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Friday, October 19, 2018
BUENOS AIRES, Sep 24 2018 (IPS) - In front of one of the busiest railway stations in the capital of Argentina, there are long lines to buy vegetables, which farmers themselves offer directly to consumers, at prices several times lower than those seen in stores.
This scene taking place in Plaza Once, across from the railway station that connects with western Greater Buenos Aires, is one of the faces of this South American nation’s economic crisis, complete with skyrocketing inflation, which has particularly hit food prices.
“We had announced that we were starting at 10 a.m., but people were lined up two hours earlier,” Guillermo Riquelme, one of the family farmers enrolled in the Union of Earth Workers (UTT), who brought their produce in three trucks, as part of a special initiative, told IPS.
The UTT is an association of about 10,000 family farmers from all over the country who work farms of one or two hectares, generally leased. They set up a vegetable market in Plaza Once, in the heart of Buenos Aires, to show that food can reach the public at affordable prices.
“We are selling our produce here for 10 pesos (0.25 dollars) per kilo. And of course we earn money anyway, because we are usually forced to sell at three pesos to intermediaries,” said Roberto Eizaguirre.
Both Riquelme and Eizaguirre grow beets, carrots, lettuce, chard and other vegetables on the outskirts of the city of La Plata, some 60 km from Buenos Aires, where thousands of small farmers are concentrated.
That was one of the places visited by Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who on Sept. 21 concluded a 10-day mission to Argentina with a presentation to the media, in which she made a harsh diagnosis of the situation.
She also provided the Argentine government the preliminary observations from her visit.
Elver, a Turkish lawyer who has held that post since 2014, questioned the government’s policies that “seem destined to further promote the export-oriented industrial agriculture model, mainly based on soybeans and maize.”
In this regard, she criticised “the government’s decision to take advantage of the current economic crisis to dismantle support for family farming,” firing nearly 500 workers from the Ministry of Agroindustry, which was claimed to be because of a need to reduce public spending.
The special rapporteur also visited the northern province of Chaco, one of the poorest in the country, on the border with Paraguay. She met with indigenous Qom or Toba people, who because of poverty left their ancestral lands to move to nearby cities, but have not been able to enter the labour market.
Elver said that during her visit she saw that there were “a growing number of people who go to soup kitchens or skip a meal.”
She pointed to the paradox that the government claims that this country produces enough food to supply 450 million people worldwide, while almost four million of its own citizens face serious food insecurity.
Argentina, the eighth country in the world in size with only 44 million inhabitants, has the Pampas, temperate grasslands considered one of the parts of the planet most suitable for agricultural production.
Agricultural production has an enormous importance in Argentina’s economy. Last year the sector’s primary and manufactured products accounted for 65 percent of the country’s exports.
The national economy entered a downslide, with the peso devaluing by 100 percent since April.
As a result, inflation – originally projected by the government to reach 15 percent this year – has soared. In the first eight months of the year it grew almost 25 percent and, in its latest update, the Finance Ministry estimated a rate of 42 percent by year-end.
But food prices rose even faster, by 88 percent in the January-June period, according to a study by the National University of Avellaneda, located in the south of Greater Buenos Aires.
“The price of a bag of flour went from 300 pesos to 1,000 pesos in just a few months, and we no longer know how to keep retail prices down. We are thinking about closing,” the woman in charge of a bakery in Villa Crespo, a middle-class neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, told IPS. This story repeats itself around the country.
“The problem is that wheat is considered in Argentina a commodity, whose price rises when the dollar rises, while here people don’t earn in dollars,” Teté Piñero, of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), told IPS.
“The government should regulate the domestic price of wheat so that this doesn’t happen, but it does not. So today the poor are going hungry and the middle class is in serious problems,” she added.
U.N. special rapporteur Elver appeared to make a similar assessment, when she said that “the Argentine government should take more account of the direct and indirect impact of its austerity measures on access to food for the poorest.”
According to the latest official data, announced in March, poverty affects 25.7 percent of the population in Argentina. But President Mauricio Macri admitted in August that the proportion would be higher in the next survey, due to “inflation, since it is the biggest generator of poverty.”
The U.N. official also questioned “the adverse effect on environmental resources and biological diversity” of the Argentine agricultural model. She mentioned deforestation, with rates close to 27 million hectares per year, and the strong increase in the use of agro-chemicals.
In Argentina there are no statistics on agrochemicals, used intensively in genetically modified (GM) soy farming, which covers more than half of the area planted in the country, as well as in non-genetically modified crops.
Elver described as “miraculous” the counter-current experience represented by the small farmers enrolled in the UTT who on the outskirts of the city of La Plata “grow healthy vegetables free of pesticides.”
“These production methods should have much more weight in the design of Argentina’s agricultural policy,” she added.
Javier Scheibengraf, technical coordinator of the UTT, explained to IPS that “we have about 100 hectares, where we work with herbicides and fertilisers that we make ourselves with manure, ash, soil and other natural products, without chemicals.”
Sheibengraf said small farmers see the advantage “of not contaminating themselves and their families with agrochemicals, because practically everyone lives in the same place where they plant their food.”
“It is also the only way to lower costs because the technological package sold to us by the companies is in dollars and is becoming unaffordable, especially today, due to the devaluation of the Argentine currency and the government’s decision to suspend practically all programmes to support family farming,” he added.
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