El Salvador Government, Environment

The Legislative Assembly’s Environmental Debt

MontecristoThe current term of the Legislative Assembly comes to an end in a couple weeks and their inaction on environmental issues has left a huge debt to the people the were elected to serve.

When the Legislative Assembly began its 2012-2015 term, the body’s President Sigfrido Reyes said, “the debate in the current legislature requires a dignified position of the Parliament. As the Assembly begins, it is faced with some formidable challenges among them is reducing the environmental vulnerabilities.” A month later, Representative Francisco Zablath, President of the Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Change Commission, said, “What the Legislators do or fail to do affects millions of Salvadorans, and for that reason our task is to legislate responsibly and focus on the common good. So I promise to address water issues in a holistic manner and with the benefit of the population being the center focus.”

But three years later, the Legislative Assembly has accomplished little in protecting El Salvador’s environment and natural resources. Legislators managed to pass a ban on circus animals, extend an environmental emergency declaration in Sitio del Niño, and removed toxic chemicals from San Luis Talpa. These are important and necessary actions, but there are so many other big environmental issues the Legislature failed to act on.

The most emblematic is the General Water Law, which was first presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006. It is incredibly irresponsible that in 9 years legislators have yet to approve a law that regulates the use of water. El Salvador is on the brink of a water crisis, and the government must take action, but the legislature seems paralyzed.

Carolina Amaya, an environmental activist at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit argues that the reason they have not passed the General Water Law is that business leaders have close ties to right-wing legislators. These private, for-profit interests want to control water resources through privatization, and their representatives in the Legislature have been holding up the bill on the their behalf. Ms. Amaya says that giving private businesses control over water management would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

The Legislature has also failed to ratify an amendment to Article 69 of the Constitution, which would recognize food and water as a basic human right. The amendment was passed in April 2012 just before the last legislative term ended. But to become binding, the Legislature had to ratify it in this term with at least 56 votes, which they were unable to do. It seems like a pretty non-controversial bill giving people the right to adequate nutrition and water, and requiring the State to manage water resources in a way that provides people with adequate access to each.

Twice, legislators have tried to ratify the amendment, but the two conservative parties have voted against it without making any good policy arguments as to why. The Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, recently asked the Assembly, “the right [to food and water] is nothing you can deny, and will all due respect, and with all the respect I can communicate to the honorable legislators, I want to ask that you not reject the amendment and give this your vote, because if you reject it, you deny Salvadorans of their most important and fundamental rights.”

The reality is, however, the Legislative term will end in a couple weeks and with it the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the country – elevating the right to food and water to a constitutional right.

The legislature also continues to ignore the proposed ban on metallic mining. In a conversation with the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), Representative Lourdes Palacios, the Secretary of the Environmental and Climate Change Committee, recognized that the ban on mining has not been on the Commissions agenda and that they have not looked at the issue.

There are several other environmental issues that are important to Salvadorans and the natural resources they depend on but that the Legislative Assembly has ignored this term. These include the prohibition of toxic agrochemicals, passage of a food sovereignty law, and needed reforms to the Risk Management Law.

The current legislature is leaving a lot of unfinished business for the next term, as well as a big debt to Salvadorans whose health and wellbeing hang in the balance. Water, food and nutrition, mining, toxic agro-chemicals, and risk management are all issues that the Legislature has to address. The next legislative body cannot be irresponsible as their predecessors were – they have a moral and ethical obligation to the people that elected them to office.

agriculture

Debate over the Ban of 53 Agrochemicals in El Salvador

This year our Salvadoran partner communities and organizations asked Voices to join them in a national effort to ban a long list of agrochemicals, including Paraquat, DDT, and Toxaphene. Many of the chemicals are banned in other countries but continue to contaminate Salvadoran communities, resulting in high rates of renal failure, cancer, and other public health issues.

If you follow Voices on Facebook (if you don’t we’d love for you to join us) you might recall that a few weeks ago we posted a photo of communities in the Bajo Lempa, along with Voices staff, CESTA, and MOVIAC all meeting with FMLN representatives in the Legislative Assembly. Our partners were lobbying representatives to consider legislation that would ban a list of toxic agrochemicals. The meeting was successful and the representatives said they were interested in taking action.

