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The Joining Hands Network in El Salvador and Voices on the Border
With great concern, we see that the large-scale production of sugarcane is seriously affecting the public health, access to water, the soil, biodiversity, and food security in the regions where it is grown. Contamination from agrochemicals is the main concern for those that live next to sugarcane fields. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers contaminate water and soil in the surrounding area, as well as the local fields and communities. Sugarcane growers apply fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides using crop-dusters, backpack sprayers, and spreaders pulled by tractors.
The heavy use of agrochemicals in sugarcane has profound impacts on the health of communities. Public health experts attribute the extremely high rates of chronic renal failure in coastal communities to the use of agrochemicals. The Ministry of Health conducted an investigation and found an epidemiological connection between the affected populations and farming practices that include high quantities of agrochemicals used in production. In a document published last August, the Ministry states “exposure to pesticides is the real trigger of the health tragedy that is affecting Salvadoran farming communities.”
THEREFORE, WE DEMAND:
WE RECOGNIZE the efforts of the Ombudsman for Human Rights to emphasize the serious impacts of agrochemicals in violation of human rights, and his tireless efforts to pressure get all state institutions to give this issue the attention it deserves.
San Salvador, September 20, 2016
La Red Uniendo Manos de El Salvador y Voces en la Frontera
Vemos con mucha preocupación que el cultivo de la caña de azúcar a gran escala está afectando gravemente, la salud pública, el acceso al agua, el suelo, la biodiversidad, la economía local y la seguridad alimentaria de las regiones donde se cultiva. La contaminación por agroquímicos es la preocupación principal de quienes viven cerca de los cañales. Los pesticidas tóxicos y los fertilizantes contaminan el agua de la región aledaña y los suelos, así como los campos y las comunidades locales. Los productores de la caña aplican fertilizantes, fungicidas, herbicidas y pesticidas utilizando aviones fumigadores, bombas rociadoras de mochila y pulverizadores halados por tractores.
Este uso intensivo de agroquímicos en la caña de azúcar tiene impactos profundos en la salud de las comunidades. Las tasas extremadamente altas de insuficiencia renal se atribuyen al uso de productos agroquímicos que contaminan la región costera. En los últimos años, cientos de personas a lo largo de la costa salvadoreña han muerto por insuficiencia renal. El Ministerio de Salud ha investigado y demostrado una relación epidemiológica entre las poblaciones afectadas y las prácticas agrícolas dominantes que incluyen el uso de altas cantidades de agroquímicos. Dicha institución, en un documento publicado el pasado mes de agosto, asegura que “la exposición a pesticidas constituye el verdadero elemento detonante de la tragedia sanitaria que está afectando a las comunidades agrícolas salvadoreñas.”
POR TANTO EXIGIMOS:
Los esfuerzos que hace la Procuraduría Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, con el propósito de enfatizar los graves impactos de los agroquímicos en la violación de derechos humanos, así como su incansable trabajo para que las diferentes instituciones del Estado asuman este tema con la preocupación y la urgencia que amerita.
San Salvador, 20 de septiembre de 2016
UNA NUEVA AGRICULTURA ES POSIBLE, SIN AGROTOXICOS NI MONOCULTIVOS
March 2-3, Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Their agenda was to “accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (the Plan).” The meeting came just a month after Vice President Biden announced that the Obama Administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid for the region.
The purpose of the Alliance’s Plan, $1 billion fund, and the March meeting is to address the surge of unaccompanied minors leaving the Northern Triangle for the U.S. It’s an important goal. In FY2014, more than 60,000 youth were caught trying to enter the U.S. and government officials expect more than twice that in FY2015.
While the Plan arguably contains some constructive approaches towards decreasing violence, the emphasis is on implementing neoliberal economic policies. The proposal reads more like CAFTA-DR 2.0 or a World Bank structural adjustment plan, than an effort to stem the flow of emigration. The Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing that foreign investment, more integrated economies, and free trade – and a gas pipeline – will provide the jobs and opportunities necessary to keep youth from seeking refuge in the U.S.
Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the U.S., but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so. A skeptic might even argue that the U.S. and Northern Triangle governments are using the “crisis” of violence and emigration in order to implement policies that further their own economic interests.
