Food Security in the Lower Lempa

Last week, the United Nations World Food Program made the last of three food handouts to citizens of the Lower Lempa. Severe drought followed by flooding resulted in near 100% crop failure throughout the region last year, and families needed the donations to ensure their survival until the August 2008 harvest. The World Bank defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life.” Last year’s crop loss and the need for food handouts highlight how far El Salvador is from achieving “food security.”

While it is easy to attribute the current food shortage in the Lower Lempa to last year’s sever weather, the region’s unstable position and the nation-wide food crisis are rooted in bad economic policy and the government’s failure to serve the interests of all Salvadorans.

Since before the civil war ended in 1992, the Salvadoran government and international community have weakened El Salvador’s food security by promoting a neo-liberal, open market system that prioritizes the industrial and service sectors over the agricultural sector. The new economic focus favors foreign investment that requires cheap labor, and permits food imports to replace domestic products. Between 1979 and 1981, which was a period of great civil unrest, El Salvador exported $552.6 million more in agricultural products than it imported. Between 1989 and 1991that number dropped to $92.6 million more in exports than imports. By 2004, however, El Salvador was importing in excess of $456 million more in agricultural products than it was exporting. While levels of agricultural exports grew between 1991 and 2004, El Salvador became more dependent on imports for their food consumption. Then President Alfredo Cristiani led the movement by lowering tariffs on imports, deregulating agricultural markets, and promoting foreign investment. At the same time that he was lowering tariffs on imports, President Cristiani also set up a agricultural import business.

Fifteen years into these reforms, agricultural production is limited to large corporate farms that produce coffee, shrimp, cereals, and sugarcane for export, and small sustenance farmers that grow enough beans, rice, and corn to sell at market and feed their family. Sustenance farmers, however, are paying 80% more to plant their crops than they did even four years ago – the result of higher prices for seeds and agrochemicals (an industry dominated by a company owned and run by ex-president Cristiani), and higher rates on the agricultural loans needed to purchase them. Many farmers that receive remittances from family members living and working in the United States have stopped planting, while others have moved to urban areas to work in the industrial or service sectors. Small farmers that still cultivate their land have to produce enough so they are able to pay off the loans they took to by seed and agrochemicals, while setting aside enough to feed their family. With exceedingly tight margins, a bad year can be devastating and jeopardize their very survival. So when the drought last year killed the first crop and floods drowned the second, families in the Lower Lempa had to turn to the World Food Program for assistance.

The decrease in domestic food production and the dependence on imports has weakened El Salvador’s food security. With almost no control over market prices, Salvadorans are now subject to the ups and downs of the international market, which has seen a lot more ups (in prices) than downs. The recent oil crisis, for example, has increased the cost to transport food imports to the Salvadoran marketplace, causing drastic increases of food prices, even those produced domestically. The high oil prices have also increased the demand for bio-fuel, resulting in increased market prices for corn, a staple in all Salvadoran diets, and the main ingredient in the national food (the famed Pupusa).

While El Salvador is wise to expand other sectors of their economy, they ought not do so at the expense of their agricultural markets and food security. Government agencies ought to take affirmative steps to strengthen food security by raising tariffs on cheap imports, subsidizing small farmers and giving them greater access to regional and national markets, lowering or suspending taxes on domestic food products, encouraging more sustainable forms of agriculture, and taking other such measures. While some solutions may be counter to the global movement towards open markets and free trade, El Salvador has to achieve a certain level of economic and social stability before it can participate in or realize the advantages of a global market.

Instead of considering some of these options or directly addressing food security, the central government has proposed a new Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras (The Law on Renting Land). While proponents of the law claim it will increase domestic food production, many Salvadorans see it as another attempt by El Salvador’s wealthy to take their land from the poor. Their fears are well founded. Ever since land reforms of the 1980s limited the amount of land an individual could own to 245 hectors (605.4 acres), wealthy land owners have tried to retain or get back their land, while the poor have struggled hold on to the land they have.

If passed, the new law will require individuals and cooperatives to “rent” fallow or under-cultivated land to corporations or individuals so they may cultivate it. The tenants will pay the owners of the land a monthly rent or a percentage of the sale price of the crops. If the tenant makes improvements to or investments in the land, the owner of the property must compensate the tenant at the end of the lease agreement. For example, if a tenant plants lime trees and installs an irrigation system to produce export quality limes, at the end of the lease agreement the owner will have to compensate the tenant for the value of the trees and irrigation systems. If they are unable to do so, the tenant will have the right to continue farming the land indefinitely. While domestic food production is important, it is unlikely that tenants would plant the beans, corn, rice, and produce necessary to increase food security. They are more likely to plant crops for export, which will have a higher return, and require capital investments that the owners will be unlikely to compensate them for. 

Communities, organizations, and farmers in the Lower Lempa, however, are not waiting around for the Salvadoran government to alter its failed economic policies. Instead, they are organizing to promote food security within their micro-region, through communal gardens, alternative forms of agriculture, crop diversity, and improved infrastructure. In addition, they are initiating advocacy initiatives to influence policy-making at the regional and national regions.

In Community Otavio Ortiz (C.O.O.), for example, community leaders are organizing 50 families to each plant a plot of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and eggplant. With proven success in several pilot gardens around the community, this year C.O.O. is likely to meet their entire demand for vegetables and produce from their own local gardens. In doing so they are limiting the costs of production by eliminating all middlemen, transportation costs, and taxes, and significantly improving their level of food security. And though Salvadoran farmers generally do not plant in the dry season, C.O.O. will rotate four irrigation systems between dozens of plots of land, allowing farmers to continue growing corn and vegetables throughout the year and save crops they might otherwise loose during periods of drought. In addition, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. donated an 8-ton truck to the community so they are able to transport excess products to markets outside there region, freeing them from the high costs of outside transportation.

United Communities, a local grass roots organization, is helping C.O.O and other communities in the Lower Lempa, address the flooding issue that contributed to last year’s crop failure. They are organizing community members to clean and expand the drainage system (with the help of bulldozers and excavators) that will channel floodwaters into the Bay of Jiquilisco. In addition, they are experimenting with more flood resistant varieties of crops such as rice and sesame seed. United Communities also promotes organic and alternative agriculture to break the dependence on agricultural loans and expensive agrochemicals, as well as improve the health of the farmers and their environment. With assistance from Horizons of Friendship, Voices on the Border, and others, United Communities recently began offering women in the Lower Lempa low-interest loans to purchase cattle, one of the main agricultural products in the region.

Communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa are also joining together to fight the Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras and to prevent large corporations from taking over their land. La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, United Communities, representatives from directivas and other local governments, Procaris, and many others have formed the Land and Agricultural Defense movement. The group came together after the government’s recent exclusion of communities in the Lower Lempa from a program that distributed agricultural packages (fertilizers and seed) to small farmers. As with many other government programs, the aid was distributed to benefit the ARENA party’s electoral interests. Communities further east in San Augustin have also joined the movement after surveyors with armed guards appeared and began taking notes on specific plots of land. The group will also address other land use issues that threaten their agricultural community, including corporate and transnational tourism agendas, the promotion of genetically modified seeds, and the need for a national policy to support local agriculture.

So while hundreds of families picked up their supplies from the World Food Program trucks in a somewhat festive atmosphere, community leaders and organizations throughout the Lower Lempa are working hard to eliminate the need for such aide. They are augmenting and diversifying local food production, addressing infrastructural needs, organizing and informing farming families, advocating for the rights of campesinos in their communities and all of El Salvador, and other important measures. In addressing their own food security needs, they are creating a model for other regions in the country.

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