Pueblo a Pueblo [People to People] is a grassroots project for organizing the production, distribution, and consumption of food, which connects agricultural producers with urban dwellers. In so doing, the project breaks with the despotism of the capitalist market. In Parts I and II, of this four-part piece in the Communal Resistance Series, Pueblo a Pueblo’s spokespeople talk about their organization’s method and history, and about the impact of the US blockade. In Part III, Pueblo a Pueblo participants talk to us about the transition to a sovereign, agroecological model.
A Model for Sovereignty
Conventional, chemical-intensive agriculture generates dependency on external corporate interests. That’s one reason why Pueblo a Pueblo promotes an agroecological transition.
Laura Lorenzo: Chávez’s project is about building a sovereign socialist society and, in these times of blockade, this has become even more important. That’s why we stand firm with the Chavista project, and we work hard to promote food sovereignty outside of the capitalist market.
Pueblo a Pueblo is about food sovereignty from below: about building a distribution and consumption system that ensures that campesinos and consumers are linked and their needs satisfied within a framework that is not simply material, but also sovereign and social.
The market is driven by interests that are never truly national and never collective. We should acknowledge that being a highly dependent country has made us more vulnerable to the imperialist blockade. That’s why developing a method that promotes national, campesino production – without imported seeds and without agrochemicals – is so important.
One more thing: agribusiness is never conducive to sovereignty. Why? Not only is agribusiness highly dependent on imported agricultural inputs, but it’s also driven by the needs of the international market, not by the needs of the country.
Gabriel Gil: We believe that the funds derived from the oil rent should be used for sectors like healthcare and education, and also for building a new productive model. That model should overcome rent dependency, be sovereign, and be heedful of human life. In the twentieth century, the so-called international division of labor turned Venezuela into an oil monoproducer. In economic terms, this kind of arrangement is based on exporting crude oil and, in turn, importing foodstuffs and other goods. Naturally, this leads to processes of deindustrialization and depeasantation.
But our “rentierism” isn’t limited to fossil fuel production. Even as we speak, industrial mono-production is on the rise in the countryside. That kind of agricultural production obeys a rationality that goes against campesino and Indigenous practices that preserve the land’s health.
In our struggle to overcome the current system, we have to recover ancestral rationalities. Why are 20 thousand Yanomamis [Indigenous nation in the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon] claiming three million hectares? Because they want to heal their ancestral lands. Why are campesinos claiming the tenancy of idle lands? Because they want to produce and, in so doing, stop the expansion of agroindustrial, fossil fuel-based agriculture.
The official discourse is critical of rentierism, and it acknowledges that the model is exhausted. This is good, but discourse and action must go hand in hand! In fact, agro-industrial practices are being promoted and are actually on the rise here. Unfortunately, these practices are “rentier” ones, which deepen fossil fuel dependency.
To overcome rentierism, we must also recover the territories currently dedicated to conventional, capitalist agriculture. That’s not easy because the use of agrochemicals is so widespread in Latin America, and not just in large-scale agro-industrial undertakings. In fact, the use of toxic chemical packages on family farms is also ingrained.
It’s time to transition to an agroecological model that is diversified, independent, and post-rentier. The state must do its part, and grassroots and communal organizations must do their part too.
“Papa para la vida, no para el capital” [Potatoes for Life, Not for Capital]
Laura Lorenzo: When producers depend on seeds that come from abroad, the nation’s social, political, and economic integrity falls apart. For that reason, one of Pueblo a Pueblo’s interests is seed production. That’s where the project called “Papa para la vida, no para el capital” enters the picture. This is a project that Pueblo a Pueblo has developed hand in hand with PROINPA, a campesino association with a high-end seed laboratory in the Andean highlands.
PROINPA plays an important role in promoting national sovereignty, as far as seeds are concerned. They produce potato seeds that are adapted to the region, and they maintain a seed bank that is of strategic importance for the nation.
