High up in Venezuela’s Andes, the township of Mucuchies is home to a campesino-led initiative striving for sustainable agricultural production. Integral Producers of the Highlands [PROINPA, for the organization’s Spanish-language initials] is widely recognized not only for its top-notch seed potatoes but also for its scientific initiatives such as a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab, a germplasm bank, and, most recently, an aeroponic seed production facility.
One of the secrets to PROINPA’s success is its democratic organization and its emphasis on education. Founded 24 years ago, the organization’s structure has an assembly of associated producers as its topmost level of decision-making, meaning that the producers themselves are in charge. These associates are all hard-working campesinos but have also achieved high levels of formal education. Many have doctorates or masters, and all have gone through educational processes centered on the science of sustainable food production.
PROINPA’s core mission of food sovereignty is of strategic importance to a country under siege. The organization pursues this goal by promoting agroecology, crop diversification, endogenous scientific development, and a new social organization of production.
In Part I of this series, we learned about PROINPA’s history, while Part II focused on science and seed production. In Part III, we delve into PROINPA’s educational initiatives and the impact of US sanctions on production and life.
Caroly Higuera: PROINPA has been committed to education since its early days. Our educational work began in 1999 with the evening high school we ran in Mucuchies. The idea was to set up a learning space for producers who hadn’t had a chance to graduate. The focus was agroecology. More than 150 people came out with a technical degree in agroecology [técnico medio en agroecología]. Today, most of them are community leaders and many are PROINPA associates.
However, PROINPA’s educational work is not limited to the evening high school agroecological program [1999-2014]. For us, education and training is a constant. Many PROINPA associates went on to get university degrees, some of us have PhDs and others have masters degrees. This is an asset for the organization.
But that is not all. Although we know that academic formation is very important, we also consider the knowledge of campesinos – that knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation – to be just as important. That’s why we consciously work to preserve campesino knowledge and practices. The world turns its back on producers in the campo. By contrast, we shine a spotlight on them.
Rafael Romero: Of those who finished their agroecology degrees at the evening high school, 47 went on to study at the Simón Rodríguez University [UNESR, for its initials in Spanish]. That university has a program that prepares students to be teachers while studying agroecology.
Caroly Higuera: PROINPA’s educational initiatives go beyond the evening high school. For one, we treat each monthly assembly as a learning space, because in it our associates take turns in giving reports on the work that we are doing, and everything is on the table for debate. We also organize formal workshops on specific themes like greenhouses, alternative fertilizers, seed care, and so on.
Vladimir Balza: PROINPA is a space to organize production in a new way, but it’s also a school. Some of our learning spaces are formal, other informal; some require sitting in a classroom, others going to a field and making earthworm humus. Many teaching and learning moments emerge while talking to fellow associate producers who have a great deal of experience.
There’s a saying here that goes as follows: You will never go to sleep without learning something. I don’t know if that is always true, but at PROINPA I always go to bed having learned at least two new things.
Any Mora Castillo: I graduated from the evening high school years ago. Coming from a poor family, I had to start working at an early age. The evening high school was my only option. I learned a great deal there! Next, I went on to study at UNESR where I graduated with a degree in education, with a focus on agroecology. I then went on to work in our CEBISA biotech lab, which began operating in a 40 square meter room in the evening high school premises.
Since then, we’ve moved our labs to our current location, where we continue learning every day. As some of my colleagues say: We produce science for producers!
Jesús Argenis Suescun Monsalves: I come from a campesino family. I was born with impaired vision. That made studying really difficult. I left school and began working in the campo at an early age.
Eventually, I met the PROINPA folks who were promoting the agroecology program in the evening high school. They encouraged me to continue studying, which I did. I graduated from high school and enrolled at UNESR. From there, I went on to become a teacher, and eventually, I came back full circle to PROINPA.
As it turns out, my eyesight didn’t keep me from studying. All I needed was a supportive community, which I got from PROINPA’s founders. Today, studying and solving problems is my passion. That’s why they call me “The Scientist.”
Néstor Monsalve Gil: I first became acquainted with PROINPA through the work they were doing at the evening high school, where I studied. There I learned the basics of agroecology in a way that I could apply in my family’s farm.
Shortly after I graduated I became a PROINPA associate. This has kept me going and I have continued to acquire knowledge over the years: I have learned about seed care, seed multiplication, and, most importantly perhaps, about the need to overcome our dependency on foreign seeds. I’ve been a PROINPA associate for 16 years, and I’m still learning.
I think that PROINPA’s commitment to science and education is key to ensuring sovereign seed production. I know it’s possible for Venezuela to achieve this because PROINPA producers are already sovereign when it comes to the seed potatoes and the other foodstuffs we grow.
Impact of the blockade
Johny de Jesús Ramírez Lobo: It’s very easy for us to measure the impact of the blockade. Here, in the area, production dropped 45%. I think that the numbers speak for themselves.
One reason why the blockade was such a blow to production is because it triggered inflation. The cost of production has gone up since we have to purchase the fuel in the parallel market at very high prices and agricultural inputs are very expensive. All this raises the price of our production. That means that when our produce gets to the market, it is hard to sell because people don’t have much money.
