The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela

Venezuala urban garden.jpg

By Anna Isaacs, Basil Weiner, Grace Bell, Courtney Frantz and Katie Bowen

The following article was posted in two parts in November 2009 to the website of Venezuela Analysis. The authors spent three months studying in Venezuela with the academic program Building Economic and Social Justice of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Part 1

Defining Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is a relatively new concept. Originally coined and defined by the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, in Mons, Belgium in 1993, it is:

“The RIGHT of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the “dumping” of agricultural commodities into foreign countries. Food sovereignty organizes food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption. Food sovereignty includes the right to protect and regulate the national agricultural and livestock production and to shield the domestic market from the dumping of agricultural surpluses and low-price imports from other countries. Landless people, peasants, and small farmers must get access to land, water, and seed as well as productive resources and adequate public services. Food sovereignty and sustainability are a higher priority than trade policies.”[1]

Via Campesina, in its definition, clearly states certain specific issues that deserve more attention in relation to Venezuela’s current recovery of its food sovereignty. These issues are absolutely essential, not only in guaranteeing that local food needs be met by local food production, but also in protecting the cultural heritage of people who have invested generations upon generations in the same land. All over the world, where people have had land in their families for centuries, the land is being lost because of the dumping of heavily subsidized, imported foods onto their local markets. Farmers cannot compete and must give up their land. With those losses goes pride and the hope for locally based and supported food systems. Rising numbers of farmer suicides are the ultimate result of a system of global trade that strips away the land, its products, cultural heritage and pride. People are dying because they cannot afford to eat and farmers are dying because they cannot afford to feed.

Some of Venezuela’s obstacles to food sovereignty include: the speculative market that formed around buying and selling land; the transformation from individual landowners to conglomerate companies, and farmers to farm workers; and technology that has made a small farmer’s way of life economically unsustainable.

Economic History

The story of the Venezuelan economy deserves special attention because of the presence of oil. In order to understand the specific forces working against food sovereignty, we must travel to the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers arrived to Venezuela’s fertile grounds. Isabel Allende once commented on the fertility of Venezuelan soil: if she didn’t dust daily, she would arrive home to find a plant growing straight out of the dust on top of her furniture. The Spanish colonizers enslaved Africans and native peasants, and grew cocoa, coffee, sugar, cotton, and tobacco for export. At least 70% of the population lived in the countryside and 80% of the country’s revenues were attributable to agricultural production. After the War for Independence (1821-1839), strongmen, caudillos, who had risen through the ranks during the war won large estates called latifundios, and land was further consolidated into fewer hands.

In 1914, however, the country’s oil wealth was discovered, and within 50 years Venezuela’s economy had been completely reoriented. With two world wars, petroleum-based industrialization and use of personal vehicles, the world demand for oil increased dramatically. Instead of agricultural exports, the country exported oil, and by 1957 agricultural activity only accounted for 1.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most widely referred to as “Dutch disease”, the Venezuelan economy suffered from paralysis in all sectors not affiliated with oil. Domestic agricultural production could not meet domestic demand and the country quickly became a net importer of food. The countryside was no longer of service to the oil-rich policy makers and fell into a state of neglect. With another oil boom in the 1970’s, the Dutch disease only worsened. The increased importation of food crippled local agricultural production, leaving large groups of Venezuelans with no choice but to migrate to the cities where there was more hope of finding work. As a result, Venezuela is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with most sources estimating that approximately 90% of the population is located in urban areas. Today, any traveler can observe the effects: shantytowns, or barrios, crowd the hillsides around the more well-to-do city centers. Employment rates and infrastructure cannot keep pace with mass migration. Residents don’t always have water or electricity; roads, which are usually too narrow for automobiles to navigate, aren’t officially named or marked. In the overcrowded conditions, poverty festers.

In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez gave in to IMF policies. Pérez was required to apply the neo-liberal package: privatizing services, cutting social spending and subsidies, orienting the economy for export, and deregulating trade.[2] Venezuela’s economy was already oriented towards the export of oil, which destroyed internal agriculture production, caused a build-up of poverty in the city and created a need to import more food. But the new policies also demanded that social spending and subsidies be cut. With the government unable to subsidize Venezuela’s own oil, prices of everything, especially food and transportation, doubled overnight, and Venezuelans took to the streets rioting, in what is called the Caracazo. The Pérez government brutally repressed the rioters, killing thousands. Most observers believe that Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998 in direct response to failed neo-liberal policies and the repression of the Caracazo: Chavez’s victory symbolized taking back sovereignty and working for the welfare and needs of the people. Chavez won on a platform to eliminate corruption, fight poverty, and create a new constitution. The 1999 constitution, drafted by a popular assembly and approved by a clear majority of the population, is considered one of most progressive in world. It prioritizes food sovereignty, addressing food as a basic human right, not merely a commodity.

Food Culture

Hugo Chavez and his government are among the first policy makers in the world to address issues of food sovereignty, but they are working against years and years of damage that have already been done. The present-day reality is that Venezuela imports 70% of the food it consumes. Pabellon, the national plate of Venezuela, is made of slow roasted, pulled beef, white rice, black beans with cheese, and fried plantains. However, Venezuela does not produce the entirety of its national meal; the majority of black beans and beef consumed in the country are imported. In supermarkets food prices are about the same as they are in the U.S., but Venezuela’s minimum wage is $11 US a day. This does not translate perfectly to the U.S. because many poor people in Venezuela don’t pay rent and there are no property or income taxes. Nonetheless, a high percentage of one’s income goes to food, especially for those living in poverty.

Compared to most of the nations of Latin America, Venezuela is relatively prosperous, and for the most part, minimum caloric intake is met. However, in many quarters, the diet is poor. We found it odd to learn that Venezuelans don’t eat many vegetables when their soil is so fertile and they could grow them all year long. Salad was rare. Fruit was readily available, but it was usually served as juice, with a lot of added sugar. You find a lot of processed flours, powdered milk, and hydrogenated oil—a diet similar to that consumed by many people in the United States. One of our classmates became sick and told her host-mom that she hadn’t been able to poop for the past 3 or 4 days. Her host-mom seemed to think this was normal. Upon my arrival to Venezuela, my host-brother wanted to take me out. I was expecting Venezuelan cuisine. Instead, we went to the mall where he professed his love for McDonalds to me. These experiences could just be a few extreme, isolated cases, but if Venezuelans had control over their food supply, would they be eating this way? Would they be connected to their luscious countryside and eat more fresh vegetables and less sugars and starches? Would they practice a more traditional food culture and less addiction to corporate American brands?

As campesinos were pushed off their land and flocked to the barrios to find jobs in oil and industry, Venezuela lost much of its traditional food culture and its ability to feed itself. In Venezuela, corporations have the ability to dictate what is eaten and create a demand for their products through marketing and media control. Venezuela has been colonized by food corporations. You can’t get away from Nescafe and Coca Cola. The “globalization” taking place around the world can also be called “Americanization”.

