The devastating economic crisis in Venezuela has considerably affected people’s access to food. US sanctions, which have compounded the crisis and blocked any solutions, have also specifically attacked Venezuelans’ right to food, raising hurdles for food imports and targeting the CLAP subsidized food program. In this article, food sovereignty activist Christina Schiavoni looks at several grassroots initiatives organizing to secure access to food with food sovereignty on the horizon. She is also launching a campaign in partnership with these organizations to support their efforts both in the short and long term.
Published on Venezuelanalysis, Aug 24, 2019
Control over Venezuela’s breadbasket
My urban farmer friend Abu Talib of the South Bronx often shares the refrain that “he who controls your breadbasket controls your destiny.” I can’t think of a better explanation of food sovereignty, or the efforts of Talib and countless others around the globe to forge autonomy through growing their own food and creating a living example of what a radically different food system could look like.
As a North American food sovereignty activist, among the inspirations for my now fourteen years of research focused on Venezuela was a burgeoning of such efforts to transform the food system that was not getting the attention it deserved. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a wide variety of these initiatives, from urban farms, aquaculture projects, composting initiatives, community kitchens and farmers’ markets to rural cooperatives, community-run processing plants, biological pest control laboratories, agroecology schools and fishing initiatives.
What I’ve found most intriguing, as such efforts can be found in many corners of the world, is that in Venezuela they have been facilitated by a supportive policy framework affirming the right to food for all people through a strengthened domestic food supply. National policies defending food sovereignty were almost unheard of fourteen years ago, and though there are now more cases to point to, they remain relatively rare.
While Venezuela’s experiment in food sovereignty has been met with plenty of skepticism – why would the country with the world’s largest oil reserves suddenly concern itself with agriculture? – one need not look far back in history for an answer. From the manufactured food shortages in Chile under Allende, when the US had vowed to “make the economy scream,” to the still-ongoing embargo against Cuba that precipitated its “special period,” Latin America is no stranger to the weaponization of food as a form of US foreign policy. In Venezuela, which was importing upwards of 80% of its food at the start of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999, much of it from the US, the stakes were particularly high. Having a secure, sovereign food supply or not could easily become a matter of life and death.
This brings us to today and to the question of who controls Venezuela’s proverbial breadbasket. As I and others have written about elsewhere, this involves tracing the patterns of dependency forged over the course of colonization and later through the oil boom, and reinforced over periods of modernization and neoliberal reform, whereby a handful of powerful companies came to control the vast majority of Venezuelans’ food. Suffice it to say that by 2013, when the current food shortages started to be felt, Venezuela’s food system was far from transformed. Although some promising food sovereignty efforts were underway, they were uneven and incomplete. Some had fared well, while others hadn’t for a variety of reasons.
Most fundamentally, it’s not easy to build a new food system in the midst of the existing one. And not only is it about building the new, but dismantling the old—arguably even harder to do given the vested interests involved. The corporate-controlled food import complex continued to reign supreme, and even many initiatives that had seemingly broken away from it continued to rely on US inputs and technologies, in a pattern of dependency established over the twentieth century. Furthermore, the US remained the top destination for the oil exports that generated the country’s foreign currency necessary for imports, in a reinforcing cycle.
Hunger for regime change?
There is little question that US attempts to isolate Venezuela diplomatically and economically are about regime change. Despite claims that unilateral sanctions only hurt the Maduro government, the truth is that they amount to “collective punishment” of the Venezuelan population. According to a Center for Economic and Policy Research report by Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs that has received glaringly little media attention, the US-imposed economic sanctions against Venezuela were already responsible for at least 40,000 deaths since August 2017, and that’s before the latest moves by the White House in early August that essentially amount to a full-on embargo.
Perhaps most perverse of all – and certainly most telling of the interests at play – are the sanctions targeting the state-run food distribution program,CLAPs [providing subsidized food boxes containing basic staples], that is serving as a lifeline for the majority of Venezuelans in the face of the current blockade.
The US government’s intention to starve Venezuelans into compliance is painfully clear, but it appears to have underestimated the tremendous level of resistance on the ground in Venezuela, particularly in the realm of food sovereignty. This is in the form of both the above-mentioned efforts forged over the Bolivarian Revolution as well as new ones born in the face of crisis that are organizing communities to feed themselves in the short term and build greater autonomy in the long term.
A powerful example among these is Plan Pueblo a Pueblo, which is bridging the urban-rural divide by linking small-scale farmers in Venezuela’s countryside with organized urban communities, reaching tens of thousands of families with affordable fresh produce. This past February 23, on what had been the designated date of entry of highly-politicized US “humanitarian aid” from into Venezuela, Pueblo a Pueblo delivered 30 metric tons of fresh produce from the Venezuelan countryside to families in Caracas.
