Food shortages and political turmoil are nothing new in Venezuela. It’s a country that imports most of it’s food, despite being rich in highly productive agricultural land. In an attempt to establish food sovereignty, and feed the masses coagulated in the cities, urban gardens provided a probable solution for the last two presidents.

Digging Up Some Background

It started in 2002 when Hugo Chavez made an attempt to re-establish urban agriculture in Caracas due to food shortages and skyrocketing inflation. He called it the Bolivarian Revolution for the Poor, which included vertical chicken coops erected on rooftops. Apparently the towering coop on the roof wasn’t successful. Once article from inside Venezuela reports the scheme as being a colossal “cluster-f**k”. There is very little information about it other than it existed, and the BBS reports:

Chicken-coop politics

The Chavez government has created jobs. In particular, it has distributed land to poor peasants and organized farming and manufacturing cooperatives.

But pavement stalls and garden plots fall short of the modern, industrialised economy many envision for this major petroleum exporter.

Mr Chavez’s critics have branded his gardening programme “medieval” and ridiculed his call for city dwellers to build “vertical chicken coops” on their rooftops. [1]

 

Chavez' Urban Farming Program - Caracas, Venezuela

Courtesy of CIARA via Apporea

Much of the press reports that Chavez destroyed agriculture in Venezuela, but The Guardian says otherwise – that the peasant farmers his administration put in place to work the crop land reappropriated from rich landowners who illegally obtained it initially were being murdered by militia hired by the unseated elite. [2] But lets not get lost in politics, though food is political, I’ll leave you to unravel what really brought a fully self-sufficient country to the point of importing almost all food in a few year’s time. Oil and greed are a good part of it, but not the whole story.

There’s no industrial farming going on here. Big ag crops aren’t possible without access to bulk inputs, though smallholders and urban agriculture does seem to have what they need to grow food. It is said that the government lost all interest in the farming program, because the coffers were vastly enriched by the income produced by oil exports. And since industrial farming materials would come from multi-national corporations, no, there would be no imports into Venezuela from agrochemical giants.

Small farms continue to plant, but have an awful time producing any harvest to sell in the city – thanks to thieves, and most recently, a drought.

Rural & Urban Agriculture Co-ops

While a lot of participation in urban gardening for retail and personal consumption died out in the past couple of year under Chavez’ successor, those who remain have become more organized. In certain comunas (neighborhoods) of the cities it has survived the since the program was initiated over a decade ago. They hold classes to teach newcomers the ins and outs of growing food, and have developed partnerships with rural growers for things that can’t be grown in small intensively farmed plots. Sugar cane, for one, which two groups recently began building into a local finished product, according to an article on Resilience from last winter:

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. [3]

While this author has much of interest to share with those following the development of urban gardening and food sovereignty around the world, has amassed the information from a huge list of references – one Venezuelan expat now living in Canada chastises the writer for painting such a rosy picture on the situation. (See comment #2 at the bottom of the article linked below.)

The Department of Urban Gardens

Urban Farming in Central Caracas

Courtesy of Leo Ramirez via Polis

Just a few weeks ago, President Nicolás Maduro added a Ministry of Urban Farming to his government, a move triggered by the worst economic situation that the country has faced in decades. It’s hard to import food when the government has no funds. A new push to get more of the 86% of his country’s population and living in cities growing their own food on rooftops, balconies, and pieces of land devoted to agriculture in urban areas. As the opposition creates even greater resistance to Maduro’s government and policies, the already present food shortages has increased, and at the same time the plunge in global oil prices has turned their single product economy inside out.

Addressing his followers in Caracas, he urged them to start keeping chickens, enlightening them that his household has a flock of 60, and that all the food they eat is grown at home. Being the president, it’s most likely he and his wife enjoy the assistance of a full time gardener, but it should prove an inspiration to people across Venezuela, that the food shortage doesn’t have to be so drastic. Doing something about the lack of toilet paper and soap will have to come for other initiatives, but this at least is a step in the right direction of becoming a self-sufficient nation again, despite all the other problems the country is experiencing presently. It will take more reform than this to turn it entirely around in terms of the people having a sufficient supply of food and basic household needs, as Fox News Latino learned in an interview with Tomas Socias, economist and former president of Venezuela’s Chamber of Food Industry:

“Venezuela’s food production problems will not be solved with urban farming. They are caused by macroeconomic imbalances that need to be corrected.

Socias argued that the price controls currently in place for certain goods has to be lifted and that the government needs to subsidize producers who are idle due to their inability to import resources.

“Ninety percent of the products made here need foreign raw material. That requires dollars and for that the government has to stop importing food to activate the national production again” [5]

Emma Ortega, Minister of Urban Farming is on a mission to establish productive urban gardens in every neighborhood of Venezuela’s cities. Given time, she will likely succeed in reaching her goal, but she may not have the time she needs. Maduro’s opposition has gained most of the parliamentary seats in the past few weeks, and appears poised to overthrow the present regime – though they’ve been trying to accomplish that for a long time.

More Info:

[1]  Poll divides Venezuela’s rich and poor (BBS, 2004)
[2]  Murder of the campesinos  (The Guardian, 2011)
[3]  Venezuelan Food Sovereignity Experiment (Resilience, Jan. 2015)
[4]  Venezuela Pushes Urban Gardens (The Salt, Feb. 2016)
[5]  Venezuelan Response to Food Shortages (Fox News Latino, Jan. 2016)

Callie

Callie

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.
Callie