Increasing Foreign Investment and Investing in Our People
The Alliance Plan and other related documents emphasize that the solution to emigration, violence and inequality has to be economic – attracting foreign investment, unifying regional economies, increasing competitiveness in global markets, and training the workforce. The Plan, which was first published in September 2014, offers four Strategic Lines of Action. The first, and most detailed, is to stimulate the productive sector. The second is to develop opportunities for our people. Of the $1 billion grant from the U.S., $400 million will support these two lines of action.
Stimulating the productive sector means “attracting investment and promoting strategic sectors capable of stimulating growth and creating jobs… we will make more efficient use of our regional platform to reduce energy costs that stifle our industries and the national treasury, overcome infrastructural and logistical problems that curb growth and prevent better use of the regional market, and harmonize our quality standards to put them on par with what the global market requires.”
The Plan identifies four productive sectors: textiles, agro-industry, light manufacturing, and tourism, none of which are new to the Northern Triangle. Textile maquiladoras, sugarcane producers, factories, and tourism have exploited the region’s labor force and natural resources for years. They have created jobs, but ones in which workers are paid a sub-poverty minimum wage and endure a myriad of human rights abuses. Saskia Sassen wrote in 1998, and other since then report that so far the global economy has produced “a growing supply of poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled production jobs.” That has not changed in the past 17 years. When unions and workers try to negotiate better wages or working conditions, manufactures and investors simply leave. The environmental impacts of these sectors have been equally devastating, and will get exponentially worse if large-scale tourism, a gas-pipeline, and other industries are allowed to move forward.
While CAFTA-DR pretends to address labor and environment, and the “race to the bottom”, Northern Alliance governments provide detail about the concessions they will give to foreign investors. These include lower energy costs, infrastructure, and “harmonization” of standards, which some believe means an agreement on a very low bottom.
The U.S. and Northern Alliance countries have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies since the early 1990s; the same period that crime and gang violence began to proliferate. Privatization, dollarization, free trade agreements, maquiladoras, Millennium Challenge Corporation grants, Partnership for Growth, Public-Private Partnerships, and more have all been implemented over the past 25 years. The same period that crime and violence has skyrocketed.
As academics (good articles here and here) and campesino leaders in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have articulated for years – globalization and neoliberal economic policies are the reason for the high rates of inequality that has resulted in the high levels of crime and violence, and lack of opportunities that have forced youth to flee. Poverty and inequality are nothing new in the Northern Triangle, but Globalization and neoliberalism is simply the latest tools the elite use to maintain and grow their wealth.
Just this week, El Faro published an article titled “The Neoliberal Trap: Violent Individuals or Violent Situations ” that is based on 2013 study in El Salvador. The authors found that communities that are more isolated from the global community and depend sustenance agriculture were less likely to experience social isolation, gangs, crime and violence. Communities that have a greater market mentality are more socially isolated and prone to crime. The article argues, “The neoliberal reconstruction has renewed and amplified the conditions of alienation. Meanwhile, some elites embrace neoliberal reconstruction as a means of assuring their position in the new “transnational capital class of global capitalism, while a large part of the population is left out and has to fend for themselves.”
Colette Hellenkamp drew a similar conclusion in her piece War and Peace in El Salvador. She concludes, “The wealthy few in [the El Salvador] do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos.” The crime and violence in El Salvador has certainly caused such chaos that instead of opening small shops and providing services the region’s otherwise hard-working and industrious workforce is leaving en masse.
Academics also point out that proponents of neo-liberal ideologies believe their model is perfect – “everyone benefits, not just some, all.” Those that don’t are referred to as the “underserving poor or the underclass that demonstrate two characteristics – they are underserving and predisposed to unlawful behavior. Proponents argue that free market, neoliberalism is perfect and if people don’t benefit, its not the market’s fault, it’s because people are lazy and prone to violence.
The Northern Alliance Plan is to double down on the neoliberal policies that sustain the same economic inequalities they say they are want to correct. Bur more sub-poverty, minimum wages will only serve to further stratify the economic and social classes.
Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” But that’s what the Northern Triangle Plan seems to want to try and do.
Violence and Security
Instead of focusing on more neoliberal economic policies, the Plan must focus on putting an end to the high rates of crime and violence.
