Venezuela's urban farmers root for growth

Venezuelans have turned their balconies and rooftops into little urban farms as severe food shortages lead to looting and riots in the Opec country.
Venezuelans have turned their balconies and rooftops into little urban farms as severe food shortages lead to looting and riots in the Opec country.PHOTO: REUTERS

Amid food crisis, citizens take to cultivating own crops

CARACAS • Facing a food crisis, Venezuela's pumpkin-growing socialist President is exhorting his compatriots to grow fruit and vegetables on balconies and roofs and in barracks across the country.

The government's "Great Agro- Venezuela Mission" is promoting city farming to offset shortages which have led to looting and riots as the Opec country undergoes a major economic crisis.

"We need to plant to ensure food sovereignty," President Nicolas Maduro said, recounting how he and his wife harvested pumpkins on their patio for a soup that tasted "like heaven".

"He who learns to cultivate in his city, his school... his factory, in his communal space... cultivates another form of faith in life," he added, urging people to grow products in schools, universities, military bases and even jails.

In the first data on the new push, Mr Maduro's government boasts that in the past three months, some 135,000 Venezuelans have produced 273 tonnes of vegetables, fruit and herbs in urban settings. Although production seems well short of this year's goal of 3,500 tonnes, some participants are enthusiastic.

"If all communities began to cultivate, it would help to combat the high cost of living and food shortages," said retired administrator Luisana Galvis, 69, who helps produce 30 different types of vegetable on a state-owned plot in a west Caracas slum.

Critics, though, say the project is inadequate, given the scale of Venezuela's problems, and absurd in a vast and fertile nation that was once a major coffee exporter.

"Forty thousand hectares of productive land in this country and Nicolas' solution is urban agriculture!" scoffed opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who accuses the government of wrecking rural output with nationalisations. "You listen to him and he's a century behind!"

Even some citizens who have long grown their own food are doubtful of Mr Maduro's efforts to help solve the country's unprecedented crisis by emulating their city gardens.

"It's illogical to have a grand plan for urban agriculture given how fertile the land is in Venezuela," said Mr Omar Sharam, owner of the upmarket Casa Bistro restaurant which cultivates many of its own ingredients on a city plot.

Since its discovery in Venezuela a century ago, oil has gradually taken over the country's economy and now makes up 94 per cent of foreign income. That has led to the neglect of other sectors, including agriculture, and made Venezuela dependent on imports.

Vast swathes of arable land are underused.

Since Mr Maduro was elected three years ago to succeed the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, his popular mentor, the economy has deteriorated rapidly with a deep recession and widespread shortages of basic necessities.

The government blames the crisis on an "economic war" led by opposition business leaders and the United States. Critics, however, point the finger at bad economic policy and over-reliance on oil.

With its new urban food push, Venezuela is attempting to follow in the footsteps of Cuba, its closest ally, which pioneered sustainable agriculture during the so-called "Special Period" in the 1990s after the collapse of its Cold War benefactor, the Soviet Union.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations calls Havana the greenest city in Latin America.

Ordinary Venezuelans doubt they will resolve all their country's food problems, but at least want to contribute to a more nutritious diet. "We're not growing to fill our stomachs, but to eat better,"said Ms Militza Perez, a bank worker who grows her own peppers, chard and other herbs on a roof garden.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Venezuela's urban farmers root for growth'. Print Edition | Subscribe