How is Venezuela moving forward to food sovereignty and away from the problems history has brought them?

1. Land reform

Article 307 of the constitution states: “The predominance of latifundios is contrary to the interests of society. Appropriate tax law provisions shall be enacted to tax fallow lands and establish the necessary measures to transform them into productive economic units, likewise recovering arable land. Farmers and other agricultural producers are entitled to own land in the cases and forms specified under the pertinent law. The State shall protect and promote associative and private forms of property in such manner as to guarantee agricultural production. The State shall see to the sustainable ordering of arable land to guarantee its food-producing potential.” Likewise, the constitution specifies that it is the State’s obligation to promote the development of agriculture in Venezuela:

“The state will promote conditions for holistic rural development, with the purpose of generating employment and guaranteeing the peasant population an adequate level of well-being, as well as their incorporation into national development. Similarly, it will support agricultural activity and the optimal use of land, by means of the provision of infrastructure works, credit, training services, and technical assistance.”

Reforms to Article 471 of Venezuela’s Penal Code de-criminalize small farmers who occupy private lands. The Law on Land and Agricultural Development of 2001 is the legal framework of land redistribution, which President Chavez calls “a return to the countryside”. The law aims to tax unused property that could potentially be used for growing and raising food. It also redistributes unused government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives and expropriates uncultivated land for redistribution, while compensating private owners at market value. The size of uncultivated landholdings is limited to 50 hectares of high quality land and 3000 hectares of low quality land, with another four categories between these two extremes.

The National Land Institute (INTI) oversees the land redistribution process. It determines what land can be redistributed and who, out of those applying for land deeds, is eligible. Mission Zamora is a government initiative inspired by Ezequiel Zamora who was a crusader for land reform and peasants’ rights in the 1850’s. The mission is in charge of helping to organize small and medium producers and assisting them to receive land titles. When the work of these institutions started, 70% of cultivatable lands were in the hands of 3% of the population. By 2005 2.2 million hectares of state owned land had been redistributed to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives. One million hectares of private land had been redistributed, of which 90% are successfully producing food.[3]

Recuperated lands are distributed to cooperatively run projects called Zamoran Farms. The land is owned by the state, but it is considered the cooperative’s as long as it remains productive. Value added to the land, such as housing, tractors, livestock, recuperated soil or planted trees, is classified as productive and belongs to the cooperative.

We visited such farms in Venezuela. One was a 60-hectare parcel of formerly idle, stateowned land in Merida, which the government granted to small producers. 63 people showed interest in the land, but they did not complete the free workshops offered by the government mission, Vuelvan Caras, which educates people about how to form cooperatives. As a result they were not eligible to attain helpful micro-credits and benefits from the government. Disappointed, they tried to divide the land into individual family farms to create an association of producers, but they could not create consensus and many people left. Out of the 63, seven stayed to form the cooperative, now called Pan y Amor, or Bread and Love.

We visited another Zamoran farm in Tucaní. The land redistribution process there was entirely different. The land was formerly a 200-hectare, privately owned latifundio. 206 laborers in the region organized a Land Committee, a Comite de Tierra, and fought for four years with the help of Mission Zamora to obtain the land. On April 7, 2002, after 120 hours of workshops about cooperatives, the Comite de Tierra became the cooperative Beveré. In this case, the workshops were given by an enterprise called Cecosesur. As with Pan y Amor, the number of members decreased; 65 people lasted through the workshops. They received the title to the land from the National Land Institute (INTI) on October 12th and on November 15th, entered the land. We were told that 42 members make up the cooperative today because, while people want land, they are not interested in the social organizing that accompanies it.

Outside of Caracas, we were able to witness an actual land takeover. 20 years ago, hundreds of families were pushed off the land when the landowner suddenly decided to take it back. He had done nothing productive with the land, so the residents organized to reclaim it, along with the surrounding land, and farm it. They were approved by INTI and we had the opportunity to partake in the celebration of entering the land. There we watched members of the community, aided by El Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora (The Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front) break the chains of the property to march onto the land that would be their new home and livelihood. These battles are not easy ones; it is important to know that since 2001, 241 rural activists have been murdered. One of the recipients of the land told us, “If we tried to do this ten years ago we would have been beaten by the cops.”

The Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora was an organization we heard a lot about. We met Braulio, a Frente leader, who we have been in touch with since returning to the U.S. In an email he wrote about the organization’s goals: “to form, organize and mobilize agrarian communities using and defending our laws that are fundamental tools; and to orient people collectively to eradicate Venezuelan bureaucracy.” Braulio wrote, “We also work in other countries and we belong to the worldwide organization, La Via Campesina. We believe in popular power and that the government only is in control when it is obeying the people.” This “lead by obeying” philosophy is a quintessential tenet of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. To witness separate campesino movements in Latin America operating on similar philosophical grounds gave us a lot of hope and helped us see that work being done in Venezuela has global scope and implications.

2. Institutions

Land reforms under previous presidents failed because there was no support for farmers once they received land. Newly created government institutions, like the missions and ministries, act as the supporting structure for the land reforms. I mentioned Mission Zamora and Mission Vuelvan Caras (now called Mission Che Guevara) in the section above. Mission Zamora’s goal is, according to government documents, to “reorganize the ownership and use of idle lands with agriculture to eradicate the latifundio” by aiding those interested in reclaiming land.

We visited a Mission Che Guevara in Quibor. This mission gives people scholarships, and often health and housing assistance while they take higher education classes in technology, management, history, and cooperative values. It focuses on the Social Production Enterprise (EPS) model, defined as “economic entities dedicated to the production of goods or services, in which work has its proper and authentic value, with no discrimination associated with any type of work, no privileges related to certain positions or hierarchies and with equality between its members, based on participative planning.”[4] Cooperatives are preferred by the state but not required. The Social Production Enterprises are part of a larger plan for endogenous development, another Venezuelan-coined term, which counters neo-liberal development. While neo-liberal development promotes privatization of services in order to profit transnational companies, endogenous development promotes socialized services and localized production, organized by and for the collective whole. The Che Guevara mission that we visited functioned as a community center, but there were also community members paid by the government who were giving workshops on baking, canning, sewing, electronic repair, wood shop, soldering, and tourism, in order to strengthen the local economy and generate employment.