Efforts like Pueblo a Pueblo are doing a tremendous amount of work on a shoestring budget, thanks to collective effort and organization, while confronting almost unfathomable obstacles. They offer a response to the economic challenges at present as they directly grapple with these challenges themselves, navigating shortages of auto parts, agricultural inputs, hard currency, etc. and striving to maintain prices that are simultaneously fair for farmers and affordable for consumers in the face of spiralling inflation. Most urgently, Pueblo a Pueblo’s operations are directly threatened by a shortage of seeds for their farmers to sow their crops for the next growing season. They are currently in need of more than 100 pounds of seeds to meet their immediate demands.
Though it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of US aggression that is directly threatening – and tragically, already claiming – the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, we have a moral obligation to do what we can, particularly those of us within the US. In addition to denouncing the sanctions and finding ways to oppose them, we can support groups who are in active resistance, helping communities to feed themselves while building food sovereignty.
This is why I have partnered with Pueblo a Pueblo and three other organizations doing equally critical work to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign to support their efforts. The other groups involved include the Vertientes de Agua Viva Cooperative in the Andean region, the Conuco-Escuela El Barranco in the llanos region, and an Indigenous student farming initiative in the Amazonian region.
The members of the Vertientes de Agua Viva Cooperative in the village of Gavidia in the Andean state of Mérida are pioneers in local seed production as an alternative to commercially imported seeds. For over a decade, they have been hard at work in rescuing native Andean potatoes and other foodstuffs grown by their ancestors, which over time had been nearly lost to imported commercial varieties. In the midst of the current shortages of food and commercial inputs, native potatoes have become an increasingly important source of both food and income for Gavidia and other farming communities that have adopted the rescued varieties.
But this year they have encountered a new difficulty in the highly inflated prices for the organic fertilizers that they rely on for production. Through an emergency call put out to international friends, the Vertientes de Agua Viva Cooperative was able to purchase the minimum amount of fertilizer needed to secure this year’s potato harvest, but that was just a quick fix. They therefore plan to build up their own local supplies of organic fertilizer by integrating more livestock into their production, which this fundraiser looks to help to make possible.
The plights of the Pueblo a Pueblo farmers in accessing seeds and of the native potato farmers in accessing organic fertilizer underscore the importance of the work of the Conuco-Escuela El Barranco, or theConuquito del Barranco, to produce, save and distribute seeds and to make homemade organic inputs available for both urban and rural producers. Seeds currently under multiplication at this site, based in the rural community of Humocaro in the state of Lara, include a variety of salad and cooking greens, as well as tomatoes, cilantro, and a growing number of other crops, coupled with small-scale livestock breeding.
Also underway is the creation of a “living laboratory” to produce microorganisms for natural fertilizers and pesticides. In addition to its goal of supporting farmers in different parts of the country, the Conuquito del Barranco also serves as a community hub for the sharing of agroecological practices. With an infusion of support, the Conuquito del Barranco will hopefully help to wean farmers off imported seeds and inputs while boosting their resilience and self-sufficiency in the face of shortages.
Finally, at an Indigenous university in the Amazonian state of Bolivar, a group of students is focused on rescuing ancestral growing practices from the five different Indigenous communities from which they originate – the Uwottuja, the Jivi, the Eñepa, the Warao and the Pemon. Their efforts include a student-run farm at the university, which feeds the student body as well as serving as a learning tool, and intergenerational community-based farming projects that the students are heading up in each of their respective communities.
Although these projects are largely self-sufficient – making them important models for farmers elsewhere in the country – basic tools such as machetes and materials such as sacks for storage of produce have become prohibitively expensive. A small infusion of funds for tools, materials and transportation of the students between their school and their communities will go a long way towards ensuring the sustainability of these projects. This will support the food sovereignty of the five communities as well as the school, while serving as a reference for broader food sovereignty organizing.
An international call to action
Unfortunately, no amount of donations will be sufficient to counteract the deadly and illegal sanctions regime currently imposed on Venezuela, which we need to oppose by all means available. At the same time, the Bolivarian Revolution is laden with examples of communities organizing to take control of their own destiny, especially in times of crisis, and it’s also the duty of international solidarity to support these grassroots efforts.
This fundraising campaign has been launched to help mitigate some of the worst effects of the financial blockade as well as contribute toward active resistance on the ground in the form of building of long-term food sovereignty. It’s also been launched to show the Venezuelan organizers and activists who are doing incredible work against unfathomable odds that they are not alone.
As I write, a solidarity delegation organized by the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle of New York has just arrived to Venezuela, delivering seeds purchased through this campaign and from other sources directly to Venezuelan partners. Photos and updates will be forthcoming on the campaign site. Please contribute as possible and help spread the word, both about the campaign and the broader message behind it:
End the sanctions!
Stop the weaponization of food!
Food sovereignty now!