We are now witnessing a small increase in demand, but it is incipient and precarious. However, the fact that we’re organized makes us more resilient.
José Aurelio Albarran Rangel: In the Rangel Municipality [which includes Mucuchies], the land under tillage used to be about 13 thousand hectares. Our best estimate is that now the area that is actually productive is about 7 thousand hectares. That is not surprising because production costs have skyrocketed: a hectare of potatoes costs about $10,000 USD upfront, while a garlic hectare runs you some 17 thousand dollars. It is obvious that many campesinos cannot afford this, so they scale down their production.
In all this, the elephant in the room is the intermediaries, who take advantage of the situation. Since campesinos have no way to take their produce to market, the intermediaries have built a monopoly: they buy cheap from the producers and apply a huge markup on the other end. It’s a vicious circle that must be addressed immediately because it has terrible consequences both economically and socially.
I have two daughters. One of them migrated and the other is in high school, but she’s also thinking about leaving the country. Both are bright and the older one is a professional, so I’m witnessing the country’s brain drain at home.
Young men are migrating too because there is no work in the fields. It used to be that as a day laborer, youths could make a living wage. Now, with the reduction in production, farms are not looking for workers. It is sad to see kids leaving to go to Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, or Bolivia to become farmhands.
Caroly Higuera: We have one main problem as producers: obtaining diesel and gasoline. The shortages have been going on for years. Gasoline gets here about once a week to one of the gas stations, and the lines are many kilometers long. There is a black market for diesel and gasoline, but the prices are exorbitant and most of us can’t afford it.
Even though we often plow with oxen, how do we get the inputs to the farm or the production to the market without gas? Often we can’t. That’s why production has gone down significantly.
There is another reason for the nationwide fall in production: access to inputs. In the early days of the crisis, inputs became very scarce, but they eventually reappeared. However, the prices are very high now and they are dollarized. Nonetheless, we have an advantage here: at PROINPA we produce our own seeds and Colectivo Piedra Mubay [more about this initiative in part IV], a grassroots organization that provides agroecological supplies, can provide inputs, albeit at a smaller scale.
Rafael Romero: The blockade made us understand that we are extremely vulnerable because a very high percentage of the country’s agricultural production depends on imported seeds and inputs. This problem, however, is not exclusive to Venezuela. There are a handful of seed and input corporations led by Monsanto that control the majority of the market worldwide. Nonetheless, Venezuela’s dependency is more severe because of our 100-year oil curse.
Though state funds are now diminished, it is now time to invest some resources in biotechnological labs – or rather, in endogenous scientific research – so that our country will be able to really feed itself. This should be one of the main lessons learned from the catastrophe that the blockade has been for so many.
Irene Sánchez Méndez: The blockade was a blow to production. In fact, there was a time when production for the market practically dropped to zero.
The imperialist enemy knew how to hurt us, but little by little people found ways to survive. While some left the country – which is very painful for us – others turned to subsistence farming: they produce for their family and exchange some of what they grow with their neighbors. In doing so, we also saw the reactivation of solidarity networks. They [the imperialists] won’t be able to take our humanity away from us!
Edelmira del Carmen Rivas Díaz: The impact of the blockade has been both economic and social. During the worst of the crisis, the commune [Comuna El Paso de Bolívar 1813, which includes the Mucuchies region] went dormant because we were on survival mode. We have experienced everything from food and fuel shortages to migration, from the kids losing access to schools, to family members dying do to medicine shortages, to suicides by parents who can’t feed their kids. The situation has been tragic.
I’m a teacher, and in my rural school we have gone from 120 to 75 kids. Why? It’s hard to make it to school, the school lunches are poor, and there are fewer teachers because they’ve migrated or are working elsewhere to make ends meet. However, I’m committed to teaching, and I will keep at it. I believe in this country. I want to see it get up on its feet once again, and an illiterate youth that looks for options elsewhere cannot rebuild the country!
Jesús (Lalo) Rivas Gil: Bolívar said: “They have dominated us more through ignorance than through force.” He was right. Many campesinos don’t understand that what we are living through is a human-made blight; it’s the opposition and its US bosses who caused the blockade. I think it’s important to understand this and act accordingly. It doesn’t matter if you are a Chavista or not. If you are a Venezuelan, you have to stand with your people.
Irene Sánchez Méndez: Organization is key to keeping ourselves alive. In that, we have a huge advantage here in the highlands: PROINPA. The organization distributes seeds and that has allowed many campesinos to go on working, albeit producing much less than before.
It used to be that seed potatoes came from abroad, and often they came infested. By contrast, our seeds are much healthier and less dependent on expensive – and toxic – inputs sold by corporations. Now everyone is aware of how important initiatives such as PROINPA are.
But PROINPA is also a school. In it, we learned how to produce our own fertilizers. We also learned why our grandparents’ practices – from crop rotation to diversification – are so important for us to sustain ourselves and stay healthy. That’s why things are not so dire here as elsewhere.
But beyond PROINPA, I think that the most important solution to the crisis brought about by US sanctions is organization and, more specifically, the commune. Chávez said that we had no choice, that the only way to overcome the slings and arrows of capitalism is with the commune. I think that he was right: the people in charge of their own destiny is the only way forward!
