Friday, March 21, 2008

Meeting at Las Lajitas: Mario Grippo and Fred Magdoff

Mario, Fred, Rosa Elena and three of her students from the high school agroecology course meet at the farm to discuss farming methods and the world food crisis

This past Wednesday, Fred Magdoff and I scaled the steep hill from Monte Carmelo and talked with Mario Grippo, one of the founders of La Alianza cooperative who works at the Las Lajitas organic farm.

We hadn’t been talking for long when the fourth year agroecology class from the liceo (or high school) in the village of Bojo joined us. They had come walking up the other side of the mountain valley to reach the Las Lajitas farm. The students and Rosa Elena, their teacher, meet regularly with Mario, and he had advised them that there was a special visitor in town who could talk to them about problems in agriculture on the global level.

When Fred Magdoff explained that the world was entering a dangerous period of food scarcity, with prices climbing so high in the last year or two that many poor people could not afford to buy nourishing food, the students had some ready questions. They had heard explanations of the problem by their President, Hugo Chavez, on television and they wondered if the North American could confirm them. “Is it true,” one of them asked, “that using corn to produce ethanol in order to provide fuel for cars is causing problems in the global food markets?”

“Absolutely,” said Fred. “Today 20% of the corn in the United States is being diverted to ethanol production. This is a major reason why the price of corn has jumped an estimated 70% in the past year. Now, this isn’t the only problem driving up world food prices. For instance, the demand for soy products for feeding animals in China, especially the tens of millions of pigs, has helped drive the price of soy prices up by 100%.”

Then Fred asked them if they knew what many people in Haiti were eating these days. Nobody knew. “Cookies,” he said. “Cookies made of soil, cooked with a little baking soda and salt. These can fill up empty stomachs but have absolutely no nutritional value. People can’t afford rice in Haiti because its price on the world market as gone through the roof, too, just like the other basic food commodities.”

The exchanges between the students and Magdoff not only touched on world affairs, but also on practical things like composting and manure. Fred told them a story about a farmer he knows (in Virginia, I think) who slips seeds of corn into his compost piles, then turns his pigs loose to root through the piles for the kernels. When they’re done trampling and rooting for every last one, the whole compost pile has been effectively turned over, so the farmer never has to pick up a shovel and do it himself.

Similar Interests

Father Mario Grippo, who came to Latin America from Italy forty years ago, is a priest who preaches liberation theology and teaches sustainable agricultural and the virtues of organic farming based on his thirty-two years working at Alianza and Las Lajitas. (See earlier articles on La Alianza Cooperative, La Dia de La Semilla, and Campesinos as professors.)

Fred Magdoff, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Vermont, arrived in Venezuela for the first time last week. When not teaching, he is preaching a related brand of liberation in his anti-capitalist articles in Monthly Review, the excellent independent socialist magazine that was edited for years by his father, Harry Magdoff, Leo Huberman, and Paul Sweezy. (For those of you who are not familiar with Monthly Review and its books, look for MRzine and Monthly Review Press on-line. Monthly Review has been producing highly readable, non-dogmatic, non-sectarian Marxist analysis of the U.S. – and global - political economy for almost sixty years. Don’t miss Albert Einstein’s essay, “Why Socialism,” published in the very first issue of the magazine in 1949.)

For many years Fred has taught the virtues of sustainable agriculture and the methods of restoring and maintaining healthy farmland. Some of his books and articles are written specifically for farmers and laymen; for instance, Building Soils for Better Crops, soon to be published in a new third edition. My farmer friends tell me this is “the Bible” of organic farmers all over the United States.

As the three of us discussed a variety of agricultural, political, and philosophical issues, Mario decided to tell us how he and Arturo Paoli, two Italians, happened to end up in South America, first in Argentina, then in Venezuela.

Mario shows Fred around some of the many worm bins which produce the rich soil and fertilizer at Las Lajitas

Where did Mario come from?