Meeting with FMLN diputados about agrochemcials
Meeting with FMLN diputados about agrochemcials

On September 5, the Legislative Assembly took action – they passed a bill banning 53 toxic agrochemicals. It was great news and our partners celebrated it as a victory. There was more motivating the Legislative Assembly’s passage of the ban than our meeting. In recent weeks there has been a tragic story in the Salvadoran news about several barrels of agrochemcials that have contaminated the town of San Luis Talpa, killing at least 60 people. This story helped the FMLN put together a majority of votes to pass the Sept. 5th ban.

But since the law passed, CAMAGRO (the Chamber of Agriculture and Farmers), the rightwing ARENA party, ANEP (National Association of Private Business), and multinational corporations like Monsanto have been lobbying President Funes to veto the bill. They argue that the chemicals are necessary for coffee production and that there are other ways to protect the population from exposure. Funes seems to be hearing them out. He still hasn’t signed the ban into law and supporters of the ban are worried he might veto it.

Members of MOVIAC (the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change) held a press conference during which they demanded that President Funes sign the bill into law. They also responded to the argument that chemicals are necessary for cultivating coffee and other crops. In a statement released this morning, MOVIAC states, “Changing the agricultural model is fundamental in order to protect people and the environment, and for this reason the message is not only to policy makers, but to farmers that there exist other forms of cultivation that protect ecosystems and don’t need the use of fertilizers.”

So all sides are stepping up pressure on President Funes to sign or veto the bill. This is a very important issue in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután where large sugarcane plantations spray large quantities of agrochemicals, contaminating nearby fields, water resources, and local villages.
Below (in English and the original Spanish) is an op-ed piece that Voices’ Field Director Jose Acotsa published in the Diario Co-Latino about the ban on agrochemicals. Jose grew up farming in a rural community in Santa Ana and many in his family still grow crops on their small plots. Jose has also spent the past 20 years working with farmers in rural communities like the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután. His article reflects the majority of views and opinions of Voices’ partner communities, and has been widely circulated at the local level.

Here is Jose’s op/ed in English:

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Program defines food security as the condition in which people at all times have access to supplies of safe and nutritious food that is sufficient to meet their cultural preferences and nutritional needs for a healthy and active life.

Since the Legislature reformed the Law on the Control of Pesticides, Fertilizers, and Agricultural Products, to ban 53 agrochemicals, the CAMAGRO (Chamber of Agriculture and Farmer) and other rightwing parties and organizations that supposedly represent peasant farmers lobbied the President to veto the reforms. They argue that the reforms will have negative economic repercussions on families involved in agriculture and result in greater food insecurity.

Food security has been a problem for decades. The UNPD reports that 17% of rural households and 9.2% of urban households live in the state of food depravation, meaning their food consumption is less than the minimum needed to have the energy required to function properly – and these numbers are likely on the low end. Food security has been an issue with the use of agrochemicals and there is no evidence that the ban will make it worse.

The causes of food insecurity in El Salvador are structural, and include the imposition of the neoliberal economic model that promotes ending agricultural production for domestic use. Proponents of the neoliberal model say that free, open markets will provide the most food at the lowest prices. For this reason, El Salvador dismantled the institutions that supported the Salvadoran agriculture sector.

For example, the government got rid of the Institute of Supply Regulation (ARI, in Spanish), meaning it no longer has purchasing power that allowed it to protect prices for producers and consumers. Without the ARI, markets are exposed to competition with foreign grains; there are no import quotas; and import tariffs are drastically reduced – all creating a lucrative business for domestic importers putting thousands of families into poverty.

Unequal land distribution also has a negative impact on domestic agriculture and food security. Despite land reform, land transfers, and efforts by the current administration to help families get titles to their land, poor families still do not have sufficient access to land or the protections that ensure they can use the land they have in a sustainable and production manner.

The problem is not a ban on agrochemicals. The problem is with the agricultural model that has been forced upon us. The debate should not focus on the poisons that kill weeds, pests, or diseases. The questions should center around the causes of the pests and diseases, and what is causing weeds and diseases to become more invasive. The debate should focus on why people believe agrochemicals are even necessary. It appears that conventional agriculture is counter to nature.

