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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
SAN JOSÉ VILLANUEVA, El Salvador, Apr 18 2023 (IPS) - Sitting under the shade of a tree, Salvadoran farmer Martín Pineda looked desperate, and perhaps angry, as he said that governments of different stripes have come and gone in El Salvador while agriculture remains in the dumps.
“I think this shows contempt for farmers,” Pineda told IPS, frowning.
Pineda is in charge of a four-hectare community farm worked by 12 families near San José Villanueva, in the department of La Libertad in the south of El Salvador.
Pineda’s hopelessness turned into concern when he commented on the risks that the agricultural sector faces from climatic phenomena that hit crops almost every year.
This risk increases when considering reports that the El Niño Southern Oscillation (Enso) climate phenomenon is expected to appear in 2023, which would mean new droughts and loss of crops.
“Last year we lost a good part of the bean crop,” said Pineda, 70. He explained that of the four hectares they plant they lost 2.7 hectares, and the same thing happened with the corn.
In October 2022, Tropical Storm Julia devastated 8,000 hectares of corn and bean crops in the country, leading to losses of around 17 million dollars.
The backdrop is the rise in the cost of inputs for production, due to international factors, such as Russia’s war with Ukraine. In addition, in El Salvador there have been unjustified price increases because just three companies monopolize the import market for the inputs required by farmers, adding to their difficulties.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a report published in 2023 that in 2020, factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climatic phenomena, and structural aspects like poverty and violence, exposed the Salvadoran population to even greater risks.
The FAO report said that since 36 percent of vulnerable Salvadorans depend on agriculture for a living, “it is essential to provide affected households with the necessary means to rehabilitate their productive assets and resume production activities.”
However, this course is not being followed in the agricultural sector.
According to official figures, in this small Central American country of 6.7 million people, 22.8 percent of households are living in poverty, a proportion that rises to 24.8 percent in rural areas, of which 5.2 percent are in extreme poverty and 19.6 percent in relative poverty.
Agriculture is not recovering
El Salvador has failed to jumpstart its agricultural sector for at least three decades. It is one of the most deficient nations in several categories of food, such as vegetables.
It is estimated that the production of vegetables in El Salvador barely covers 10 percent of domestic demand, while the remaining 90 percent are imported from neighboring countries, such as Guatemala.
But what is most worrying is that the country is also deficient in Central American staples such as corn and beans, although the shortfall occurs especially when climatic events hit hard, whether excess or lack of rain.
When that happens, El Salvador must import beans from neighboring countries, such as Nicaragua, although if those nations face drops in production, this country must look for them elsewhere and at higher prices.
For example, in 2015 El Salvador had to import around 1.5 million kg of beans from Ethiopia.
“It is sad that we have to import beans, when we have the capacity to produce them, if we just had government support,” Pineda complained.
He said that over the last 30 years, neither left-wing nor right-wing governments have had the political will to provide agriculture with decisive support, and that it appears that the focus is on promoting imports.
“There is no well-defined government policy,” said Pineda. “For example, we have the land, but we do not have the inputs, or ongoing technical advice.”
He was talking about the lack of a clear policy in the last 30 years, including the four governments, between 1989 and 2009, of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the two administrations of the ex-guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), from 2009 to 2019, and the almost four years of the administration of Nayib Bukele, in office since June 2019.
“This government has followed the same pattern, of not showing strong support,” he argued.
To illustrate, the farmer pointed to the need for an irrigation system on the San José Villanueva farm, which would not be difficult to achieve, since there is a river nearby with sufficient flow.
But when the farm has requested technical support for an irrigation system, it has consistently received the same negative response from governments.
“We have no machinery here, no irrigation system, although we have a river nearby,” said Pineda. “We have two wells, but at this time of year they dry up, and we have to buy water.”
“How can we produce food efficiently in these conditions?” he asked.
Bukele follows the same blueprint
Academics agree that the collapse of the agricultural sector was influenced by the 1980-1992 civil war, which left some 75,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared.
But that doesn’t explain everything.
Neighboring countries, such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, also suffered civil wars, and are more self-sufficient in food production.
When the ARENA neoliberal party took power in El Salvador in 1989, the agriculture sector was abandoned by policy-makers.
This was accentuated in the second ARENA administration (1994-1999), when the growth of the textile maquilas or export assembly plants was bolstered as a source of employment, and the government focused even less on development in the countryside.
Decades later, the country still hasn’t found a clear direction for getting agriculture on track, Luis Treminio, president of the Salvadoran Chamber of Small and Medium Agricultural Producers, told IPS.
The chamber is made up of 15 agricultural organizations and in total brings together some 15,000 farmers. An estimated 400,000 people in the country are dedicated to agriculture.
Treminio said that a plan promoted by the Bukele government to reactivate the agricultural sector, announced with great fanfare in June 2021, did not come to fruition because the 1.2 billion dollars in funding needed was not found in the international financial market.
This was due to a lack of confidence on the part of the multilateral lenders, he added.
Treminio said the government lacks vision and priorities, since national income is allocated to unfeasible projects, such as the millions of dollars spent to buy bitcoins, which have been legal tender in El Salvador since September 2021.
“The problem is that the government does not prioritize food sovereignty,” he said, but instead focuses on food security – that is, providing food regardless of whether the country produces it or not, and much of which is actually imported.
One illustration of the government’s chaotic agricultural policy is the fact
that there have already been four ministers of agriculture, in less than four years of government.
Treminio said El Salvador’s farmers are not opposed to imports, but argued that they must complement what the country does not produce.
“We are not against imports, but they have to be regulated,” he added.
He said that what often happens is that, under the justification of shortages of grains or other products, more is imported than what is actually needed to cover national demand, driving prices way down for local farmers.
“For example, in dairy there is a 40 percent deficit in consumption, and 120 percent imports are authorized,” he said.
Growing food in the city
Given the scarcity and high costs of food, small initiatives have begun to emerge to promote gardens, even in urban areas, taking advantage of all available spaces.
One of these efforts, which are new in the country, is fostered by Micelio Suburbano, a group made up of a dozen young people and adolescents who are trying to show that part of the food consumption can be met by growing vegetables and fruit in open spaces in urban areas.
“It’s kind of a utopia to think that in our homes we can grow our own crops of aromatic herbs, tomatoes, etc.,” Nuria Mejía, an architect by profession with a passion for spreading the idea of urban agriculture, told IPS.
The group set up its first garden in 2022 in a working-class area of apartment buildings known as Zacamil, on the north side of San Salvador.
In small spaces that were once green areas in the apartment complex, they have planted three gardens, where they grow on a small scale tomatoes, radishes, eggplant and various kinds of aromatic herbs.
The aim is for people to see what can be achieved and to get involved.
“People see the radishes we are growing and ask us for seeds,” Mejía said.
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