A flood of optimism

On Venezuela’s Maracaibo Plain, an irrigation project is becoming a model
for integrated socioeconomic development
Written by: Luciano Martins-Costa
Photos by: Alfredo Allaiz


Laberinto residents

Until the first half of 2008, Abram González, 38, and his wife, Alzira Vera Viche, lived in one of the many slums in the town of Jesus Enrique Lozada, in the northwestern part of the Venezuelan state of Zulia, on the Colombian border. Their three children lacked formal schooling, sewage frequently flooded their home and the high rate of violence in the area where they lived severely restricted the family’s movements.

Early this year, Abram began taking part in a program to select residents for the communal town of Laberinto, which Odebrecht was building along one section of the Diluvio-Palmar irrigation channel. Now, he and Alzira live in a new house with their three children and two nephews, whose parents are awaiting the keys to their own home. Other relatives and friends have received homes close by, and the community is rebuilding itself under much safer and healthier conditions.

They only moved in a few weeks ago and are already planting corn and making big plans. “Now we can think about the future, the kids are going to school, and we have a clean, comfortable home,” says an overjoyed Alzira. “Where we used to live, the kids couldn’t go to school, there wasn’t any water, and we couldn’t go out at night, and the sewers overflowed and swamped our houses,” she recalls.

One of the first to register for a new home, Vicente Gonzalez, 27, used to live in his wife’s grandmother’s house, did not have a steady job and couldn’t go to school. One of the five young local residents trained by the state-owned company Hidrolago – Hidrológica do Lago de Maracaibo, he is now working at the Laberinto water treatment plant. He is also going to night school to study the preservation of indigenous culture and does volunteer work for teens as an educator.

Vinaluz, Deglenis and Denire, the daughters of community leader Júlio González and nieces of community leader Maritza, the matriarch of the Wayúu, love their family’s new home. “Now we have the best place in town and we are preserving our traditions,” says Vinaluz, who plans to become a teacher. According to Deglenis, the project that got started as a result of the Diluvio-Palmar irrigation system “is a wonderful thing that is happening to us.” In August, she visited the construction site for the irrigation project on a field trip along with other community members. She believes that this year, October 12th, which the Wayúu ethnic group of Venezuela and Colombia commemorate as Indigenous Resistance Day, will have an entirely different meaning: “We’ll have more reasons to celebrate,” she says.

Begun with military backup
When they arrived in La Planicie, Venezuela, in 2003 to begin building the Diluvio-Palmar channel, Odebrecht’s entrepreneurs noticed that the local community had its own unique system of family organization – almost all were descendants of the Wayúu and had the same surname, González – and was proud of its indigenous traditions. It also had a strong bent for farming and ranching in small areas.

By the time they reached the town of Jesus Enrique Lozada, the Odebrecht team realized they would need military backup to get through the most dangerous parts of that region. In the absence of a government presence, anyone who ventured out there had to pay protection money called “vacuna” (literally “vaccination”) to armed militias. The team ruled out that sort of arrangement from the start.

The surveyors occasionally came across FARC columns – members of the largest rebel movement in Colombia. Located about 30 km from the border and influenced by guerrilla groups and criminal gangs, the project represented an effort by the Venezuelan government to regain control of that area, support the development of fertile land and improve local residents’ quality of life.

The business side of the project began with a contract signed in 2000. Ground was broken in 2003 to build the USD 137-million El Diluvio-Palmar irrigation system. Obtained at the Tres Rios reservoir, the water was to flow through 9 km of underground pipe with an average diameter of 3 m before being distributed along 39 km of main channels and a network of secondary channels. But then, a project that was originally limited to engineering and construction works began to change and was expanded to become a USD 1.866-billion program. It was no longer just a public works project. It had become the embryo of an ambitious model of integrated social and economic development – the Socialist Agrarian Project for the Maracaibo Plain – whose potential benefits encompass nearly 500,000 hectares of land stretching from the Caribbean to the Colombian border.

"From the environmental standpoint, the project proposes to establish
an organized settlement that includes planned urban centers”

From the environmental standpoint, the project aims to establish an organized settlement that includes rural production and planned urban centers with complete infrastructure facilities that will drastically reduce the pressure on the region’s natural heritage.

Sustainable project
The project that started out as an endogenous water supply system focused on agricultural development had developed to include measures to regain the State’s control over the region by installing three military units that are integrated with the urban infrastructure, and are already producing economic and social benefits by fostering the development of local supply chains. A 250-km road system, currently under construction, will ensure that local production can be shipped to market and make it easier for people to travel throughout the region. What was once just a system of pipes and channels has become a program that is improving the lives of thousands of Venezuelans and has the potential to produce 478,000 tonnes (metric tons) of food per year.

Pioneering model
Making a project productive while obtaining significant social benefits for the communities involved and ensuring that the program helps preserve the environment. This is just the kind of initiative in which Ivan Joventino, the Odebrecht Project Director for the Socialist Agrarian Project for the Maracaibo Plain, and his team of 4,000 partners are deeply involved. “We are sharing our client’s dreams, and realizing them together,” says Joventino.

