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  Number 346 | Mayo 2010
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Nicaragua

They Sow Promises, We Harvest Disillusion

Information and thoughts from an experienced rural organizer about the problems rural producers are facing at the approach of this year’s first agricultural cycle and about the larger ecological crisis we’re facing as human beings.

Sinforiano Cáceres

Nicaragua was affected yet again last year by that recurring climatic phenomenon known as El Niño,
an ocean current that causes drought across Central America. The 2009 one was severe.

It resulted in lost crops and areas that had been prepared but in which nothing was planted, which implied lost resources, effort and work. El Niño also meant low harvest yields. The national average yield for maize dropped from a little over 15 quintals per hectare to about 10 (a quintal is a hundredweight). Sorghum fell from 28 quintals per hectare to 21. There was less food for both people and animals, a more acute shortage of seeds adapted to drought and a worsening shortage of both surface and underground water.

The water shortage made the crisis even more complex, because if there are soil erosion problems we can do conservation work to gradually recover some degree of fertile topsoil, but when we lose water sources there’s little left to do other than feel sorry for ourselves because water is extremely hard to recover. The severe water shortage has implied a loss of animals and increased poverty and malnutrition. And above all it has meant more desperation, because when there’s no water you think constantly about how risky life is.

The great fear this
planting season is the seed

As governments typically do, this one gave a good amount of seed to a certain number of growers last year. The past four governments have provided seed to some 70,000 farmers: Bolaños to 75,000 and Chamorro up to 90,000. This government says it has helped 70,000 over the past two years and is talking about 86,000 for 2010. That’s the limit of what they can cover.

In our rounds through all the country’s departments preparing for this year’s new agricultural cycle and the first planting, one of the first concerns the farmers express has to do with seed. The problem is serious, with a lot of fear about the quality of the seed they’re going to plant.

This fear has several causes. The seed provided by the government last year had the “certified” seal but it didn’t work because it wasn’t of the required quality. When the sacks were opened, you didn’t have to be a farmer to realize there was a whole mix of seeds inside, many of them broken, although all were painted with the substance used to cure them, so they appeared to be good. People who tried to plant that seed had major losses. It’s a tragedy public opinion is barely aware of. Why did the government give out that seed? Who certified it? So this drought of values and ethics adds to the drought caused by El Niño.

Another problem is that a lot of the seed is being stored in inadequate places, where it easily loses its vigor and germinating power. This problem is going to worsen over time if serious measures aren’t taken.

Such problems are making our producers’ reticent to adopt the new varieties of improved seed with a greater yield. Only 17% of the nation’s growers use certified seed. And after the problems we had in 2009, the resistance will be even greater and the yield will therefore be lower.

Traditional seed production vs. hybrid seeds

In Nicaragua, growers in the rainier areas—who can plant three times a year—produce the traditional local seed that growers in drier areas then use in the first cycle of the next year. They in turn produce the seed that growers in the rainy areas use in the second and third plantings. That seed cycle is basic to the growers’ self-supply, guaranteeing production and continuous seed improvement. But one of the most serious consequences of a drought as long as last year’s is the effect on that traditional seed cycle. So now we’re coming up on the start of the planting season with a severe seed deficit.

That situation is actually nothing new in Nicaragua. A traditional production system historically supplied the needs of local and national planting based on small-scale production of seed appropriate to the agro-ecological conditions of each place. The farmers’ procedure for getting their own improved maize seed is more empirical than for the laboratory-produced improved seed, but it’s still valid. It’s the natural result of a classification process in which they observe the characteristics of the harvested kernels and keep the best seed each year. They are aided in this process by crossed pollination. But recent governments have promoted the provision of hybrid seeds to farmers, sometimes improved varieties produced in laboratories. These programs discouraged farmers from producing their own local seed to the point that many have lost the custom or no longer have the capacity to conserve, produce and improve it.

The certified hybrid seed provided by the governments gives a better yield, but only conserves its laboratory-produced genetic characteristics for one generation; the next year; the yield and the quality begin to drop. Another problem with hybrid seed is that while it gives a higher yield, it also needs more inputs; it doesn’t produce well without fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide.

Both processes make improvements. One is done in the field by the farmer, the other in the lab by technicians. While both are good, the natural one makes farmers more autonomous. Their seed may yield a little less, but it allows them to survive crises like this one and produce with seeds adapted to the changes taking place over time. The hybrid seed makes them more dependent on a commercial house, and on having enough money to buy it each year. It leaves them with limited possibilities of achieving food sovereignty.

