agriculture, Economy, Equality, Food Security

More Neoliberal Economic Policies Will Not Stop Unaccompanied Minors From Seeking Refuge

DSCF0020March 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.

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agriculture, Environment, Tourism

Sugarcane Production Threatens Mangrove Forests in La Tirana

For the past few years, residents of the small, coastal community of La Tirana have spoken out against plans to develop large-scale tourism in and around the region’s mangrove forests. Tourism remains a serious threat, especially with the recent signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, but as of last week the most immediate concern is sugarcane.

Residents learned a couple weeks ago that don Angel Velasquez, a wealthy landowner on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is leasing 400 manzanas (989 acres) in La Tirana to a sugarcane producer, who has been out preparing the land for planting. A contact in the neighboring town of San Juan del Gozo confirmed that don Angel, as he is known, is leasing the land out for 15 years.

The estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo
Estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

The 400 manzanas they want to plant is adjacent to one of El Salvador’s most pristine mangrove forests. Locals who live in and take care of the forest say it would be impossible to grow sugarcane in the region without destroying the fragile ecosystem. The estuary that flows through the forest comes very close the fields where they want to plant. Any agrochemicals applied to the area would certainly leach into the estuary and quickly contaminate large sections of the forests. One of the biggest threats would be Glyphosate, or Roundup, which growers spray on sugarcane to ensure that all the plants are ripe or ready to harvest at the same time. Roundup is a very effective herbicide (the sugarcane is genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready”) and would kill the plants and animals exposed.

The land don Angel is leasing should be zoned a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests. That means that it should be illegal to use the land in a way that would harm the mangroves, which are a protected natural area. For many years don Angel has used the land for grazing a few head of cattle, but mostly it has lain fallow. Before civil war broke out in 1980 the stretch of land was used for growing cotton. But the environmental laws and regulations passed since the end of the war should protect the region. Recognizing the destructive practices associated with sugarcane production, Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said during a July visit to the neighboring Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, that she would not permit any new growing operations.

(In the Satellite image above, the fields visible along the coast are those planned for sugarcane production, all the way up to the mangrove forests, which are the dark green sections)

On Wednesday of this week community leaders from La Tirana and Monte Cristo, another community in the mangrove forests, met to discuss the sugarcane issue. The discussion focused not on whether they should oppose the plan – the consensus was that sugarcane production would be catastrophic – but how to stop it.

Recalling Environmental Minister Pohl’s statement during a July meeting that the Ministry would not allow for expansion of sugarcane production, leaders from Monte Cristo and La Tirana decided to write a letter asking her to intervene. Voices’ Field Director was at the meeting on Wednesday and on the spot he helped them type up a letter, which they printed and signed. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. Our field director just happened to have a laptop and small printer with him. Typing the letter was easy but the community is not connected to the power grid, so they had to go to the one house in the community with electricity, which is generated by a small solar panel.

Residents of La Tirana and Monte Cristo are also organizing a watchdog group that will monitor Mr. Velasquez’s property. At the first sign that sugarcane growers are arriving with their tractors and machinery to plow, the communities will block the only road in and out of the region. They are also planning a to ensure everyone in the region knows they will do anything necessary to protect the mangrove forests.

While La Tirana, Monte Cristo, and Voices were the only communities and organizations at the meeting, community leaders will also tap into a much larger network for support. In May, fourteen communities along the peninsula created the Association of Mangrove Communities in Defense of Land (ACOMADET) to ensure proper management of their forests and defend against threats such as tourism, sugarcane, and other development activities. ACOMADET also has the backing of civil society organizations like CESTA, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, Voices on the Border, and others. So they have support in taking on this issue.

