Growing Change: A Journey Inside Venezuela’s Food Revolution. Directed by Simon Cunich. Stonington, CT: Green Planet Films, 2011. 60 minutes.
After Winter, Spring. Directed by Judith Lit. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2012. 75 minutes.
Périgord, France is caught in the midst of social, economic, and cultural change affecting its resident ancestral farmers, as After Winter, Spring reveals. Grounded in the difficult everyday realities of their households, the farmers have a core message for other subsistence farming communities: “The rural world is changing…. You have to adapt to evolution with consciousness.” This sentiment could imply that agriculturally dependent small communities have to keep up with technological changes in modern agriculture and that farmers can also choose to live off the land and avoid monoculture-based industrial farming, form meaningful attachments with their environment, and live sustainably through polyculture. The combination of characters and attention to the inherently gendered nature of farming in Périgord makes After Winter, Spring an interesting film to assign in courses on gender and agriculture, rural sociology, sustainable agriculture, and contemporary Europe. While overwhelmingly male-dominated, there are quite a few women-led farms in this village, and at several others, women play a very key role in sustaining production. However, women also admit that farms need men, since they cannot “produce testosterone” required for the hard labor of livestock farming.
Most farmers in Périgord have a historical connection to this place, but there are also more recent arrivals. French citizens with professional backgrounds settle here in pursuit of lucrative truffle farming. There emerges some conflict between these newer aspirational growers and the people who have lived there for generations, but both groups face unique challenges associated with farming in contemporary rural France, a region that tries to shield itself from the ebb and flow of European Union (EU) policies. The milk strike featured in the film shows how dairy farmers face the whims of price determinations by the EU governing bodies to the point of bankruptcy. To cope, some families have turned to rural tourism, something I have seen in rural India among middle-class farming families that want to diversify their sources of income. Including farm tours and locally sourced dining experiences has brought younger generations to these farms, which is a welcome change as many French youth do not associate farming with their future economic lives. According to the data presented in After Winter, Spring, a hundred years before this documentary was made, 50 percent of people in France farmed, whereas at present it is close to 3 percent.
The changing nature of farming infrastructure is also a key theme in Growing Change: A Journey Inside Venezuela's Food Revolution. Using the 2008 food crisis as an entry point, the filmmaker features farmers, scientists, and food activists who reflect on sustainability, the challenges of farming, and how to address the issue of hunger by 2050. What emerges is a consensus to seriously consider alternative agricultural pathways, build community-based ecosystems, and attend to processes of food distribution.
Growing Change takes a long historical view, contextualizing Venezuelan agriculture in the context of the country’s history of oil dependence and political developments. In 1910, Venezuela was a major food exporter, but gradual economic dependence on oil exports—which Coral Wynter in this documentary calls a Dutch disease—led to an agricultural collapse. As a result, Venezuelans suddenly had to rely on low-quality food imports and a cash-crop system, which further destroyed subsistence agriculture. Along with the growth of the industrial fishing industry and urbanization in which land ownership became controlled by only 7 percent of the population, these developments in the early 1980s led to social upheaval (for example, the Caracazo uprising in 1989 resulted in three thousand deaths).
In the midst of these challenges, the Via Campesina movement emerged as a way to reform Venezuelan agriculture. It aimed to reinstate food sovereignty through people’s right to have a voice in food policy, end oil and cash crop dependency, reform land policy, and shape food distribution efforts by seizing large monoculture-based farms and using the land to practice polyculture. This unique movement and its multiscalar advocacy and activism produced much-needed change. For example, to ensure food security these activists formed a chain of sixteen thousand Mercal stores that provided subsidies (enabling people to purchase food at 40 percent below market price) to the poorest sections of the country. Eventually, in parts of Venezuela there emerged a more holistic and grounded fair trade system driven by over twenty-five thousand community councils monitoring what food came into the community, which was very different from the pure-market-based fair trade efforts that I document in my book about Nepali tea farmers in India.1 The Via Campesina model also affected smaller fishing communities positively, enabling them to withstand the tide of commercial trawling and, ultimately, increasing national fish production.
Since the 1980s, Venezuela has continued to grow its government-supported network of alternative food distribution sustained by the efforts of local community councils and farmers. This time also witnessed a proliferation of bio labs producing microbe-based and other alternative nonchemical fertilizers, which drew support from the national agriculture policy. Moreover, increasing city commons where rural migrants could farm based on their preexisting knowledge boosted urban agriculture.
While not overtly feminist, both documentaries take a transnational approach, showing how food and farming crises are influenced by deep and broad structural inequities. They are well suited for use in feminist food studies, feminist environmental studies, or feminist economics courses for the following reasons. First, both documentaries center systemic inequities in solutions to make agriculture more sustainable. Second, the case studies underscore distinct community-based efforts in changing the onslaught of monoculture and corporate dominance in agriculture. These films, when paired with seminal edited collections like Feminist Political Ecology, will provide students with the full picture of transnational agricultural politics.2 Finally, an important caution, especially for those of us who live in Western industrialized nations: technical fixes and market-based food activisms that simply rely on creating alternative products are not enough. We need to hold regional, local, and transnational institutions and hegemons accountable. The world produces enough food to feed all humans, but hunger and impoverishment result from the failure to preserve subsistence farming and from poorly conceived corporate-driven policies that do not redistribute agricultural surpluses, and that increase the burden on women by adversely affecting farming families.
1 Debarati Sen, Everyday Sustainability: Gender Justice and Fair Trade Tea in Darjeeling (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017).
2 Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari, Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences (London: Routledge, 1996).