The 2nd Reunion of the Agro-ecologists of Monte Carmelo was held last weekend on Saturday, October 6. About fifty people attended, about one third of them from Monte Carmelo and Sanare, and the rest from the States of Lara, Portuguesa, Yaracuy, and Aragua as well as from the big cities of Maracaibo, Maracay, and Caracas. There were eight hours of spirited presentations and discussion sponsored by William Izarra and El Centro de Formación Ideológica (Center for Ideological Formation.)
Izarra, a retired Air Force commander, is dedicating himself to intellectual projects which will advance socialist thought and practice in the nation. Before Chavez came along, there was already a movement of intellectually engaged, revolutionary-minded officers in the military. Izarra, who as a young officer had studied at Harvard, tried to form a military-civilian coalition for radical change in the 1980s.
The meeting focused on the need to keep pressing forward with models of socialist agriculture based on sustainable development, while discouraging and successfully opposing models of agriculture that are allied with the methods and purposes of the transnational corporations.
Local activists and resource people, such as Omar and Gaudy Garcia and the Morochos, were pleasantly surprised that four of the visitors were Air Force officers from the country’s central air base in Maracay. This was the first time that they can remember that environmental activists from within the military have attended an agro-ecology event.
One officer named Mota said that sustainable development had become a primary concern of their socialist study group at the air base, and they were ready to lend their support to any groups that needed help. Shortly thereafter, a young man from Tamborla, a very isolated mountain area at least 3 hours by jeep roads from Sanare, described the rapidly growing cooperative in his area, comprised of more than 1200 members from 24 scattered hamlets. When he mentioned that it was difficult to get attention from the government, the military men sat down with him and made a firm date for meeting with the cooperative and learning about their environmental initiatives.
Near the end of the eight-hour meeting, Mota relays a greeting and a message of commitment from Air Force officers at the main base in Maracay.
His colleague, a burly fellow named Wilfredo, was taking notes in a planner/notebook adorned with photos and quotations of the Zapatistas, the revolutionary indigenous group that is controlling a good part of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. When I complimented him on his notebook, Wilfredo said, “We admire the Zapatistas a lot, not just for their unconventional tactics of resistance, but because they have a real dedication to egalitarian ethics and a respect for biodiversity. Some in our group have traveled to Mexico to meet with them.”
(Clearly this is a different kind of military. One of the Monte Carmelo residents said afterwards, “They’re using their brains for themselves now, not just waiting for orders from the top.”)
Izarra and the officers didn’t hog the stage. In fact, they were content to listen and learn from those who have been environmental activists, educators, and organic farmers for many years. El Negro Morocho, Juan Jose Escalona, otherwise known as “the anthropologist,” spoke about the harmonious relationship that humans once had in “Dintas,” the ancient Indian name for the Sanare area. “There was a magic relationship between the Indians, the land, the animals, and the air,” he said. “The first socialists and the first cooperative members were the Indians who lived in this area. In most parts of the municipality, the production system of ‘la mano vuelta’ (families working cooperatively in planting and harvesting) still existed thirty years ago.”
Walterio Lanz, a veteran ecologist and educator from the state of Aragua, gave a comprehensive presentation he entitled “Fraude,” that is, the fraud perpetrated by the so-called “revolución verde” (Green Revolution) in agriculture. The new agricultural processes that were introduced after World War II, according to Lanz, constituted “a state of warfare” which depopulated the countryside and made campesinos flee to the city. But this time, the war against the campesinos was not really about transferring power to elites in the cities (as had happened in the past all over Latin America), for the level of control was shifted not to the transnational level where giant corporations reigned supreme.
Transnational corporations produce and control the five vital elements of modern agriculture that are destroying the countryside: 1) tractors and other mechanized equipment, 2) chemical herbicides, 3) poisonous insectides, 4) synthetic fertilizers, 5) adulterated seeds. Mechanized agriculture, especially in tropical zones, said Lanz, is in the process of annihilating the soil. The adulteration of seeds and the patents on the genetic structure of plants are forces that are wiping out the accumulated work (an enormous, incalculable amount of agricultural “capital”) produced by 3,,500 years of effort on the part of the peoples of the Americas. “What do people and the land have left to show for their collective efforts?” asked Lanz, “when they were the ones who improved the soils, and created and developed thousands of varieties of seeds.”
Local activist and co-op farmer, Omar Garcia, explained the virtues of horse-power as opposed to tractor power.
