As I wandered through the streets of Caracas on my first trip to Venezuela nine years ago, a huge urban farm in the midst of concrete high-rises caught my attention. It wasn’t tucked away on a side street or in a residential area, but was right out in the middle of the bustling downtown. I asked a local walking by if he could tell me anything about the farm—whose initiative was it, how long had it been there, who farms the land? With a matter-of-fact shrug he said, “Es parte del proceso.” It’s part of the process. Part of what process, I wondered. Did he mean Venezuela’s broader process of political and social transformation, the Bolivarian Revolution? Or did he mean the efforts to transform Venezuela’s food system? Later, I would learn that the two concepts were inseparable.
Now having followed the processes unfolding in Venezuela for nearly a decade, I often reflect back on this early moment for the meaning behind that simple exchange. In the US, where I’m from, there are also inspiring community food projects, which are local manifestations of the alternative food system that many hope for, dream about, and painstakingly work toward. Yet these still remain pockets of change in an otherwise broken system—in the US and globally—where profits come before people, good food is a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a right for all, and food production comes at the expense of farmers, workers, the environment, and human health. There is often talk of ‘scaling up’ positive models of food system change as a way forward, but there are few blueprints or examples as to how this might be done.
In a handful of countries, however, such as in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, there are national efforts to create systemic change in food and agriculture—and their advances and setbacks hold valuable lessons. Among these is Venezuela, which is home to one of the most fascinating experiments in food and agriculture today. The crux of Venezuela’s experiment is an attempted 180° shift from a situation of food dependency, with high rates of imports controlled by a few powerful companies, to one of food sovereignty, in which the country is able to feed itself from its own food supply and people have greater control over the food they eat and produce.
Food is Political
It is an understatement to say that Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez, and his predecessor, Nicolas Maduro, have been magnets for negative attention by the mainstream media. A rare accuracy in current media reports on Venezuela, however, is that food is a highly politicized issue there. What the reports fail to mention, though, is that this is nothing new. In fact, issues directly connected to food were among the sparks that ignited the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. On February 27, 1989, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the capital from the impoverished hillside communities on the periphery of Caracas, protesting in the streets as they looted shops first for food, then for other basic goods, and finally for anything in sight.1 The protest was precipitated by then Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez signing a deal with the IMF to enter Venezuela into a structural adjustment program. This led to an abrupt surge in food and fuel prices in which the cost of bread rose by over 600 percent.1 President Pérez’s response to the massive mobilization, known as the Caracazo, was to order the military to open fire. The official death toll was 276 civilians, with actual deaths estimated in the thousands. Corresponding events transpired in cities across Venezuela that same day. The Caracazo is credited not only with being one of the earliest public protests against neoliberalism but also a defining moment of popular power. It ushered in a politically heated decade and paved the way for the rise of the Bolivarian Revolution following the election of Hugo Chávez Frías in 1998.2
For insights into why an oil-rich country like Venezuela would embark on an ambitious food sovereignty experiment, it is important to understand the basic context that gave rise to the Caracazo. The hillside shantytowns of Caracas are a visual representation of Venezuela’s withdrawal from agriculture as the country developed its petroleum industry beginning in the early 1900s. As attention turned to oil, both the land-owning elites and the government lost interest in agriculture and stopped investing in land.3 The flight of capital from the countryside was accompanied by a mass exodus of campesinos (peasant farmers and rural workers) into the cities, particularly Caracas.3 Finding little work, many campesinos were pushed to the edge of existence, living in extreme poverty. For those remaining in the countryside—just over 10 percent of the population by 1999—the situation was equally tenuous.4 Seventy-five percent of the land was concentrated among five percent of the largest land owners while 75 percent of the smallest land owners shared only six percent of the land.5 These small land owners also faced a lack of basic public services and received little or no technical or material support to engage in agricultural production. The abandonment of its agriculture sector led Venezuela to become among the most urbanized countries in Latin America and the first country in the region to be a net importer of food.5 At the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999, the country was importing an estimated 70 to 80 percent of its food supply—at prices largely out of reach by the poor—and the Caracazo was still fresh in the public consciousness.