One other action proposed on Wednesday was that local leaders should go talk to don Angel about how destructive his leasing the land to sugarcane growers would be. Meeting participants pointed out that in addition to contaminating the mangroves in and around La Tirana and Monte Cristo, it would affect a lagoon in San Juan del Gozo, of which he owns a large section. The idea of talking to don Angel was dismissed, however. Residents believe that El Salvador’s wealthy landowners are only interested in money, and that they don’t care about the environment or the impact of their actions on other people. They decided that negotiating with him would be fruitless.

One meeting participant pointed out that pressure to grow sugarcane in El Salvador is one of the many negative products of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the agreement, the United States has increased the amount of sugarcane it will buy from El Salvador making it one of the only ways to make money in agriculture. Small Salvadoran farmers cannot compete with large US farms that produce large quantities of beans, rice, corn and other products, but they can make money selling or leasing their land to sugarcane growers.

After the meeting on Wednesday, Voices field director took the letter signed by community members and will hand deliver it to the Minister of the Environment this morning. Community leaders hope she meant what she said in July about no new sugarcane operations. But they also know that money has a way of trumping regulations and that La Tirana, Monte Cristo, ACOMADET, and others will find other ways to protect the mangroves.

Advocacy, agriculture, El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Jiquilisco Bay Communities Oppose U.S. Embassy Threats AND the MCC Grant

This week, U.S.-based organizations working in El Salvador published a letter opposing the U.S. State Department’s threats to withhold a $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant over a possible violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Sixteen U.S. Congressmen signed onto the letter and sent it to the U.S. Department of State, sharing their concern over the controversy.

At issue is a seed distribution program for which the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) purchases seed corn and beans from Salvadoran cooperatives and distributes to more than 400,000 small farmers. The program is a huge benefit to rural families and the 17 agricultural cooperatives that supply the seeds. The U.S. Embassy argues that the MAG violates CAFTA by not allowing international seed producers participate in the procurement process, buying seeds only from Salvadoran producers. The Embassy will not release the $277 million grant until El Salvador is in compliance with CAFTA.

Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues
Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues

Voices on the Border, at the advice of our Salvadoran partners, did not sign the letter published by the other solidarity organizations for one simple reason. Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay oppose the $277 million MCC grant and believe the outrage over the seed program, while justified, fails to address a much bigger issue – the MCC fund will destroy El Salvador’s coastal environment and agrarian way of life.

Yes, the Embassy’s complaint about the seed program is wrong. But the impacts of the $277 million MCC grant will be worse. Here’s why:

1. FOMELINIO will fund large-scale tourism development in the Jiquilisco Bay, causing irreparable harm to the region’s fragile mangrove forests, beaches, and agricultural lands, and drain the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.

2. MCC and FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran counterpart to the MCC) have never considered how the projects they are funding will affect the targeted communities. Jose Santos Guevara, resident of La Canoa and President of MOVIAC, makes this point well. “During the design phase of the FOMELINIO [proposal], they did not consult [the communities] with respect to the type of projects needed for the development of the communities. We have a series of proposals aimed at reactivating production in the region – the construction of levees, improving roads and drainage systems. However, none of these were incorporated into the proposal that the Government of El Salvador sent to the MCC.” The only people consulted were private investors and others with financial or political interests in the outcome of the proposal.

3. In order to have a project proposal considered for MCC funds, an applicant must be able to invest at least $100,000. There are no communities or community-based organizations that are able to front those kinds of funds meaning the only people who can develop projects are outside investors.

4. There has never been a public discussion or debate about the content, objectives, and impacts of FOMELIO projects. State institutions control the information about plans and projects, releasing only vague statements to the media when it is politically expedient.

Over the past couple of years the U.S. Embassy has used the $277 million MCC grant to get El Salvador to adopt several laws and policies that promote corporate interests. Just last year the Legislative Assembly passed the Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. Embassy had made a prerequisite for approval of the MCC funds. The Embassy, however, did not like a couple provisions in the final draft of the law and are requiring reforms before they will release the MCC funds. The U.S. Embassy also made reforms to the Law on Money Laundering a requirement for receiving MCC funds. And of course, the Embassy is requiring the MAG to reform the seed program so that international seed producers like Monsanto can compete for contracts alongside Salvadoran agricultural cooperatives.

