On the morning of Friday, May 6th, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador’s left-wing FMLN party arrived at the La Maroma agricultural cooperative in the department of Usulután for a potentially historic meeting with hundreds of small family farmers. Usulután has often been referred to as the country’s breadbasket for its fertile soil and capacity for agricultural production, making it one of the most strategic and violent battleground zones during El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war between the US-supported government and the FMLN guerrilla movement.
Once again, Usulután has entered the spotlight for its agricultural reputation. The FMLN, which initially formed around an ideology of national liberation from US hegemony, has now adopted the goal of “food sovereignty,” the idea that countries hold the right to define their own agricultural policies, rather than being subject to the whims of international market forces. On Friday, officials representing the Ministry of Agriculture and the local governorship accompanied President Funes in inaugurating a new plan aimed at reactivating the country’s historically ignored rural economy and reversing El Salvador’s growing dependence on imported grains.
The opening ceremony for the new plan was hosted by the Mangrove Association, a non-governmental organization established by members of a grassroots social movement called La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco (known locally as La Coordinadora), which has been supporting initiatives for food security and environmental sustainability in Usulután for over 15 years. Over the last three months, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working closely with the Mangrove Association and other campesino organizations to develop what may represent the new program’s greatest break from past governments’ agricultural policies: a goal that by 2014 all corn and bean seeds needed for agriculture be produced by Salvadoran farmers, rather than purchased from multinational seed companies, namely Monsanto, as has been the case in recent years.
With ongoing support from the U.S.-based NGO EcoViva, La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association have been working since the mid-1990s to promote diversified, sustainable agriculture for small family farmers in Usulután as a means for reducing hunger and building a strong rural economy. According to official figures, almost 95% of fruit and vegetables consumed in El Salvador are imported from abroad, along with 30% of all its beans and 40% of corn. Meanwhile, non-commercial small family farmers are said to produce up to 70% of the basic grains that are cultivated domestically, mostly for their own families’ consumption, making them particularly important for El Salvador’s food security.
This fact has not been lost on the Funes administration. Support to small family farmers is a central plank of the initiative as indicated by its name, the Family Agriculture Plan. At the end of last year, La Coordinadora lobbied the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt sustainable agriculture techniques as part of the plan. While the Ministry expressed interest in exploring sustainable agriculture, it chose to use conventional hybrid seeds, and their associated chemical inputs, for the first three years of the program.
Despite this setback for the sustainable agriculture movement, the Ministry of Agriculture expressed interest in partnering with La Coordinadora and other campesino organizations in the first major pilot project in El Salvador to produce conventional corn seed on a massive scale. Recognizing that this overture from a government institution to collaborate with the campesino movement presented them with an unparalleled opportunity, they decided to work with the Ministry.
The Mangrove Association recruited three large cooperatives which historically had only planted conventional monoculture crops, such as sugar cane, to participate in the pilot project. This way the organization could ensure that none of the over 125 farms that have diversified their crops and weaned themselves from chemical inputs over the last fifteen years under its tutelage would be reconverted to conventional monoculture. Moreover, the Mangrove Association sees the conversion of those sugar cane fields — whose toxic practices have been linked to an epidemic of chronic kidney disease locally — to somewhat less noxious conventional corn seed fields as a moderate yet important step towards both reduced environmental harm and greater food security.
The Family Agriculture Plan aims to serve over 325,000 families that rely on subsistence agriculture as well as over 70,000 small family farmers that produce for the market, through a multi-pronged strategy. One key element, the provision of free “agricultural packets” containing seeds and chemical fertilizer, has been a hallmark of El Salvador’s agricultural policy even before Funes entered office. While his administration heavily criticized the way the prior government under the right-wing ARENA party ran the program for being a “genuine failure as a policy in the struggle against poverty,” Funes decided to continue providing the agricultural packets, with the significant change that the government would also provide both low-interest loans and technical assistance to farmers to ensure that they have the support needed to succeed in food production.
As part of the ceremony, members of the Mangrove Association and local cooperatives symbolically handed over a first harvest of certified corn seed supply sufficient to provide support and production inputs to nearly 9,000 small farmers in four provinces. At the ceremony, Funes announced, “My government wagered, for the first time in more than 20 years, that our farmers cultivate their own seed instead of buying it from large multinational companies.”