Analysts agree that most of the youth detained on the U.S. border were fleeing violence. A report published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58% of the minors interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The report identified two sources of violence – “organized armed criminal actors and violence at home.” A report written by Fulbright Fellow Elizabeth Kennedy found, “59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups.” Other reasons for leaving included the lack of economic opportunities and reunification with family members in the U.S. But of those youth, “most referenced crime and violence (the chaos) as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future.”
The proposal for decreasing violence in the Northern Triangle is a mixed bag at best. The Plan wants to invest more money into the same heavy-handed, militarized, law enforcement policies that have been failing for 25 years. Alexander Main provides a good critic of these policies in his Truthout article, Will Biden’s Billion-Dollar Plan Help Central America.
But its not all bad. There are some proposals in the Plan that focus on alternative conflict resolution, safe schools, trustworthy community policing, modernizing the justice system, and giving civil society and churches a greater role in prevention and rehabilitation. There are also needed reforms for ensuring better governance and addressing organized crime. One of the more positive ideas is to “improve prison systems, including infrastructure based on prisoner risk profiles, the capacity of prison staffs, and rehabilitation programs, including those focused on juvenile offenders and their prison conditions.”
El Salvador has even proposed an ambitious $2 billion plan that proposes similarly progressive policies for ending violence at the national level. The plan “promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country’s 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country’s biggest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 – have proliferated over the past decade.”
If implemented, these projects could help decrease levels of crime and violence, and calming the chaos that helps maintain high levels of inequality. But if academics and campesino leaders are right, and globalization is the cause of the inequality, these positive steps are unlikely to have any lasting impact. The undeserving poor will still be limited to working sub-poverty wages and have little if any social and economic mobility.
If Not More Neoliberal Economic Policies…
Stemming the flow of emigration is a complex task, and the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are right to consider a multi-faceted approach that aims to provide economic opportunities, end violence, and address other deficiencies.
Instead of more neoliberal economic policies, the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments, and the IADB should focus their plan on making the region safe from crime and violence. There are very smart, informed civil society leaders who have put forth some very reasonable proposals. The governments should do more to work with them to implement their ideas and proposals on a large scale. The plan articulates some of these ideas, but instead of taking second place to more neoliberalism, they should be at the heart of the proposal.
The solution should include creating economic opportunities, but that does not require foreign investors or selling out the region’s workforce and environment. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are known as hardworking and industrious. Instead of building infrastructure and providing incentives to multinational corporations, the governments should focus those investments on supporting and incentivizing local, small businesses. That does not mean small business loans, but it might mean making it more difficult for international corporations like Walmart to run all the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Family businesses do more than provide jobs; they build neighborhoods and social networks.
Instead of promoting agro-industry and exports, as proposed by the Plan and Partnership for Growth, governments should support communities in their efforts to promote food security and sovereignty. El Salvador’s family seed program, for example is an example of a relatively low cost government action that supports small family farmers that are trying to feed their family and contribute to their local economy. In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for a “rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
There are solutions. The only question is motive and whether policy makers are really interested in addressing emigration, violence, and economic inequality, or using the chaos and “crises” as means to further their own economic interests. This month, President Sanchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly declared March 26 as the National Day of Peace, Life and Justice – a day in which all Salvadorans will unite and demand an end to the violence and chaos. But even this simple idea of bringing people together was too much for the business class. ANEP (El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce) came out against the Day of Peace, Life, and Justice, argues that celebrating a National Day of Peace would cost El Salvador $56 million in lost economic opportunities. ANEP representatives argue, “the suspension of just one day of work will cost Salvadorans more that 56 million dollars, and could result in the loss of contracts from export businesses, and thus the employment of workers.”
Their position could be one of pure practicality. More likely it is a true reflection of their priorities – money and profits over peace, life, and justice.
The peninsula of San Juan del Gozo, located in Usulután, is a 30-mile stretch that curves out from the Pacific coastline of El Salvador, embracing the Bahia de Jiquilisco and its wealth of sparsely inhabited, thickly forested islands. The peninsula is home to a scattering of subsistence fishing communities, and the lives of the residents of the bay are inextricably bound up in the life of the mangrove forest (manglar, in Spanish), which covers much of the interior coastlines and estuaries.
The manglares at the western end of the peninsula, in the estuaries near the community of La Tirana, are home to the oldest and largest mangrove trees on the Pacific coast of Central America. This is due in part to the decade of civil war El Salvador suffered in the 1980s, which caused people to flee the area, leaving the saltwater forests to grow unmolested for years.