Just this week, Medardo Gonzàles, the Secretary General of the FMLN, said the government has done everything the Embassy wants, but it seems they will never be able to satisfy their demands. Yesterday, Danilo Perez, the Director of the Center for Consumer Protection, recommended that the Government of El Salvador reconsider signing the second MCC Compact because of all the U.S. Embassy’s conditions.

Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay see the reforms and MCC funds as a really bad deal – adopt pro-development economic policies so wealthy developers can receive financial support to take their land and destroy the region’s mangrove forests, beaches, and agrarian culture. They prefer that the Salvadoran government just say no to the MCC; maintain the seed program the way it is; and start pushing back on the pro-corporation economic policies being pushed through the Legislative Assembly.

Yes, folks in the Jiquilisco Bay are angry that the U.S. is trying to get El Salvador to change a seed program that provides so many benefits for so many families. But they are even more concerned about the long-term negative impacts that the $277 million will have on the region.

 

Economy, Partnership for Growth, U.S. Relations

The Price for a $277 Million MCC Grant

Since Sanchez Cerén became the President of El Salvador on June 1, his administration has said securing the $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant is a top priority. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said they want to get it done within their first 100 days in office, which means within the next three months.

The MCC approved the grant in September 2013, but the US Embassy blocked the release of the funds until the government met conditions such as reforming the Public Private Partnership Law (P3 Law) and restructuring a popular seed program.

The P3 Law facilitates government contracts with private entities to provide public goods and services. The US Embassy made the P3 Law a prerequisite for the MCC funds but they don’t like the law passed by the Legislative Assembly. They don’t approve of the oversight role the Legislature created for itself – a committee that must approve all P3 contracts. The Embassy and business community also don’t like that the law exempts important public goods and services like water, health, education, and public security from public private partnerships.

One of the most vocal opponents of the P3 Law has been El Salvador’s labor movement. Unions fear that public private partnerships will result in a loss of jobs, decrease in wages, and even worse working conditions as private investors maximize profits. Other civil society organizations fear the P3 Law, even with the exemptions, will lead to the privatization of important goods and services – like water, health care, and education.

The US Embassy also doesn’t approve of the Seed Distribution Program operated by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG). Officials argue the procurement process violates the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) because the government only buys seeds from Salvadoran Farming Cooperatives, excluding international seed producers like Monsanto. The program provides thousands of jobs for people working for the cooperatives and ensures that more than 400,000 farmers have quality, non-GMO seeds.

Last week US Ambassador said that the Embassy’s problem was not with the seeds, but with the process. On May 2 Voices wrote an article arguing that the problem was not the seeds or the procurement process, but CAFTA.

The MCC program is popular with a lot of Salvadorans and politicians who see it as free money for development projects. But a growing number of environmentalists, unions, and communities argue that the Embassy’s conditions are too high a price to pay for development projects they don’t want anyway. And many see the conditions as an encroachment on El Salvador’s sovereignty.

Among those who oppose the MCC program outright are environmental groups and communities in the Jiquilisco Bay. MCC funds will support tourism development in the Bay and residents fear it will cause irreparable harm to mangrove forests, nesting grounds for the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle, and El Salvador’s most fertile agricultural land. (Voices has written about Tourism on this blog in the past – here are two reports we wrote on tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay).

Roberto Lorenzana, President Sanchez Cerén’s Chief of Staff said two weeks ago that the administration already has a draft Fomelinio Law (in El Salvador the MCC is called Fomelinio) that they will send to the Legislative Assembly soon. It’s unclear what is in the Fomelinio Law, but it likely contains all of the reforms the US Embassy is requiring for release of the MCC funds. Even before he became Chief of Staff, Lorenzana said the new administration is going to open the procurement process to national and international seed producers, in an apparent effort to satisfy the Embassy’s concerns.