Mario briefly reviewed the history of his religious order, the Fraternity of the Little Brothers of the Gospel (La Fraternidad de Los Hermanitos del Evangelio, founded on the teachings of Charles de Foucauld in France in the early 20th century as an order of worker priests: they dedicated themselves to living with and working side by side with the poor and working classes in various kinds of manual and agricultural labor.) One of their priests, Arturo Paoli, worked in Argentina beginning in the early 1960s and became involved in organizing campesino groups in an area in the North that had been dominated by a giant English food production corporation — the campesinos had lived and worked under serf-like conditions on the vast tracts of company land and were obligated to follow strict company rules, buy from company stores, and labor for poverty wages under oppressive conditions.

When the government took over the company’s land, selling most of it in large parcels to local Argentinian landlords and farm labor contractors, Arturo campaigned to buy one large piece that would be owned and worked by the campesinos themselves. Since Arturo was a personal friend of the Pope, Pablo VI, he was able to secure funds from the Vatican to buy the land on behalf of the campesinos so they could develop a commune.

The Argentine government was agreeable to the sale, but not on terms providing common ownership, which sounded far too “communist” to them. Thus the large parcel was divided up into many individual parcels campesino families. Arturo was joined by other members of the religious Fraternity (including Mario Grippo), who helped the peasants organize cooperatives nevertheless. There was a marketing cooperative that allowed them to sell their agricultural products at a fair price and a buying cooperative that allowed them to set up their own bodegas that did not charge the exploitative prices that were common in the “company stores” owned by the big landlords that surrounded them.

Mario pointed out that Arturo Paoli, who was writing books and articles about Liberation Theology, was anxious to be as inclusive as possible, perhaps naively thinking that anyone who wanted to join the peasants’ cooperatives must be motivated by their Christian faith. Thus he made a key mistake: he allowed relatives of the local big landlords to join the other peasants in owning small parcels of land and working with the cooperatives. These people started undermining the egalitarian nature of the campesino organizations and instead looked for ways to consolidate the economic power of the latifundios (large estates) owned by the landlord class.

One new member appeared to be a very sincere, hard-working fellow and an enthusiastic Christian who inspired others, while all the time he had a secret relationship with one of the latifundios. He was elected to a management positions in one of the cooperatives and began to undermine its financial stability by entering into covert and wasteful business arrangements with the big business owners in the area. By the time his sneaky manipulations were discovered, he had not only damaged the economic viability of the cooperative but had also sown a great deal of mistrust among the other members.

Mario feels that the semi-feudal history of the people in this part of Argentina, who lived for centuries on large estates under brutal regimes imposed by Spanish, British, and Argentine owners and their overseers, had conditioned people to be passive and obedient to authority. Not that this was surprising, since those who spoke up and showed initiative usually did not survive.

While Mario and the Fraternity were working with their cooperative, one worker on a neighboring latifundio questioned a bill that had been written up by the landlord. The columns of numbers simply didn’t add up to the exaggerated figure the owner had entered at the bottom of the page. “Of course that’s the correct number,” said the boss.

“No, it’s not,” insisted the campesino. A few days later, he was dead. When other campesinos complained to the local police about such crimes, they were told they should shut up or they would be arrested for false accusations and disturbing the peace. The police, in their own way, had been conditioned by hundreds of years of rural feudalism.

By the mid 1970s, the slowly rising consciousness of the campesinos, encouraged by radical church people and young revolutionaries from the cities, was breeding a counter-response among the upper classes, the armed forces, and the traditional Church. It would culminate finally in Argentina with the sadistic and murderous rule imposed by the military dictatorship that took power in 1976 (with the quiet backing of the United States. It was not a coincidence that in 1976 Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s chief of staff in the White House, Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, and George Bush the Elder was head of the CIA.)

In the years before the military junta was constructed by General Varela and his pals, the local, rural oligarchies in many parts of the country were creating their own paramilitary forces to suppress leftist dissent. Using a combination of their own hired thugs and the local police, they started meting out punishment to those who defied the established order. Many campesinos were killed, as well as a few priests and religious workers. Arturo Paoli, Mario, and other members of the Fraternidad decided that they had better leave.

