CAFTA-DR Part 2: The Central American Fight for Food Sovereignty

(continued from CAFTA-DR Part 1: Poverty and Immigration Implications)

In the face of mounting pressure from transnational corporations and free trade agreements such as CAFTA-DR, Central Americans who produce, distribute, and consume food are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain just and equitable local food systems. In response, small-scale farmers around the world are calling for food sovereignty, the right of communities to healthy, culturally appropriate, and sustainably produced food, and the freedom to determine their own food and agriculture systems.

The Problem:

Instead of growing yields destined for local consumption, CAFTA-DR has led to Central American farmers decreasing the diversification of production, instead concentrating on crops for export. In other words, these farmers are planting what foreign markets wants instead of what their locals need.

Not responding to the needs of the countries in the region, the area’s agricultural sector is concentrating on exports to Europe and the U.S., primarily with big monocultures specializing on products such as coffee, bananas, cane sugar, palm oil, and pineapple. From the 1990s to 2005, local food production—such as rice, beans, and corn—shrank by 50 percent.

Consequently, many households have had to adjust their livelihoods to their new economic reality by focusing on other crops and non-crop activities such as biofuels and tropical products. While undermining local markets, “the diversification of production has been done at the expense of starving the local population to satisfy the demand for tropical products in developed countries”.

Developed countries are promoting the cultivation of biofuel crops, such as palm oil in Guatemala, as a sustainable development project strategy. Yet, this expansion deepens food insecurity in this afflicted region by weakening rural sustainability. When farmers are growing for a global market instead of their neighbors, their home regions become more prone to food insecurity, a real problem in Central America, where chronic malnutrition rates are between 23 and 48 percent.

Major agribusiness corporations and U.S. interests play a major role in these problems. In Central America and other regions around the world, companies such as U.S.-based Monsanto force farmers to become dependent on their company by controlling the supply of seeds. This problem – and the role of CAFTA-DR in this issue – is illustrated by a current food sovereignty struggle facing the people of El Salvador.

As nature created them, seeds provide abundant crops that allow humans to sustain their families, generation after generation. However, seed giant Monsanto sells hybrid seeds that are infertile in the second generation, which means farmers who buy their products cannot save and re-plant seeds from one year to the next.  

Monsanto views entities that distribute seeds as competition, and they work against such programs. CAFTA-DR provisions back up their position.

For instance, since 2011, in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador, cooperatives have been producing certified corn seed for the government’s Family Agriculture Program, which distributes the seed along with fertilizer to 400,000 small-scale farmers throughout the country.The program helps small-scale farmers surmount economic and technical barriers to ensure their families have adequate and nutritious food.

The Family Agriculture Program is part of the Salvadoran  government’s strategy to promote food sovereignty in a country that has a long history of food insecurity, social conflict, and ecological degradation related to industrial agriculture.  It has strengthened the technical ability and capacity of local agricultural cooperatives to cultivate seeds and food so crucial for the food security of the nation and the rural economy.  

The seed component of the program has resulted in record corn production since its implementation, and generates more than one million daily wages each year in rural areas where local economies rely almost entirely on agriculture.  In 2013, through domestic seed production, the Family Agriculture Program invested $25 million in the Salvadoran economy and the rural cooperatives and associations that supply it.

However, the U.S. Embassy has recently called into question the legality of the seed program, citing section 9.2 of CAFTA.  This article stipulates that both international and domestic providers receive equal consideration in the procurement of goods and services. Trade interests have called for the opening of El Salvador’s domestic seed program to greater competition, including traditional ties with Monsanto and its respective subsidiaries.

Despite the success of the Family Agriculture Program’s domestic seed production model, these trade interests continue to pressure the government of El Salvador to open seed procurement away from local, domestic producers in order to move forward with the foreign aid compact.

In the end, we must conclude that large farms – particularly in the U.S., and major corporations such as Monsanto are CAFTA’s big winners. CAFTA-DR has opened channels for agribusiness to profit from heavy-handed tactics that create an impoverished, dependent Central American market on which to prey. We applaud and support those in El Salvador and elsewhere who are fighting for food sovereignty and justice on behalf of their own families and others who are up against the same CAFTA-enhanced predators.

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