Local co-op farmer and activist, Omar Garcia, spoke about the virtues of horse-drawn plows that are very practical on many of steep mountainsides in the vicinity of Monte Carmelo and Sanare. “Not only can the horse negotiate terrain that the tractor cannot handle, but he fertilizes the soil at the same time.” Local farmers figure that a horse can plow a hectare of land (more than two acres) in eight hours. Since plots of land are small, there is no reason to have a tractor that can plow twenty hectares in a day. After performing a few days work, limited to the more level pieces of land, the tractor has to sit idle for the rest of the year. Omar and others cited studies that demonstrate that tractor wheels do severe damage as they compact the earth in tropical areas; apparently this is happening in the hot lowlands of Venezuela, where the soils are particularly fragile.
At the end of the meeting, there were resolutions to keep focusing the organizational energy of agro-ecological activists on the state and national governments and pushing them toward models of sustainable development. There were also disagreements based, in part, on the different backgrounds of participants.
Alfredo Mendoza, from the State of Portuguesa, retired after 18 years of working for AT&T so that he could devote his energies to cultivating coffee on his small farm. He believes that small coffee farmers and their families around the world can be turned into 25 million forestry experts, growing and maintaining shade-grown, high-quality coffee plants in ways that preserve the soil and the environment. If they are connected directly through cooperatives to those organizations in the North who sell “comercio justo” (fair trade) coffee, then they can be guaranteed prices that will lift even the smallest producers out of poverty.
Venezuela, he pointed out, is in a better position to do this than other countries, since its 19th century coffee industry was the most highly developed in the world, but was nearly abandoned after the 20th century oil boom discouraged all kinds of agricultural activity in the country. Most Venezuelan coffee plants belong to two of the most desirable varieties for premium coffee, “tipica” and “borbon,” and they are usually grown in the traditional “criollo” method, under high shade trees on small plots of land (the size of the average coffee farm is 6.5 acres.) Thus, most Venezuelan coffee growers could convert to premium, fair trade production almost at once, especially since the government is offering various kinds of support byencouraging cooperative enterprises, alleviating poverty in the rural areas through the “Campo Adentro” program, and offering loans and grants to small producers.
While this kind of agricultural development sounded like an improvement to many participants, Leobardo Acurero, of the Center of Ecological Investigation and Information (CINECO), took issue with all kinds of farming that are primarily for export. He said that producing primary raw materials, including foodstuffs, for the capitalist North has been the downfall of economic and social development for Venezuela and other nations of the South for centuries.
Leobardo felt that coffee production, if anything, should be curtailed rather than encouraged, so that the rich mountain soils can be returned to their most valuable use -- growing healthy, organic food to sustain the farm families and the rest of the nation.
He isn’t just spouting environmental dreams, since for several years he and others have operated a cooperatively-owned, organic farming community, Buenos Aires, that lies high in the mountains on the other side of the nearby city of Tocuyo.
I’m not sure he would approve of my compromise position: encouraging cash-crop production of coffee using organic techniques while also urging each family and cooperative community to expand organic food production in their “conucos,” the large gardens that are traditionally dedicated to growing food for household consumption.
El Dia de la Semilla, October 29th
Some of you may know that October 12th was “El Dia de la Resistencia Indígena,” and maybe you went out into your local community and pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus to protest the Conquest, which some protesters did in Caracas a few years ago when the first “Day of Indigenous Resistance” was celebrated. (President Chavez criticized the vandals and had the statues restored.)
But you probably didn’t know that October 29th is La Dia de la Semilla, “the day of the seed,” since it was inaugurated right here in Monte Carmelo by Gaudy Garcia and a few other local women two years ago. This year the agro-ecologists who visited on October 6th are returning to join in the celebration. They are hoping it will eventually become a national holiday.
Gaudy and other local activists like the Morochos have also been campaigning for a “banco de semillas,” a seed bank for storing and circulating the thousands of varieties of seeds that are native to this region. If they can find financing for the project, the Seed Bank may be established here in Monte Carmelo.
The seeds speak for themselves in “The Declaration of the Seed” of October 29, 2005.
Here are some excerpts:
“We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with the men and women farmers of Monte Carmelo, declare: that we are our people’s hope for good nutrition.
“…. that we should form cooperatives of seeds to protect our existence
“…. that the campesino seeds should be able to live and enjoy themselves in the company of men, women, and children in an environment without agro-toxins and industrial wastes, and to avoid elimination (‘a capa y espalda’) and displacement by transgenetic and imported seeds.”