their land.

The Urban Development Law was written by Allan Brewer Carías, a high-profile lawyer. The law follows a “Fordist” model, which defines the development logic in land management for the global peripheries, particularly for rentier countries.

When we speak of “Fordism,” we generally think about factories, but here I am using the term to refer to a land management strategy imposed from outside: a neo-colonial model that ensures consumerism (not consumption) and displaces agrarian production. Ultimately, it is a mechanism that takes control of an oil-producing country and turns it into an exclusive supplier of unprocessed crude oil, thus putting the country into a dependent relationship with the global North.

While there were many pending tasks, Chávez began to modify this model, replacing it with a logic that would eventually break with dependence. However, the Fordist logic has come back with force in recent years.

In your long history of social activism, you also participated in the drafting of the Land Law. How do you see that law twenty years later?

The Land Law was a huge step forward for Venezuela’s campesino sector. The principle that the land belongs to the one working it began to be applied with Chávez, allowing us to take important steps toward eliminating the latifundia. The Land Law represents a real agrarian reform, not like the “guanabana reform” [a reference to the superficial 1961 land reform]

However, two decades have passed since the law came into force, and it needs some modification.

For example, Article 14 – this is an article I proposed – favors campesino women, women who are heads of a household and own land. But what about women who work the land and yet don’t own it? Often, in our patriarchal society, women can be dispossessed in multiple ways; then they end up in a situation of unsustainable dependence or condemned to work on other people’s land. The law needs more teeth.

In our society, agricultural activity is considered a masculine realm. The way society treats campesino women is a colonial legacy that we must overcome.


What can you tell us about the situation of rural women these days?

No man in the countryside wants to live alone, sad, and unloved. The campesino wants to wake up to a pot of piping hot coffee, a large arepa, and fried beans. Care falls exclusively on women’s shoulders. But women also work in the fields and take care of the kids and grandparents. Rural women have a triple workday and yet they are invisible. That is why we are insisting that the legal framework should favor joint ownership of the land.

It is necessary to recognize that campesino women are the main force behind the nation’s agricultural production, and it is urgent that institutions act accordingly!

We must break with patriarchal culture and help men to free themselves from machismo. Machismo has a material base but it is reproduced culturally. Machismo is often taught at home: we must get rid of the ideological baggage that sustains patriarchy.

Women’s liberation depends on us – on women themselves – but including men in the transformation process is also of paramount importance. As women, we must work so that our strength translates into organization and helps us to obtain the necessary cultural and legal changes. We have to join hands and proceed toward Chávez’s goal of emancipation.

We must struggle for our objectives in the streets, in the fields, and at home. To use an old leftist struggle slogan: La pelea es peleando [The fight must be fought].


You mentioned the role of joint ownership in ensuring that campesino women are not stripped of their land. Is it really viable?

In our society, culturally, property is still ascribed to men. Now, if the legal titles given by the INTI also included the partner, the daughters and sons, and the niece who takes care of the grandfather, then, when the grandfather dies, the property would be a common family good and no one would be forced to work for someone else. This often happens to campesino women, and it’s a tragedy.

Would such a change be easy? No. However, it is an urgent problem and we must respond to the needs of rural women who are being dispossessed of their land on a daily basis.

You participated in developing the Land Law and drafted some of its articles, including Article 14, as mentioned before. What other contributions did you make to the law?

I wrote Article 19, which concerns the protection of the conuco [subsistence farm] as a source of agrarian biodiversity for the preservation of ancestral farming techniques and ecological practices. I also developed Article 39, concerning the INTI role in land recovery, which is the only article that Fedecámaras [Venezuela’s commerce chamber] managed to eliminate.

It was precisely in this article that the idea of overcoming the Fordist logic was beginning to take shape. Not surprisingly, the bourgeoisie organized and managed to have the article removed one year after the law came into force.


You mentioned “peri-rural agriculture” and the importance of protecting it. What is does “peri-rural” refer to and why is it so important?

Peri-rural agriculture happens in the interface between the urban and the rural. Our goal is to promote a legal framework for protecting and expanding peri-rural agricultural plots.

Local agriculture has many advantages in any circumstance, but in a country under blockade, where fuel is not always available, local production becomes all the more important. And, if there was a war, peri-rural agriculture would be key to feeding the population. We are talking about the principle of food “localization” [lugarización]: we must grow what we eat and eat what we grow!