The Ministry of Popular Power of Agriculture and Lands (MPPAT) is made up of four departments: INDER, FONDAS, CVA, and INIA. The National Institute for Rural Development, INDER, works on infrastructure and construction projects like irrigation, drainage, bridges, and roads. We saw their plaques on completed projects everywhere along the rural roads. The Socialist Agrarian Fund, FONDAS, assists farmers through micro lending at little to no interest. Pan y Amor, for example, needed a tractor and the government gave them credits to buy one. They aren’t required to begin payment on the tractor until the land begins to produce. If farmers receive such credits, they are often required to sell their goods to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, CVA. This can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing because it offers a steady and fair buyer, in comparison to profiteering middlemen, but also leaves little space for independence and change. One of the CVA’s goals is to find markets for the products of small and medium farmers. In Quibor we visited a new plant that was comanaged by the government and workers from the community. They bought tomatoes, peppers, and onions from small and medium farmers in the region and made ketchup, salsa, and pasta sauce; they then sold these products to government subsidized food stores.[5] They are adding value to raw produce to develop food industries and create more jobs. A woman nervously approached us at the plant wanting to tell us something. She explained that before Chavez was elected, she worked as a migrant farm worker on latifundios, going wherever she could make enough to survive. She explained that as a single mother with three children, that kind of life was impossible, unbearable. Now she has steady work in one place. She threw her hands in the air and thanked Chavez for his compassion for the campesino. In 2008 the National Assembly allocated $379 million to a network of these “socialist” food producers. 21 agro-processing plants run by communities across Venezuela are currently coordinated by the CVA.[6]

The National Agriculture Research Institute, INIA, is particularly interesting to us. It is the participatory research branch that conducts studies and projects with farmers. If a farmer needs technical assistance, they can go to INIA and get it for free. Basil made contact with a team in the Merida office and went on several visits with them to the farms they work with. He explains that he was lucky in meeting this particular team (Angelica, Camilo, and Adrian) because they exhibit the amazing potential of INIA. We were introduced to Pan y Amor, a research plot in Zulia, and many small family farms in Pueblo del Sur. Pan y Amor struggled with their citrus production and asked INIA to help. INIA did this and more. Now with their help, the farmers are growing and studying the production of organic cocoa. Recently they started a new project of growing different varieties of yucca. The region is perfect for yucca production and the government, as a way to bolster internal production and processing of foods, is building a yucca-processing factory in the area. INIA is helping Pan y Amor conduct a yucca experiment on their land in preparation for this factory. The yucca grown there will be sold raw, but will also be processed into flour and a lubricant for oil drills. At the INIA research plot in Zulia, they are studying which varieties of plantains are more naturally resistant to pests and therefore require less chemical applications. This research was initially intended for a large plantation, but Beveré, the cooperative farm we visited in Tucani, was also benefiting from their research and was conducting a similar experiment on their land. In Pueblo del Sur, the INIA team is working with small family farms to study which grasses increase cows’ milk production. Angelica gave them the basic tools to conduct their own experiment to see which kind of grass made the cows produce the most milk. Each family ran its own experiment and by the end of a month, the cows were giving 5 litres of milk a day instead of 1. The goal of this experiment was not to increase milk production for commercial production, but to make sure small family farms remain self-subsistent. But the ability of small families to produce what they consume also has an impact on the amount of food the country needs to import.

The contact with small, rural farming operations provides opportunities for a very different kind of relationship between producer and researcher. There is a feeling of deep mutual respect. This is what is so significant about participatory research. A farmer told Basil, “Before, we only ever got help from scientists when they were writing their papers for school. They treated us poorly and only ever told us what we needed to do, never asking us what we needed help with.” We witnessed scientists encouraging producers to make sure their children went to school. The INIA researchers were always greeted more like family than professional associates. We also witnessed our friends at INIA spreading awareness about the opportunities that farmers have to organize to meet their needs. When one farmer complained about his irrigation difficulties, Angelica told him that he could get together with other farmers in the region, form a communal council[7] and apply for money to install more advanced irrigation infrastructure. After giving farmers seeds, Angelica explained that she wouldn’t give them anymore because the farmers need to be independent and claim the knowledge INIA is providing, like seed saving, as their own. This is in contrast to agricultural production since the Green Revolution, where seeds have been developed to terminate after a season, thus forcing farmers to rely on corporations like Monsanto to buy new seeds every year.

Anna met another team in the Merida office who was experimenting with a bacterium, as an ecological alternative to chemicals, to eliminate a butterfly larva that was killing the corn and cruciferous crop in the area. Another man named Javier was working with a strand of mushrooms called trichodherma harziaunum to kill mushrooms that were destroying broccoli, cauliflower, and potato crops.

3. Food Factories

Just as with land takeovers, there has been much organizing to take over important points of food production and distribution. We visited the town of Barlovento where family cooperatives grew cacao. The producers in the area understood that they were losing profit: they sold their cacao on the world market as a raw product and they bought back chocolate bars, the finished product, at a 100% price increase. They realized the importance of endogenous development and in 2004, the communal council[8] made a proposal to the government to build a cacao processing factory. The government approved the proposal and built a state of the art processing plant. The government and the communal council each owns 50% of the plant; however, the communal council has complete control over how the plant functions. The government can’t tell them what to do except to demand productivity. The people of Barlovento are descendents of Africans who escaped the bondage of slavery. Their shared heritage has created a close-knit community. The people who work as farmers are often family members of those who work in the factory, and some people may do both. Because of this, there is close cooperation between the farms and the factory. Cacao is bought from small and medium farms at a fair price and surplus realized from factory production is reinvested in the whole system (from farming to processing) or divided equally between the farmers and factory workers. Another example is the factory of the Italian multinational company Parmalat. When they abandoned their milk plant, the Venezuelan government bought it from them for $372 million. It is another example of a “socialist” producer supported by the CVA. It has the capacity to produce 1 million liters of milk per day, but currently, is only operating at 6% of its capacity.[9]

4. Subsidized food

Children all over the world “die because of illnesses that are practically always preventable and curable at a rate of over 30,000 per day, 21 per minute, and 10 every thirty seconds. In the South, the proportion of children suffering from malnutrition is upwards of 50% in quite a few countries, while, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a child who lives in the First World will consume the equivalent of what 50 children consume in an underdeveloped country throughout his or her life.” This statement was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the opening of the seventh G-15 Summit on March 1, 2004. Mercal, PDVAL, comedores populares, and casas de alimentacion are all methods the government is using to stop hunger.[10]

In December 2002, Fedecámaras, Venezuela’s chamber of commerce, and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company called for what looked like a general strike, but was actually a lockout of employees. As in the United States Venezuela’s production and distribution of food was heavily controlled by international corporations. These food corporations supported the lockout, as an attempt to get Chavez out of office by creating instability in the country. This attempt of sabotage resulted in closed supermarkets, growing malnutrition, and food shortages across the country. On his television show, Aló Presidente, Chavez made clear how dangerous Venezuela’s lack of food sovereignty and vulnerability to the major food corporations was. Mission Mercal was created in response to this danger. It is a chain of government-subsidized grocery stores that sell meats, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, bread, cereal, pasta, rice, flours, tomato sauce, fruit, coffee, margarine, oil, sugar, and salt, all priced 39% below traditional supermarkets. They buy directly from Venezuelan producers or import what isn’t produced in Venezuela to eliminate the intermediary. The current goal is to buy 40% of food from small and medium local producers. They have also developed large storage spaces and distribution and transportation networks to combat food speculation, hoarding, and sabotage. The stores also provide jobs for the communities. Some Mercal stores, such as the one Katie went to in Monte Carmelo, are run by the community. They organized through their communal council to obtain money for the initial capital, and run it like community supported agriculture in the U.S., where customers receive packages of food weekly.

