The mayor suggested we go for a little ride in “el campo,” the countryside. Eleven hours later, at least six of them spent bouncing around the muddy mountain roads in a big Toyota Land Cruiser, I had some appreciation for imposing geography of this municipality, Andres Eloy Blanco. Sanare, the capital of the municipality, is a pretty mountain town of about 25,000, sitting at 4,500 feet above sea level. Our little village, Monte Carmelo, is about 500 feet higher and overlooks Sanare and the valley below, with the high peaks of the Venezuelan Andes forming a shadowy backdrop far to the west.
The rest of the municipality, which lies over the mountain behind us, is just as beautiful as Sanare and Monte Carmelo, but much more rugged. Most of the area consists of steep mountain slopes and deep valleys that are accessible by gravel and mud roads that only jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks can negotiate. Another 20,000 people live in this area, most of them inhabiting more than 150 caseríos (hamlets) that are scattered throughout the rich green landscape.
On a rainy day, waterfalls flow over the higher roads, and the lower tracks fill up with mud.
These campesinos live in the midst of two magnificent resources: water and coffee.
The municipality of Andres Eloy Blanco receives abundant rainfall, is crisscrossed by two rivers and countless streams, and manages to produce 30% of all the coffee grown in Venezuela. In spite of this, most small farmers, who rely on coffee as their cash crop, are living in poverty. The local government estimates that out of 8,500 rural families, 6,000 should be classified as poor.
The Plan for Local Sustainable Development “Argimiro Gabaldón”
Adding to the potential misery of the rural population is the newly completed Yacambú Dam, which is going to displace 1,500 families two years from now, when an artificial lake fills up a section of the Yacambú River valley. Decades ago, when the project was started, the dam and lake were designed to provide water to dry land and millions of people in the arid parts of Lara and other states. But, as in many developing countries, previous governments in Venezuela had no plans to insure the well-being of local residents who were going to be displaced by ambitious hydro projects.
Today, the local administration of Mayor Orozco, backed by generous funding from the national government and the state of Lara, is making amends for this policy of neglect. The municipality is implementing an ambitious plan for sustainable development named after Argimiro Gabaldón, a local revolutionary hero and guerrilla leader. Gabaldón and his followers staged an armed rebellion against government repression and maltreatment of the campesinos during the early 1960s, and he was killed in 1964.
Mayor Alfredo Orozco (right) talks with a campesino group in the village of Guapa
The first step in the Sustainable Development Plan is to create new communities and work opportunities for the 1,500 families that will soon be displaced. Among these families, many of whom are forming new cooperatives, are a number of older men and women who were fighting against the dam construction project many years ago. For this reason, one group likes to call itself the Indigenous Resistance Cooperative, “La Cooperativa de Resistencia Indigena,” a name which celebrates their own Indian heritage and also echoes the centuries of resistance to the oppression imposed by the Spanish and the local landowning elites.
[Perhaps some readers do not know that Venezuela no longer celebrates Columbus Day. A few years ago, the Chavez government decided that October 12th should be celebrated as “Él Dia de Resistencia” (Day of Resistance). I believe the same day is celebrated in Bolivia now that Evo Morales is President.)]
El Cacique, one of the leader s of the Indigenous Resistance Cooperative
Nearby the Mayor pointed to parcels of land that the municipality is buying in order to construct one of the first Núcleos de Desarrollos Endógenos Sustentables, or NUDES (Centers of Local Sustainable Development), which will serve the families displaced by the dam. There will be considerable new construction around this particular NUDES (called Guapa-La Cruz) during the coming year: a new clinic, sports facilities, schools, and other public buildings that can serve as the community hub for several small villages of new residences that will replace those that will be submerged by the nearby artificial lake.
The Nucleo at Guapa-La Cruz will be the first sustainable development community built in Venezuela. The national government has also approved financing for the much larger expansion of Plan Argimiro Gabaldón, which will serve 28 other caseríos or villages within the municipality, including Monte Carmelo.
By consensus, all the co-op members (including the woman on the left) voted to sign the land agreement with the municipality.
The Plan Argimiro Gabladon is very bold, and the mayor, the governor, and the president all see it as “revolutionary,” that is, as the practical embodiment of the Bolivarian Revolution and as a model for development in other rural parts of the nation. It combines several very worthy goals: 1) the ecologically sound development and conservation of agricultural land and forests; 2) the establishment of a coffee production center that serves all the small producers and farm laborers through a network of cooperatives that guarantee just prices and decent living conditions for all; 3) the expansion of tourism throughout the municipality in a way that allows guests to share in the local culture, stay in the homes of area residents, and take advantage of agro-tourism, nature education, and hiking opportunities; 4) the renovation of the town of Sanare itself, including the restoration of colonial buildings, the rerouting of major roads, and the addition of new cultural, sports, and artisan centers.
Since Mayor Orozco grew up on a small coffee farm in “el campo,” he enjoys every Thursday, the day of the week he devotes to visiting his constituents in the countryside. Since he’s invited me to ride along any time I like, you can expect to read more reports on campesino life in remote parts of the municipality, some of which lie more than three hours away from Sanare. (In contrast, the campesino hamlet of Monte Carmelo, where we live, is only a 10 minute ride from the central plaza in Sanare.)