Today, residents of La Tirana harvest crabs (known locally as punches) in the large manglar. Other communities take fish and a variety of other shellfish (mariscos) from the waters of the mangrove estuaries and the bay. A few locals take boats out to sea for larger catches; though, no one lives on the ocean side of the peninsula, leaving it as a prime location for endangered hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtles to lay their eggs. Communities in the peninsula rely completely on what they take from the water for their survival; there is no other industry except some small-scale eco-tourism outfits and restaurants to serve day visitors. There is one exclusive, boat-in resort in the region but none of the locals we met with report any employment or secondary economic benefits from the operation.
The entire peninsula – with its wealth of migratory birds, rare sea-turtle breeding grounds, magnificent manglares and untouched beaches – is now the focus of a 25-year tourism development plan, launched by the Salvadorian government in 2004. According to government documents, by 2026 there will be accommodation for 2,500 visitors, with a projected 932,000 overnight stays per year. The government first unveiled the plan at an invitation-only event attended by mega-resort developers from around the world, and presenters described the region as the Cancun of Central America. This was a two-fold reference; first to the similar peninsular geography; and second to the plans to create a resort region which would provide tourists with a self-contained vacation destination that would provide accommodations, shopping, hospitals, golf courses and more. At that event, a consultant hired by Salvadorian government outlined the first two steps to developing large-scale tourism in the region: building a new highway and buying large tracts of land.
The only way to get to the peninsula by car is by taking the Litoral Highway to San Marcos Lempa turning south and traveling 12 miles through the Bajo Lempa down to La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Potholes and sections of washed-out road define the drive between San Marcos and La Canoa. The 20 miles from La Canoa out the Peninsula, however, is a freshly paved, well-maintained stretch of highway.
Residents of the Bajo Lempa and Jiqiulisco Bay take the highway’s construction as a sign of impending development. It was also a warning that land speculation* was about to re-ignite a struggle for land ownership in the region. Since 2004 when the government announced their plans to turn the region into the “Cancun of Central America,” land values have skyrocketed. In 2003, the average price for a hectare of land was $1,000 USD; today, the average has climbed to $10,000 USD and $40,000 USD per hectare for waterfront property.
CESTA, a Salvadoran environmental organization that works extensively in the region, has documented several ways in which government agencies appear to be fostering a positive climate for land speculation and development. CESTA notes that in 2004 there were four agricultural collectives in the peninsular region. All four have since dissolved, the result of government efforts to convince cooperative members that it was better to hold individual title to the land. Since dissolution, many former cooperative members have sold off their land, some because they wanted cash; others because without the shared machinery and support of the collective they could no longer work the land.
CESTA also believes that the government has used the agrarian reform process another way to transfer land to speculators and developers. CESTA representatives have documented cases in which the government has granted land to people who have no agricultural experience or knowledge, and as soon as they receive land titles they sell.
Whether or not communities have legal title to their land is one of the most pressing legal issues facing the residents of the peninsula today. In La Tirana, where all the resident families have legal title (or escritura as it is called here), the townspeople have agreed amongst themselves not to sell their properties to anyone from outside, knowing that they are in both a prime tourism development area, and also an extremely sensitive environmental zone. While land within La Tirana is relatively safe for the time being, wealth Salvadoran investors have already bought up larger tracts just outside of town. Some use the land for cattle or growing crops, others are sitting on the land until developers are ready to build hotels, golf courses, and shopping centers.
Land in other communities is also vulnerable. In El Chile, a small community down the Peninsula, no one holds title to their property, although they were nominally granted the land as part of the agrarian reform program following the peace accord. The land is still technically owned by the state, which now appears to be selling off lots on the edge of town.
Voices staff visited El Chile in mid-June and spoke with the president of the community’s council (or junta directiva). He showed us a large plot of forested land on the edge of town that has been fenced off with barbed wire and decorated with ominous signs warning “No entre” (No trespassing). The fence goes all the way down through the manglar to the water’s edge. As the community president pointed out, no one can own the manglar, it is against the law, and the fence is blocking off what should be public property. Law enforcement has done nothing to address the claim on this land and the fence has come to exemplify the community’s tenuous position without formal land titles. Residents of El Chile know they have a legal right to their land; but they do not have the legal or financial resources to register themselves as owners.