PDVAL markets, on the other hand, are run by the state oil company, PDVSA, and sell essential products at nationally regulated prices. They are mobile, smaller markets. We often saw PDVAL trucks selling to crowds of people in parking lots or plazas. Comedores Populares are popular cafeterias that offer large healthy lunches for five bolivars (about $2.50) or for free if you aren’t able to pay. Basil and I ate at one in Mérida and were pleasantly surprised. We saw men and women of different economic levels and classes all eating together. Casas de Alimentacion (basically soup kitchens) are community-run cafeterias that operate out of individual homes. Katie went to one in Palo Verde. She explained to me that women from the community used funds from their communal council to make lunch everyday for people who were in need. The government’s 14,000 Mercal stores and 6,000 soup kitchens comprise 22% of national food distribution currently. Per capita food consumption of Venezuelans has grown from 370 pounds of food per year in 1998 to 415 pounds per year now. The recommended amount of food that each person should consume per year is about 440 pounds. We in the U.S. average 1800 pounds per year.[11]

5. International trade of goods and knowledge

In the face of crippling free trade agreements enforced by the United States, Venezuela is working to make new alliances, based in mutual agreement and cooperation. In our visit to Beveré in Tucaní, we saw Veniran tractors that were made in Iran specifically for Venezuela. The plan is not just to import tractors from Iran, but to be capable of manufacturing tractors in Venezuela by acquiring necessary equipment and engineering skills to do so. Beveré also had a Cuban agronomist, veterinarian, and accountant stationed at their farm as a part of the agreement of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Chavez proposed ALBA in 2004 as an alternative to the U.S. proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic join Venezuela in ALBA. The Cubans stationed in Venezuela provide technical assistance but also teach cooperative theory. Cubans have also provided greenhouses to Venezuela in exchange for discounted oil. A regional farmers organization in Mucuchies, Produción Agroecologia Integral (PROINPA), was working with Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) scientists on a project on potato seeds. The construction of Cuban greenhouses was critical to the success of the project and Anna witnessed Cubans working with ULA scientists and PROINPA farmers to jumpstart the production of potatoes and protect the biodiversity of the potato seeds. In Caracas we saw a beautiful urban garden inspired by those in Cuba. The CVA has created five food factories (similar the tomato processing plant we saw in Quibor) through economic accords with Cuba, and has launched a corn processing plant in cooperation with Iran and Nicaragua. The cacao plant in Barlovento was also trying to utilize ALBA to trade its chocolate products within the region. PDVAL signed a 12-year milk importation contract with the Argentine dairy cooperative Sancor in order to provide food products that are currently scarce.[12]

6. Getting tough with agro industry

In 2004 President Chavez’s rhetoric towards big business agriculture surprised the international community. Upon receiving word from Via Campesina that Monsanto was going to plant 500,000 acres of transgenic soybeans, Chávez called for the termination of the project and declared that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are contrary to the interests and needs of the nation’s farmers and farm workers. In reaction, he ordered that the land that was to be used for the soybean planting be planted instead with yucca, a widely recognized indigenous crop. He also announced plans for a project to create indigenous seed banks in order to ensure availability, security, and diversity of seeds for peasants worldwide.[13]

Chavez was standing up to the corporation that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the bovine growth hormone rBGH, and the pesticide “glyphosate” which is used by the Colombian government against coca production and rebel groups. It has destroyed legitimate farms and natural areas like the Putomayo rainforest, and poses a direct threat to human health, including that of indigenous communities.[14] Sadly, Monsanto does continue to operate within Venezuela. This is because if an enterprise is productive, the government has not challenged their right to operate. That was obvious when we drove through a plantain latifundio in Zulia that stretched for miles and was owned by a large company that sprayed its fields by airplane. However, if your company is not conducting productive business, the government won’t hesitate to pounce. While we were in Venezuela Polar was found to be hoarding rice and Cargill was evading price controls on rice. The government took temporary administrative control of a Polar plant in Guárico state and expropriated Cargill rice plants for 90 days as a warning. In 2003 the Venezuelan government set price controls on about 400 basic foods. Manufacturers claim that food shortages are occurring because the price controls have not kept up with inflation. The government argues that the fall of the U.S. dollar and speculation on the market is leading to the instability. Problems with hoarding and smuggling to Columbia have ensued, where manufacturers can turn a 300% profit.[15] Also, food manufacturers are evading the price controls by producing non-regulated foods and decreasing production. Anna was told, “Imagine you can’t find any milk, but you can find all the sour cream and yogurt you want.” Rice was a growing problem: the prices were rising and the shelves weren’t being restocked. As a result, in February 2009, Chavez ordered the military to temporarily take control of all the rice processing plants in the country and force them to produce at full capacity. Polar, Venezuela’s largest food processor, claimed that the regulated price of plain rice was below the cost of production, and therefore it was reasonable that 90% of the plant’s production was non-regulated, flavored rice. Polar also claimed that because of the shortage in raw materials, they could only operate at 50% capacity. The government claimed otherwise, saying they found two months’ worth of raw rice in the plant’s storage. In March 2009, Chavez set minimum production quotas for 12 basic foods that were subject to price controls, including white rice, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, cheese, and tomato sauce. He also has raised the regulated prices of another 10 basic foods; however, the regulated prices must stay current with inflation or corruption will continue.[16] The battle continues: these private companies do not want to cooperate with the government and are more concerned with their profits than the wellbeing of the people. Let me note here that Cargill reported nearly $4 billion in net earnings in 2008, a 36% increase over the previous year, while the number of people suffering hunger worldwide increased to a record 923 million.[17]

7. Regional organizing through consejos comunals and the comuna

The following information is taken from Josh Lerner’s extensive article, “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” published in March 2007. We had a chance to meet Josh in Venezuela, where he was working in barrio Pueblo Nuevo in Mérida. He was a muchappreciated resource in our studies.

Since 2006, Venezuelan neighborhoods have been organizing themselves into communal councils, a form of participatory democracy where the community has the responsibility over decisions that affect them. Each urban council contains about 200-400 families, each rural council has at least 20 families, and each indigenous council is about 10 families. All decisions are to be made in citizen assemblies with a minimum of 10 percent of residents over age 15. These assemblies are to elect leadership, financial management, and monitoring committees, as well as committees based on local priorities (health, education, recreation, land, safety, etc.). Money is funneled to the communities that need it without corrupt government officials interfering. By law, communities can receive funds directly from the national, state, or city governments, from their own fundraising, or from donations. In turn, the councils can award grants for community projects or cooperatives. Officially, communal councils are to send project proposals directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, which gives the go-ahead as long as they are legally valid. However, councils often send projects to their municipality for review first. Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already formed throughout the country. As of 2007, 300 communal banks were established, which have received $70 million in micro-loans. Thanks to these funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community projects, paving streets, creating sports fields, building medical centers, and constructing sewage and water systems. Some leaders have proposed that the councils replace city and state governments entirely, or work parallel to them.[18]

The comuna is a fairly new idea. It is a larger social network of communal councils and cooperatives that can combine resources to work on larger projects that benefit more people. Infrastructure committees from several communal councils might decide to work together to build new sewer systems or several communal banks may decide to co-lend start up capital for a cooperative that addresses a need like distributing food. The comuna, hopefully, will have more resources to invest in Social Production Enterprises that can generate employment and produce what the community is in need of, thus furthering endogenous development.