While some Salvadorans have spoken out against the second MCC compact, the P3 Law and other neoliberal policies, many have not. The politics of opposing neoliberal economic policies grew more complex when the leftist FMLN party took office in 2009 and again on June 1, 2014. People and groups that organized against privatization, dollarization, CAFTA, and the first MCC compact (all policies adopted by the rightwing ARENA party between 1994 and 2008) have not been as critical since the leftist FMLN party took power. The result is that opposition to these destructive policies is less now that the FMLN is power.

El Salvador will soon get a $277 million grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, but it should be clear – this is not free money.

The 17 farming cooperatives that have been growing seed corn and beans for the MAG’s Seed Distribution Program will pay for the MCC grant when they have to compete with Monsanto and other international seed giants.

Communities that depend on the mangroves for their survival will pay for the MCC grant when developers cut down forest to build resorts and golf courses.

The Salvadoran labor force will pay for the MCC grant when private contractors take over government services and cut jobs and wages to increase profitability.

And all Salvadorans will pay if public goods and services like water, education, and health are contracted out to for-profit entities, especially if there is no oversight in the process.

 

agriculture, Economy, El Salvador Government, Food Security, U.S. Relations

Free Trade Threatens El Salvador’s Seed Distribution Program

DSCF0166
Agricultural workers in the Bajo Lempa harvesting seed corn for the MAG’s distribution program

In recent months conservative groups and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador have criticized a popular seed distribution program run by the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture (MAG). They allege the Ministry’s procurement of seeds violates section 9.2 of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and lacks transparency.

Salvadoran farmers, however, argue that the seed distribution program provides real benefits to farmers and farming cooperatives, and that if there is a problem it is rooted in CAFTA and free trade.

Since 2004, the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture (MAG, in Spanish) has provided seed packages to small farmers in one form or another. The latest incarnation of the program is part of the Family Farming Program. In 2012, Vice-Minister Hugo Flores told the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that “after 20 years of neo-liberalism – a model that has neglected subsistence farmers, which total some 325,000 in the country, and left them in a situation of extreme poverty – a targeted approach had to be put into action given the lack of technical assistance for these sectors.”

Every year MAG buys beans and white corn seed, primarily from Salvadoran producers, and distributes them along with 100 pounds of fertilizer to peasant farmers. The seeds program amounts to a small agricultural subsidy of less than $100 per family, covering only part of the cost of producing corn and beans.

The program is very popular with the cooperatives that produce the seed and the small farmers who receive them. Will Hernandez, a member of the Nueva Esperanza Model Cooperative, told Voices on the Border, “the seed program has strengthened our cooperative, both economically and technically. Before it was just transnational corporations that had the capacity to produce seeds [on a large scale], now we also have the technical capacity.” In addition, the seed program generates employment in rural areas. Mr. Hernandez said that in 2013 the seed program resulted in $1.5 million in wages in rural communities, which is particularly important for thousands of peasant families.

MAG officials say the seed distribution program promotes domestic production of basic grains and food security for the population. They report the program resulted in a record 22.6 million bushels of corn and 2.7 million bushels of beans at harvest in 2013.

In April, MAG distributed more than 188,000 seed packages to small farmers throughout El Salvador. MAG officials plan to distribute more than twice that amount the first week of May to reach of total of 400,000 packages for the year, almost all small farmers in El Salvador.

In January, Vice-Minister Flores said that MAG will “prioritize domestic seeds and the importation of seeds will depend on the offers that we have. Last year we imported 8% of the seeds, because the cooperatives were unable to satisfy demand.” In fact, last year 17 Salvadoran Agricultural Cooperatives, three of which are located in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután, supplied more than 91% of all the seed used in the MAG packages. The remaining 9% was from Guatemala and purchased on the Bolsa de Productos y Servicios de El Salvador (BOLPROS, in Spanish) market. The domestically produced seed cost the MAG $124 per quintal while the imported seed bought at the BOLPROS seed cost $132 per quintal. The domestic seeds used in the program are a specific hybrid and the MAG carefully monitors its quality.