In neighboring Isla de Mendez, almost all residents have a legal title to their land. The only people that don’t have titles are those that live on the waterfront – the most desired and valuable land. With a focus on developing tourism in the region, their position is especially vulnerable.
Life in La Tirana, El Chile, Isla de Mendez and other communities along the Peninsula is still simple and relatively quiet. But if developers have their way that will all change soon. At risk are majestically mangrove forests, nesting grounds for several species of sea turtles, and a sustainable agrarian way of life.
*Land speculation is the practice of buying up properties with the intention of reselling them for a profit. Often land speculation is done by wealthy investors with insider knowledge of coming development or infrastructure, but land speculation can also be self-propelling because when one investor who is known to make profitable speculations starts buying in a region, others often follow, creating a strong sellers’ market.
Small producers in El Salvador are facing a grim agricultural season this summer. Tropical Storm Agatha started off the rainy season with torrential rains that caused landslides and massive flooding along the coastal river basins. Last week’s Hurricane Alex brought more rain that further saturated the soil of already vulnerable communities.
The outlook for the rest of the rainy season doesn’t bode well either. Colorado State University, NOAA, and Climate Prediction Center (CPC) are predicting a very active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean with an average of 18 tropical storms between June 1st and November 30th. These storms push ample amounts of rain and wind onto El Salvador, where 95% of the population is vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.
In a discussion with Voices on the Border’s partner community Octavio Ortiz, in the Lower Lempa, Jiquilisco we can begin to understand what this means for small subsistence farmers.
In Octavio Ortiz 60 of the 97 families farm their own land; an average of 5 acres per family. Other community members work as day laborers, or in a handful of trade skills. With the land overly saturated, landowners can’t count on their own harvest for their year’s supply of corn, and the day laborers have been without work. The average pay is $4.00 for four or five hours of heavy manual labor.
Some families planted corn before Agatha and then lost it. A few of those families decided to re-plant, only to lose that seed to Alex. Very few farmers dare to try again, especially with the heaviest rains expected for July, September and October. After Alex, the community reported a loss of about 66 acres of corn. 680 chickens also died. No one had risked planting vegetables which are a much more expensive investment, so there was no need to report losses there. Most of the fruit trees survived the storm, but about 15 families had hoped to plant mango, cocoa, and lemon trees. They’re having trouble finding land where the young saplings won’t rot before they take hold.
Swampy fields also impact the backbone of the community’s economy – cattle. Traditionally the rainy season is ideal for abundant pasture and local cows can thrive. This year’s pastures are either still flooded or have become de facto swamps. One woman said that before the storms her seven cows were producing 35 bottles of milk every day. Now they are only able to produce between 10 or 12 bottles. That means she has gone from earning about $14 dollars a week to just $4 dollars.
Efforts to aid the community have been piecemeal. The mayor donated small packets of food last month. This weekend the Red Cross donated more food aid packages that will last families at least a month or two. Other associations and NGO’s have distributed aid to their corresponding sectors. The Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle has collected the reported losses from the community and is offering rice and sorghum seeds come August. They are also selling chickens at very reduced prices ($18 for 50 chicks).
The reality of the situation is that this community and others like it will have to find alternative ways to feed their families for the remainder of the year. When conditions are favorable, farmers can produce one more harvest after the rainy season thanks to the lingering humidity in the soil. After that, only those with access to irrigation will be able to produce a harvest during the dry season.
Several local associations such as ACUDESBAL and ADIBAL have begun pilot projects with small groups sharing portable irrigation systems in an effort to confront climate change and create more resilient communities. However, local farmers are hesitant to try their hand at the new systems. For many, rain has always determined the growing season, and intensive farming requires a greater commitment in time, energy and maintenance. Just consider that to buy the few gallons of gasoline that the pump requires per week, the farmer has to travel by bus with his or her gas can to the closest gas station 12 miles away. Initiatives such as these require time and patience. The experiences of those participating in the pilot project serve to convince neighbors and friends over time. Typically, communities begin to reproduce these kinds of initiatives on their own after three years. But – with weather patterns being anything but typical, farmers could embrace such alternatives more quickly. It may be the safest card they have left to play.