Agroislena is a Venezuelan based agrochemical corporation that has a very strong presence in certain areas of Venezuela. Mérida state is one of these areas and during our time in the Merida countryside, in Mucuchies, we saw many Agroislena “tiendas” or shops. For decades, small farmers in the region have depended on this company for most of their agricultural inputs such as seeds, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. The agricultural areas suffer some of the most devastating rates of topsoil erosion in the world precisely because of the heavy reliance on chemical inputs that have historically exacerbated erosion issues. It is also important to state that a significant portion of the products sold at Agroislena stores are bought from U.S, European and Canadian multinational agribusinesses such as Cargill and Monsanto.

With the Chavez administration’s stated goals to promote locally based endogenous development around food production and distribution, and the local urgency to address the problems of chemical input dependence and subsequent erosion, locally based grassroots solutions have begun to emerge. The local production of organic alternatives to multinational chemicals serves as a very effective strategy for communities to pinch the markets of the large corporations. Maria Vicente is one of the community organizers and activists behind the initiative. She showed us the work of their communal council: new drip-irrigation systems that used less water than the sprinkler system they had before. She and some other women were also working to organize a cooperative trash pickup service that was quite comprehensive. Anti-litter posters hung up around the town and they had taught residents how to separate their trash from reusable materials. Food was separated for compost, which was in turn made into a worm fertilizer, hummus, and teas by the women. They had also set up childcare services for the children, which offered healthy meals and health care. Instead of chemical fertilizers or chicken manure (which was also imported from a different region of the country and caused contamination of the waterways), local producers were buying compost made by the women’s cooperative. The monetary price is a small fraction of the imported inputs, the compost does not contribute to erosion, and it is reported to be highly effective. It may make a nominal difference in the bottom line of agroindustrial companies, but the positive local impact is tangible and transformative. It is in the grassroots where the spirit of the Bolivarian revolution truly resides. With the sprouting of locally based solutions to local problems, the theoretical concept of sovereignty begins to take physical shape.

In Monte Carmelo some of us witnessed examples of really exciting community based organizing around food sovereignty issues. Irrigation and transportation infrastructure, organic, cooperative agriculture, regional networks of food producers and experiments with soil building worms and micro-rizomes are all examples of the activity in this small community. At the center of many of these projects is an amazing woman named Gaudi. Gaudi is acutely aware of the history of food in Venezuela. As a campesina, she has spent her life inside of an economy that has prioritized importation over local production. She has not only witnessed the slow and steady loss of local food autonomy, but she has suffered from it. For Gaudi, the seed is at the center of this story, and her work with seeds in the community has been extremely important, not only in encouraging the use of locally produced and adapted seeds, but in rescuing local awareness, identity and pride in that which is uniquely Venezuelan. In concert with the Lara state office of INIA, Gaudi and her community helped organize an annual festival dedicated to celebrating, honoring and sharing local seeds. The day of the campesina seed is now an official holiday in Monte Carmelo and its organizers hope that it spreads across the country.

When you visit Gaudi in her home, she will show you two things. She will show you a painted mural of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator from Spanish rule, that hangs on her inside wall, and she will show you her seeds. Her collection is impressive, but what may be more impressive is that many homes in Monte Carmelo are also small banks of local seeds. Instead of relying on agricultural stores for their seeds, the people of Monte Carmelo are working towards food sovereignty by localizing their production, storage and distribution.

Here, we have included the Declaration of the Campesina Seed, which Gaudi wrote:

Declaration of the Campesina Seed

We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with the campesinos and campesinas of Monte Carmelo, declare:

That we are the nutritious hope of our people.

That for centuries we have filled stomachs, pockets, marusas, bags, and granaries.

That we are part of the Venezuelan people, because we are all together at breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner.

That, besides being nourishment, we are also medicine and happiness for the campesinos and campesinas.

That we create and give life when our love merges with the love of the humble and unassuming people of the fields; and that we love being grown as we were grown in the past, without being mistreated.

That, despite the persecution and mistreatment we have received from other seeds that are more powerful than us, we are still curled up safely in Monte Carmelo.

That, with courage and bravery we have resisted the harshness of herbicides and insecticides that have been spread over us.

That we are born from the womb of Mother Earth and we cry with her because she’s damaged and unloved.

That we love being caressed by fresh water once we are sowed.

That we are friends of the insects, birds and microorganisms that sing us songs of love and fertility in the voice of patriotism and national identity.


For these reasons and many more we proclaim to the world:

That we need to unite with all the seeds in the world, especially those in Latin America and the Caribbean.

That all of us seeds should organize ourselves in cooperatives in order to defend our existence.

That those who aren’t familiar with us should get to know us, so that they can help us reproduce and support us in our struggles for justice.

That the creation of indigenous Seed Banks should be promoted in every Venezuelan village.

That love for us should be promoted in schools, high schools, universities and all other centers of education.

That girls and boys should play with us when they are washing us for dinner.

That, as nourishment, we should never be missing at the tables of any Venezuelans.

That the campesino seeds should be able to enjoy life with men, women, boys, girls, and young people in an environment free of contamination by toxic agricultural substances and industrial waste; and to avoid, by any means necessary, being displaced by imported and transgenetic seeds; and to be ourselves, with our own flavor, color and aroma.


The seeds of Monte Carmelo, together with their hardworking friends, the faithful inhabitants of this village; declare that this day, October 29th, is the Day of the Campesino Seed so that it will be celebrated every year on this date in all of Venezuela, with the respect and appropriate honors that signify that this is a memorable a day for the Venezuelan people.


The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela, Part 2

During his expeditions with INIA Basil saw the work of rural communal councils. Through their communal councils, many agricultural villages and towns are organizing to develop transportation infrastructure in order to make production economically viable. Since isolation can threaten food sovereignty, this development is most urgent where dirt roads are all that connect remote villages to larger urban markets.. One such road lies in a mountainous region south of the city of Mérida in a cluster of small towns called Los Pueblos del Sur, or the villages of the south. The road is a patchwork; some sections are paved while others are virtually impassable without four-wheel drive. This patchwork road illustrates a very interesting dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. With increased autonomy over their territory through legally recognized communal councils, some communities have made it a priority to improve their section of the road. They have created plans; they have applied for and received government funds and they have paved the sections that pass through their community. Neighboring communities have not.

This can easily be seen as proof of the ineffectiveness of community-based development. A road that passes through many communities presents the challenge of consistency. But development initiated by one community may motivate others. People can learn from a neighbor’s example that they have the very tangible power to direct the development of their communities and their regions; they may decide to pave their own sections of road.