How serious is the seed deficit?

Last year was tragic, what with the drought, bad quality seed that didn’t germinate, the distribution of varieties inappropriate to the area in which they were to be used, and the assignation of seeds and inputs based on criteria that were more political than productive… This year farmers are facing a tough decision: buy seed with a high possibility of not working or not plant at all.

Nicaragua’s seed deficit this year is quite serious. Two official figures, both provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAG-FOR), are enough to give you an idea of the problem. The government calculated that there is a potential red-bean planting area of just under 80,000 hectares in the first planting cycle. To cover that area you would need 91,600 quintals of bean seed, but the different seed providers, including the government, only have 12,693 quintals. In the case of maize, the potential area for the first planting is a little over 1.03 million hectares, which would take 500,000 quintals of seed to cover, but the government has only 25,821 quintals of certified seed. This enormous deficit has been building for the past three years, in all three planting cycles of 2007, 2008 and 2009. This will be the tenth cycle, meaning it is now turning into a vicious circle.

What happens when there’s a seed deficit? There’s obviously a food deficit. And a food deficit is always resolved in one of two ways: those who don’t have the money to buy food eat less and the government or businesses import food for those who do have the money, obviously at higher prices. Food donations also come in—as has happened this year—to be used in food-for-work programs, social aid packages in the areas most affected by the drought or UN Food and Agriculture Organization programs.

Food production has become a very sensitive and worrying problem in the current situation. But the possibility and the capacity exist to deal with the problem. I’m convinced you only need political will and honesty, because we have the rest. The government should make an effort to get everyone to agree to help solve such a serious challenge. One solution should be the creation of a national seed program. I think we could achieve it if the government, the farmers and all other actors in the productive and value chains worked together in a complementary way.

A neck with no bottle

The government plans to implement a new program for this 2010-2011 agricultural year, known as the Agro-food Seed Program (PAS), which will supposedly benefit some 86,000 small farmer families in the year’s three plantings. They will be issued inputs and seeds for 1.4 hectares per grower of maize and white sorghum, or a third of a hectare of both beans and non-irrigated rice. The inputs are 80 pounds of certified bean seed and a quintal of fertilizer (NPK), 34 pounds of certified maize seed and a quintal of urea, 100 pounds of certified non-irrigated rice and a quintal of urea, and 20 pounds of certified white sorghum and a quintal of urea. These packages will be issued as a credit to be paid at 8% interest, divided into three parts: 5% for the organization that administers the program, 1% for the Rural Credit Fund (we assume that since this Fund no longer exists this will go to Produzcamos, the new state development bank) and 2% for the program itself.

The new program isn’t bad, despite its subsidized nature. But we believe it has several serious problems both in the implementation mechanism and in the basic requisites cooperative organizations must meet to access the credit. In our case, the case of cooperatives, they are asking for six requisites, all of which have to do with certification. 1) A photocopy of the citizen ID cards and other particulars of the administrative council, the legal representative and his proxy, if there is one. 2) A photocopy of the power of attorney, duly registered in the corresponding property registry. 3) Certification of the cooperative’s legal status, issued by the Nicaraguan Institute of Cooperative Development (INFOCOOP), and its publication in the official journal La Gaceta. 4) Certification, issued by the Ministry of Labor, of the reformed statutes in accord with the new Law of Cooperatives and its publication in La Gaceta. 5) Updated certification of the administrative council. 6) Certification of the minutes in which the board of directors authorizes the cooperative president to take the steps to get into the program.

So what happens? Most of these documents are obtained from INFOCOOP, but it took it two years to update our federation’s statutes, and the average time, when it’s very streamlined, is three months. Knowing this, we asked the government authorities if this list of requisites isn’t just a very elegant way to tell us “Yes, but no.” We also asked them if they know what it means to go to INFOCOOP to get any kind of document, since it doesn’t have offices all over the country and the one with the most employees has three, only one of whom attends the public. So we have an enormous problem with the coverage and real attention capacity in the public sector agricultural institutions: the Nicaraguan Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), MAGFOR, and the Rural Development Institute (IDR), all of which are established as this program’s implementers.

Another thing. One of the basic principles of the PAS is that the government will guarantee delivery of the inputs to the organizations between 4 and 7 days before they need to use them and will guarantee technical assistance. So we’re left wondering if the program plans to open new offices immediately, given that the government institutions have very little or no presence in a number of municipalities.