It was against this backdrop that renewed attention to food and agriculture became a strategic priority of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Sowing the Seeds of Food Sovereignty
The foundation for Venezuela’s current food sovereignty efforts was laid in a series of articles in its newly reformed constitution, passed by popular referendum in 1999. Article 305 states:
The State shall promote sustainable agriculture as the strategic basis for overall rural development, and consequently shall guarantee the population a secure food supply, defined as the sufficient and stable availability of food within the national sphere and timely and uninterrupted access to the same for consumers….Food production is in the national interest and is fundamental to the economic and social development of the Nation.6
Today, a broad range of both government and citizen-led institutions and initiatives are aimed at carrying out the provisions of Article 305. On the production end, there are numerous programs to bolster domestic agriculture and provide support to small and midscale farmers. Such measures include a land reform process that has redistributed large landholdings to over 200,000 farming families,7 totaling more than a million people—roughly half of the rural population.8 Once land is secured, farmers then have government assistance to access tools, inputs, credit, training and technical assistance, and support in receiving fair prices for their products.9 Similar support structures exist for fisherfolk, who have also benefited from a ban on environmentally destructive, large-scale bottom trawling boats off the coast. Other advances for Venezuela’s long-marginalized food providers include a debt eradication program and the unprecedented granting of pensions to farmers and fisherfolk.10,11 Through this reinvestment in domestic food production, Venezuela has reached self-sufficiency in several foods of strategic importance, such as corn and pork.12 Furthermore, the country has taken some important steps toward sustainable agriculture, including the availability of credit earmarked specifically toward agroecological purposes, such as seed saving and exchange and the use of biological pest control in place of pesticides. Agroecology advocates point out, however, that state support remains skewed toward industrial agriculture and are pushing for a more wholesale paradigm shift.
On the distribution end, perhaps the most far-reaching initiative is Mercal, a national network of government-run supermarkets selling foods at affordable, subsidized prices. With an emphasis on reaching the most underserved areas, Mercal outlets range from large supermarkets to small mobile markets and have distributed 12 million tons of food in the decade since their inception.13 A variety of other initiatives complementing Mercal bring the total number of government-run food retail outlets in Venezuela to 22,000.14 A recent addition is the piloting of mobile fish markets in collaboration with local fisherfolk.15
Yet another critical program is casas de alimentación, or ‘feeding houses,’ run through community-government partnerships in which community members lend their homes and labor and the government provides food and supplies. Through the casas, people provide those most vulnerable in their communities—pregnant/nursing mothers, children, elderly, and the sick—with nutritious meals free of charge. To date, 6,000 casas across the country are serving 900,000 people.16 Free nutritious meals are also spooned out to 4.3 million public school children through the School Feeding Program.17 Many workplaces additionally arrange free meals for their workers through the Worker Nutrition Law.18 Along with free meals for those who need them, there is an effort to make affordable meals more universally available. A growing chain of over 250 worker-run, government-supported Arepera Venezuela restaurants serves Venezuela’s most popular traditional cuisine, the corn flour-based arepa with a variety of fillings, as an affordable and healthier alternative to corporate fast food.13 These restaurants pride themselves in supporting food sovereignty through using predominantly Venezuelan-grown ingredients produced through socialist production chains.19
Together, these programs and others have dramatically reduced hunger and food insecurity. Venezuela was recently recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for surpassing the first Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger in advance of 2015.20 According to a national census, 96.2 percent Venezuelans now eat 3 to 4 meals per day, and the government has pledged to reach the remaining 3.8 percent who do not, with the goal of achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ for Venezuela by 2019.21
Ironically, these developments came at the same time that international media outlets were widely reporting food shortages in Venezuela—presenting quite a different scenario from that recognized by the FAO. The fact is, given the continued power of private companies in the supply chain, connecting the many dots between the production and distribution remains a major challenge for the Venezuelan government, and shortages of particular food (and some nonfood) items in retail outlets are still a regular occurrence.22 While some attribute this to government-set price regulations creating disincentives for companies to sell food products in the country, others point to politically motivated hoarding and withholding of products as a way to destabilize the government. Many see it as no coincidence that two items considered indispensable by Venezuelan households, that is, corn flour and toilet paper, were the two items most frequently missing from supermarket shelves in 2013. They see this as part of an ‘economic war’ by the members of the political opposition who own the country’s largest private food companies.23
The government has taken a series of measures to combat these shortages, including dialogue with the private sector, cracking down on illegal practices, and increasing imports of certain goods from neighboring countries. Venezuelan food activists say that the government’s ability to ensure that the population’s nutritional needs are not impeded by the periodic shortages demonstrates that Venezuela has reached food security but is still far from food sovereignty. “We know that food security is achieved through resources,” said Laura Lorenzo, a representative of the Jirajara Peasant Movement. “But food sovereignty has to be a process coming from the bottom up—from the peasant, from the communities,” she added.24