8. Education

Education is central to building consciousness of farmers’ rights and urban peoples’ rights to food. Education in many social movements has been a tool to organize people. It is also a service that has been neglected in the Venezuelan countryside, leaving a whole constituency of citizens without access to schooling. Mission Sucre provides free higher education to poor and previously excluded people. The government expects the student body to grow to one million by 2009, with more than 190 satellite classrooms throughout Venezuela, especially in the countryside, where students are receiving higher education for the first time.[19] In the small farming village of Bojo we observed a classroom affiliated with the Bolivarian University that offered courses in agro-ecology. Students are expected to use the knowledge gained in their course to serve the community, linking theory to practice. The director, Andrés Eloy Ruiz describes the teachers in these classes as “leader[s] of the process of learning but also…full participant[s] in the process of connection with a community in which, with the knowledge that both students and faculty have, the community’s problems can be resolved.” The Ministry of Higher Education is particularly interested in creating agroecological programs that specialize in studies useful to peasants, the indigenous and African descendants.[20]

At the Simon Rodriguez University students are required to engage in the problems encountered in their communities. We heard from Maria Vicente that her worm cooperative in Mucuchies was benefiting from the help of agroecology students who came to her wanting to learn and asking how they could help. This shift in educational philosophy is creating professionals who are experienced in working in concert with the needs and priorities of communities.

Anna and Katie attended a three-day farmer’s conference in Mucuchies that was organized around the region’s problems with soil erosion. Students from the Simon Rodriguez University, many of them children of farmers, were at the conference to become involved in the political organization of their community. The conference was part of something larger we saw in Venezuela—a culture of workshops and sharing of knowledge. Soil erosion was becoming an economic as well as environmental problem for farmers in the region. This region is very special and seen as a model of success for what community organizing could look like in rural areas. Communal counsels, students, regional organizations like Instituto para la Producción e Investigación de la Agricultura Tropical (IPIAT), farming, processing, and vending cooperatives, and government services like INIA and INDER were organized into a larger Red de Comunicación Agrícola, or Network of Agricultural Communication, that had been meeting periodically. Because they were organized like this, they were able to mobilize by convening the conference to learn about erosion, techniques of agro-ecological production and recuperation of soil and water, and make agro-ecological farming the norm rather than the exception. In three days we learned the basic principles of agro-ecology. We watched presentations by regional activists like Lijia Para of Associacion y Coordinacion de Agriculturas de Rangel (ACAR), and experts like Fred Magdoff from Vermont and Miguel Angel Nuñez. We networked with others and learned about projects people were working on in the region, like reforestation and the rebirth of herbal medicine. Perhaps the most important thing I witnessed was farmers sharing their problems and successes in agro-ecological, small scale farming, and collaborating with students, government technicians, and experts in a beautiful participatory way. On the last day, people discussed goals for the region, one which was to stop using chemicals and large amounts of chicken manure fertilizers. As farmers, government workers, and activists alike received their diplomas for the completion of the course, we could see their excitement, looking forward to the changing future.

One of the most exciting schools we visited was the Latin American Institute of Agroecology “Paulo Freire” school in Barinas. The worldwide peasant movement, Via Campesina, that provided the definition of food sovereignty for this paper and the peasant movement in Brazil, Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST), approached Chavez in 2005 at the World Social Forum to create a farmers school in Venezuela. Chavez agreed and with Bolivarian University funding, donated 35 hectares of land expropriated from an privately-owned latifundio. Seventy students (48 male, 22 female) between 18 and 30 years of age from 7 Latin American countries were elected by the peasant movements of their countries and arrived to build their campus from scratch. Students from Venezuela are elected by the Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora.

In five years, the students will graduate with professional degrees. There are eleven professors that teach classes from epistemology to physics, agricultural history to biodiversity and plant life. The institute is named after the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, universally known in the field of popular education. The pedagogical method fuses university studies with the traditional knowledge and culture that each individual and the collective holds. “The result should be that the political thought of pedagogy is committed to the social dynamic of the popular struggle.” When Anna asked what the students wanted to do after graduating, most said they were going back to their families to farm, become leaders in social movements, and do community organizing.

A student named Orlandiz told us his family and other families took over land in Zulia and formed a farming cooperative with the help of Mission Zamora. He became active in Frente Zamora and they elected him to go to the school in Barinas. As he was teaching us how to grow yucca, he was asked whether he had known how to do this before going to university. He replied, “I, shamefully, am the son of a campesino, so I always knew how to plant yucca but I didn’t know why I was doing it. Now I am testing what I learned before and am more connected to it.” At the school, students are learning to be proud to be farmers, learning how important they are to society and using that power to organize around their rights as producers of labor and consumers of the fruits of the earth. Sixto, from Brazil, sported a MST shirt that said: “organize, produce, feed.” The goals of the school are similar: produce food to become self-sustaining, organize politically, and work within the community while learning academically.

The land that was given to them by the Venezuelan government serves as a ground for experimentation. In one area an old yucca field had been allowed to grow wild to let the land recuperate from the chemicals that the previous latifundio used and to see what grew there naturally. In another area, they were using the Mexican growing model of intercropping beans, corn, and squash. As the need for more classrooms grew, the students started constructing classrooms out of straw and mud as an exploration into native, sustainable architecture. We helped them build a pond for the ducks and advised them to learn about plants that purify and hold water. The next day they started to do this. This mentality and interest in experimenting was prevalent, and was often carried over into community work. For every 16 weeks spent on campus, 6 are spent in farming communities all over Venezuela participating in innovative, experimental projects. By funding a school that serves all of Latin America, Chavez has received a force of young enthusiastic students who are working on Venezuelan projects while catalyzing an agrarian movement throughout Latin America.

9. Food systems outside of the government

While the government is doing as much as it can to advance towards food sovereignty, there is also plenty of room to work outside the government towards these same goals.

Cecosesola is an umbrella cooperative in Barquisimeto that incorporates 80 organizations in 5 states. It was started in 1967 by 9 cooperatives who wanted to provide affordable means of burying the dead. By the 1970’s it evolved into a subsidized bus transportation service. By 1984 Cecosesola had reorganized to provide mobile food markets. This method of selling directly to people was highly successful and led to the idea of having permanent distribution areas in the city. Now Cecosesola has 3 ferias, or markets, where food and other household necessities are sold. Their cooperative is the largest network of food production and distribution in the country. During our time in Barquisimeto, we worked at the feria in the center of the city. The cooperative is a wholesale distributor of fresh produce supplied by 12 farmer associations and 12 food processing associations, all within a 5-hour drive. What makes Cecosesola so influential and important is the price of the food they provide, their direct connection with their associated producers, and the methods they’ve developed to create egalitarian relationships among their members. The cooperative was created in the 1960’s in order to provide affordable necessities to communities. Today, Cecosesola works directly with local growers and the price it pays for produce is based on what it costs the farmers to produce; in this way the cooperative pays the farmers a fair price for their produce. Cecosesola’s prices are approximately 50% of the prices found in supermarkets and estimates are that their produce uses 80% less chemicals. In a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, over 55,000 families get their weekly supply of food from the cooperative. At Cecosesola the members of the cooperative meet to decide what wage they should all receive in relation to their costs and profits. Cecosesola’s financial information is completely transparent and since job rotation is practiced, most members have a good understanding of every aspect of the cooperative’s functioning. Cecosesola makes an annual profit of 1.5%. 1% is to counter inflation and .5% is invested back into the cooperative and used for social benefits for the members. Some examples of this are the clinics they maintain in different areas of the city, and a state-of-the-art health center, still under construction, which will serve those who work at the feria, their families, and associated producers. The services of the clinic and health center are available to the general population as well, with fees set to recoup the costs of service.

