Two cooperative members in tractor-plowed field, with herons in the distance
Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS
Cooperatives Turn Idle Landed Estates Green
By Humberto Márquez, special to Tierramérica
A small dairy cooperative is harvesting its first achievement in the middle of the savannah in Venezuela, a country dependent on food imports.
BARINAS, Venezuela, Jun 9 (Tierramérica).- "As far as you can see, there was not one liter of milk produced, not even an ear of corn," says José Tapia Coirán, turning with his arms outstretched, pointing to the horizon of the Venezuelan savannah dotted by trees. "Now we produce 500 liters of milk per day and we harvested one million kilos of maize."
Set in the plains of Barinas, in southwest Venezuela, it is the work of the Brisas del Masparro cooperative, named for one of the rivers that flows from the Andes Mountains, bringing its waters to the broad Orinoco River. Coirán, as he is known by everyone, is a former day laborer and tractor driver for large farms in the area, and is now the cooperative's president.
"Once there was a forest here, but the large estate owners took all the lumber. They left a few trees and thousands of hectares of stubble that we are cleaning up little by little and planting with grass and with maize," says the leader, adding, "They had abandoned this, left it without production, and that is why we took it over."
Coirán and his colleagues show this Tierramérica reporter vast stretches of plains that are as flat as a billiard table amidst weeds, a marsh here and there, pastures and fields being plowed for planting, underscoring their claim to occupying what was unproductive land.
We come across flocks of herons, scarlet ibis, and some flickers. "We want to conserve all that we can. We decided not to take down any trees, but rather get rid of weeds and pests as we progress," says Miguel Méndez, another cooperative member.
President Hugo Chávez launched a "war" against large estates with a 2001 land act that laid the groundwork for a government "recovery" of rural land whose private ownership and productivity could not be proved. There were -- and continue to be -- clashes over land between large landowners and small farmers.
In 1999, large rural estates covered six million hectares in Venezuela. Two million hectares have been confiscated by the government, which handed over 60 percent to more than 100,000 rural families, according to official figures.
Furthermore, 98,500 "productive units" that cover 4.3 million hectares have been regularized through the agrarian charter, which grants possession, but not ownership, of the lands, which belong to the government.
The Santa Rita "hacienda", or rural estate, on the banks of the Masparro, extends across 31,000 hectares but has no more than 1,800 head of cattle, according to the cooperative. Peasant groups occupied it in 2002 and 2003, and the government assigned them some 16,000 hectares, leaving the rest to the former owners.
With its 56 members, the cooperative that has seen most progress is Brisas del Masparro, with 803 hectares. Five years ago they received a loan of 156,000 dollars that was invested in cattle, horses, equipment and inputs, and in the first plantings.
They now have a double-purpose herd, for meat and milk, based on crosses between animals acclimated to the tropical plains of the Cebú and Holstein breeds.
A large house once used as a refuge for laborers and storage for the former estate has been turned into a community center. The first impression is one of disorder. Parts of a tractor on the patio mark the only point in the area where there is a signal for the satellite phone.
Pigs and chickens follow a young man as he rubs the kernels off corn cobs. Another man cleans the floor of the corridor, which is also the site of cooperative assemblies. It has been a while since the walls have received a fresh coat of paint.
In the back are a kitchen and a large dining table for those who are working on a given day and the families that have settled in improvised homes in the surrounding area. On one wall there are faded posters of Chávez and of the Salvadoran revolutionary Farabundo Martí (1893-1932).
"We are socialists. We work as a community, according to the abilities of each, and we take turns so we aren't always doing the same thing and to learn about everything. We realized that if we were each on our own it would be very difficult to get ahead and leave behind our days as laborers, employees enriching someone else," says Neptalí Quintana, who for many years worked in artificial insemination of cows on the region's large ranches.
He speaks as he leans against a fence of the dairy, where the children of the adult members milk some cows, for the second time today. "We get about five liters of milk per animal per day -- above the average" in the area, which is less than four liters per cow, says Quintana.
José Coirán, president of the cooperative.
Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS
Each day, the cooperative donates 20 liters of milk to the two small schools nearby. "We provide the glass that each child needs," says Méndez proudly.
"But if in addition to commonly owned animals one of us has a cow or a horse, or gets a pig, it can be raised with the others and sold as the individual owner's. Some amount will be given to the cooperative, but we don't oppose that sort of ownership. What we do want is the land and other life-giving projects," says Coirán.
The income "is used for the expenses that are also shared, for production or for eating, and each member receives an additional 400 bolívares (186 dollars) per month as advance of what would be due for their role in managing the cooperative at the end of the year," explains Iraima Benaventa, a young mother of two and "head of logistics".
A student of a secondary-level distance learning program, Benaventa records the purchases that another member has brought from the city -- pasta, rice, vaccines for the cattle -- and supervises the younger members in the cleaning and kitchen operations -- the meal this day is rice and beef.
Brisas del Masparro this year will begin construction of 56 housing units for as many families, with a plan of self-construction backed by the government. "We will build them together in the style of a little town in order to facilitate and reduce costs of services, water, light and gas, with a sports field, a town square and a community house, and perhaps even a pool," said one member.
Las Piedras, one corner of the Masparro, is reached an hour's drive from Barinas, the regional capital, passing by Sabaneta, President Chávez's birthplace. Then comes another hour over land and gravel that the cooperative members are requesting to be paved in benefit of the whole community.
"The farms in this sector were very unproductive five years ago. But with our effort the government programs arrived. The road was opened, a land plan was begun, possession papers were given to individual dwellers or cooperativists, and credits were granted," says Coirán.
In Las Piedras "we went from nearly zero to 21,000 liters of milk per day (national output is 1.3 to 1.7 million liters daily, according to various sources). Now there are people raising more cattle, planting maize, fruit trees and pastures," says the co-op president.
Caracciolo Ramírez, an independent farmer, has his parcel of about 40 hectares near the land of the cooperative.
"The government has helped with agrarian charters, with some financing, and with the highway. I will do some home improvements, my oldest daughter began university -- I am seeing the results, says Ramírez, offering this reporter a cool oat drink with ice under the porch roof at his brick home.
Meanwhile, the cooperative is preparing a larger area than last year to plant maize, building a new cow barn and refurbishing the old one for mechanized milking, and looking for financing to install some cooling tanks that will help them benefit more from each liter of milk.
"All around the world there is a food crisis. They want to take food and make it into fuel. We don't agree with that and we pay back the government's support by producing more food. This country can't continue feeding the people based in imports when there is so much land waiting to be worked," says Coirán.
In the 2004-2007 period, Venezuela's food production grew 3.4 percent, from 18.9 to 19.6 tons annually, according to government figures.
But former agriculture minister Hiram Gaviria points to how much that progress is still lacking: per inhabitant, Venezuela today produces 88 percent of the food it generated in 1998, he told Tierramérica.
A long way from Barinas, across the Atlantic, in Rome, world leaders gathered Jun. 3-5 at the summit of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to debate ways to overcome the current food crisis.
At the former Santa Rita hacienda, thousands of hectares "recovered" by the government were handed over to other cooperatives or small farmers' associations that have not had the same success as Brisas del Masparro.
"We hold assemblies for the zone and we offer support. Even farther away, to Apure (in the country's far southwest) we have taken or experience and young milk cows we have produced, which we sell them at low prices, but the individuals of many of our compatriots means that what they are looking for is their own land," says Coirán.
Back in Barinas, one such individual, Alejandro, accompanies Tierramérica through the countryside. "We want to form a cooperative to work, but each one has his parcel of land that is free to be sold. With the agrarian charter, the land can't be transferred and will always belong to the government."
Alejandro says that the neighbors of Brisas del Masparro are sympathetic to the experiment of the cooperative, and would like to take it as testimony of what can be achieved when working together.
"They have their reasons, the support of the revolutionary government, and that's good, but what will happen tomorrow if the government changes? One wants a piece of land to work, but also to leave to one's children," he says, as the orange sun sets over the pastures of southwest Venezuela.
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.