How Green Is That Garden?

With Oil Revenue, Venezuela is Pushing Organic Agriculture

In the heart of the fast-paced city of Caracas, Venezuela, Noralé Verenzuela is standing in a garden dressed in jeans and work boots. She is the director of the state-initiated Organopñnico Bolivar I, the first urban, organic garden to show its green face in the city.

Presently, according to the United Nations, Venezuela imports about 80 percent of the food that it consumes. To Verenzuela, the garden represents a positive step. "People are waking up," she says. "We’ve been dependent on McDonald’s and Wendy’s for so long. Now people are learning to eat what we can produce ourselves."

Verenzuela’s 1.2-acre plot is part of a plan led by the government of President Hugo Chavez to create "endogenous," or self sufficient, development. "We have been exporters of raw materials and consumers of manufactured goods. One of the first objectives
is to put a stop to that game," says endogenous strategist Carlos Lanz.

In 2005, the Agriculture Ministry set a target of supplying 20 percent of Venezuela’s vegetables through urban gardens. The program also holds workshops to show people how to create their own organopñnicos for domestic consumption. At this stage, however, the Organopñnico Bolivar I is more of a showcase for the program than a true paradigm shift. "As a pilot project," Verenzuela admits, the garden "can’t be allowed to fail."

Chavez’s populist message has made him a hero for many Venezuelans and international leftists. In a nation that is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, BBC reports that 83 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Since Chavez took office in 1998, he has funded many social welfare projects by redirecting state oil income. Venezuelan oil has also made Chavez many allies, including Cuba, which has exported its advisors for Chavez" social projects. Still, "It’s not a Cuban model," insisted Cojedes Governor Jhonny Yanez to the St. Petersburg Times. "It’s a Venezuelan model based on an oil economy that can feed itself." The question is: for how long, and at what cost to the environment?

Chavez’s energy policies have also brought him just criticism from environmentalists. Though his administration has banned genetically modified seeds and created an indigenous seed bank, Center on Global Prosperity director Alvaro Vargas Llosa argues that anti-capitalist environmentalists should oppose Chavez because his "government owns scores of refineries and cashes in big time on the processing of sulfur-heavy crude." Chavez’s oil contracts with Brazil’s Petrobras and Chevron Texaco caused environmental journalist Hanna Dahlstrom to warn that "Chavez" big oil projects could
destroy [the] Amazon."

The gardens that inspired the Organopñnico Bolivar I were not initiated by a government, but by desperate Cubans. The collapse of the USSR in 1989 cut off over half of Cuba’s food supply, as well as the fertilizers, pesticides and fuel needed for industrial farming. Cuban families began growing vegetables domestically, without chemical products, and the idea caught on. Most of Cuba’s industrial farms were then converted to low-input, sustainable production. Though Cuban farmers claim that they will never shift their methods back to industrial monoculture, it remains to be seen if such techniques will continue past the reign of aging leader Fidel Castro.

In Venezuela, however, the organopñnicos are clearly a top-down initiative based on Cuba’s success. Verenzuela says that the urban gardens have been a hard sell. Ninety two percent of Venezuelans live and work in urban centers, and many Caracans scoffed at Chavez’s suggestion that barrio residents "raise crops and chickens on their balconies." Verenzuela stressed the fresh and healthy benefits of organic produce, but nearby street vendors say they like the produce because it is cheaper than the grocery store.

Outreach programs are trying to change attitudes. The garden provides tours, and agricultural students at the new Bolivarian University are required to intern there. Drop-in workers from nearby barrios, such as Caricuao, can also work there for pay and vegetables. "We are showing people that a garden is possible in a city," Verenzuela says.

The garden hasn’t been immune to the deep social divide over Chavez" presidency, either. In its first few months, says Verenzuela, the opposition to Chavez stole plants and protested outside. Opposition-owned media reported that the vegetables were unsafe to eat. In November, workers even found clandestinely introduced goats in the garden. Before the goats were able to do much damage, workers caught, killed, barbequed and ate them for lunch.

Outside of the cities, many are wondering when rural agriculture will get attention. Because of the success of the oil industry, Venezuela’s agricultural sector has been long neglected and is "the least productive in all of Latin America," writes journalist Jon Lamb in Australia’s Green Left Weekly. There is no lack of arable land, but production is only six percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The national farmers" federation, FEDEAGRO, says it is not opposed to the urban program, but is concerned about a lack of support for rural farming. "The government is concentrating all efforts on city farming, and yet the national sector remains as it is," says technical adviser Nelson Calabria.

Another concern skeptics have about urban gardens is pollution. Experts claim that the exhaust-laden air could contaminate plants with carbon monoxide and lead. At the Bolivar I, a technician comes every 15 days to take a reading from the small pollution meter in the middle of the garden. Verenzuela was not able to say what the acceptable levels were, but indicated no cause for alarm had yet been found.

Now, according to Verenzuela, the garden has become an accepted part of the cityscape. In fact, some of its most faithful customers are opposed to Chavez. "We are making food, and food is not political," she says. "Besides, they know our food is better." Still, as environmentalists know, food is a highly political issue in the modern world, and it remains to be seen how and if Venezuela’s urban gardens will grow and change, especially should they lose Chavez and oil revenue.