“This is an innovative public works project, a unique case in which an engineering and construction company is producing integrated economic and social development. This has been certified by the client and the community as a whole,” observes Joventino, who recalls that the sequence of events has shown that this is not just a socially responsible engineering and construction project but a pioneering model for private-sector action aimed at furthering development. “We are creating business opportunities for our suppliers and subcontractors while transforming contrary winds into favorable ones for carrying out the client’s wishes and harmonizing all of the protagonists’ aims,” he adds.

To carry out a project like this, it is essential to have experts on your team – people who can deal with numerous variables and much more complex equations. “Any project can become an instrument for economic and social development,” adds Joventino, “as long as it identifies local aptitudes and talents, studies the potential supply chains and, above all, appreciates and values the local culture.”

Once they had determined that the project had the potential to fulfill their client’s dream, the Odebrecht team delved deep into their toolkit and sought the help of partners such as Campo Consultoria e Agronegócios, a consulting firm founded 30 years ago to carry out the farming program in the Brazilian savanna region; Diagonal Urbana, specialized in social technologies; and Embrapa, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, the renowned Brazilian state-owned agricultural research firm, which sealed a technology transfer agreement with INIA (The National Agricultural Research Institute) of Venezuela.

“We provide assistance and follow up on the implementation of the project, from the first harvest onward, all the while transferring knowledge to the client and the community,” says Cezar Rizzi, the director of the agricultural development program for Campo Consultoria. According to José Blazquez, the Odebrecht officer responsible for the development program, “Every agricultural specialist dreams of seeing a complex of works arise that simultaneously represents more income for families, their own home, education and prospects for the future.”

Turning the original project into an integrated development program required new technologies, such as the one that resulted in the creation of materials and methods for bioclimatized houses, an architectural and construction method that makes it possible to control climatic conditions in the region – the hottest in the country – reducing indoor temperatures by up to 10oC. What’s more, the social technologies being introduced by Diagonal Urbana have made it possible to identify and groom community leaders who have overcome the influence of criminal gangs with the help of a sociologist, an anthropologist and other experts, and organized their communities on the basis of their own cultural traditions.

According to Diagonal Urbana Project Director Isolda Leitão, one of her most moving memories of the project was the time when training manuals were delivered to the community in Spanish and the Wayúu language, Wayúunaiki. “Some people wept with pride, because they had never seen anything published in their language before, and many don’t speak Spanish,” says Isolda.

The work to settle the communal town of Laberinto is going on while construction works are underway in other communities. All the families are being prepared to move into their new homes. They will receive follow-up assistance before, during and after they settle in, including an adaptation period. The work being done is monitored with GPS equipment to produce a geo-referenced social map that will be used to locate each family and keep track of their adaptation, using indicators that assess their social cohesiveness and productivity.

"Each family is now living in a 96-sq.m house
with piped clean water, treated sewage and electricity"

Communal towns
Once it has been fully implemented, the identification and selection program will have groomed roughly 11,000 household heads representing about 55,000 residents who will settle the five communal towns that are being built along the main irrigation channel within a 20,000-hectare area during this stage of the project. By late October, 1,700 of those families had been contacted, and 1,459 had been selected. The program prioritizes couples with children and families that are well-suited to rural life, with specific characteristics such as adaptability, a commitment to their children’s education, and the right temperament for community living. The participants will also receive training in cooperativism and environmental education.

Each family will move into a 96-sq.m house built on a 500-sq.m plot of land. Their new homes have clean piped water, sewage treatment facilities and electricity, and residents will join the farm cooperative. The urban planning was designed by Venezuelan architect José Fructoso Vivas, who teamed up with the legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer to build the Caracas Museum of Modern Art. His ideas can be admired in the communal town of Laberinto, where about 200 families were already living by October. The town offers a transportation service, a collective orchard, a low-cost supermarket, a school, sports facilities, a town square, a health center equipped with solar panels, and other benefits, such as a radio base station for cell phones.

You can see all the elements of the town’s design from the community support center, and the homes have been clearly planned for a productive social life: parking lots are collective, the areas around the houses have gardens and bicycle paths, people are encouraged to interact with other families when they leave their homes, and they have easy access to farmland and work areas.

Each town has land set aside for farming, livestock husbandry and food processing. In addition to the gardens, orchard and community plot, which are located in the urban area, the towns also have a fish-farming tank, grazing fields, protected planting systems, corrals, automatic milking systems, processing plants for cooling, pasteurizing and vacuum packaging milk, as well as packaging systems for vegetables, fruit, roots and tubers and grain. The products have a guaranteed market: they will be acquired by two state-owned food distribution networks, which will sell them to the public at low prices, without middlemen, at the “fair market” price, as part of the national food security program. Livestock farming has already begun: a herd of 2,000 head of Girolando cattle selected in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais with the help of Embrapa has been imported and is ready to reproduce.