Thursday, 1 December 2011

Venezuela, revolution and food sovereignty

by Lisa Macdonald, AVSN

If current trends continue, global food crises will become more frequent and more severe. Today's food systems already leave hundreds of millions of people in hunger and are rapidly depleting the soil fertility on which long-term food security depends. Add to this mix the convergence of climate change and peak oil and it's clear we need major changes to the way food is produced and distributed.

The Venezuelan people are in the midst of an exciting experiment to create a socially just and sustainable food system. From fishing villages to cacao plantations to urban gardens, this growing social movement is showing what's possible when people, not corporations, take control of food.

Since the discovery of oil in Venezuela in the 20th century, multinational corporations’ single-minded exploitation of this “black gold” turned Venezuela into a single-industry economy. Food production and feeding the population was neglected in favour of the huge profits to be made from oil exports, and the mass migration of rural populations to urban centres to find a better standard of living resulted in Venezuela, by the 1990s, having to import more than 80% of its food.

With the election in 1998 of President Hugo Chávez and the development of the Bolivarian revolution, however, this began to change. In the last decade, a large number of initiatives have been taken to promote Venezuela's rural development and guarantee food sovereignty.

Among these are:
  • Food sovereignty is now guaranteed in the Constitution: “Food sovereignty is the inalienable right of a nation to define and develop priorities and foods appropriate to its specific conditions, in local and national production, conserving agricultural and cultural diversity and self-sufficiency and guaranteeing food supply to all the population”. 
  • The new Law of the Land and Agrarian Development, Law of Food Sovereignty and Security, and Law of Integrated Agricultural Health are based on the principles that farmers should control their land and product, the country should produce its own food, and toxic agricultural chemicals should be phased out. 
  • The nationalisation of large private landholdings, many of which had lain idle for decades, and the redistribution of that land to local communities for agricultural development is one of the most important achievements. Victorian farmer Alan Broughton, who participated in a food sovereignty study tour to Venezuela in July 2010, writes in an article available at “Control over production is in the hands of the farmer cooperatives on the newly distributed lands. 
  • Assistance is provided by the government for cooperative management and to establish processing plants so the farmers are no longer victim to the powers of the processors and distributors to set prices... The communities that have gained control of the land have different methods of land ownership and organisation.
  • Some communities chose to own individual plots and work together for machinery and knowledge sharing and marketing. Others form cooperatives to hold title of the land in common and work the land together. Other land remains as state farms with day to day decision making determined by the farm workers.” 
  • Rural producers are today supported by the Agricultural Bank of Venezuela (BAV), which promotes the social and economic development of the country. They receive agricultural funding at low interest rates and guidance to guarantee the success of their productive projects. BAV's main goal is to dignify the work of farmers. By 2010, nearly 600,000 small and medium producers had registered in this program. 
  • In urban areas, “Venezuela is emulating the remarkable achievements of Cuba where more than half of the fruit and vegetable needs of the urban population are produced within the cities”, Broughton explains. “As in Cuba, the city food gardens are all organic, providing non-toxic, safe, fresh food to communities. The benefits of urban agriculture are seen as contributing to food security and sovereignty, improving the urban environment, supplementing the income of families, communities and schools, and fostering learning and recreational activities. The gardens are set up on unused land, at schools and, using raised beds, on concrete and balconies. Community centres have established these gardens wherever possible.” 
  • One of the most radical government initiatives is its work to eliminate chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which were used in massive quantities in Venezuela in past decades. To help achieve this, agroecology colleges have been set up, with the assistance of advisors from Cuba, which is now almost fully organic. Biological control and biofertiliser labs are also being set up across the country to produce beneficial insects and fungi, and soil inoculants. 
  • Seed banks and seed treatment plants have been established to provide the range of agricultural genetics suited to the various regions, says Broughton. The aim is to completely bypass the international corporations that supply seed around the world, and preserve the genetic diversity that has been built up in Venezuela for thousands of years. GM seeds are not allowed. 
  • The establishment of the Paulo Freire Latin American School of Agroecology to provide free education for future advisors and teachers from around Latin America is important not only for Venezuela but also the whole continent. The aim is to reclaim agriculture from the neo-liberal model, especially for indigenous and Afro farmers. The stated philosophy of the school is social transformation in defence of Mother Earth. Permaculture is integrated into the education process. 
During the 12 years of the Bolivarian revolution, the food producing area has increased from 4,049,866 acres in 1998 to 6,014,404 acres today, and agricultural production has increased by 44%. The Venezuelan economy is still dominated by oil exports, but the social investment policies implemented by the Bolivarian government have used the oil wealth to gradually replace food imports with domestic production and Venezuela has now achieved food sovereignty in the production of rice and white corn. 

Growing change
In his 2011 documentary, Growing Change: A Journey into Venezuela's Food Revolution, filmmaker and solidarity activist Simon Cunich investigates the 2008 global food crisis and visits Venezuela to speak to farmers, fisherfolk, cocoa producers and urban gardeners about the new food system that is being constructed by communities and the revolutionary government.

Growing Change is an inspirational story full of lively characters, thought-provoking insights, stunning scenery and ideas to transform the food system. It is a film that everyone interested in a sustainable future should watch, discuss and encourage others to watch. Why not organise a screening in your local community centre, U3A group, school, university, or at home with your neighbours?

For more information or to get a copy of the film visit: For details of public screenings of the film around Australia, visit

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