In 1999, shortly after he was elected, President Hugo Chávez received a letter from WRM (seehttp://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/22/Venezuela2.html) in which we expressed our deep concern over the serious impacts on peasant communities in the state of Portuguesa generated by the monoculture tree plantations operated by Smurfit Cartón de Venezuela (a subsidiary of the Smurfit Kappa Group, a leading producer of cardboard for the European market).
The letter referred to the observations made during a WRM visit to the area in 1998 – before Chávez took office – at the request of local communities.
The conflict between Smurfit and the peasant communities in the region was a reflection of the incompatibility of two productive models: the agribusiness model based on large-scale monocultures, and the small- to medium-scale peasant farming model based on a diversity of crops.
Since its arrival in the region, Smurfit’s operations had serious repercussions for poor local peasant communities with limited access to land. The company started out by deforesting the area to harvest timber, which altered the course of waterways and consequently led to the loss of local animals, fish and plants that had served as sources of food for the local population. After destroying the forests, the company began to plant fast-growing tree species – eucalyptus, pine and Gmelina arborea – which have a drastic impact on underground water reserves due to the large amounts of water they consume.
During his visit to the area, the WRM representative was informed by the local people, among other things, about the “major impacts on the water a few months after Smurfit’s plantations were established. As in the rest of the world, these impacts are the result of the high consumption of water by these fast-growing plantations. But in this case, there is the added factor of the deliberate destruction of waterways with bulldozers, used to flatten the terrain in order to plant more trees (it seems to be company policy that every centimetre of land must be planted) and the destruction of gallery forests that protect and regulate river basins. The result (denied, of course, by the ‘experts’ periodically brought in by the company to demonstrate the indemonstrable) is that the streams are drying up and the volume of water in wells is constantly shrinking. Local animals, fish and plants that provided much of the food resources for the local population are also rapidly disappearing, as their natural habitats are replaced by green deserts of trees and more forests are cut down to feed the pulp mill. ‘I have never seen a bird sit on one of those trees,’ say the locals. They also say that rabbits formerly abounded in the area, but are now only found a long distance away from the plantations. They say that they used to hunt armadillos and deer, and that they ate fish from the streams, but now, because of the plantations, these have practically disappeared.” (Seehttp://www.wrm.org.uy/paises/Venezuela/discordia.html)
The conflict came to a head in 1997. An aerial spaying with herbicides carried out by Smurfit destroyed 190 hectares of crops and caused the poisoning of local schoolchildren. Additionally, Smurfit purchased La Productora, a large estate that local peasants had expected to be turned over to them as part of the national agrarian reform programme. The estate had been formerly used by its owners for commercial agriculture and cattle raising, but peasants from the neighbouring communities of Morador and Tierra Buena were allowed free access to the property for fishing, hunting and recreational purposes. When the estate was taken over by Smurfit, the situation changed dramatically: the land was occupied by monoculture tree plantations and surrounded with barbed wire fences, attack dogs and armed guards to keep people out.
On 14 July 1997, acting under the protection of Venezuelan legislation that prohibits large landholdings and places priority on the allocation of agricultural land, the peasants occupied La Productora. The response was brutal repression (see WRM Bulletin No. 18).
The letter sent by WRM in 1999 to the newly elected Venezuelan president and the Venezuelan Senate Environmental Committee, addressing this critical situation, constituted an international action in support of the struggle of these communities. As the letter stated: “Among the multiple problems generated by this corporation [Smurfit] in that region, the more apparent are those related to the impacts of its extensive monoculture tree plantations on water, flora and wildlife, which result in serious problems for local peoples’ livelihoods” (see WRM Bulletin No. 22).
In 2004, WRM once again called on the Venezuelan president to provide government support for the area’s peasants to enter into negotiations with Smurfit, at a time when the company appeared to be willing to negotiate with the local communities. (See the letter athttp://www.wrm.org.uy/paises/Venezuela/carta181104.html)
In processes like these, viewed from a historical perspective, tangible and measurable results are difficult to achieve in the short term. This is certainly true in the case of the struggle of local communities against Smurfit and its large-scale tree plantations.
In 2007, after “fulfilling all of the requirements of the law,” the Venezuelan National Land Institute (INTI) repossessed from Smurfit the more than 2,000 hectares of land encompassed by La Productora, declaring it as underused land. Since then, this land has been allocated to agricultural production projects to be undertaken by around 700 peasant farmers organized in 32 cooperatives, in the framework of the creation of “a new system of social production that will allow peasant farmers to take advantage of the land’s vocation and become integrated in the productive apparatus.” (1)
Now, more than ten years after the abovementioned conflicts and the action spearheaded by WRM against monoculture tree plantations, the Venezuelan government has taken control of another 1,500 hectares of Smurfit’s plantations in the state of Lara, currently being used for eucalyptus and Gmelina arborea monocultures. The seizure was effected on the grounds that the land was not being used in a accordance with government regulations. The eucalyptus trees planted for paper production “suck the water from underground, and the rivers are drying up,” observed President Chávez. (2)
At a time when the global corporate economic model is in crisis, it is vital to guarantee access to food, and this is fully understood in Venezuela. “We are going to use this wood (from the eucalyptus trees) in a rational manner, and we are going to plant other things there (…) like beans, corn, sorghum, cassava, yams,” pledged the Venezuelan president. (3)
The time has come to move away from productive models such as large-scale tree plantations, which are highly profitable for a small few but disastrous for the environment and for local communities who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. In this case, the Venezuelan government has finally recognized this fact: “The transnational corporation Smurfit, the cardboard producer, plants a specific type of tree which benefits only the corporation’s owners.”
The decision to seize these plantations, in addition to its importance for local peasant communities, also has symbolic power in setting a course towards food sovereignty, towards the dismantling of large-scale, destructive monoproduction models. The path to achieving these goals remains part of a long, arduous process.
Additional information was gathered from the following sources:
(1) Inti inició en Portuguesa rescate de finca La Productora, http://www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=19&t=45113
(2) “Chávez expropió los terrenos de la papelera irlandesa Kappa”, AP, http://www.elpais.com.uy/09/03/06/ultmo_402921.asp
(3) Chávez anuncia la intervención de los terrenos de la papelera Smurfit Kappa, EFE, http://www.abc.es/20090306/internacional-iberoamerica