Las Lajitas is a small farm near Monte Carmelo and Bojo in the state of Lara, near Barquisimeto. It is the organic branch of a larger cooperative, La Alianza. La Alianza is one of the many producers in the country that are associated with the Cecosesola project. Some of us worked for three weeks at Las Lajitas and had the opportunity to see both how the farm is organized and run internally and how it interacts with the larger, regional Cecosesola food system.

In the 1960’s a small group of European Catholic missionaries came to the region with the intention of working with the communities to help solve local problems. Following the principles of liberation theology, the priests worked in close cooperation with farmworkers in the region to confront issues of poverty: hunger, malnutrition, exploitation and landlessness. La Allianza was created, and eventually obtained land and became an important agricultural producer for the region. Their association with Cecosesola has brought in reliable income for decades. The associates at Las Lajitas explained that this association was created, the most they could get for a kilo of potatoes was two bolivars; the same potatoes would end up in an urban supermarket settling for bolivars per kilo. Instead of an “invisible hand” that threatens the economic viability of the production of food, producers and vendors meet every 3 months. Once the price of labor and all other inputs (seeds, fertilizers, water, electricity) are calculated, a price is decided based on how much it costs to produce.

Regional integration is very well established in this food system. Food produced at Las Lajitas goes to 8 de Marzo, the women’s pasta making cooperative and or to Moncar, a women’s sauce and jam making cooperative. These processes of adding value to locally produced raw materials have bolstered the local economy.

While Cecosesola is autonomous and unaffiliated with the government, La Allianza does accept government assistance. INIA has worked with them on on issues related to soil health and quality, seed saving techniques, worm technology and micro-rizome experiments. They have been instrumental in helping the farm become organic. Some of the farmers have been involved in national and international outreach efforts to share the knowledge they have acquired through their 40 year process of learning.

8 de Marzo is a women’s cooperative in Palo Verde that sells whole wheat and vegetable-derived pasta to Cecosesola. This cooperative was primarily founded by women. Many rural women in Venezuela carry a double burden; they work for low wages outside the home, but they also put in long hours of unpaid domestic work, and in addition, many are single mothers. In rural areas migrant farm work pulls families apart, leaving women to care for the home and children. 8 de Marzo has significantly benefited the economic lives of the women who work there.

8 de Marzo has also closed the gap between poor producers and poor consumers. They work closely with the people they buy from and sell to in order to create a network of cooperation. They source vegetables from Las Lajitas to support organic farming in their local economy. They set their wages just above minimum wage so that their product can be sold at affordable prices. There are many benefits that have been socialized and localized: food stamps are provided by the cooperative that are spent at a store which is owned by their members and which carries their products. Women members are paid by the cooperative to care for each others children. 8 de Marzo decides collectively what they need and want. In this model, there is a space to discuss women’s issues, labor, economics, food systems, and the environment, and to build their collective political power as women, campesinas, workers, and people.

The cooperative Bervere in Tucaní has struggled with selling their produce at fair rates. They are far away from Cecosesola and felt that selling to them was not profitable. They also sold their produce to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, but they waited 9 months for payment—CVA is a slow moving government program that is still in its infancy—only a year old. It was easier and more reliable for Bevere to sell to intermediaries even though they received lower prices. It is obvious that the connection between producer and consumer is what needs the most improvement; it is the part of the food system that is the weakest. We visited Barrio San Juan in Caracas, where the Colectivo Revolucionario de San Juan actively sought out small farmers outside the city and by eliminating intermediaries was able to sell produce at a farm stand at the base of the barrio. The small profit made by the collective is being used to build a community center where the farm stand can expand into a large open-air market. Every Sunday some of the money is used to cook a huge pot of soup and the whole barrio is invited to eat and spend time together in order to strengthen the community. As the project continues, a comuna is developing, including communal council members, the collective, the farmers, and those interested in running the cooperative food market. The cooperative food market is a great example of a Social Production Enterprise that will further endogenous development between the producer and consumer. The space where the market will one day stand is now just rubble under a highway overpass, but neighbors shows up regardless to play dominoes and bingo, and talk politics. They are building the energetic foundations of an important community space.

Further Problems: World Food Crisis

Since 2003, household poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half, from 54% to 27.5%[21]. As Venezuela’s poor obtain more spending power, they are able to consume more than ever before (some say 400% more), contributing to inflation. In three years alone, from 2004 to 2007, consumption more than doubled from $24 billion to $52 billion. On a global scale, from 2002 to 2007, global consumption of milk rose by 14.3% while the number of milk cows rose by only 1%. Production has not kept up with consumption. President Chavez commented, “The impact of tighter food supply is already evident in raw food prices, which have risen 22% in the past year… wheat prices alone have risen 92%”[22]. When most of one’s income goes towards food, as it does in Venezuela, these numbers are very damaging, with the damage falling disproportionately on the poor. Venezuela’s problem is part of a larger food crisis worldwide, where inflation and food shortages are reoccurring. For example, in 2007, when many bakeries in Mexico went out of business due to rising wheat prices, protestors took to the street. Mexico imports over 60% of the wheat it consumes. Recently, Afghanistan asked for $77 million in emergency food aid. The Philippines have had difficulty in meeting their rice quota after a 40% rise in the price of rice. This crisis is new and baffling: never have we seen these patterns without war, drought, or natural disasters.[23] Fossil Fuel Dependency Creates Contradictions Worldwide

Chavez has said that one of the causes of rising food prices may be global warming. Oil revenues are being invested into agricultural production, but what is oil, a fossil fuel, doing to agriculture in the long term? Fossil fuels contribute to global warming, which is predicted to contribute to the world food crisis. According to a new study at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researchers found that in the past two decades, warming temperatures have caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion for major food crops.[24] While there is a lot of work being done to develop more understanding of agro-ecology, the production of petro-fertilizers has not slowed down. We drove past an industrial complex that produced the petro-fertilizers, brandishing the state oil company’s name, PDVSA. As we passed the complex, our professor’s partner explained to us that PDVSA fertilizers were being traded with Cuba, marking a disappointing regression from agro-ecological farming since 1989 when trading with the former Soviet Union collapsed.

