by Marcelo Resende & Vanessa Davies – Correo del Orinoco
The Portuñol spoken by Marcelo Resende is beginning to sound more like Spanish than Portuguese. The representative for Venezuela of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) does not live in the margin of his country’s problems; on the contrary, he is fully aware of the queues, the difficulties of accessing basic necessary items, the fall in petrol prices and its impact on the national economy. For this reason, when Resende receives [a reporter from state newspaper Correo del Orinoco] in his office in Caracas, a week before Carnaval, he does not dodge the answers and reflections on these subjects.
There are difficulties in the country such as supply shortages, scarcity, and hoarding; and each person has their own version of what’s going on. Does the FAO perceive any risk for the Venezuelan people with what’s occurred over the past year?
The FAO recognizes the labors of the Venezuelan government to ensure food safety. There are certainly moments of political circumstances during which things become more difficult, but in its entirety, as a whole, Venezuela’s policy for food safety is good.
What makes it good?
There are two fundamental actions for the FAO. The question is of the access to the availability of food. In today’s world, the problem of hunger is not agricultural production, there is a huge amount of such production in the world and a great amount of availability per person to these products. If you look at the numbers of available food products in the country, it exceeds the number of people who reside here. The problem of hunger is that people do not have the money to buy food. In Venezuela, the combination of social policies permit the distribution of [petrol] income; today Venezuelans have more access to food because they have more income. With the missions, the fair distribution of income was introduced- chavismo managed to changed petrol and hydrocarbon politics to create just policies for social programs and economic development with emphasis on the people. Now we have a grave problem: petroleum was worth about 100 dollars a barrel, and now it’s at 38. That’s a big problem we must now face.
Another element of food safety policy in Venezuela that the FAO emphasizes is the caloric availability per person, Resende says. “In Venezuela there is a general availability of 3000 calories per person,” he notes.
Even in today’s circumstances?
Yes, even in this situation. Obviously, that is an important question, the FAO measures data from the past two years and may sometimes find three bad months but then things go back to normal. That’s what’s happening now in Venezuela. There is still a good caloric availability per person and hunger is no longer a problem. There were 4 million people suffering of hunger in 1990, but today this is no longer a serious problem for the Venezuelan people.
Attacking Structural Problems
Would you call the issues going on right now circumstantial?
For now, I’d say yes. Venezuela has two structural problems that directly affect its population: inflation, which must be resolved and cannot be considered circumstantial – it’s permanent. This is bad because it lowers the purchasing power of workers, although the policy of recuperating minimum wages to be on par with inflation rates is key- from a food safety point of view, it’s a very fair policy.
The other issue, the representative adds, is supply, which has two key aspects. One of them is agricultural production, which should be increased.
“Venezuela has much improved its agricultural production, but its still not enough for the following reasons: consumption has risen and there is the challenge of producing food that corresponds with the Venezuelan people’s needs, and there you have it. It’s not only a government problem, it is the problem of diverse production in a country of petrol-income culture [Dutch disease]… it is a problem of society.
Isn’t it unsafe that our diet, or a large part of it, depends on imports? How can we talk about food safety is we rely so heavily on imported goods?
We want to compare Venezuela with other countries in the region, but it’s impossible to do so with an extraction-based economy, with countries such as Brazil and Argentina. You have to compare with other petroleum-rent countries, that is one factor. It’s not about today, it’s not this government alone that struggles with this problem. The rentier culture is something that is a part of the people’s mentality. Some products are cheaper even to import than to produce. It’s hard to struggle against that reality.
Additionally, there is a small percentage of farmers in Venezuela. It is a very urban country, very connected to urban economic activities.
How to confront the matter? The government is promoting urban farming, and a strong policy for credits, as well as technical assistance for producers. I was impressed when President Maduro called for a farmworkers’ congress. In fact, he created a social security system for agricultural workers [and their families] – those are great policies. There is a political determination to improve management and efficiency. But Venezuela has many good things, in spite of all the problems- that is important to acknowledge.
In regards to urban farming, you know that many people laughed at President Chavez when he suggested vertical hen houses? Do you really think urban farming is a viable option in Venezuela?
The Venezuelan government has a good vision for the future. Many would think that Venezuelans have no need for urban agriculture, because there is plenty of land to sow. But from a futuristic perspective, society’s great challenge lies in the city. Cuba has provided a great example for urban farming. They are creating agricultural policies within the city, which awakens consciousness and vocation for production. The FAO along with the [agricultural] ministry is developing the project with through training. With urban farming we can take on other elements of food safety, such as obesity. Without a doubt, urban farming creates a new culture around agricultural production- of coexistence with the earth, the seed, and [cycles of] production. Even if it doesn’t have a huge impact on the economy, it is a social program that motivates, organizes, and promotes a relationship between people and cultivation.