And what technical assistance? There is no technical assistance for producers in this country, or to put it more gently, it “isn’t very systematic.” It’s sporadic and of poor quality. There are very good technicians in the government, but they don’t even have a motorcycle to get to the communities or, if they do have one, they don’t have any fuel. As a result, they only provide assistance to those who come to their offices looking for it. So we’ve concluded that the new program has a very deficient design and too many bottlenecks. Or, better said, it’s a neck with no bottle.

We pointed all this out to the government authorities with the sole intention of getting them to improve things, because we’re convinced that the government ought to more decidedly promote alliances between the public sector and the social economy sector—the cooperative movement—just as it has already done with the private sector. Considering that the rains that came at the end of April are auguring a better rainy season than in 2009, we have to take advantage of the opportunity nature is offering us by making a great effort and using all our experience to produce food and start guaranteeing food security and sovereignty.

What kind of mentality are we forging?

PAS is assigning the new state bank, Produzcamos, the role of recovering the $7-8 million in micro-credit this program will be granting to the 86,000 farmers this year. But we already know it won’t happen. Without technical assistance and supervision, and with just a bag of seed and a quintal of urea, only a non-farmer would think this was going to work. To get farmers to buy into the program the way it’s designed, they have to be sure they’re not going to have to pay. It’ll be like the Costa Ricans say: I’ll make like I’m giving you something, and you make like you’re going to pay me back…

What we’ll end up with is one more step in the promotion of the non-payment culture that’s contaminating the kind of enterprising, business, productive and responsible mentality we should be forging among producers.

When programs like this get to the communities, people are perfectly clear that Banco Produzcamos won’t go out there and collect. Although it says on paper that they have to pay, the contract is just so it’ll look like the bank is demanding responsibility. But the reality is that the bank doesn’t keep good controls; its mechanisms and procedures are weak and deficient. So the people think: If I don’t grab it someone else will, so it might as well be me who doesn’t pay rather than the other guy. That’s why these programs hurt more than they help, erode rather than encourage and foster a culture of political clientelism and opportunism rather than one of production. This, unfortunately, has been the case for years. It’s a tendency we thought would dis-appear with this government, but we’re seeing it recycled yet again, and with ever fewer and increasingly disorganized programs.

To avoid me being accused of being anti-government, we only have to review the effective recovery of the micro-loans provided by the government in the Zero Hunger program through the “productive food bond” in the past two years. The balance sheet is a disaster with respect to this government’s programs, as was the case with the programs of the three preceding governments. In fact they might have been even worse.

The repercussions of the
No-Payment Movement

Another enormous and very worrying problem we’re facing is financing. There’s insecurity, uncertainty and fear both among those providing the financial service and those seeking it. The credit supply for rural production has been severely cut back. And the credit offered by some micro-financing institutions (MFIs) and by certain NGOs that are exploring the idea of in-kind loans carries very high interest rates. They justify it with the argument that it’s high risk, and to some degree they’re right.

The MFIs’ fear relates to the phenomenon of the No-Payment Movement, not so much because of the conflict these people have created, but because of the ease with which the government changes the rules of the game, saying one day that the problem will be resolved a certain way and the next day that it’ll be resolved a different way. The MFIs and savings and credit cooperatives are now very squeamish, wondering how they can support producers with credit without falling prey to the instability and political polarization. They are toying with different ideas, such as providing the loan as pre-harvesting credit just before the grower starts the picking, or alternatively getting into futures buying. Many people who work with credits are justifiably afraid that as the electoral year unfolds, candidates will start pushing non-payment or the promise that if I win I’ll restructure or write off your loan. In such circumstances it’s very risky for anyone offering financial services to expand the financing supply in the rural sector.

The great joy of an ass

This January the IDR executive director sent a communiqué to rural associations informing us that national, departmental and municipal production councils were being created by order of the President to improve producers’ management and give small producers more active and meaningful participation in the policies and programs the government is implementing. The communiqué explained that rural unions, guilds, associations and cooperatives would be guaranteed ample representation, regardless of their political leanings.

The National Production Council was made up of 12 rural organizations in the country. It programmed 14 departmental assemblies to take place between January 21 and February 22 to create the Departmental Councils. And finally the following mechanism was established: the delegate from the Council of Citizens’ Power—who just also happens to be the departmental FSLN political secretary—would designate a representative to follow up on Production Council agreements in coordination with the MAGFOR and IDR delegates. They would set up a liaison office that would hold weekly meetings then send minutes of the agreements around to the various Council representatives to ensure transparency and democratic criteria in all activities. In addition, the Council would identify the producers’ demands and needs for the start of the 2010 agricultural year. The communiqué ended by informing us that the IDR would establish a central-level liaison office with support from MAGFOR to ensure meeting invitations, logistics and coordination with the different authorities.