The decision to buy domestic seeds was not just MAG’s. In December 2012 the Legislative Assembly passed Law No. 198, entitled the “Temporary Special Provisions for the Promotion of Certified Production of Corn and Bean Seed.” The law required that all seed used in the agricultural packages be purchased from Salvadoran farmers. Law No. 198 expired in December 2013, at which time the Legislature passed the Temporary Special Provisions to Promote the Production of Basic Grains, which governs the seed program this year. The new law allowed the MAG to purchase seed directly from Salvadoran farmers without going through an open bidding process or purchasing on the BOLPROS. The justification was that the Ministry did not have time to go through the procurement process and still have the seeds ready to distribute by April and May.

There are several reasons why it is more beneficial for the MAG to purchase seeds for the distribution program from Salvadoran cooperatives. As Vice-Minister Flores and Mr. Hernandez pointed out, the program invests in the technical capacity of farming cooperatives. Similarly, the money invested in the seed distribution program, $25 million in 2013, remains in the Salvadoran economy and generates jobs rural communities where they are needed most. Another benefit is that the domestic seeds in 2013 were $8/quintal less than the seed from Guatemala bought off the BOLPROS. This is likely due in part of the cost of transporting seeds from Guatemala to El Salvador. Another reason for contracting with Salvadoran growers is that the MAG can more easily monitor the quality of seed they are buying. The government works directly with farmers on producing hybrid seeds that are able to better withstand El Salvador’s increasingly extreme climate, which can present drought and floods in the same growing season.

Despite the economic and social benefits, John Barrett, an Economic Advisor for the U.S. Embassy, and Amy Angel, an agricultural economist with FUSADES, argue that requiring MAG to buy seed from domestic producers violates CAFTA. Section 9.2 of CAFTA requires the Salvadoran government to give domestic and international providers equal consideration and treatment when procuring goods and services. If the government wants to buy seeds or any other goods or services, Section 9.2 requires that it treat all interested vendors the same, without giving preference based nationality or country of origin.

Amy Angel and members of the ARENA political party also argue that the procurement process this year violated the Law on Acquisitions and Contracts for Public Administration (LACAP, in Spanish) and lacks transparency. Ms. Angel argues that Article 72 of LACAP requires specific conditions to be in place in order for the MAG to directly purchase seeds from the Salvadoran cooperatives, and that the seed purchases did not meet any of the conditions. She rejects the argument that the MAG did not have time to go through a formal bidding process. Ms. Angle says that even if they did not have time they could have gotten a third party to contract with buyers or just bought seeds off the BOLPROS, which would have made the procurement process transparent and CAFTA-compliant.

In January when the Legislative Assembly passed the Temporary Special Provisions to Promote the Production of Basic Grains bill, the rightwing ARENA political party accused MAG of ignoring LACAP and transparency norms in order to give “benefits to one of the FMLN businesses, Alba Alimentos.” Members of the leftwing FMLN party created ALBA in 2006 as a framework for working with the Bloivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas, an economic trade alternative created by Venezuela. In April,Minister of Agriculture Pablo Ochoa reiterated that the reason for bypassing the formal procurement process was a time issue, and the claim that ALBA is at all involved in the seed program was a politically motivated claim that is untrue.

The seed program’s apparent violation of CAFTA is one of several issues that is currently holding up the release if the Millennium Challenge Corporation funds – a $284 million grant from the U.S. government to help develop El Salvador’s economy. While there is no indication that the U.S. government is planning to file a complaint against El Salvador over the program, John Barrett said “the seed issue is very important because it is an example of where the Salvadoran Government has to give confidence in how it will respect their obligations to free trade.”