Arturo somehow found his way to Venezuela and then to the mountains of the state of Lara where he settled in the little village of Bojo, which lies below Las Lajitas farm and over a hill from Monte Carmelo. Mario soon followed with another member of the Fraternidad and they moved into a decrepit farmhouse on the edge of town. This hamlet had been established in the 1960s after a land reform program initiated by the Accion Democratica political party (which once had some genuine social democratic tendencies) had bought out a big landowner and redistributed small parcels to campesino families, most of whom were newcomers who came from another part of Lara. Mario says the people from neighboring Monte Carmelo were more spunky and adventurous, probably because they were well-established in the area years before Bojo was formed and had learned how to fight and work to build their own community.

Arturo and Mario, reflecting on their experience with a peasantry in Argentina, whose minds had been reduced to thinking (or not thinking) like serfs, felt that these local campesinos demonstrated an independence of mind and openness to new ideas that they had not encountered in Argentina. Within a year of Mario’s arrival, they were talking about forming a cooperative again. It would be called La Alianza: 12 members forming an alliance, 6 from Bojo and 6 from Monte Carmelo.

The young men in the Brouwer family plowing a steep hillside at Las Lajitas - Ari on plow, Jan leading the horse. After Christmas the boys started working every day on the cooperative farm, from 6am to 2pm- they will be working there until June. The 23 cooperative members are very happy with their efforts. Even though they are supposed to be working on a volunteer basis, the cooperative voted to pay them last week.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Booming Venezuelan Economy, and how it affects Monte Carmelo

A local mason is putting the finishing touches on a wall next door, where our neighbors are adding a large room to their house.

The major media in the United States and Venezuela are overflowing with misinformation about Venezuela and its social and economic indicators, so it was relief to see a reliable appraisal of Venezuela’s economic growth appear recently: “The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years,” by Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval at CEPR, the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, February 2008. ( For those of you who are not familiar with CEPR, you should visit their website at, since they are primarily engaged in producing reliable information, analysis, and prognostication concerning the U.S. economy – they predicted the dangers of the stock market bubble in the late 1990s, and the housing bubble of the 2000s, when most economists were ignoring the problems because they were giddy with the joys of short-term profit-taking; likewise, they are one of the best, non-hysterical guides to understanding the current state of the U.S. Social Security system.)

In their report, which reviews solid statistics gathered through 2007, they note that Venezuela’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Latin America and the world over the past five years: “since the first quarter of 2003, Venezuela's real (after adjusting for inflation) GDP has grown by 87.3 percent.”

“…employment in the formal sector has increased to 6.17 million (2007 first half), from 4.40 million in the first half of 1998 and 4.53 million in the first half of 2003. As a percentage of the labor force, formal employment has increased significantly since 1998, from 45.4 to 50.6 percent (2007).”

The figures above indicate, according to my handy calculator, that total employment, including both the formal and informal sectors, was 12.19 million in the first half of 2007, versus 9.69 million in 1998. This is an increase of 26% in nine years, a remarkable achievement for any country.

Such numbers are enough to drive Bush, Cheney, and their gang wild with envy, and makes them determined to destroy Venezuela’s experiment in developing “21st century socialism.” Too bad they only read opposition newspapers and bogus CIA and State Department reports instead of real information from CEPR, where they could find out that one major effect of Chavez’s “dangerous,” “destabilizing,” and “dictatorial” tendencies (the U.S. government’s words) has been to bolster the private sector.

The United States, given its paltry economic growth over the past eight years and its current economic downturn, should be coming to Venezuela for lessons in how to create jobs. Republicans and Democrats alike could re-learn the strategies that were once implemented in the United States through Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal: government policies that redistribute income, democratize and support public education, and invest in broad systems of public works will also stimulate the private sector. Most job growth in Venezuela has taken place in the private, not the public sector. In fact, the private sector is growing faster than the public sector. “Private employment was a larger percentage of the labor force (75.0 percent) in the first half of 2007 as compared to the first half of 1999 (71.6 percent).”

Most U.S. Republicans, of course, would be adverse to the kind of income growth that has taken place. The bottom 80% of the population has seen its incomes increase by 60% to 100% over the past nine years (figures adjusted for inflation – see my previous November article on incomes and social classes). Middle-class income growth has been positive, but not as great as among the lower classes, and upper-class incomes have risen at the most modest rate. A recent article in the opposition newspaper, El Universal of Caracas, has a table of economic analysis indicating that the poorest sector of the population, level E, which represents almost half of the population, enjoyed income growth at more than twice the rate of the highest level AB, which amounts to 2% or less of the population.