Moreover, when we talk about agriculture on the urban peripheries, we are referring to something that has always been there, albeit cornered and made invisible. That is why peri-rural agriculture doesn’t just have the potential to ensure an important part of the food supply for the city, but it also protects trans-generational campesino knowledge and culture.

Finally, protecting peri-rural agriculture ensures not only that productive land cannot be taken over by the “brick mafias” [real estate developers], but it also projects property into future generations, for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This calls for a strategic plan to consolidate peri-rural spaces. Such a strategy would need to include reforming the Land Law and abolishing the Urban Development Law, which commodifies land and, consequently, food.

As things are right now, a title granted by INTI in a peri-rural area is always precarious. That is because, once a campesino zone is classified as non-conforming, agricultural activity becomes illegal. In short, it is urgent to put food before the expansion of urban spaces.

Can peri-rural agriculture really meet the needs that Venezuela’s urban areas have for fresh produce?

Yes, there is enough peri-rural land to feed an important part of the urban population. Don’t forget that Venezuela’s central-North territories, where most of the population is concentrated, also has a high concentration of type 1 land [the most fertile].

If we take one hectare of peri-rural land as a reference, you can produce a great deal there. For example, 44 thousand ears of corn can be produced in one hectare in two cycles or 32 thousand kilos of bell pepper can be harvested in the same period. That is to say, campesino production is very efficient but it is made invisible under the Fordist logic.


It’s clear that producing in rural areas is complicated. The sanctions and the crisis have hurt local producers, but there is also a new tendency in Venezuela that favors agribusiness. Can you tell us something about this situation?

What is happening now in Venezuela, shows that there is an intense class conflict going on, which is part of a process of restoration. However, it should be noted that the restoration movement is long-standing and began when Fedecámaras succeeded in repealing Article 39, aimed to protect agrarian peri-rural areas.

Today the restoration process is gaining ground and it is bearing its rotten fruits. On the one hand, there are corrupt campesino leaders who have dedicated themselves to land sales. As far as I am concerned, that is a crime. On the other hand, there are land merchants and other operators that are well connected. Unfortunately, our campesinos find themselves in the middle of this turbulence and, in some cases, end up deprived of their land.

We call for the unity of all those who produce, for defending our right to remain on the land, and our right to have the means of production and technology. We must defend the right to sovereignly produce food.

When merchants sell land to agribusiness, this amounts to a crime that should be punished. That must be one of our objectives right now: we must assure land tenure for campesinos and, at the same time, must strengthen our productive capacity. Rather than continuing to hand over land, we should evaluate what is available and consolidate viable, sovereign food production.

You have argued that it’s necessary to develop what you call a “catalog of agrarian crime.” The idea is to avoid, among other things, the practices of dispossessing campesinos of their land. Can you explain this proposal?

Right, the objective of the “catalog of agrarian crime” is to typify all the crimes that can be committed against campesinos. For example, there are people, including “public servants,” who issue false land titles. Generally, these people are working to dispossess campesinos who have been granted INTI titles.

This happened recently in a campesino settlement of Gavilán La Chaqueta in Barinas. After many years of struggle, the campesinos managed to regularize their land tenure. But a few months later they were told that they had to leave the land. Unfortunately, there are places where the INTI has been corrupted and become a purveyor of land for private interests.

The mercantilization of land is one of the many agrarian crimes that must be typified. Yet there are others, such as buying off judges in the rural areas.


Finally, what do you think should be done to combat the restoration process in the campo?

The imperialist siege on Venezuela goes on, and restoration is advancing internally. Those of us who work the land must make the strategic importance of campesino production more widely known. We should present arguments to promote the structural changes required for Venezuela’s agricultural production to really take off.

In the name of fostering peri-rural agriculture, we propose guarantees so that we can work according to the project: Few lands in many hands, with technology and means of production.

Further, it’s urgent that campesino production be included in calculating the nation’s GDP. Currently, this is not the case and it has bad consequences. When your production is not considered an economic activity, who is going to lend you money so that you can continue farming?

We now know that over 80% of the produce we eat in Venezuela comes from campesinos. That in itself means that protecting this activity is of strategic importance.

As a class, we must also fight against the restoration, against corruption in the agrarian context, and against the mafias that mercantilize the land… Yet only a powerful and plural campesino organization can do this.