According to Jose Santos Guevara, Coordinator of the Movement of Victims of Climate Change, the problem is not the seed program – it’s CAFTA. He believes the U.S. Government is using free trade to allow giant transnational organizations like Monsanto take even more control over El Salvador’s agricultural sector. Monsanto is the largest seed company in the word, controlling more than a forth of the global seed market. A few years ago Monsanto bought Semillas Cristiani Bunkard, the largest seed company in Central America, for more than $100 million, taking control of the regional seed market.

The United States, Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic all signed and ratified CAFTA in 2006. By 2011 U.S. exports to El Salvador had risen more than a billion dollars, a number the U.S. government says was low due to a spike in fuel prices. During the same period Salvadoran imports to the U.S. rose half that amount, resulting in a significant trade deficit that did not exist pre-CAFTA. More relevant to Salvadoran peasant farmers, in the seven-years between 2006 and 2013 U.S. agricultural exports to El Salvador doubled to $467 million. The US claims that under free trade they have increased its agricultural exports around the world by $4 billion. The U.S. maintains a trade surplus in agricultural products in part by ensuring that U.S. farmers, which receive large agricultural subsidies, have access to foreign markets and can compete in the kind of procurement opportunities like the MAG’s seed distribution program. While free trade has been good in allowing U.S. farmers to access to Salvadoran markets, it has been bad for the Salvadoran economy and the peasant farmers who are trying to survive and feed their families.

Every dollar (and it is dollars because in 2001 El Salvador traded the Colon for the U.S. dollar) that El Salvador spends on agricultural imports is a dollar that leaves the local economy and not invested in local farmers and agricultural workers. If MAG officials are forced to allow international producers to bid on contracts for the seed distribution program, it is likely to increase the trade deficit with the U.S even more. It will mean the 17 cooperatives that have been providing the seeds will lose their most stable source of income, and agricultural workers will loose their jobs.

Perhaps the MAG’s seed distribution program violates the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but that does not make it a bad program. It is just another reason why CAFTA and free trade are bad policies.

Climate Change, Environment

The Bitter Taste of Sugar

By: Voices on the Border

Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.
Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.

Originally from Southeast Asia, sugarcane arrived in the Caribbean Islands on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494 and its cultivation expanded rapidly throughout much of the continent. Sugarcane is now one of the main export products from tropical countries like El Salvador, where it accounts for 2.8% of the gross national product and almost 20% of agricultural production.

Mario Salvverria, president of the Salvadoran Association of Sugar Producers and former Minister of Agriculture said that sugarcane is not only resistant to the impacts of climate change, the last sugarcane harvest (2011-2012) actually grew by 10% over the previous harvest, reaching 15 million quintals. With that, El Salvador has gone from being a major industrial sugarcane producing country in Central America to being in the ninth largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is one factor that has stimulated the increase in production. CAFTA assigns export quotas that increase annually. For example, the sugarcane quota for the 2011-2012 harvest was set at 645,217.38 quintals (142,246 pounds), but for the 2012-2013 harvest it will be 673,913.03 quintals (148,572 pounds).

But the economic growth enjoyed by the sugarcane sector must be contrasted with the tragedy lived out by the communities located in regions where production has expanded. One of the regions most affected by mono-cultivation of sugar is the Lower Lempa region of Usultuan. The local population has denounced the destruction of biodiversity, consumption of water sources, depletion of agricultural land, destruction of traditional campesino agricultural traditions, and the health of the people exposed to agrochemicals and the methods used to spray them.

The Confederation of Federations of Salvadoran Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) recently completed a study that included the Lower Lempa that determined that the cultivation of sugarcane uses at least eight different pesticides. Among them are Glyphosate, which is a controversial herbicide that environmentalist around the world would like to see banned.