Economic activity in the village of Monte Carmelo: a mini-boom in construction

One sure sign that economic growth is benefiting poor and working class people is the amount of construction activity that can be found all around the country. People in the lower-income barrios of the big city of Barquisimeto report that they have never seen so much activity undertaken by homeowners: they are replacing old make-shift construction of tin and boards with concrete and steel, adding on additional rooms or second stories, and re-plastering and repainting entire houses inside and out.

The campesinos of Monte Carmelo are also busy with building projects because they now have a little extra money to pay for materials, and because it’s summertime here. During the three dry months – January, February, and March, many campesinos don’t have enough water to cultivate vegetables for the market, so they take advantage of the dry weather and some free time to fix up their property in various ways. Some are also taking advantage of government loans and credits that are designed to help low-income homeowners and farmers. Alexis and his son are building a new hen house for 50 egg-laying chickens, making use of a government program that is giving small grants and loans to expand agricultural production on small plots adjacent to people’s homes.

The three bodegas (little stores) in town are doing a brisk business. One bodega is located in the front room of a family’s house, and they just decided to lift the roof and create a small, bamboo-walled garret for a couple of teenagers (it’s comfortable during the cool evening and nighttime hours, but baking hot between 10 and 3 in the daytime when the summer sun is blazing.)
The local construction boom means more activity for local carpenters: new rooms and houses will need furniture. Luis and two other 20 year-olds started up production in the carpentry shop at the Las Lajitas farming cooperative where the space and tools had been underutilized in recent years. They used a loan from the Monte Carmelo’s community council (“consejo communal”) to purchase an inventory of high-quality hardwoods, and the orders for furniture immediately started coming. Double beds seem to be their most popular items: they’ve already sold and delivered six, with another six are on order.

Diluvin, the village’s master welder and master folk violinist, and his nephew stand by the new concrete-block tank that will hold 6,000 liters of water to slake the thirst of 4 pigs who will soon be taking up residence in Monte Carmelo.

Local residents eat pork, but campesinos here are not used to raising pigs (they do raise chickens and cows for meat) because they can be dirty and smelly. However, a new program promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture is demonstrating that it is possible to raise pigs in small numbers without damaging the environment or offending your neighbors. In fact, if the pigs are incorporated into a small-scale system that includes organic gardening, overall production of healthy foods can be increased while also enhancing the quality of the local environment.

Diluvin and family just received a government loan that has allowed his family to initiate such a project on their four or five acres of land. In addition to the water tank above, they are constructing a small concrete residence for the pigs and concrete bins where compost, pig manure, and worms (vermiculture) will be combined to produce very high quality organic soil and liquid fertilizers. The new organic material will be used to cultivate an acre of vegetables and fruits while also enriching the soil of two more acres which are already planted with mature and fledgling coffee trees. And the pigs, besides producing valuable manure, will be reproducing little piglets which will be sold to neighbors who can fatten them up for ham, pork roasts, and bacon.
The Brouwer boys took a day off from farm work at the cooperative in order to level the terrain outside a new four room house. The campesino family that owns the property already has an older house next to the main street, and built this new “casita” with savings that they had accumulated over the past several years.

Other kinds of economic activity in the state of Lara
(you will have to wait a couple of days for the photos in this section)

The little village of Monte Carmelo, population 800, has three shops, all little bodegas that sell food and household items. They are doing well.

Ten minutes away in the town of Sanare, population 25,000, there are hundreds of stores and shops, but no supermarkets or malls, so it’s much like a U.S. town circa 1955. Business is good.

The big city of Barquisimeto, with a million inhabitants, has all sorts of shopping centers that are booming: supermarkets, hypermarkets (similar to the big WalMarts in the U.S., only fancier), fast food outlets, big discount warehouse stores, and car dealers – consequently shoppers can buy most anything that we can buy in the United States. There is a huge new, ultra-spiffy mall called Sambil, part of a chain that began in Caracas, but we thought the Metropolis, also quite new, was prettier.