Transformations on the Ground
Lorenzo’s sentiments get to the heart of the matter. Systematic change is necessary to achieve food sovereignty, but the advancements made at the national level in Venezuela, while substantial, are not enough. Change must also happen at the community level. Indeed, this is what I find to be most encouraging in Venezuela—reaffirmed by my most recent visit in the summer of 2013.25 A fundamental component of the Bolivarian Revolution has been a shift from representative to participatory democracy, in which ordinary citizens take on a more active role in politics and governance. One of the main vehicles for this has been communal councils: local, self-organized governing bodies through which communities determine their own priorities, manage their own budgets, and interface with the government. Supported by the Communal Council Law of 2006, there are upwards of 43,000 communal councils in Venezuela today.26 Most recently, coming from both above and below is a major push toward the construction of new social institutions called comunas through the joining of multiple communal councils across a shared territory. The stated goal is for power to gradually be transferred from the state to the comunas as they become increasingly organized, with an ultimate goal of a transition from state power to popular power. As of October 2013, there were 220 comunas officially registered with the government and, according to a recent national census, over 1,000 more under construction throughout the country.27,28 By September 2014, the number of registered comunas had reached 803.29 The construction of the comunas is seen as the cornerstone of the latest stage of the Bolivarian Revolution and has vast implications for food sovereignty.30,31
One of the ways in which comunas and other citizen-led efforts in Venezuela are working toward food sovereignty is through attempts to bridge the urban–rural divide. In a country as highly urbanized as Venezuela, where upwards of 90 percent of the population lives in cities, food sovereignty will not be possible without the active participation of urban inhabitants. This is being addressed, not only through the creation of direct marketing channels such as farmers markets, but also through the co-construction of food sovereignty as a common political project shared by rural and urban Venezuelans. That is, people are increasingly seeing themselves as connected via the process of constructing food sovereignty. In this process, they are not only changing their relationships to one another, but also their relationship to food and to the processes of food and how it is produced, distributed, and consumed. Relatedly, a term gaining in popularity among rural and urban movements alike is prosumidor(a), a combination of the words for producer (productor(a)) and consumer (consumidor(a)), in an attempt to blur the lines between the two.
One such prosumidor, Virgilio Durán of the Comuna Ataroa in the city of Barquisimeto, is encouraging the members of his urban comuna to grow food on rooftops, in patios, and in community gardens (practices for which communities can receive free technical assistance and supplies via state-supported programs). His vision is the creation of ‘productive corridors’ of traditional conuco-style agriculture that extend from the cities to the countryside (the conuco is a traditional form of small-scale agriculture with indigenous origins). Comuna Ataroa has also been able to acquire land on the outskirts of the city that is designated for agricultural production and has been partnering with rural producers on a large weekly farmers market, to complement distribution of staple goods coming from state channels.
Another example is the urban comuna, El Panal 2021 of Caracas, and a rural social movement, the Jirajara Peasant Movement, which are working together on multiple fronts. For instance, El Panal has an established sugar-packing local enterprise that the Jirajara movement will begin to supply with sugar. This demonstrates a point raised by a number of food sovereignty activists in Venezuela: that the people power and food processing infrastructure in cities such as Caracas provides ample possibility for partnership with rural producers in this area. El Panal and the Jirajara movement are also working on joint farmers markets and other distribution projects. Perhaps most interestingly, the Jirajara movement has helped El Panal to acquire land in the countryside, which they will work on in partnership. Robert Lanza of El Panal explains that the comuna has several other projects underway in the countryside, including training and educational components that enable comuna members to connect (or reconnect) to agricultural production. These efforts are complemented by a fairly extensive urban agriculture initiative within El Panal supported by state programs. This is part of a broader push for urban agriculture that has resulted in over 24,000 urban agriculture units throughout the country as of 2013, which the government has pledged to help triple.32 Lanza explains that it is a process of ongoing learning that combines life in the city with life in the countryside.
Lessons to be Learned
Unfortunately, the great strides being made towards food security and food sovereignty have gotten lost in the mix of news coverage on Venezuela. But I think it’s important to share this story, not just for what it means for Venezuela and the surrounding region, but for those of us striving to change the food system in our own respective locations. Among the many lessons to be learned from the Venezuelan Food Sovereignty Experiment is that change is needed from above, below, and (as with the horizontal network of comunas) sideways. Similarly, food sovereignty is neither the task of the state nor of citizens alone, but rather it is the task of both, and how the two engage with each other is something that must constantly be renegotiated. Therefore, mechanisms that allow for ongoing debate and dialogue and for fluid interaction between citizens and their government are critical. And finally, food sovereignty is not something that just happens, nor is it a state to be attained. It’s a process (el proceso, remember?)—and it’s a process that we too can put into motion wherever we may be.
Many thanks to William Camacaro for his invaluable research support and collaboration; to Jack Fairweather and to several anonymous reviewers for their feedback; to Mary McGee, Salena Tramel, and Siena Chrisman for their editing; and to the many others who made this project possible.