This is one of the reasons that the Lower Lempa reports high rates of kidney disease, a problem evidenced by the results of a 2009 study completed by doctors from the Kidney Institute of Havana, Cuba. Their investigation revealed that 11 of every 100 residents of the Lower Lempa were suffering from kidney disease, and that in the Community of Ciudad Romero 30 people had already died within the past three years. The large majority of cases are reported in men – 25.7% of men tested were positive for kidney problems, while only 11.8% of women tested were positive. Cuban nephrologist Carlos Orantes led the study explained at the time that the problem is associated with a variety of factors, among them is agrochemicals.

The real problem for the communities is the burning of the sugarcane fields, the objective of which is to increase production of the workers who cut the cane by reducing the end product to the cane by burning off the unnecessary green leaves so they are not shipped to the plant. Ricardo Navarro from CESTA/Friends of the Earth stresses that the burning process has the highest environmental costs in that it destroys the soil and biodiversity, alters the local microclimate, contaminates the air, and generates greenhouse gases. The Sugarcane Producers Association of El Salvador, however, has said that the environmental impact of sugarcane production is positive. He says on the Association’s website that “planting a hectacre of sugarcane is the same as planting two hectacres of native forest.”

While few enjoy the sweet economic benefits of sugar, many suffer the bitter impacts of its production without the Salvadoran State institutions acting to take meaningful action to prevent damage.

**This article was first published in Spanish on Tuesday as an opinion piece by the Diario C0-Latino.

Cabanas, Mining

Canadian Embassy Denies Access to two of its Own in San Salvador

Yesterday morning (June 13), a small group of anti-mining activists held a peaceful protest and press conference on the sidewalk in front of the Canadian Embassy. The protest was the culmination of a two-week effort by anti-mining activists to hand-deliver a letter to the Canadian Embassy asking them to end their support for Pacific Rim’s lawsuit against El Salvador. (For background on the lawsuit and Pacific Rim’s efforts, click here and here).

One highlight from the event was when two Canadian law students (Erica and Leah) who are interning for Voices on the Border and FESPAD this summer, tried to enter the embassy to deliver the letter, and talk to Embassy officials about the case. The Embassy turned them away without explanation. Yesterday afternoon, Erica wrote:

“This is outrageous treatment. Any citizen of any country is allowed to enter their embassy while traveling abroad – that’s what embassies are for. Your political affiliations don’t affect this basic right, nor do your stances on controversial issues. The embassy is Canadian territory. As citizens, we have the right to enter our embassy. They do not have the right to refuse entry to law-abiding Canadians.”

When they pressed the issue with security guards, they received word from Embassy officials that one of them could enter if they had document problems, otherwise they could not enter. That’s true solidarity! Erica and Leah experienced the kind of exclusion that Salvadorans and impoverished people around the world experience every day as they try to defend their environment, protect their economic security, and build a healthy life for their children.

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Yesterday’s events came almost two weeks after the International Center for Settlement of Investor Disputes (ICSID) tribunal announced their decision on preliminary objections in Pacific Rim’s lawsuit against El Salvador. This round of objections focused on jurisdiction – determining whether ICSID had the authority to hear Pacific Rim’s claim against El Salvador. In their lawsuit, Pacific Rim argues that El Salvador violated rights protected under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and El Salvador’s investment law. The tribunal decided it did not have jurisdiction to hear the CAFTA claims (Pacific Rim is a Canadian firm and Canada is not a CAFTA signatory), but that it would hear the claims under El Salvador’s investment law.

Following the decision, Gus Van Harten, Associate Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, said,

“The case will now be one of the rare ones that proceeds under the host state’s domestic law on investment, but it is no less threatening than the treaty cases because of this. The arbitrators retain essentially the same wide-ranging powers, including to decide what a regulatory expropriation is, what is fair or unfair regulation, etc…. and to award damages or make affirmative orders against the government. Their award will also be widely enforceable in the manner of any treaty case.”