Beyond this, people associated with PROINPA produce potatoes. Like most campesinos around the country, they have to rely on intermediaries who buy their crops at very low prices. Then, when their production gets to market, the markup is huge.
“Papa para la vida” [Potatoes for life] is an initiative that began around 2018. It allows PROINPA and Pueblo a Pueblo to control the whole cycle of potato production – all the way from the seed potatoes to consumption. That’s food sovereignty in a nutshell!
Now, we should recognize that “Papa para la vida” is at a standstill now. The economic situation in general, and especially COVID lockdown, had a negative impact on the project, but we hope to reactivate it in the next few months.
Antonio Bracamonte: It used to be that potato seeds would be imported from Canada. We would buy the package at subsidized prices from Agropatria [state-owned distributor of agricultural inputs]. Then, when the blockade descended upon us, we realized that we were dependent: we couldn’t grow our own ancestral crop!
“Papa para la vida” began to turn this situation around. Hand in hand with PROINPA, we started to grow both seed potatoes and potatoes for consumption. In so doing we began to increase Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Ana Daniela Dávila: Venezuela used to buy seed potatoes from Canada, and we used to rely on Monsanto and other transnationals to get agricultural inputs for the crop.
That was a weak flank, and the enemy used it to attempt to bring Venezuela to its knees. Among many other problems, the blockade made potatoes – which are an important part of our diet – very scarce.
“Papa para la vida” allows campesinos to break away from dependence on foreign seed potatoes by bringing PROINPA’s long-standing scientific work together with Pueblo a Pueblo’s capacity to distribute outside the market.
Between 2018 and 2020, we distributed 160 to 210 thousand kilos of potatoes per year. That’s why we say that “Papa para la vida” pushes back against the capitalist market and takes us in the direction of food sovereignty. Through this initiative, potatoes are now in the hands of the pueblo – from the seed to the table!
The Agroecological Transition
Gabriel Gil: Taking the land from large landowners is completely just, but if production continues to be organized according to the conventional, mono-producing logic that capitalist corporations impose, we will not only deplete and sicken the earth, but also continue to be dependent on the market… And food sovereignty will evade us!
When the Seed Law was promoted in 2015, many said that shifting away from genetically-modified seeds was naive. In the end, as it turns out, the US blockade itself limited Venezuela’s access to conventional agricultural inputs: from transgenic and modified seeds to agricultural chemicals. If we had transitioned away from conventional agriculture before, the blockade would have had a smaller impact.
Even if the impact of the sanctions is devastating, we have learned a great deal along the way. The most important thing from our perspective is a gradual shift toward organic inputs among campesinos. These alternatives are cheaper and less harmful, and they are also more sovereign.
Some people are now making and using earthworm humus as a fertilizer and implementing crop rotation and diversification. Further, there is a move away from conventional pesticides. Right now, the conventional fungicides for tomatoes sold by ecocidal corporations costs about US $1500 per acre! By contrast, we have a self-produced mineral compound composed of copper sulfate and lime [sulfocalcium broth]. It’s just as efficient, far less harmful to the campesino and the earth, and requires an investment of only about $100 per acre.
Finally, when it comes to the agroecological transition, there is the problem of indoctrination: Bayer and Monsanto spend hundreds of millions in advertising campaigns every year. Consequently, many producers think that shifting away from pesticides is simply suicidal. However, as it turns out, when the use of pesticides was much lower in the 1960s, the loss of production due to pests was around 32%. By contrast, the current loss rate, with ample use of pesticides, is up to 37%. We must do better at educating producers.
Antonio Bracamonte: Industrial farming depletes the land of nutrients, while campesino agriculture tries to preserve it for future generations. After thirty years of using agrochemicals, the land becomes barren. Agroecological practices return nutrients to the soil by fallowing the land, crop rotation, and the use of sulfocalcium broth which doesn’t kill pollinating insects.
