While the brigade was intense in meetings and running around, we were fortunate to have a break in between the hectic two weeks. Every year, the vacation in these types of brigade are different. This year, it happens to be in Ocumare de la Costa (Ocumare), Aragua.
We set off early in the morning from Caracas on two cramped taxis on our 4 hour journey to Ocumare. Ocumare, being on the Caribbean Coast, is separated from rest of country by mountainous Henri Pittier National park. On our journey, we have seen first hand price speculation. Arepa, the main dish in Venezuela, should cost less than 50 bolivars, is being charged three to four times of correct price. Even the military, who are supposed to report or enforce against price speculation, we’re happily eating away in the rest area ( the one selling overpriced Arepa. We have passed the city of Maracay, the capital of Aragua. This city was one of the sites actively participated in 1992 Chavez coup. It was here on our return journey, we saw with our own eyes, the world’s cheapest oil. It was practically free and 32 litres fuel is way cheaper than 50 ml coffee shot.
As we entered the Henri Pittier National park, we witnessed something unique in Venezuela – military checkpoints on the road. We are not entering military zone, but they exist anywhere.
Our place at Ocumare was a decent place and you get the tropical feel in this part of the world. Ants everywhere, tropical fruit trees, humidity etc.
One of the key aspects to this trip to the Caribbean is to examine the role of cacao in the region. The cacao was first planted in Bahia de Cata (which is next to Ocumare) – in a valley- by the Spanish. Subsequently, these beans were transplanted to Ocumare and Chuao (nearby town , famous for coast and the chocolates). Initially, the African slaves from one tribe were brought into the plantation. However, many ran away from the plantation due to the roughness of the working conditions. To counter this, Spanish brought warring African tribes who have different cultures and segregated them to different cities in the municipality (Costa de La Oro). This created historical division that exists among the AfroVenezuelan society where they clique to their own groups.
Cacao plantations are grown in the valley, surrounded by 3 mountain ranges (east,west and south) and Caribbean to the north. These lands used to belong to ex-Presidents and dictators which exploited the production of cacao plantations. President Romulo Betancourt in the 1970s made an attempt to break the latifundistas. This included giving land to cacao’s federation. However, the past governments did not follow through on monitoring the progress of land reform. The government did not give any form of training in plantation and land administration. Back in the day, all the cacao beans were exported via Puerto Cabello (main port, in neighbouring state of Carabobo) to multinationals (i.e. Nestle) and there was no in-house of processing of the beans. Situation began to changes in 1990s and subsequently in the revolution. Revolutionary government began to introduce training and education to cacao farmers. Land titles were issued to cacao farmers
Since Ocumare is famous tourist site in Venezuela (like Chuao), it brought economic pressure to the cacao farmers. It is more lucrative to work in the tourism industry and the current younger generation opting to work as a taxi driver or anything else but cacao plantation.
Let’s examine in bit detail on cacao production sovereignty. As mentioned previously, the Venezuelan government gearing the country to produce food materials in house for domestic consumption. We visited a cacao seed bank in Ocumare (UPC Monasteria – a former monastery converted to a research centre). The seedlings are given to farmers for free (with conditions applied) and cacao seedlings are planted in the farms (the beans would be sent to a centre for processing).
Venezuelan Socialist Corporation of Cacao was set up in 2010 to oversee the production and distribution of cacao products. We visited one of the centres in Ocumare, which happens the receiving end of cacao beans. This centre is where the fermentation and drying of cacao beans is done. The products of this centre are sent to a processing centre (like mini factories)
We visited Bahia de Cata, Afro Venezuelan village in a valley. In this village,there one shop lot row which is collapsed in the middle and two slots is the centre of chocolate products. Afro-Venezuelans working in this mini factory are processing the chocolates in traditional methods (nothing is high-tech here). It is here we, the brigadistas made a lot of purchases of raw chocolates (one cannot miss opportunities like this). They sold raw chocolate, chocolate liquour, chocolate soap and other. From this factory, they sell their products to the open market or to government owned chocolate entities.
After visiting chocolate factory, we were given the opportunity to experience Afro-Venezuelan music just outside the factory. They retain much of their African heritage as they have resided the same place for 500 years or so. We met a community leader, Sebastiana, which plays an active role in preserving the oral history of Bahia de Cata. She may have an oral history dating back 200 years and currently teaching (though advanced in age) cultural history through school theaters. She is currently documenting her stories in a book.
All in all, we have immersed ourselves the importance of food sovereignty and bit of cultural insight on this area.
What did we learn here:
- Venezuela is investing to ensure cacao is produced from start to end within the country
- Afro-Venezuelan is culture remains largely preserved.
Credits to one of my brigadistas for providing top quality photos.