The idea of creating a strong but sustainable economy which ploughs the riches of oil back into the land has been a recurring theme of Venezuelan political thought. Writer and essayist Arturo Uslar Pietri, one of Venezuela's most well-respected intellectuals, was already developing his own theories on the matter in 1936 when he published a famous essay entitled: "Sowing Oil."

His idea was to exploit the country's rich non-renewable resources to develop an economy that was not dependent on hydro-carbons, with agriculture and industry as the basis for development.

Time has passed since the essay was published and Venezuela's oil has continued to fuel the economy, accounting for 90 percent of the country's national income and an enviable set of macro-economic figures.

But today, Venezuela's rural areas and the people who live there are hungry for help.

For the Venezuelan government the time has come to change this trend.

An ambitious program of technical cooperation with FAO has begun, designed to enhance the rural population's access to food through agricultural and rural development in selected areas of the country.

Gambling on Food Security

Since the end of the 1950s the wealth and prosperity created by oil has lured people away from the land and towards the cities.

Today, 92 percent of Venezuelans live and work in urban centres and a mere 8 percent in rural areas.

Although oil's riches have meant that the average Venezuelan has a per capita Gross Domestic Product of US$4,063 dollars a year (1999 figures), food insecurity has soared in the last decade, due to rising costs and a lack of access to basic goods. Venezuela currently imports some 80 percent of the food products it consumes. The poorest sections of society, and in particular, thousands of small farmers, have suffered most from this situation.

The Venezuelan government has turned to FAO for technical assistance in drawing up a wide-ranging plan aimed at fostering rural development and improving food security. The ambitious programme is called the Program for Food Security and Rural Development for Venezuela. The program has a time-frame of three years and a budget of 34.4 million dollars, 32.5 million of which have been provided by the Venezuelan government, 1.6 million dollars by FAO and the remaining 35,000 dollars by the Cuban government.

The program is structured within the Special Program for Food Security (SPFS) which includes an initiative called South-South Cooperation to promote close working relationships with other developing countries; a project to manage land and natural resources; a national agricultural information system and a technology transfer project.

The Special Program for Food Security

The Special Program for Food Security was created by FAO in 1994 and ratified by heads of state and government during the World Food Summit in 1996. Its aim is to support countries to improve their national food security, to offer alternative food sources during inter-harvest periods and to improve public access to food.

Some 71 countries take part in the Special Programme for Food Security across the world. In Latin America Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela all have active SPFS programs. In Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Peru the organization has worked closely with the country's governments and has already set up broad programs while preparations are underway for programs in three other countries - Cuba, Dominica and Suriname.

Venezuela's SPFS is nationally owned and is one of the largest in Latin America. It has been designed, planned and implemented by the Venezuelan government and the country's rural communities. The four key elements of the program are: management of water resources; intensification of crop production; production diversification and analysis of the practical and economic constraints faced by smallfarmers.South-South Cooperation

South-South Cooperation was set up by FAO as part of the Special Program for Food Security in 1996. Its main objective is to foster active solidarity among developing countries, enabling recipient countries to benefit from the experience and expertise of more advanced developing countries.

As part of the SPFS Venezuela will receive technical support from Cuban experts who will work together with local experts on water management, increasing crop production and diversification. The cost of the technical support will be shared between FAO and Venezuela.

Management of Land and Natural Resources

Venezuela has some 35 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture. Some 7.3 million hectares are used for arable farming, 18.4 million hectares are used for livestock grazing and the remainder, 9.3 million hectares, for combined arable and livestock farming. In practice however, less than 30 percent of arable agricultural land is used to its maximum potential and 40 percent of land used for livestock raising.

Most land is used for grazing as cattle-raising represents around half of the total income from farming. Large farms use 58 percent of the available land leaving small producers to farm on inferior, often eroded, land situated on hillsides or in flood plains.

To improve production in the agricultural sector the Venezuelan authorities have turned to FAO within the Program for Food Security and Rural Development, to set up a natural resources and land management project in order to improve the organization and use of the land, and to ensure land is used to its best advantage.

The project's first step will be to identify areas that share similar climatic, geographical and physical characteristics for agricultural production. Then a plan to develop irrigation systems and land and water management in rural areas will be drawn up.

The land management project is called Agro-ecological Socio-economic Zone project (ASZ project) and forms part of the framework of new land and agricultural development legislation passed last November.

Sowing Seeds

Thanks to the cooperation between FAO and the Venezuelan government, the President of Venezuela has put land at the organization's disposal in order that it may guarantee food security for the world's most undernourished populations. FAO has proposed that the land be used to develop improved seed varieties to distribute to small farmers in Venezuela and to African countries affected by natural disasters.

Sierra Leon, Guinea and Liberia, which share a similar climate to the Caribbean country, are all set to benefit from the project to grow improved rice varieties. Rice, along with maize, is a staple food in this part of Africa. The project, due to begin at the end of the year, has been designed in collaboration with FAO.

A decade of working together

FAO's Caracas office, in operation since 1993, offers technical assistance across a wide range of agricultural and rural sectors. Plant disease protection is vital to Venezuela's agricultural economy and several highly successful plant disease eradication projects have been completed. A 1996 project managed to control the black sigatoka which was destroying banana plantations in Zulia State, south of Lake Maracaibo, one of the most important banana plantations in the world. Over 5000 small farmers' families took part in the project and today the presence of the disease has been considerably reduced. Two years earlier FAO helped eradicate the carambola fly from Venezuela and to prevent it spreading to bordering countries like Brazil and Guyana.

Between 1999 and 2000 FAO supported the government in drafting land tenure policies for farming unions and agricultural organizations.

FAO has provided technical support to the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MARN) in preparing environmental management projects and is currently working on a project to classify the country's forests.

FAO staff are immediately on the scene when natural disasters have hit the country, evaluating the scale of the damage to rural areas for small farmers and their families. FAO is currently working on a rehabilitation project for those worst-hit by the July 2002 floods.

The Venezuelan government is working with FAO in setting up an agricultural statistics and information system to provide modern, up-to-date and reliable agricultural data. The information system will form part of the Program for Food Security and Rural Development for Venezuela.

Eight Telefood-funded projects have been completed, improving the incomes and diets of small farmers in some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Venezuela also played a fundamental role in fostering the protection of plant genetic resources. The country's Ambassador to FAO, Fernando Gerbasi, President of the Plant Genetic Resources for Agriculture and Food Commission, worked patiently for years to draft the first ever legally binding Treaty which recognises the value of these resources, fundamental for the survival of present and future generations.