Although we have been living continuously in Venezuela since September, we didn’t venture into a shopping mall until a few weeks ago when we accompanied our friend Ruben to his university classes in Barquisimeto. After an hour or two in these pseudo-environments, where we purchased nothing except some really awful Italian lunches, we happily escaped. But we can report that the middle and upper classes of Venezuela (about 20% of the population, mostly anti-Chavez and continuously complaining about their endangered economic status) are doing well financially and spending their money with wild abandon.

The Metropolis, snazzier than PA malls

A medium-size, well-maintained mall very similar to the kind we have at home in central Pennsylvania

New construction in a middle-class area near the Barquisimeto Zoo

Venezuelan shopping centers have several things in common with U.S. malls: for instance, terrible meals are served at the food courts. Also, most goods are sold in the same multinational brand-name stores -- Levis, Skecher, and Adidas – that you would see in the States or many other parts of the world. While the biggest malls are spiffier than those we have in south central Pennsylvania, they are also much more expensive – you have to pay twice as much here for brand-name shoes and brand-name burgers like Burger King. We did not sample the food at Burger King because there were long lines, and later that night we ate giant hamburguesas and Vikingos (super “Viking size” burgers) for one quarter the price at a small roadside stand along the main road from Barquisimeto to Sanare.

We went to the second shopping center shown above, which looked like any well-kept, medium-sized mall in a middle-class area of the U.S., because our teacher friend, Ruben, wanted to buy his wife a pair of shoes. The mall was busy, although you can’t see the crowds in the picture because everyone was standing around the corner in another corridor waiting to get into one of three shoe stores. The stores were having sales for El Dia de Amor (“Love Day” or Valentine’s Day on February 14) because it seems that a sure-fire way to a woman’s heart in Venezuela is through her feet. There were guards holding back the waves of would-be shoppers and limiting the number of people who could enter a store at any one time. Most customers were women accompanied by their husbands or boyfriends, but a few men, like Ruben, were feeling bold enough to pick out the perfect shoe all by themselves. We were in a hurry to get to a meeting, however, so Ruben decided he had to pass up the shoes in favor of a purse in an empty leather goods store down the corridor.

A Ruined Economy?
There are some faults with the Venezuelan economy, such as high inflation and occasional shortages of food in some stores, but most people are still earning much more (after adjusting for inflation) and eating much more than they did ten or twenty years ago. For this reason, although commentators in the opposition press and the U.S. are constantly claiming that Chavez is ruining the economy, these anti-Chavistas are unable to produce any reliable data to back up their arguments. Besides, they are constantly disproving their contention by engaging in their favorite recreation: going shopping.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., working people are losing: in the last quarter of 2007 there was 5.6% annual rate of inflation in CPI, and only a 2.3% annual rate of increase in wages – that is, a decrease in income after it’s adjusted for inflation. CEPR recently reported that manufacturing employment in the United States hit a low point, for less than 10% of the working population now labors in factories, the lowest figure ever recorded since statistics were first gathered a century ago:

The loss of manufacturing jobs continues the downward trend of the last decade. Manufacturing employment has fallen by 3,880,000 jobs, or 22.0 percent, since January of 1998. It lost 279,000 jobs in the last year. The newly revised data show that employment in manufacturing fell below 10.0 percent of total employment in October. The loss of jobs has hit every sector of manufacturing, although the auto sector has been especially hard hit, losing 57,400 jobs or 5.6 percent of
employment in the last year. The loss of 18,300 jobs in textile mills and 20,300 in apparel (10.1 and 9.1 percent of employment, respectively) also stand out.

And his recent column in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman indicated that worse news is yet to come, a product of the insane U.S. government policies that deregulated banking, mortgage, and financial transactions over the past three decades. The American taxpayers, he says, will be forced to bail out some of the biggest U.S. banks, the ones that wasted a large proportion of U.S. savings on bad loans:

“The result of all that bad lending was an unholy financial mess that will cause trillions of dollars in losses.”