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El Salvadoran Government & Social Movements Say No to Monsanto

El Salvador's breadbasket has an alternative vision to the one that US biotech firms like Monsanto would like to impose: "food sovereignty."

On the morning of Friday, May 6th President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador’s left-wing FMLN party, arrived at the La Maroma agricultural cooperative in the department of Usulután for a potentially historic meeting with hundreds of small family farmers. Usulután has often been referred to as the country’s bread basket for its fertile soil and capacity for agricultural production, making it one of the most strategic and violent battleground zones during El Salvador’s twelve year civil war between the US-supported government and the FMLN guerrilla movement.

Once again, Usulután has entered the spotlight for its agricultural reputation. The FMLN, which initially formed around an ideology of national liberation from US hegemony, has now adopted the goal of “food sovereignty,” the idea that countries hold the right to define their own agricultural policies, rather than being subject to the whims of international market forces. On Friday, officials representing the Ministry of Agriculture and the local governorship accompanied President Funes in inaugurating a new plan aimed at reactivating the country’s historically ignored rural economy and reversing El Salvador’s growing dependence on imported grains.

The opening ceremony for the new plan was hosted by the Mangrove Association, a non-governmental organization established by members of a grassroots social movement called La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco (known locally as La Coordinadora), which has been supporting initiatives for food security and environmental sustainability in Usulután for over 15 years. Over the last three months, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working closely with the Mangrove Association and other campesino organizations to develop what may represent the new program’s greatest break from past governments’ agricultural policies: a goal that by 2014 all corn and bean seed needed for agriculture be produced by Salvadoran farmers, rather than purchased from multinational seed companies, namely Monsanto, as has been the case in recent years.

With ongoing support from the U.S.-based NGO EcoViva, La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association have been working since the mid-1990s to promote diversified, sustainable agriculture for small family farmers in Usulután as a means for reducing hunger and building a strong rural economy. According to official figures, almost 95% of fruit and vegetables consumed in El Salvador are imported from abroad, along with 30% of all its beans and 40% of corn. Meanwhile, non-commercial small family farmers are said to produce up to 70% of the basic grains that are cultivated domestically, mostly for their own family’s consumption, making them particularly important for El Salvador’s food security.

This fact has not been lost on the Funes administration. Support to small family farmers is a central plank of the initiative as indicated by its name, the Family Agriculture Plan. At the end of last year, La Coordinadora lobbied the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt sustainable agriculture techniques as part of the plan. While the Ministry expressed interest in exploring sustainable agriculture, it chose to use conventional hybrid seeds, and their associated chemical inputs, for the first three years of the program.

Despite this setback for the sustainable agriculture movement, the Ministry of Agriculture expressed interest in partnering with La Coordinadora and other campesino organizations in the first major pilot project in El Salvador to produce conventional corn seed on a massive scale. Recognizing that this overture from a government institution to collaborate with the campesino movement presented them with an unparalleled opportunity, they decided to work with the Ministry.

The Mangrove Association recruited three large cooperatives which historically had only planted conventional monoculture crops, such as sugar cane, to participate in the pilot project. This way the organization could ensure that none of the over 125 farms that have diversified their crops and weaned themselves from chemical inputs over the last fifteen years under its tutelage would be reconverted to conventional monoculture. Moreover, the Mangrove Association sees the conversion of those sugar cane fields – whose toxic practices have been linked to an epidemic of chronic kidney disease locally – to somewhat less-noxious conventional corn seed fields as a moderate yet important step towards both reduced environmental harm and greater food security.

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