Prior to the implementation of this new policy, all seeds distributed in the agricultural packets were purchased at above-market prices through Semillas Cristiani Burkard, the leading Central American corn seed company focused on hybrid corn production and a subsidiary of the agriculture biotechnology giant Monsanto. Semillas Cristiani Burkard was founded by the family of former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, with the ARENA party, who served as head of state from 1989 to 1994.
In 2008, prior to the FMLN’s presidential victory, El Salvador’s National Congress voted to abolish Article 30 of the Planting Seed Law, which stated that it was prohibited to import, conduct research on, produce, or commercialize Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Global Agriculture Information Network Report, this policy change was “due to over three years of pressure from the private sector.” The same year that Article 30 was abolished, Semillas Cristiani Burkard’s parent company, Marmot, S.A., was acquired by Monsanto.
The biotech industry’s use of its influence in removing regulatory barriers to gain new markets for its products throughout the developing world has been well documented. In Latin America, El Salvador was the third country to plant GMO seeds, following Colombia and Honduras. Thus, when Funes made the following statement at the opening ceremony, it can be expected that his words did not fall lightly on the ears of Monsanto executives: “Only if we become independent in seed [production], will we become independent in food, that is to say, can we achieve food sovereignty.”
The Salvadoran government’s new policy comes amidst what may be a growing backlash against biotech companies’ claims that GMO seeds are superior to conventional seeds. While the Mexican government abolished a decade-long moratorium on GMO seeds by approving 29 applications for experimental GMO corn plots, they have been wary of moving towards commercial planting of GMO corn, saying additional tests and studies need to be carried out to determine its effects on native varieties. In the United States, Monsanto recently lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds current regulations that prohibit the planting and commercialization of Roundup Ready Alfalfa until a proper Environmental Impact Statement is conducted by the USDA to better understand the GMO’s impact. Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales recently announced a five-year transition period to eliminate GMO crops from the entire country.
Nonetheless, the Family Agriculture Plan has already been met with strong criticisms from some social movement sectors who claim that, although the plan may be more robust than what prior governments provided, it does not yet reflect an integral response to the issues small farmers face. Many argue that the $90 million estimated for the first phase is simply not enough to assist the number of small farmers that the plan aims to benefit. Others, such as Arístides de León, Secretary General of the National Center for Agricultural Workers, believe that it is necessary for the government to support greater participation of grassroots organizations to allow them to direct their own efforts in developing the country.
However, Funes contends that his new plan will give greater attention to the needs of small farmers and will lead to a 25% increase in the production of basic grains by focusing more on providing technical support and low-interest loans, on top of continuing the distribution of agricultural packages. The two state-owned development banks, Banco de Fomento Agropecuario and Banco Multisectorial de Inversiones, will provide small farmers with loans for growing basic grains at below market interest rates. They will offer about $45 million in initial capital at rates as low as 4% on credits. This represents a reduction of over 50% from the earlier rate of 8.70%, but will be restricted to loans of up to $3,000 for each borrower.
Although the seeds now being provided by Salvadoran farmers are not native and organic seeds, the Mangrove Association is using the experience and the profits from its participation to improve its own organic seed production and expand its system of seed banks. From the perspective of the Mangrove Association, it is incumbent upon them to work with a government program that they see as imperfect in order to further their own work and move El Salvador towards environmental sustainability.
Walberto Gallegos, Communications Director of the Mangrove Association, believes that the seed production pilot program has already demonstrated the agricultural capacity of the small farmers, when accompanied by support and technical assistance, to provide greater food security for all the inhabitants of their area. For Gallegos, the ceremony marked a historic moment for the local communities in Usulután by recognizing the work that they have been developing over many years. Undoubtedly, grassroots movements and organizations like La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association will continue to play a critical role in pushing to make the Salvadoran government’s discourse of promoting food sovereignty come closer to reality.
Carlos Martinez is the Communications Manager for EcoViva, an organization based in Oakland, California working in partnership and solidarity with low-income communities in Central America organized to achieve environmental sustainability, economic self-sufficiency, social justice, and peace. He is the co-author of Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots, a collection of interviews with members of Venezuela’s diverse social movements. His articles have been published in Common Dreams, MRZine, and Venezuelanalysis.com. This article also appears in AlterNet.
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