Venezuela’s battle for food sovereignty

Published on Global, by Federico Fuentes, May 22, 2011.

When I asked Alfredo, a dairy farmer and president of the Prolesa milk processing co-operative in Tachira state, what food sovereignty meant to him, he said: “Food sovereignty is not only about being able to produce enough food to feed ourselves, it also means getting to a point where we can export food to other countries.

“There’s a global food crisis, and each day more and more people are going hungry. As Venezuelan campesinos<.em> [peasants] we need to realise that we have an obligation to the people of the world.”

This sentiment was shared by many of the campesinos I met during a recent three-week visit, together with a small delegation from the Venezuela Food Sovereignty project, to rural communities. 

Alfredo told us how he was contributing his “grain of sand” towards Venezuela’s food sovereignty.

Thanks to Prolesa, local milk farmers now have an alternative source to sell their milk to rather than being at the mercy of prices set by profit hungry multinationals that often exported the product for higher profits.

Instead, local farmers can now earn more for their milk and also produce quality products at fair prices for the local community and surrounding areas.

In an effort to keep prices as low as possible for consumers, Prolesa members work with other farmers, communal councils and workers at the local Ministry of Agriculture and Land (MAT) office to promote a campesino market.

This allows producers to sell their produce directly to the consumer, cutting out intermediaries … //

… With an initial loan from the government, savings from some cooperative members, and the commitment of some local dairy farmers to sell their milk to the cooperative, Prolesa was born in 2004.

To assist the creation of cooperatives, the government created Mission Vuelvan Caras (“About Face”).

In the mission, 50% of scholarships offered to 650,000 participants were for agricultural training with an emphasis on co-operation.

Despite being a small operation, Prolesa is seen as a threat by the dairy corporations. After Prolesa was formed, they have began offering local farmers higher prices.

More than 40 local farmers preferred to continue supplying Prolesa, even if it meant earning less.

Corporate campaigns to divide the community have been unable to undermine the bonds of solidarity that have been created

It may be why Prolesa, despite financial and technologcial difficulties, is still functioning unlike most cooperatives set up at the same time.

Often, co-operatives were set up simply to access loans. The money was then divided up among the members. In other cases, people found it too difficult to work in cooperatives and decided to return to their individual farms or move back to the city.

INE figures demonstrate that the number of people employed in agricultural activities declined by 11% between 2005 and 2008.

This was not the only challenge facing the campaign for food sovereignty.

Government social programs helped dramatically reduce extreme poverty in the countryside, falling to less than 20%. The huge increase in funding was not matched by a similar rise in production, but agricultural production nonetheless rose 18% between 2003 and 2008.

But the even greater surge in consumption increased Venezuela’s dependency on food imports. Moreover, a combination of price and currency controls acted as a disincentive for local production at the same time as importing became cheaper.

The increasing strain on Mercal supermarkets showed with increasingly bare shelves.

During 2007, big capital used its control over food production and distribution to caused food shortages. This helped cause a drop in support for the government and was a factor in the defeat of a referendum on Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms.

Falling oil prices and rising international food prices forced the government to begin taking more radical measures. These have included nationalisation of food distribution companies found violating the law and increasing the take over of the unproductive land of large landowners.

This has set the stage for a new phase in the struggle for food sovereignty in Venezuela. (full long text).

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