Marching for Food Sovereignty

Last Wednesday, October 15th hundreds of people stepped out into a soft rain in San Salvador to celebrate Food Sovereignty Day and World Food Day. Perhaps more than celebrating, marchers were demanding that the Salvadoran government take specific actions so the population can achieve food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty is a fairly straightforward concept articulated first by La Via Campesina in 1996. It simply asserts the right of people to define their own food systems, placing the individuals who produce, distribute, and consume food at the center of the decisions on food systems and policies.

Marchers had some very specific policy points they want their government to address. (If this post and these demands sound familiar, they held a similar march last year making many of the same demands.)

First, marchers want the current Legislative Assembly to ratify an amendment to article 69 of the Constitution recognizing food sovereignty as a basic right enjoyed by all Salvadorans. The previous Legislative Assembly passed the amendment but to complete the process the current Assembly has to ratify it. Similarly, over the past two years, civil society has also lobbied the Legislative Assembly to pass a Law on Food Sovereignty, which would promote the sustainable production of food production and regulate other activities that affect food sovereignty.

The marchers also want the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén to ban a long list of toxic agrochemicals. Last year the Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning fifty-three agro-chemicals (the bill amended an existing law that regulates agrochemicals). Instead of signing the bill, President Funes (2009-2014) took out the eleven most common (and harmful) agrochemicals, including Glyphosate, and sent the bill back to the Assembly. When the Legislative Assembly received the Funes’ changes, its members could have ignored them and signed the original bill into Law, or accepted them and signed it into law. Instead, they did nothing. This all occurred during the campaign for the March presidential elections, and the business sector was pressuring on the Funes Administration not to sign the ban. They argued that coffee plantations were combating leaf rust and a ban on agrochemicals would result in a loss of agricultural jobs and harm the economy. Marchers and civil society organizations, however, reject the dependence on agrochemicals and demand that the Legislative Assembly finally ban the use of all harmful agrochemicals in El Salvador.

Another important issue is the Water Law. Eight years ago civil society organizations drafted a law that guarantees all Salvadorans have a right to water. If passed, the Water Law would also ensure that the government could not privatize water resources. Instead of approving the draft law proposed by civil society, the Legislative Assembly began a long process of drafting its own. Unfortunately private interests such as ANEP (National Association of Private Business), and conservative political parties (ARENA and PCN) have been able to stall the process.

Another obstacle to achieving food sovereignty is sugarcane production. In regions like the Bajo Lempa of Usulután, sugarcane producers are buying and leasing large amounts of farmland. For example, two weeks ago Voices’ partners in La Tirana learned that a wealthy landowner that owns the land adjacent to their mangrove forests is leasing 400 manzanas (691 acres) of farmland to a sugarcane producer. United States economic policies are driving  the demand for sugarcane. The Central American Free Trade agreement is allowing the U.S. to import more sugarcane at lower prices, and Partnership for Growth is providing incentives for El Salvador to increase exports rather than grow food for local consumption.

While sugarcane will make landowners wealthy, sugarcane production has a large, negative impact on the environment. Sugarcane producers use a lot of chemicals on their crops – fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Just before a crop is ready to harvest, producers apply the herbicide Glyphosate (sugarcane is “Roundup Ready”) in order to ensure all the cane is ready to harvest at the same time. These agrochemicals, which are generally sprayed using a crop-duster, contaminate local water sources and nearby farmland, as well as villages, schools, soccer fields and homes. These chemicals are believed to be contributing to the extremely high rates of renal failure that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years.

Sugarcane production affects food sovereignty in a few ways. First, farmland that could be used to grow food for local consumption is being used to grow sugarcane for export. This means that El Salvador’s dependence on food imports will continue to rise. The environmental impact of sugarcane also makes it harder for small farmers to produce food. Farmers complain that the spraying of agrochemicals contaminates their fields and destroys their crops. The herbicide Glysophate is one of the worst offenders. Upon contact it kills foliage, flowers, fruits, and vegetables that farmers cultivate. And large monoculture crops upset the ecosystems where farmers grow, diminishing bee populations, disrupting forests and animal life, and harming soil structures.

Marchers also demand that the government do more to protect the country’s fragile ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests along the coast. Families in and around the forests often sustain themselves by harvesting the crabs, clams, and fish that live in the mangroves. And an estimated 75% of all commercialized fish in the Pacific off the coast of El Salvador are hatched in the mangrove forests. If developers and sugarcane farmers are allowed to destroy these forests, they will also be destroying the livelihood and food source of tens of thousands of people.

Another threat to food sovereignty is mining. El Salvador currently has a de facto ban on mining. But there is nothing in place to prevent government officials from granting the extraction permits that allow mining companies to mine for gold, silver, uranium, and other minerals. Salvadoran civil society has argued for years that if the government allowed mining it would result in the contamination of the country’s farmland and water resources, greatly diminishing El Salvador’s capacity for food production.

In February 2014, then presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén spoke at an event hosted by MOVIAC to discuss environmental issues. During his comments, Sanchez Cerén said that as president he would sign legislation to ban mining. But five months into his presidency the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén have yet to pass a ban. One reason given for the delay is that the legislatures don’t have enough votes. But some annalists say (behind closed doors) that politicians from all political parties give the impression they don’t want to ban mining, and use the lack of votes as an excuse to do nothing.

Again, none of these issues or demands is new, but people are protesting because there has been little to no action. While many celebrate the Sanchez Cerén administration as the second consecutive leftist government elected into power in El Salvador, many in the FMLN’s base are grumbling because they have not seen the kinds of changes they expected. Some have been reluctant to protest against the government officials they voted into power, believing the alternative to be far worse. But others are tired of the perceived inaction on issues related to basic rights such as food sovereignty and access to water, and are speaking up.

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