Do you think urban farming has advanced in the country?
It doesn’t seem that way, which is why we’re asking. Do you think it has advanced?
It’s an important point. What we’re going to do now is relaunch the program. It’s a cyclical project: there are moments when it is stronger, when there are exemplary initiatives, and other moments that lag, because urban agriculture also requires organization. That is the most difficult area; it is not easy to keep a community garden in production. Yvan Gil, who is now president of the Agricultural Bank, is supporting the relaunch. We’re kicking off with a summit to evaluate our errors and our strengths, our virtues and our limitations, and from there we plan to initiate a new stage of urban agriculture.
Resende estimates that the meeting will happen in the second week of March, and will include the grassroots of the missions, communes, communal councils, and staff of those schools who have gardening programs.
When you think about this next stage, what areas need the biggest push?
There are three main challenges that urban agriculture faces, not just in Venezuela, but regionally. One is commercialization: What will we do with our products? Will they go to schools, to fairs? A whole strategy is needed to commercialize the products. What prices will they be sold at? Fair prices, or ones on par with the speculative shelf prices? Those are some of the issues we’ll address at the summit; as well as the FAO proposition to connect production with schools. It’s an experience that other countries have proven to be very good, because since most of the products are highly perishable, they’re best used for school nutrition.
You mentioned three challenges?
Organization, that’s the key. Who will look after the plots? Who will be in charge of these things? In Venezuela they have communes, communal councils, and a strong basis for organization. The third challenge is internal, it’s bureaucratic. How can we get the necessary materials, tools, and technical assistance to those [working to construct urban farming projects]?
What can we hope to achieve through urban farming? Could we feed a city like Caracas, for example?
Yes, it’s possible, but let’s point to one simple goal. If we manage to have schools that produce their own food, that is a huge achievement. I want to emphasize this perspective- that urban agriculture educates and create consciousness about food safety and production, and that is vital.
What does urban agriculture need? Is it a question of resources or just more planning?
I think by planning and motivating we set the process in action.
What are the items you and the FAO prioritize for urban agriculture?
Vegetables in general. I think that’s the strength of urban farming. Most people don’t know this, but we [in Venezuela] are self-sufficient in roots and vegetables – there’s no problem there. It’s grains and meat, animal protein, [that we import, primarily].
The relationship between the government and the private productive sector are not at their best. What could the FAO suggest to improve this, beyond political differences?
It’s a delicate subject for me, as a representative. I am very protective of the autonomy and sovereignty of the people, of the Venezuelan government. I think that if the government wants to dialogue and the businessmen are equally willing, the dialogue will find a path. And it’s not a multilateral body that can make this decision, there must be respect.
There are studies, such as the one done by the ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) which say poverty has increased in the country in this latest period, poverty measured by income. Does the FAO take a different view? Is there another area that can be strengthened, considering ECLAC’s data?
When we talk about poverty, lamentably our rule for measuring is income. Which means, if you live with less than a dollar a day, you are in extreme poverty. And look at how the Venezuelan government works. If you ask the FAO, or other international bodies, how to combat extreme poverty, there are some policies that have been used in Latin America, and Venezuela has employed them all. For example, what’s most important to lower poverty levels is to guarantee that minimum wage rises on par with inflation, and in Venezuela this policy exists. To combat extreme poverty you must provide good policies for social assistance, and here where there were 600,000 pensioners there are now 2.5 million. There is not better policy for income distribution than this. [Venezuela’s] housing policies are also excellent ways to combat impoverishment. And the mission are a living example of ways to bring down extreme poverty.
And now, what’s happening in the country? I want to highlight that the [fall of] oil prices is going to be hard, I think it will have a big impact on Venezuelan society, although the government is doing everything they can to minimize its effects.
Is there hunger in Venezuela today?
Yes, there is. In every country there is hunger, but Venezuela is presently in a good situation. There are specific groups more vulnerable but they are very small. In Venezuela there was a deep structural problem. Four million people were hungry in the country, and today that is no longer the issue, although we must remain vigilant. For example, obesity is now a grave problem. Venezuela has 6 million overweight people, and 4 million clinically obese people.
Translated by Z.C. Dutka for Venezuelanalysis.com