Venezuela’s Farmland Sits Barren During Hunger Crisis

Photos from Portuguesa state show the nation’s farm crisis.

A tractor clears what was a cornfield near the town of Turén on Nov. 7. The acreage was unplanted due to a lack of seeds.

Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

Photographs by Fabiola Ferrero; story by Patricia Laya

As Venezuelans in cities scavenge for food, once-fertile farmlands are barren as well.

In western Portuguesa state, which was the nation’s breadbasket, hundreds of arable acres were lost after seeds didn’t arrive until the rainy season. Slugs and snails overran fields after pesticides disappeared when the cash-strapped government reduced imports. Thieves forage by night and a “cemetery of tractors” waits for replacement parts that never arrive.

The want is made by man, not nature. Price caps set by the authoritarian socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro have forced growers to cut output as their products became unprofitable. The production of corn, the main ingredient in the staple patties called arepas, dropped by more than half since 2008, according to Venezuela’s Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers.

Of the 15 million tons of sugar cane consumed in the country last year, only about 3.2 million tons were produced nationally — down more than 60 percent from eight years prior. Sorghum, usually grown as livestock feed, has all but disappeared.

As part of his economic war against the bourgeoisie, the late president Hugo Chavez expropriated food processors, stores and millions of acres of farms and ranches. He wanted to kick-start a flagging agricultural industry — once hailed for producing the world’s best coffee and cocoa — that had fallen into disrepair during the country’s oil boom.

Agropatria, the farm-supply business nationalized in 2010, holds a monopoly on everything from seeds to pesticides. Maduro has cut back on imports to shore up cash and pay back billions in debt for the country and its state-oil producer.

Now, food shortages have become so dire that residents of downtown Caracas wake up to find their trash bags ransacked for food. About 40 percent of families in four of the most populous states have resorted to begging or visiting garbage bins for meals, according to a September survey by the Catholic charity Caritas. About 70 percent of children in those states reported some level of malnutrition.

Photographs of a once-bountiful region show the cause.

Scrawny cattle stand on the side of a road in Portugesa on Nov. 11. 
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
Broken equipment sits on a farm near Turén. Parts have become scarce. 
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
Coffee cherries, which contain beans, are processed at a farm in Chabasquén.​​​​​
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
“There’s no seeds or fertilizer. On top of that, there’s regular shortages of food and power cuts,” said  farmer Johnny Villaroel, 49. “I work at a loss, but, sadly, that’s all we know how to do: plant.”
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
A farmer picks coffee cherries during harvest at a farm in Chabasquén on Nov. 10.  
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
At left, precious sacks of rice are stored at the Almacenadora Asoportuguesa warehouse in Acarigua. At right, cobwebs cover the parts of a broken tractor parked at a farm in the town of Turén.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
Jorge Donello’s 90 acres need about 40 sacks of seeds. Only 20 arrived. “A lot of our corn is stolen. People come in at night and pull out the crops by hand.”
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
A farmer passes through a graveyard of idled farm machinery in Turén.  
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
At left, a decaying mural of Simon Bolivar, icon of the so-called Boliviarian revolution, on a wall in Turén. At right, a farming family prepares dinner by candlelight during a power outage in Chabasquén on Nov. 9.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg
“Everything arrives late, the seeds, the poison. This year, I couldn’t plant well, because we didn’t have any of that,” said José Leonardo Garrido, 40. “I don’t understand politics, I only know work. But this I tell you: I’m 100 percent revolutionary.”
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg