Thursday, October 11, 2007

The campesinos are the professors: cooperatives and Bolivarian education

Las Lajitas and La Alianza have become an integral link in local and national experiments in Bolivarian education. The cooperative farm (see an earlier article about La Alianza and Polilla) has become a teaching resource, and during the last three weeks of September they hosted three different five-day workshops. (For clarification: La Alianza is the farming cooperative that owns three different parcels of land; Las Lajitas is one of those parcels, and it produces 100% organically grown vegetables, makes yogurt, and has the facilities in its “casa campesina” - a large, extended farmhouse - for hosting seminars of 25 or 30 people for a week or more. )

First, they welcomed a group from the traditionally Afro-Venezuelan area of Barlovento, the coastal cacao-growing region just east of Caracas; these people are currently trying to organize a farming cooperative to produce their own food. Next, they hosted some government workers, mostly from Caracas, who labor in the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment -- some of these people had never been on a farm before.

After one of Polilla’s classes on vermiculture and improving soils, one student from the Agricultural Ministry, who had never met a cow, decided she wanted to pet one. When Polilla helped her get closer, she wasn’t sure she needed to touch it after all.

Finally, last week an entirely different group came from Caracas, students and professors from the brand-new UBV, Universidad Bolivariana Venezolana (Venezuelan Bolivarian University), who are in their third year of studying a new academic discipline, “Agroecologia,” or agricultural ecology. The UBV was founded a few years ago in many locations throughout the country as a new kind of university that serves those who were previously excluded from higher education. Most of the students are from the poor barrios of Caracas, and they stand little chance of gaining admission to the elite universities.

I spoke to members of each group and attended some classes with them, and they all found the experience exciting, intellectually challenging, and physically bracing -- not because of the field work, but on account of the cool nights. “It’s frigid up here,” said one guy who is accustomed to the lower altitudes near the coast, “especially after a nice cold shower.”

One of the professors who accompanied the students from Caracas, Isabel Ramon y Rivera, said that the intellectual challenge of Agro-ecology was just as great for teachers as for students. “After all, my university training was in chemistry, so I have to work hard to the develop a curriculum for my students since we’re in the process of inventing a new discipline.”

There was one evening class for the students from UBV that was conducted by someone who is not a member of La Alianza Cooperative, Honorio Dam, the director of rural education for the municipality. Honorio is not really an outsider, however, since he and five other Sanare residents -- including Los Morochos and Renato Agagliato, a linguist and director of the Sanare library -- have been working with the co-op for years as an educational resource team.

Honorio presented a highly concentrated dose of “Venezuelan Agricultural History” that was designed to spur the curiosity and imaginations of the Agro-ecology students. He pointed out that settled populations have been living in villages and cities in Venezuela for more than three millennia. During almost all of this period, he said, more than 29 centuries, society was based on agriculture. What a contrast with the recent social development of Venezuela, based on petroleum production, that has only existed for eighty years.

Honorio pointed out that the agriculture of Venezuela was also the agriculture of all America. The farmers in this hemisphere developed a tremendous variety of nourishing vegetables, foods like potatoes and corn that sustained the great early American civilizations and now nourish a large part of the world. Over thousands of years these foods arrived in Venezuela – corn from North America (Mexico), potatoes from the Southwest (Peru), and yucca from the South (Brazil.) Combined with alimentation of local origin, such as caraota (beans) and cacao, these foods provided a sound basis for sustaining settled communities in an ecologically sound manner over the centuries.

Honorio stretched out a green string that was over thirty feet long and said it was time line going back thousands of years. Along the string he placed archeological objects and different packs of seeds to illustrate when new technologies, such as smoothly crafted stone axes, and new foods were introduced. I was surprised to find out that maiz (corn) from Mexico and Central America arrived in Venezuela a little sooner than potatoes from the western Andes.

Rebuilding a more balanced society

One of the tragic effects of recent economic development, caused by the 20th century petroleum boom, was the drastic shift of the Venezuelan population from rural to urban areas in the past fifty years. Now at least 80% of the people live in and around cities, a great many of them in the barrios where poverty is endemic and opportunities for work and education have been limited. Another effect of this negative economic and social development was the vast accumulation of petroleum dollars in the hands of a well-to-do minority, and this made it possible for the nation to import most of its food, as much as 78% by some calculations. Thus a vast amount of rich and arable land lies idle.

Rebuilding Venezuela as a strong agricultural country with its own means of “endogenous desarrollo” (development from within) will not be easy or quick. This is one reason that the academic discipline of “Agro-ecologia” has been created, so that teachers, consultants, and fellow workers will be available to guide other citizens toward ecologically sustainable methods of farming and living in rural areas. One key to developing long-term local agriculture is the necessity of protecting the species and seeds of plants that have belonged to the people and the geographic area for thousands of years.

This has important political consequences. There is concern here, and in many other developing countries, about the power of multinational chemical corporations, such as Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Cargill. Many scientists and grass-roots activists feel that the giant companies threaten (and will ultimately damage) the world’s agricultural heritage as they seek to acquire and change the genetic structure of plants. They are already doing on a vast scale with important foods like corn and tomatoes in the United States, with ill effects for small farmers within the U.S. and neighboring countries like Mexico.

La Ley de la Tierra and national sovereignty over agriculture

I heard about “La Ley de la Tierra,” the Law of Land, when it was enacted in 2001. It was one of the major reasons that the political opposition tried to topple the Chavez government with a military/big business coup in 2002. One part of the law that really frightened wealthy Venezuelans was a provision that allowed the government to confiscate idle land (but only after paying for it at market prices) and redistribute it to landless campesinos.

The opposition still talks about an imminent attack on all private property owners, even though the Chavez government has only used the law very selectively to pressure a few giant landowners. For instance, Lord Vecsey, who resides in England and operates a multinational beef-ranching business with branches all over the world, was required to sell some of his thousands of acres that were either unused or had been purchased with false titles.

But there is another provision of La Ley de La Tierra that was unknown to me until recently, but was mentioned by one of the professors at the seminar at Las Lajitas. Article 19 states that the government must guard the integrity and heritage of the land, and in particular its duty to protect “el germoplasmo de las semillas” – that is to protect the genetic integrity of seeds and cast a wary eye on those who traffic in new genetic substances.

This is one of many developments in Venezuela that legitimize this new field of Agro-ecology, and it sheds light on the importance of creating committed specialists. These students, when they graduate, will be in the front lines of those resisting transnational corporate initiatives that market transgenetic species. They also, in their role of trying to reduce the use of environmentally harmful fertilizers and pesticides, will be trying to counteract the immense power of the chemistry industry and all its associated helpers, many of whom still reside within the old government and educational bureaucracies.

Professor Isabel, right edge of picture, and her students watch Honorio place pottery fragments on the time line of Venezuelan agriculture.

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