It’s a warm night in the small village of Chuao in Venezuela. Dozens of children are playing in the square in front of the old colonial church, and a local man, beating a drum he holds between his knees, sings: “This is the taste of my cocoa. This is what we have, we black people of Chuao.”
The people of Chuao, descendants of Africans brought to Venezuela’s coast as slaves by the Spanish, have been growing cocoa for more than 400 years.
Chuao’s cocoa plantations are owned by the whole village, and the growers – mostly women – have worked collectively since long before anyone thought up the term ‘food sovereignty’. After the growers’ salaries have been paid, profits are invested in the community, helping to fund schools and medical services.
“We all work together, just like we always have,” says Leila Ladera, who has grown cocoa since she was 16.
“In Venezuela, the phrase ‘food sovereignty’ doesn’t produce the blank looks it is frequently met with in the UK”
The idea of food sovereignty was originally developed by La Via Campesina, the global peasants’ movement. It envisions a democratic and sustainable food system, in which food is treated as a right not a commodity, producers are valued not exploited, and control is in the hands of local communities.
In Venezuela, the phrase ‘food sovereignty’ doesn’t produce the blank looks it is frequently met with in theUK. Instead, food sovereignty, ‘soberanía alimentaria’, is a much-trumpeted government policy. And while transforming a country’s food system is a huge task – and the reality often falls short of the rhetoric – the people of Chuao are among those who are already reaping the benefits.
Technical advisers have helped the cocoa growers increase their yields, and the town’s artisan chocolate makers – who are also growers – are planning to open a shop with the help of government funding.
While the fame of Chuao’s high quality cocoa beans has kept its plantations going for centuries, many of Venezuela’s food producers have not been so lucky. Following the growth of the country’s oil industry in the early 20th century, the agricultural sector suffered decades of neglect and the country is still heavily dependent on food imports. Millions of people migrated to the cities, swelling the shanty towns that surround the capital, Caracas. Many of those who remain in the countryside also face poverty, often excluded from access to land held for centuries by rich landowners.
But peasants’ movements are fighting for the right to land, occupying the country’s huge farms and setting up farm cooperatives. It’s not an easy task; despite official government support for land reform, many peasants face judicial prosecution and violent repression by the landowners, which has included hundreds of assassinations.
“When we first came here, the governor sent in the police to defend the big landowners,” says farm co-op owner, Emiliano Sarmiento. “Some of us were shot and wounded with bullets. We were afraid, and some people left. But we finally got them to respect us, and now we have an ownership document for this land.
“We’re producing lemons, limes, coconuts and avocados, and we also have cattle. When we first arrived, it was nothing like this. The land was full of toxic chemicals”
“We’re producing lemons, limes, coconuts and avocados, and we also have cattle. When we first arrived, it was nothing like this. The land was full of toxic chemicals. One of our comrades died from using chemicals, so now we use less. We have a biological lab where we produce organisms to keep the pests away. We also want to have hens for eggs, a plant nursery and a nutritional centre.”
In all the changes to Venezuela’s food system, the stakes are surely highest for rural people. But there also exist city dwellers taking inspiration from the idea of food sovereignty. Urban gardens are springing up in Caracas and other cities, with the help of government training and support.
For some, like 72-year-old Damaso Aponte, growing food is a skill remembered from a youth spent living on a farm. “We lived deep in the countryside, and we had to carry the food we produced on a donkey, ten kilometres to the nearest road,” he says.
A pioneer of urban agriculture in his retirement, Damaso now grows fruit and vegetables in the garden of a care home at the foot of one of Caracas’ many shanty towns, and sells them through a state agency at a local market – at prices that people can afford.
“If people produced food for their own consumption, there would be less hunger in the world,” he says simply.
The challenges and contradictions in Venezuela’s move towards food sovereignty are many. But as is increasingly apparent, when community efforts to create a fairer food system are helped rather than hindered by government policies, amazing things can happen.
Miriam Ross travelled to Venezuela with the World Development Movement, an organisation that campaigns against the root causes of poverty and inequality, and for justice for the world’s poor.