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.
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
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.