Fallow Fields Show Crisis in Hungry Venezuela’s Heartland Farms

(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.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Bloomberg News

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