Tuesday, August 28, 2007

La Alianza Cooperative

His nickname is Polilla (that's "Termite" in English), and he's one of the founders of La Alianza, an agricultural cooperative located just outside of Sanare, a mountain town in the state of Lara.

Yes, that's a big pile of worms in Polilla's hands. Vermiculture, or composting with worms, is one of many organic farming techniques utilized at La Alianza. There are twenty-five giant concrete bins filled with composting soil, various kinds of manure, and millions of worms. The end products, incredibly rich humus and liquid fertilizers, are used to invigorate the mountainside fields of the cooperative and are sold to other small farmers and gardeners in the area.

The co-op produces a wide range of purely organic products, including yogurt from its own cows and many kinds of vegetables and fruits. While the farmers have been successful in utilizing natural means of warding off pests and diseases, there are exceptions. Some crops, such as coffee and tomatoes, still require spraying with modest amounts of pesticides. The co-op plants these items in isolated fields and treats them with the least toxic chemical products that they can find.

La Alianza (The Alliance) owns three different parcels of land that lie between the small villages of Monte Carmelo and Bojó, where most of the co-op’s 42 members live. They are strong supporters of Hugo Chavez’s government and are enthusiastic about building a new kind of socialism for the 21st century, but they don’t see themselves as followers. Instead they see themselves as the forerunners of the political process that is remaking Venezuelan society. La Alianza was started in 1976, more than twenty-five years before Hugo Chavez decided to promote the formation of thousands of new workplace cooperatives throughout the country.

In order to help these new cooperatives, Polilla and nine of his co-workers have formed an education committee that serves as an important resource for farmers, students, and government officials from all over the country. This education committee, which has members who never completed elementary school, offered 15 one-week seminars on organic farming and co-op organization in 2006, as well as many more one and two-day workshops on weekends.

When we visited La Alianza in January of 2007, Manuel Saralegui, a sociology student from Argentina, conducted a lengthy video-taped interview with Polilla. In the process, we learned a lot about the history of the cooperative.

The early years at the co-op
“We began with people from nearby communities,” explained Polilla. “They worked with us, in the indigenous tradition of ‘mano vuelta,’ where everyone gives a hand to his neighbor. At the same time, a few members of the fraternity known as ‘the little brothers’ came to our area and they had the idea of helping us create a cooperative.” [‘The Little Brothers of Jesus’ is a small Catholic order that was founded in France in the 1930s and is dedicated to living and working among the poor.]

“Their idea of cooperative organization was a great success around here, because of our own traditions and because of the interactions the priests and brothers had with us. They didn’t impose anything on us, but they adapted themselves to our community, and that was what we liked about them. And even today, two of the founders are still working with us in the fields.”

One of them is Father Mario, an Italian who first worked with campesinos in Argentina in the early 1970s. Large landowners there, emboldened by the reactionary violence that followed Pinochet’s coup in Chile, began creating their own paramilitary organizations that murdered the peasantry and terrorized the religious workers who allied themselves with the poor. Mario was forced to flee, and he found his way to rural Venezuela.

According to Polilla, “These were not the usual kind of priests. They came preaching the word of God, but they were willing to work along side us, too. And the God they talked about was different than the one we had heard about in church – their God was on the side of humble people, the poor campesinos like ourselves.”

Polilla, who has a droll sense of humor, likes to suggest that the priests were like the first visitors from Europe who came to the New World. “We weren’t sure where these priests came from – Italy? Spain? France? I think that when they set sail from Europe, they were trying to find their way to the East, to the Indies. Or maybe they were going to Africa. But on their journey, they got completely lost. Somehow they landed here in the mountains with us, and they liked it here, so they decided to stay.”

In the beginning, the members of the cooperative were farming on rented land, while also laboring for low wages for neighboring landowners. Polilla discussed the difficulties they faced in the late 1970s: “We were campesinos who only had the dirt that was under our fingernails, nothing more. We wanted to do our own agricultural production, but without land what could we produce? Some neighbors lent us a little piece of land to try out some plantings, but when others said we were ‘communists’ and ‘guerrillas’ they got afraid and stopped letting us use the fields.”

Although La Alianza cooperative prides itself on many years of self-sufficiency and its ability to support all its members and their families, there was one important act of charity that helped them get started. One of the priests put the members in touch with a group of nuns in Caracas who were interested in donating money to support new initiatives by poor farmers. The nuns gave La Alianza enough capital to acquire their land, but it was still difficult to start up farming operations.

“We didn’t have a lot of foresight," explained Polilla, "for we were campesinos, nothing more, and so we never thought of asking for the extra capital that is necessary during the start-up period of a farming operation. So, at first we had to work three days outside the cooperative in order to eat, and then three days on the cooperative land without pay.”

Healthy farming and a better world
In these start-up years, the co-op farmers did not practice organic agriculture, even though they had heard about some of the concepts involved. “At first, because of our limited knowledge, we worked with an excess of chemicals. Father Mario gave us the idea that we could farm organically. And we didn’t believe him because other people had sold us on the culture of the ‘green revolution’ – using chemicals in order to produce more. On the other hand, we thought, if our ancestors could farm without chemicals, why couldn’t we? So, we learned slowly and found we could plant a small parcel of land and get good results. These experiments provided some of the food we consumed at home.”

Finally, it was concern about their own health that pushed the members of La Alianza toward a more serious engagement in organic farming. “We were using poisonous chemicals so much, we did not know how sick we were making ourselves and our local environment. And then some girls studying medicine came along and examined us to see what levels of toxicity we had in our blood. Everybody was poisoned, even those who didn’t work in the fields. My comrade Adan had a really high level of toxicity, and ever since that day he has insisted on working in fields that are completely organic, and for 15 or 16 years he has had no contact with any kind of toxic chemical.

"My wife, when I took her my dirty clothes to wash, was also contaminated. She transmitted the poison to my little daughter through her breast milk. Because it accumulates faster in fats, she was poisoned more rapidly than I was. This made us try to change some things.”

Polilla and his associates realize that their efforts to organize and educate others about healthy living are undermined by some powerful adversaries. Among them is the global system of agribusiness. “One sees that the great transnational companies are poisoning 100% more than we do, but because there’s so much money in this business, hardly any government will put a stop to this. I don’t know much about the United States, but its one of the only nations that didn’t want to sign the Kyoto agreement about global contamination. We know that our North American brothers and sisters aren’t the ones who want the destruction of the world. It's the elite that is governing them.”

However, these farmers in the mountains of Lara also realize that big corporations are being encouraged or abetted by a global culture of waste. “If we don’t put an end to exaggerated consumerism, in this case in the United States and Europe, and to burning fuels without control, and to contaminating with transnational factories, we are on our way to extinction, isn’t that true? I would like it if the most powerful countries, instead of investing in war, would invest their resources in the salvation of our planet. Not one of them wants to slow down development on behalf of the land, the water, and us human beings. What’s this development for, if we are destroying ourselves?”

This chart at La Alianza displays the chemical compositions of various composted soils that are made by adding different kinds of manure - cows, goats, horses, pigs, sheep, and chickens.

Manuel asked, “What role can be played by campesinos who are producing organic food? How can your warning reach the people?”

“That is what La Alianza cooperative is fighting for. It’s a problem of education. The transnational corporations are inundating us with propaganda... and organized groups like ourselves don’t have the possibility of flooding the market with things that are organic. We have tried to spread our ideas in a modest way. People come from all the states in Venezuela to workshops we are giving about the effect of chemicals on the environment.”

Polilla also had a message to send to the Bush Administration. “The thing that we ask, in a humble way, is that the oligarchs in the United States, those who are in command, let us go about our work. We don’t ask for anything else. Just leave us in peace.”

Manuel remembered something that Polilla had mentioned earlier: “You were saying that the Revolution faces some major obstacles. What obstacles do you see?”

“The obstacle I see within Venezuela is the need to change our culture. We have to educate a new man, and we are very far away from accomplishing the formation of a new man. As Venezuelans, we have to throw out corruption and bureaucracy, and act like sisters and brothers who are building an economy of solidarity. And everyone in the United States should realize that we are not enemies of the North Americans; we simply have differences with their leader. We need the North Americans if we are going to save the planet Earth. It remains in your hands to support us in making a true democracy.”

This story is based on my conversations with Pedro Segundo “Polilla” García at La Alianza Cooperative and video interviews conducted by Manuel Saralegui.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Looking for a baseball hero?

Our friends at Radio Rebelde had invited us to come back to their part of Catia, one of the largest barrios in Caracas, for a big Saturday fiesta. When we walked into the crowd, we were approached by five young guys who handed us cups of beer and introduced themselves: “We’re Zapatistas.”

We were confused, since they didn’t look like guys who just flew in from Chiapas. They were kind enough to explain, “We’re a revolutionary group in the neighborhood, and we admire the Zapatistas in Mexico, so we borrowed their name. We helped organize this fiesta.”

One of them held up a video camera: “How about a quick interview?”