In recent years, chronic renal disease (CRD) has become a serious public health concern throughout agricultural communities in Latin America. The Lower Lempa region of Usulután, often referred to as El Salvador’s breadbasket, is no exception. Over the past ten years or more, farmers are diagnosed with CRD, a disease in which the kidneys fail to function adequately, at an rate of 30-45% of men above age 30. The number of cases has risen in recent years, and doctors and researchers are puzzled, as their patients are not traditional candidates for CRD. Though similar epidemics of CRD are appearing worldwide, few in the public health field have undertaken in-depth or conclusive studies to determine its causes. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Sri Lankan government recently began to investigate CRD in Sri Lanka, but they have yet to publish any findings.
These abnormal cases of CRD are most prevalent among male farmers, often young, who do not have the pre-existing illnesses, such as hypertension or diabetes, that are traditionally associated with the onset of CRD. In a 2001 study done in Jiquilisco, Usulutan, 71% of 132 men with CRD showed no signs of hypertension, diabetes, or other known risk factors, and suffered from the disease seemingly without cause. Studies conducted in Sri Lanka indicate that renal disease could be linked to any one of a number of factors, such as use of low quality aluminum utensils, cadmium ingested through food, fluoride in the ground water, and consumption of poor quality alcohol, but no decisive conclusion has been reached.
Many in the medical community believe that the most likely of these is the presence of cadmium in the environment. These farmers may be ingesting cadmium from any number of sources. It is used as an artificial phosphate in fertilizers and is also a byproduct of mining. If present in the soil or water, cadmium may be ingested by livestock and fish, or absorbed by crops, and then ingested by humans. Cadmium is also linked with other chronic and acute illnesses that include:
CRD in the Lower Lempa
As mentioned, the 2001 Jiquilisco study found that 30-45% of men over age 30 in the municipality of Jiquilisco suffer from CRD. In 2005 the Fondo Social de Emergencia de Salud (Emergency Social Fund) reported that 23 people, in a population of about 40,000, died from renal failure, while the Salvadoran Ministry of Health reported only one death. Similarly situated communities in countries such as Sri Lanka and Nicaragua report as many as 200-300 deaths a year, indicating that the occurrences in Jiquilisco are likely to be under-reported.
Despite such high rates of CRD in the region, the local hospital and clinics rarely have the appropriate medications or dialysis machines necessary to treat patients. The government-run clinic in La Canoa (a small community in the Lower Lempa of Jiquilisco), for example, rarely has the high-blood pressure medications used to treat CRD. Even if the resources for detection and treatment were readily available, most patients are unable to afford them. Though El Salvador’s Ministry of Health and other government agencies have neglected the problem, communities have begun to help themselves. For the past few years, the Fondo Social de Emergencia de Salud has been educating people about the causes and prevention of renal disease. Their small size and few resources, however, limits their impact.
Patients diagnosed with CRD often require hemodialysis, but the government clinics and hospitals have so few machines that they are generally put on waiting lists. An alternative to hemodialysis, which must be done at a hospital or clinic, is peritoneal dialysis, a procedure in which the abdominal cavity is filled with dialysis fluid that removes toxins from the blood. Peritoneal dialysis can generally be done at home, but there is a shortage of supplies for patients, and most cannot afford the permanent abdominal catheter. In order to have the treatment, patients must go to a clinic twice a week to have their abdomen punctured for a temporary catheter. The logistics of getting to the clinics, and having an abdominal catheter are significant for farmers in the Lower Lempa, and many stop treatment after a couple visits.
The public health and medical communities have yet to decide on recommendations for combating CRD among young, seemingly healthy farmers. In Sri Lanka, the government is being proactive and testing all farmers for CRD. In addition to more testing, government and non-profit health providers ought to take steps to prevent further cases, but because the cause of these CRD cases remains uncertain, its difficult to inform farmers how they may avoid contracting the disease. Ideally, communities ought to be testing and changing their sources of food and water, and using organic fertilizers. Already impoverished and marginalized, such steps are daunting for communities such as those in the Lower Lempa. Until the medical community is able to provide more complete prevention programs, the Ministry of Health ought to invest in the medications and machines necessary to provide adequate treatment. In 2007 and 2008, Hospital Rosales in San Salvador opened two new wings to treat CRD patients, but they are hardly sufficient.
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.