Telesur | 13 July, 2016
Students and workers at a demonstration at the Latin American Institute of Agroecology (IALA) – Paulo Freire. | Photo: Venezuelanalysis.com
In Guarico and Cojedes, we saw how difficulties in getting hold of fertilizers, insecticides or industrial cattle feed, are pushing some Venezuelan farmers to look for more organic alternatives. Precisely this has been the mission of the Paulo Freire Latin America Agroecology Institute, outside Barinas, since 2007.
Two students in their fifth and final year, show us round. They’re doing bee keeping at the moment and we’re heading for the hives. José Luis Ribas is local, from the Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front. Isidro Lopez was sent by the Paraguayan Peasant Movement linked to Via Campesina. This centre to promote small-scale, eco-friendly agriculture, known as “IALA Paulo Freire” after its initials in Spanish, was set up by President Hugo Chavez after a visit to the settlements of the landless movement, the MST, in Brazil. Chavez was convinced this was the way forward for agriculture in Venezuela and across the region.
Its teaching methods and philosophy were inspired by the participatory, horizontal approach of the Brazilian educationalist and his “pedagogy of the oppressed.” We pass a mural near the entrance to the institute with a giant portrait of Paulo Freire alongside some of his words. “We all know some things. We are all ignorant of some things. That’s why we are always learning.”
Before putting on the protective clothing and going into the bees, Jose Luis, Isidro and some other students prepare a syrup to feed them. It’s half the bees’ own honey with wax and half water. When it rains, the bees’ food supply is affected. So the students supplement it with this.
Monica, from El Salvador, explains the importance of protecting bees, which have been devastated by chemical fertilizers. “Bees play a key part in conserving biodiversity.” “They pollinate 70 percent of all vegetation”, adds Jose Luis. This is about more than agroecology and ensuring healthier food, concludes Monica. “It’s about ensuring life on the planet.”
As they carefully seal our protective suits, Jose Luis and Isidro tell us to move slowly and not to panic. They go in first, puffing smoke from a cylinder filled with burning grass to keep the bees calm. Inside the suits, the temperature is excruciating. But the anxiety and the discomfort fade as we follow the two of them. They move methodically, gently, from hive to hive, examining the state of each, inserting a bag of syrup into those that need it most, explaining as they go.
A few hours later Jose Luis and Isidro are visiting Leidy Sandoval. This is the core of the students’ curriculum at IALA, the link with the community, where both sides teach and learn at the same time. Leidy and her husband came here from Colombia over a decade ago, driven out by the violence. Their children were born here and they have no intention of leaving. Jose Luis is asking her how they are getting on with the barter system they are encouraging. “As you know, our ancestors swapped coffee for corn, or whatever else they had.” She tells him they are trying to barter most of the 5 kilos of cheese they produce a day.
But they usually sell some of it too.
“You have the advantage that this is a very diversified farm”, comments Jose Luis. They also have pigs and chickens and grow maize and a variety of vegetables. Some students from Ecuador are helping them build a biodigester to get electricity from their own and the animals’ waste. It fits perfectly with the model of the “conuco” promoted by the Brazilian MST and other organizations in the international movement of Via Campesina. The name is indigenous and refers to an integrated family farm, with a variety of produce, no chemicals and as little dependence on outside inputs as possible.
It all sounds wonderful, I tell them later as we talk. But at times like these when the country needs food production so badly, do you really think this can put food on the table for almost 30 million Venezuelans? They both agree that, obviously, agroecology will take time to develop. It is not an overnight solution. Jose Luis repeats his appeal to tradition. Of course there were fewer of them, but if our ancestors could do it, so can we. Isidro adds that this does not exclude the contribution of science and technology. There is no reason why, he argues, we cannot benefit from many of their hedge advances. We just need to adapt them to this other approach.
“The conuco,” he concludes, “does not have to be a small farm. We can apply the same principles to larger farms too.”