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Facing Severe Food Shortages, Venezuela Pushes Urban Gardens

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Mileidis Bolivar shows off the tomatoes that she grows on her rooftop garden in a Caracas slum.

Last week, opposition lawmakers in Venezuela declared a "food emergency." That's because Venezuela is facing widespread shortages of milk, meat, bread and other staples. Critics blame the government's socialist economic policies. But instead of changing course, President Nicolás Maduro is calling on Venezuelans to help feed themselves — by starting urban gardens.

Josefina Requena is among those who have heeded Maduro's call. Cucumbers, green pepper, passion fruit and other produce grow in the front yard of her home in a slum in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. She also has a chicken coop.

On a sweltering recent afternoon, I joined Requena and some other Caracas residents on a hike into the mountains that rise above the city. They were on a mission to find dirt for their gardens — which they keep on balconies, rooftops and small plots of their homes. After digging up the fresh earth, they lugged it back down the mountain.

"All my life, I've loved to plant all sorts of plants," Requena tells me in Spanish. "But over the past two years, things have become much more difficult, so I am taking gardening a little more seriously."

So is the Venezuelan government.

President Maduro is urging people to grow food and raise chickens in their homes – even though 83 percent of Venezuelans live in cities. To help them, Maduro announced the formation of a Ministry of Urban Farming. The president also claims that he and first lady Cilia Flores have taken up the cause.

"Cilia and I have 60 laying hens," Maduro said in a speech. "We produce everything we eat."

Critics say Maduro should focus on making life easier for traditional farmers. Home to vast stretches of fertile land, Venezuela could grow much of its own food. Instead, production has collapsed. Economists blame the expropriation of farms and food-processing plants, as well as government price controls that force farmers to sell at a loss.

In addition, falling prices for oil — Venezuela's main export – mean the government has fewer dollars to import food. There's also a severe shortage of imported farm machinery and supplies, says Vicente Perez, director of FEDEAGRO, Venezuela's main farm organization.

"There is nothing – just like there's no food, there are no seeds, no herbicides ... and no medicines to vaccinate farm animals," says Perez.

Phil Gunson, who is based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group, warns of a pending humanitarian crisis.

"At least one in 10 people is eating two meals a day or less. There isn't starvation. We are not talking about famine," Gunson says. "But we are talking about malnutrition, particularly in the case of children."

Maduro blames the food shortages on a so-called "economic war" that he claims is being waged against his government by the opposition.

Gunson and other analysts reject this argument and say urban gardens will have little impact. They note that many city dwellers lack the time and know-how to grow food.

Poultry can also be complicated — so says truck driver Juan Pablo Ibarra, one of the people who climbed into the mountains gathering dirt for his garden. Ibarra says he used to have 30 egg-producing hens. But then the corn he fed the birds grew too expensive. So his family ended up eating the chickens.

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