The Salvadoran Attorney General has tried to spin the decision as a victory, and that CAFTA works, but few agree. Pacific Rim’s lawsuit is still alive and a victory under Salvadoran law is just as enforceable as a victory under CAFTA.

What happens next remains a little unclear. It could be that Pacific Rim and El Salvador proceed to the next phase of the trial. Pacific Rim will present their complaint and EL Salvador will present their defense. Then the tribunal will hand down their decision. Or it could be that Pacific Rim and El Salvador negotiate a settlement; though El Salvador has yet to indicate they’d even consider doing so.

There is another, more extreme option worth mentioning, if for no other reason than highlighting El Salvador’s more serious problem – the fact they give corporations the right to sue them in the first place.

Historically, individuals and corporations did not have the right to sue a country – only a country could sue another country. That began to change when the U.S., Mexico, and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which gave corporations the right to seek arbitration if a signatory country appropriated an investment. International law still dictates that a country has to submit to jurisdiction, and unless they have, individuals and corporations cannot sue. By signing CAFTA, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada all agreed that they would give international courts jurisdiction to arbitrate any disputes with investors.

El Salvador first submitted to jurisdiction in 1999 when the Flores Administration and ARENA-controlled Legislative Assembly passed the Foreign Investment Act – the law Pacific Rim is using now. The also agreed to give international tribunals jurisdiction to arbitrate disputes when they signed CAFTA and other trade agreements.

Professor Van Harten suggested after the recent ruling that one way El Salvador could get out of the Pacific Rim suit would be to repeal part or all of the 1999 Investment Law and no longer submit to jurisdiction. The Legislative Assembly would have to explicitly state that the law is retroactive and apply to any current actions. While that would likely be a popular move at home, it probably wouldn’t go over well with the U.S. and other international bodies, and it seems unlikely that the Salvadoran government would put those relationships at risk without careful consideration.

Withdrawing from jurisdiction may be something El Salvador wants to do anyway. Pacific Rim is only one of many mining companies that have applied for but not received exploitation permits from the Salvadoran government. If Pacific Rim is successful in their lawsuit, many others will likely follow. If El Salvador is unsuccessful in defending itself, it may end up granting more than 30 mining permits or face defending itself against an equal number of very large lawsuits.

Another reason to withdraw jurisdiction from international arbitration panels like ICSID is because future trade agreements may grant investors even more protection and rights than NAFTA and CAFTA.

Just yesterday, Public Citizen published a report on the investor protection provisions in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade agreement being negotiated by Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the U.S. According Public Citizen’s analysis, some of the most outrageous provisions would:

  • Limit how countries can regulate foreign firms operating within their jurisdiction, with requirements to provide them with greater rights than domestic firms;
  • Establish a two-track legal system that gives foreign corporations to avoid domestic courts and laws, and sue States in foreign tribunals; and
  • Grant foreign corporations the right to demand compensation for financial, health, environmental and land use regulations they claim undermine their TPP privileges, and demand compensation for costs of complying with financial or environmental regulations that apply equally to domestic and foreign firms.

El Salvador is not a signatory to the TPP, and the agreement has not even been signed or ratified, but the pendulum seems to be swinging very far in favor of these kinds of pro-investor rights. Once that is the standard, any efforts to protect local environments and resources are subject to the desires of international corporations… until countries organize and push the pendulum back to protect their interests.

Corporations and the U.S. have worked hard to keep concerned citizens and civil society groups from influencing negotiations of these trade agreements. Public Citizen’s account of how hard the U.S. has worked to keep the TPP negotiations sounds a lot like the CAFTA negotiations eight and nine years ago. While Corporations and business interests have a say in the process, concerned citizens and civil society organizations are left on the sidewalk to protest.

In that context, it’s not really surprising that the Canadian Embassy denied Erica and Leah (the Canadian law students interning in El Salvador) entry to the Embassy – they were hanging out with the wrong crowd. Perhaps if they were interning for Pacific Rim or any other international corporation they  would have had a different experience.