José Orlando Parra: Old practices are coming back in the context of the blockade. When I was 10 years old, all the fields were plowed by oxen. Later, while the practice didn’t disappear, many yuntas [oxen teams] were replaced by tractors.
Today, however, car parts have become really expensive and fuel is hardly available, so we have been going back to using oxen. Yuntas have two advantages: they require no fuel and they are less harmful to the land because they only disturb the top layer. This is far more sustainable for the type of ground that we have in the highlands.
Gerardo (Lalo) Rivas Gil: I think that campesinos, when we organize, can come up with a roadmap for solving the problems that we face… but we can’t do it alone! The state has to listen to the vital forces of popular power and it has to act.
Beyond state fuel quotas and alternatives to intermediaries, such as the emerging Communal Productive Circuits, producers need credit lines to restore production to its former levels. The cost of producing per hectare is too high, so production keeps dwindling. Mind you, we are not asking for free money, we are asking for loans. I know that if credit is made available for Venezuela’s small and mid-size producers, the results will be evident in a few months.
Finally, regarding potato production, a protectionist policy must be implemented. Colombian potatoes are flooding the Venezuelan market. Of course, we have nothing against Colombian campesinos; they are our brothers and sisters. However, for our country to truly be sovereign, we need to protect Venezuelan production.
Marisol Montilla: The blockade has caused us to further commit to our country. Now, we are exploring new ways of increasing seed production and experimenting with different seed varieties.
In any case, if anybody had any doubts about our work at PROINPA, it’s now clear that the organization can offer many solutions to the many problems that campesinos are facing. And it’s not just about seeds, it’s about alternative ways of producing that take us out of the corporate loop. PROINPA is clearly on the right path!
Rafael Romero: We believe that science and technology are necessary for us to achieve food sovereignty, but both have to be developed rationally and be centered on life. For instance, transgenics do not lead to sovereignty, but to dependency. When I say that we believe in using science and technology to achieve sovereignty, I say so in a comprehensive sense and as a promoter of the Campesino-Scientific Alliance: we need science and technology for the people and not for the few, who can end up monopolizing it.
The blockade has taught us that we are a highly dependent country. Let’s take this lesson to heart and turn it to our advantage. Let’s build networks to share what we have in terms of seeds and science; let’s work collectively; and let’s demand support from the institutions when needed. Agricultural production is strategic for the nation.
PROINPA has received support from the Ministry of Science and Technology and from other institutions, and this has been really important. However, for production to really reactivate around the country, more organization, more work, and more support are needed.
It all boils down to love for one’s country and one’s people. I think we can achieve this!
Caroly Higuera: In these times of blockade, I think we can become a model for other organizations around the country, whether cooperatives, communes, or other campesino organizations. I say this with no hubris: our achievements are collective and we have been privileged to get support from various institutions.
At CEBISA [PROINPA’s biotech lab], for instance, we kept going even in the worst of times. It is true that we encountered obstacles because we couldn’t acquire certain lab implements that come from abroad, but we’ve found alternatives.
Any Mora Castillo: PROINPA shows that we can be truly independent, and can break the chains of dependency with science and organization. This means science for the people – the kind of science that happens when those wearing lab coats live among the producers – is the solution. Our experience proves it: we’ve been able to go on delivering healthy seeds to producers even in these difficult times.
Gerardo (Lalo) Rivas Gil: PROINPA helps us break with the capitalist seed market, which necessarily leads to dependency and poverty. As we apply our own science and technology to production, we break away from the dictates of the market and we are able to better satisfy the needs of the people. When science and technology are put at the service of the pueblo, I call that sovereignty.
So that’s one of our strengths, but our other strength is organization. We’ve devoted ourselves to this endeavor for over 24 years, investing hard work, persistence, patience, and sacrifice. The experience shows that our democratic organization, with its monthly assemblies, constitutes a robust model.
Nevertheless, we need to increase in size, because when we talk about sovereignty, we are talking about a whole country breaking with dependency, not just a beautiful highland in the Andes producing a lot of healthy potatoes. That’s why we partnered with CODECYT [Corporation for Scientific and Technological Development] to work with campesinos in 18 states, bringing them seed potatoes and providing them comprehensive support. That amounts to an important step toward sovereignty!
Jesús Argenis Suescun Monsalves: PROINPA’s model is not complex: we are an association of people who want to produce, and we come together with shared objectives. Some are lab technicians and researchers, some work the fields, others do both – but here we are all equal. This means that any group of campesinos could reproduce that model. They could, like us, join forces to grow more food for the people. That’s what our country needs!
Alonso Trejo: Sovereignty is about a country being able to determine its future without foreign intervention. US Imperialism is determined to destroy our revolution because Chávez tried to make Venezuela both independent and socialist.
In this beautiful highland, we are determined to make sure that Chávez’s dream doesn’t disappear. Our contribution here is working hard so that we are sovereign in terms of seeds. In doing so, we are also showing that sovereignty is not a chimera: sovereignty is what we are building now at PROINPA!