Sunday, March 08, 2015

Agricultural policy in El Salvador

A few recent articles on the blogs of NGOs operating in El Salvador illustrate some positives and negatives of agricultural policy in El Salvador.   On the blog of EcoViva appears a story titled Farmer cooperatives, not Monsanto, supply El Salvador with seed, which focuses on the Salvadoran government's decision to source corn seed locally: 
This week, the Ministry of Agriculture released a new round of contracts to provide seed to subsistence farmers nationwide through its Family Agriculture Program. Last year, over 560,000 family farmers across El Salvador planted corn and bean seed as part of the government’s efforts to revitalize small scale agriculture, and ensure food security in the rural marketplace. Drought conditions across the country made access to seed all the more vital for rural livelihoods, making the seed packets supplied through the government program the primary means for thousands of families to put food on the table. 
In 2015, rural cooperatives and national associations will produce nearly 50% of the government’s corn seed supply, with 8% coming from native seed—a record high. In the Lower Lempa, where seven farmer organizations have produced corn seed since 2012, this means over 4,000 jobs and income for rural households, primarily employing women and young adults. The public procurement of seed—or the government’s purchasing power through contracts—signifies over $25 million for a rural economy still struggling to diversify and gain traction. 
The success of locally-bred seed varieties, compounded with their low production costs, allowed the Family Agriculture Program to contribute to historically high yields nationwide for corn and beans. Last year, more farmers produced more corn and beans at the most efficient yield per acreage than any other year over the last decade. This has also led to a significant adjustment in El Salvador’s trade balance on corn: Imports of white corn in 2014 were a full 94% less than 2011. (more).
This program has been part of am emphasis in El Salvador to increase food sovereignty, to sustain small farmers, and to make the country less subject to the vagaries of foreign crop and commodity prices.

At the same time, the government is promoting a very different kind of agriculture, sugar cane production, with the risk of serious adverse consequences.   From an article titled Is Selling Sugar to China Really Such a Sweet Deal for El Salvador? on the Voices on the Border blog:
Salvadoran government officials recently announced a deal to export 52,000 tons of sugar (12% of the country’s annual production) to China in a deal worth $15-20 million to local producers. El Salvador has sold sugar to South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, and the European Union, but this is the first time exporting to China. 
With Partnership for Growth pressing El Salvador to produce more exports, sugarcane has become a larger part of the country’s economic plan. Already, sugarcane production has created 50,000 direct jobs and 200,000 more indirect jobs. This week Vice President Oscar Ortiz said “This is the key, this is the solution for our country: to diversify our production of exports. We are unable to be alone in a market, we have to be open to a variety of markets and in this direction we have to have the ability to improve our process of commercialization.” 
Exporting $15-20 million of sugar to China and creating 250,000 jobs may sound like a sweet deal, but El Salvador is paying a substantial price. In addition to labor, agrochemicals, machinery, processing, and shipping, there are enormous costs related to the environment, public health, food sovereignty, and local culture. The individuals and corporations profiting from sugarcane exports don’t pay these costs. Instead they pass the debt on to the country’s poor who earn sub-poverty wages, suffer from chronic renal failure and other diseases, live in depleted ecosystems, struggle to feed their families, and are forced to migrate to urban areas. (more)
The article goes on to describe some of the human and environmental costs of sugar cane production on monoculture plantations where workers earn $3.94 /day for 14 hour days in some of the most physically demanding of all agricultural jobs, in fields where there is intensive use of agrochemicals.  Sugar cane, of course, is an industry of large scale agro-businesses, and not a crop of the small scale family farmer.

Until the owners of sugar cane plantations are required to bear the full cost of paying living wages to their workers and remedying environmental damage caused by the intensive agricultural practices, it can't be said that promoting sugar cane exports is a good deal for El Salvador.  

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