Its now necessary to stake out a new relationship between agriculture and nature so that food production is in closer harmony with nature and achieves more of an ecological balance. Endless economic profits should not be the goal or motive, rather producing food in a sustainable manner, caring for the health of the soil, water, biodiversity, and people. Without question, the ban on agrochemicals is a bold step in the right direction.

A new agricultural paradigm also requires spiritual, ethical and moral values. When asked about the Church’s position on agrochemical issue, Archbishop Escobar Alas expressed quite clearly, “using a proper scale of values, life comes first.”

Here is the original Spanish:

La Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y Alimentación FAO, define seguridad alimentaria como una situación en la cual todas las personas tienen acceso en todo momento a alimentos suficientes, seguros y nutritivos para cubrir sus necesidades nutricionales y preferencias culturales para una vida sana y activa.

Ante las reformas a la Ley sobre Control de Pesticidas, Fertilizantes y Productos para uso Agropecuario, la CAMAGRO en conjunto con partidos de derecha y organizaciones presuntamente campesinas, han manifestado que si el Presidente no observa o veta tales reformas habrá repercusiones en la economía de las familias dedicadas a la agricultura, asimismo se afectará profundamente la seguridad alimentaria.

Sin embargo, la seguridad alimentaria está afectada desde hace décadas.  El Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, sostiene que el 17% de los hogares rurales y el 9.2% de los hogares de la zona urbana, viven en situación de privación alimentaria, lo que significa que consumen alimentos por debajo de las necesidades mínimas de energía que requiere el organismo para funcionar adecuadamente, lo cual demuestra que el uso de agroquímicos no soluciona el problema del hambre.

La inseguridad alimentaria del país tiene causas estructurales, una de ellas es la implementación del modelo neoliberal en el que prevaleció la idea de acabar con la agricultura nacional, porque el libre mercado se haría cargo de proveer los alimentos a precios más convenientes. De esta manera se desmontaron y desaparecieron las instituciones que apoyaban la agricultura.

Se suprimió el Instituto Regulador de Abastecimiento (IRA), eliminando el poder de compra estatal que aseguraba precios justos para el productor  y para el consumidor. La desaparición del IRA provocó la liberalización total del mercado de granos básicos con el exterior, se eliminaron las cuotas de importación y se comenzó un proceso de reducción drástica de aranceles, generando un lucrativo negocio para los importadores nacionales y hundiendo en la pobreza a miles de familias campesinas.

Otro problema, que tiene mucha incidencia en la agricultura nacional, es la injusta distribución de la tierra. A pesar de la reforma agraria, transferencias de tierra y el proceso de legalización de propiedades, impulsado por el actual gobierno,  el  acceso a la tierra para los campesinos y la garantía de hacer un uso sostenible y productivo  de la misma es un problema no resuelto.

No obstante, el problema de fondo es el modelo de agricultura que se nos ha impuesto; por tanto la discusión no debe centrarse en los venenos para eliminar hierbas, plagas o  enfermedades, lo que hay que cuestionar es la causa de las plagas y enfermedades, debemos preguntarnos ¿Porqué las hierbas que crecen junto a los cultivos cada vez son más abundantes y agresivas? ¿Por qué cada vez es necesario utilizar más agroquímicos para obtener menores resultados? Evidentemente sucede porque la agricultura convencional actúa en contra de la naturaleza.

Ante este escenario es obligatorio replantear una nueva relación entre la agricultura y naturaleza, para que la producción de alimentos se comporte en armonía con el equilibrio ecológico, no se trata de generar lucro económico de forma ilimitada, si no de producir de forma sostenible, cuidando la base vital como lo es el suelo, el agua, la biodiversidad y la salud de las personas. Sin lugar a dudas con la prohibición de agroquímicos el país está dando un paso firme en la dirección correcta.

Un nuevo paradigma de la agricultura también  requiere de valores espirituales, éticos y morales. Monseñor Escobar Alas, al ser consultado sobre la posición de la iglesia con respecto al tema de los agroquímicos, expresó con absoluta claridad… “En una adecuada escala de valores, la vida está en primer lugar”.