Little by little, we are shifting away from the predatory agriculture model, and we are doing so with help from Pueblo a Pueblo. But this is not just about the land: agrochemicals hurt the producers as well. The effects are not experienced overnight – unless we get direct exposure and acute poisoning – but over the long run, the chemicals lead to respiratory, skin, and central nervous system disorders that can be deadly.
Luis Velázquez: Transitioning away from agrochemicals isn’t easy, but we are going in the right direction. One of the problems is that a “patchwork” transition can emerge: If I don’t use agrochemicals but my neighbor does, that impacts my production. That’s why there has to be a wide cultural shift, and that’s why organizations such as Pueblo a Pueblo play such an important role.
Reciprocity and solidarity are in the DNA of campesino life and, as Pueblo a Pueblo works to promote an agroecological transition, these practices become all the more important.
Gabriel Gil: We often use a term coined by Eduardo Sevilla Guzmán of the Campesino Studies Institute [Spanish state] to talk about our strategic goal: popular agroecology. The term refers to the ecological use of natural resources through collective social action.
Popular agroecology involves the recovery of both campesino and Indigenous lands, territories, and also practices made invisible by modern agriculture. Popular agroecology shouldn’t be confused with the high-end consumption of organic produce, which is accessible to only a privileged few. Popular agroecology is about rebuilding communities, the communalization of life, and producing healthy food to satisfy working people’s needs.
But a widespread shift to popular agroecology won’t happen by sheer goodwill. That’s why our proposal is that the Venezuelan state employ its limited resources to produce organic agricultural inputs. Established during Chávez’s time, the Integral Agricultural Health Institute [INSAI] has 33 labs for developing and producing bio-inputs. Unfortunately, commercial interest groups have repurposed some of those labs to produce chemical inputs that are accessible only to large-scale, agribusiness interests.
As Pueblo a Pueblo, we have a counterproposal: neither state control nor private control. There should be popular control of these strategic labs. After all, our small to mid-sized producers are feeding the country, so we should be in control of the labs. Venezuela’s multi-factorial crisis offers us the best conditions for an agroecological transition.
Gabriel Gil: In Carache [Pueblo a Pueblo’s home base in Trujillo state] – and in general in campesino territories – there are ancestral forms of collective labor that are important to building an agroecological future. Here, mutual aid practices such as “mano vuelta” [giving a hand] and “convite” [invite] are alive and well.
But what are these practices really about? The convite is a solidarious practice in which five or more families get together for a task that would be very hard to carry out alone. But most often, the convite does not just bring people together: “yuntas” [teams of oxen] are important to this already-existing communal practice.
Those organizing a convite have certain obligations: they should offer a hearty sancocho [stew] and a cocuy [homemade liquor] macerated with “dítamo real” [a plant with curative properties] to the participants. The day will also usually end with songs and even dancing.
Mano vuelta is like the convite but on a smaller scale. For example, if some work has to be done in my field and I need help, I will often turn to a neighbor or a friend. Later, when he or she needs help, I will go to their field and lend a hand.
Something important about both convite and mano vuelta practices is that they never involve the application of toxic pesticides or fertilizers. If producers want help with that, they will have to pay for the service. In other words, these traditional practices go hand in hand with a worldview that is respectful of human life and nature.
Finally, there’s the cayapa, which is not about care for the land itself, but about the community getting together to fix a road, communal truck, school or public square.
The mano vuelta, the convite, and the cayapa are campesino and Indigenous practices that capitalism has not been able to roll back. They are founded on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and community integration. While they come from the past, they help us think about a better future.
Italo Román: The convite and mano vuelta involve me helping you and knowing that you will help me later on. In other words, these are practices involving reciprocity that also help us build a harmonious community.
These practices, which were handed down to us by our grandparents, can also be applied to building a road or a school. I remember that a while back, the communal council got funding to fix this camino [pointing at a well-cared-for road].
The town’s mayor wanted us to contract a cooperative that was in the hands of some private interests. But we didn’t trust those folks, so we decided that we would appeal to people in the community to do the work. Indeed, that’s how we repaired the road, and I’m sure that that decision was key in making the resources go further.