Another factor, as Chavez says, “is Bush’s crazy plan to use food to make fuel.” He is referring to the United State’s policy of using subsidized corn for the production of ethanol, which caused the global price of corn to increase by 44% in 2008. In response, Chavez banned corn exports to ensure that corn would be used only for consumption.[25] Evo Morales, president of Bolivia has said, “Agro-fuels are not an alternative, because they put the production of foodstuffs for transport before the production of food for human beings. Agro-fuels expand the agricultural frontier destroying forests and biodiversity, generate monocropping, promote land concentration, deteriorate soils, exhaust water sources, contribute to rises in food prices and, in many cases, result in more consumption of more energy than is produced.”[26]

Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

Relying on food imports may alleviate the short-term crisis of food shortages, but will not ensure a long-term solution that leads to food sovereignty. This has to be achieved by entrusting workers and communities with the power over their own food production and distribution. While Mercal is concerned with feeding the hungry through subsidized commodities that foster food security, the mission as of now doesn’t tackle issues essential to food sovereignty like fair trade, land degradation through chemical use, culturally appropriate and healthy foods, or building endogenous development—because they can import, buy from transnationals operating in Venezuela, or buy from large latifundios. To help overcome food shortages, Chavez lightened restrictions on the importation of 50 products[27]. This will not achieve sovereignty over Venezuela’s food system. While the minister administering Mercal might request a larger budget to import more beans, the minister of INIA might be more interested in figuring out how to increase bean production within the country. Even if a nation was secure in its bean production, if its security was brought about by a government-owned food system that hired people to work in government farms, factories, and distribution sites, then food sovereignty would only be obtained on the national level, rather than the local level. In this classic socialist sense, the state could control all the means of production and create complete food security. But socialist agricultural development looks very different than this in Venezuela. The food sovereignty movement is, essentially, socialism decentralized. The Venezuelan government is a supportive facilitator for the projects that cooperatives and communities decide they need for themselves.

However, the immediate need for food security can and does delay the larger movement for food sovereignty. The debate and contradictions forming around food security and food sovereignty are taking place worldwide. For example, Ecuador’s constitution states that food sovereignty is a priority but they also allow GMOs into their country. MST of Brazil is an internationally known organization that has gained political recognition and power, but Brazil is also one of the largest producers of soy for export. Conclusion

It is interesting to look at how the numbers mirror each other: 80% of people in poverty, 90% urbanized, 70% of food imported, 70% of land in the hands of 3% of the population, and 2% of GDP based in agriculture. The problems of food and poverty are connected. They do not represent a nation that is sovereign or sustainable. In the case of Venezuela, these numbers are also a result of neo-liberal development. The examples presented in this paper, of new laws, new techniques, new organizing are examples of what Venezuela calls endogenous development, which represents a different model of development for agriculture, for people, and for the nation—development that is communal and local and ensures the people’s sovereignty and sustainability. For one of the first times in Latin American history, there is synergy between the efforts of the government and people because through participatory democracy, the people have become their own government. They rightfully aim to be sovereign from foreign corporations and US imperialist intervention. This sovereignty has bubbled over to all sectors, one of the most important being food. One of the goals of the government and the people is a food system that is just and sustainable, that is able to provide what people need. Based on the examples provided here, it is certain that great strides have been made in the 10 years of Chavez’ administration. Agricultural production has increased by 24%, corn production by 205%, rice by 94%, sugar by 13%, and milk by 11%.[28]

The Bolivarian movement, symbolized and led by Hugo Chavez, is working towards a different set of ideas, principles and goals. Just like healthcare and education, access to food is a constitutionally protected basic human right. The Venezuelan Food Security Law states:

“It is indispensable to guarantee to all Venezuelan citizens access to quality food in sufficient quantity. For true and revolutionary rural development, it is necessary to overcome the traditional market conception of foods and agricultural products. This vision is a detriment to the fundamental right that all Venezuelans have to feed themselves.”

The government and the people of Venezuela share a common perspective about what their problems are and how they should go about solving them. When people are given the tools and the freedom to produce how and what they want, they inevitably begin to create a society that has the interests of its very designers at the center, the interests of people and their sovereignty.


[1] “Statement on People’s Food Sovereignty.” La Via Campesina: International Peasant Movement. 15 October 2008.

[2] Wagner, Sarah. “Mercal: Reducing Poverty and Creating National Food Sovereignty in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 24 June 2005. 27 April 2009.

[3] Wilpert, Gregory. “Land for People not for Profit in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 23 August 2005. 3 May 2009.

[4] Howard, April. “Creating an Endogenous Development Culture in Venezuela.” UpsideDown World. 8 September 2008. 22 May 2009.

[5] Gilbert, Chris and Cira Pascual Marquina. “A Leap Forward: Higher Education in the Bolivarian Revolution.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 November 2006. 24 May 2009.

[6] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009.

[7] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009.

[8] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009.

[9] Carlson, Chris. “Chavez Announces Project to Combat Food Shortages in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 21 January 2008. 2 May 2009.

[10] Chavez, Hugo. “Speech by President Hugo Chávez, at the opening of XII G-15 Summit.” Venezuela Analysis. 1 March 2004. 27 April 2009.

[11] Wagner, Sarah. “Mercal: Reducing Poverty and Creating National Food Sovereignty in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 24 June 2005. 27 April 2009.

[12] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009.

[13] Tockman, Jason. “Venezuela to Prohibit Transgenic Crops.” Venezuela Analysis. 21 April 2004. 26 April 2009.

[14] “Monsanto.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 1 June 2009. 2 June 2009.

[15] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009.

[16] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009.

[17] Suggett, James. “Venezuela Expropriates Cargill Rice Plant that Evaded Price Controls.” Venezuela Analysis. 5 March 2009. 23 May 2009.

[18] Lerner, Josh. “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” Z Magazine. 6 March 2007. 5 May 2009.

[19] Podur, Justin. “Venezuela’s Revolutionary University.” Znet. 22 Septmenber 2004. 7 May 2009. [4]

[20] Gilbert, Chris and Cira Pascual Marquina. “A Leap Forward: Higher Education in the Bolivarian Revolution.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 November 2006. 24 May 2009. [5]

[21] Weisbrot, Mark. “Poverty reduction in Venezuela: A Reality-based View”. Scribd. Fall 2008. 1 June 2009. [6]

[22] Fuentes, Federico and Tamara Pearson. “Combating Food Shortages in Venezuela.” Green Left Weekly. 3 February 2008. 26 May 2009. [7]

[23] Suggett, James. “Chávez Emphasizes Global Context of Venezuelan Food Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 March 2008. 1 June 2009. [8]

[24] “Global Warming Causes Losses in Food Production.” The Energy Blog. 20 March 2007. 28 May 2009. [9]

[25] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. [10]

[26] Lerner, Josh. “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” Z Magazine. 6 March 2007. 5 May 2009. [11]

[27] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. [10]

[28] Suggett, James. “U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Says Venezuela Prepared for World Food Crisis.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 February 2009. 16 May 2009. [12]