They chose to focus their attention on Meredith, a young woman from Baltimore. So did a tall, slender man who had just appeared at my side, sipping his beer and staring intently. Meredith looked a little uncomfortable.

At that moment, one of the Zapatistas stepped forward and pointed to the plastic identity card that hung from the man’s belt. “This is Felipe, our sports trainer.

The card read: “Felipe Fernandez.”

Meredith suddenly broke into a wide grin and reached into her small purse. She yanked out fifteen or twenty cards, flipped through them quickly, and held one up in the air.

“Felipe!” she cried, “Look, I still have your baseball card! What are you doing here?

Good question.

What was Felipe Fernandez, a pitcher who played in the national league of Cuba and was a member of the renowned Cuban national team, doing in a poor neighborhood of Caracas?

He smiled and pointed at his ID card. “I’m a sports trainer right here in this barrio.”

Meredith took a moment to explain: “Last year I went with some college friends on a Global Exchange program to study Spanish in Havana. Since we all love baseball, we attended a lot of games. Once, after an evening game in Camaguey, we drank beer and talked with Felipe. And he signed one of his baseball cards for me.”

One of the announcers from Radio Rebelde, a teenager who usually hosts a punk rock show, was excited -- “The crowd is going to love this story” – and he dragged Meredith and Felipe over to a big microphone on a card table and sat them down on two folding chairs. Radio Rebelde was broadcasting live from the fiesta.

“So, you two always seem to meet when you’re out drinking beer.” The young announcer couldn’t resist teasing Meredith and Felipe, much to the delight of the gathering crowd. His lively interview, interspersed with music and public service announcements, lasted at least half an hour.

Near the end, Felipe managed to insert a serious comment, “It’s wonderful that a Cuban and an American can meet again, right here in a country that is initiating a revolutionary process, a place where progressive people are doing things to lift up humanity instead of trying to destroy humanity.”

Felipe’s second career

As the big crowd danced and partied into the night, Felipe chatted with me I listened to a story that would be totally foreign to the kinds of athletic professionals that predominate in North America, Europe, and much of the rest of the world.

A star athlete, who had been a relief pitcher with the national team that demolished the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in 1999, was nearly forty years old when he retired. He was tall, slim, and good-looking. So, what did he end up doing? Making TV ads selling shaving cream? Modeling tight-fitting T-shirts?

Not Felipe. He volunteered to live in a poor, crime-ridden barrio in South America. Minimum contract: a two-year commitment, with an option to renew. Contract pay: $200 a month. Contract accommodations: a tiny, spare bedroom in the home of a barrio family. Leisure activities: tossing balls to raggedy kids, exploring the city on the Metro, and dancing at neighborhood fiestas.

While Felipe was still playing baseball, he had begun preparing himself for a second career. For several years during the off-season, he enrolled in a rigorous university program for athletic trainers, a profession that emphasizes health and fitness education. After retiring, he worked briefly as a baseball trainer with the Camaguey team and the Cuban national team, but then took notice of a more challenging opportunity. The Cuban medical teams that were providing care for millions of poor Venezuelans wanted to sign up sports trainers to work with them.

Felipe gets to spend some of his afternoons coaching kids in baseball and basketball, but his primary duties revolve around fitness programs that are coordinated with the Barrio Adentro, the “inside the neighborhood” medical program. Every morning he leads aerobics and exercise classes for middle aged and elderly residents, many of whom have been in poor health for years. Detailed lists in each medical office show that large numbers of the older population are suffering from hypertension and poor nutrition. Emphasizing preventative medicine, Felipe and the medical team devise new exercise and nutrition regimens in their discussions with the families of those individuals who are most at risk.

The enthusiasm for physical fitness seems to be catching on with everyone. At the fiesta, Felipe introduced me to five of his “abuelitas,” a group of older ladies who meet with him every day for aerobics classes. They danced all night.

When we left the barrio that night, I asked Felipe if I could bring him anything when I returned to Venezuela. “Sure,” he said, “a baseball magazine with an article about my favorite player.”

On my next trip, unfortunately, my travel plans were disrupted and I had no time to stop in Caracas. Now it’s two and a half years later and I have no idea if Felipe renewed his contract in Venezuela, returned to Cuba, or volunteered for another medical/athletic assignment in some other country.

I still have the slightly rumpled magazine in the bottom of my suitcase. Almost the whole issue is devoted to a great pitcher from the United States, Randy Johnson. Some day I hope it will find its way to an even more admirable pitcher, a true baseball hero named Felipe Fernandez.