This was a very encouraging communiqué and gave us high expectations. We even started thinking things were finally going to get better. But… what happened? The Departmental Councils and the National Council were created, but we’ve only been invited to one meeting. Informative assemblies headed by the IDR, MAGFOR, the FSLN political secretary and occasionally some other state sector institution are held in some departments, but we’ve heard nothing about the liaison offices and are still waiting for the minutes of the agreements that should be coming to all Council representatives.

After four months of patient waiting and with the first rains upon us, we can only think that once again we allowed ourselves false expectations and the IDR communiqué was, as the peasants say, “the great joy of an ass.” It’s a pity that President Ortega’s subalterns haven’t fulfilled his order. Despite this new failure, however, our federation’s relationship with the government is good, albeit not very fruitful or well defined.

Legal advances in food
security and sovereignty

Considering the food crisis a sizeable sector of the rural and urban populations is experiencing, this government has taken important steps to create or update the legal and policy framework related to food sovereignty and security. The National Assembly approved Law 693 on food and nutritional sovereignty and security in July 2009 and two months later President Ortega decreed the regulations for this law. the government also approved the sector-wide productive rural development program last year, with a broader concept than the agricultural and forestry productivist approach of the original program, involving gender equity, the fostering of associations, solidarity and social cohesion. Another advance is MAGFOR’s approval of a food and nutritional sovereignty and security policy.

These political and legal instruments offer us a better chance to work as a nation for food sovereignty and security, but aspects that concern us have to do—again—with failure to comply with the mandates of these instruments. Article 39 of Law 693 establishes that within 90 days commissions must be set up to implement the law’s dispositions. Ten months have passed since the law went into effect and they haven’t invited anyone to set up the commissions and secretariats that will breathe life into the system.

We’re also concerned about the lack of reorganization of the public agricultural sector (SPAR) in keeping with the logic and priorities of the current government. If there are now clearer policies, an updated legal framework and a sector-wide document guiding rural development, we don’t understand why adjustments and restructuring aren’t being done to implement the new strategy. We’re very worried that after three years of this government, we’re still seeing an unstable SPAR, undergoing constant readjustments and changes. Worse yet, it seems to us to be getting increasingly smaller and weaker. We therefore think that without further ado SPAR ought to create concertation arenas and mechanisms like those promised by the Councils the President ordered, or else hold a meeting of the different levels of commissions established by the Food and Nutritional Security and Sovereignty Law. None of this legal and institutional instrumentation means anything if the bodies aren’t created and empowered to implement it. We have the bad custom in Nicaragua of waiting to be given everything and have everything done for us. But we mustn’t forget that they already did it all for us once! Now we have to do something. We’ve been ignored and excluded and it’s time for us to do something, and do it now.

We need a political relationship
with international cooperation

Government authorities have explained to us that the government can only contribute 27% of the public sector agricultural budget; the other 73% comes from international cooperation. This paucity is quite evident when you visit the institutions. If this is the situation, it seems very important to us to rethink the role of bilateral, multilateral or solidarity cooperation.

International cooperation is holding back funds given the government’s difficulties executing the funds it receives, but rather than placing them adequately, it’s using them as emergency funds so they’ll show results. I think there has to be a frank and courageous questioning of cooperation. We should take advantage of the current circumstances to promote a dialogue with the cooperation agencies and see if we can’t get them to change some of their policies. We have to try to establish a political relationship with cooperation, which is a belligerent political actor, as opposed to just a counterpart, beneficiary or target group relationship.

I also think cooperation should support the protagonism of the actors that have always been used, turned into figures for different objectives that have nothing to do with production. In this regard, we’re seeing new, positive trends in cooperation. We’re seeing a tendency to work more bilaterally with civil society organizations, guilds and associations, which seems an important step to us. It’s a historical opportunity for us to prove we can do things better than those we’ve criticized. It’s a challenge that has to be taken on carefully, with the seriousness it merits.

We have to talk about what’s most important…

The 2009 drought is said to have been a product of El Niño, but many other imbalances we suffered last year started way back; they aren’t the product of “el niño” (the child) but, rather “los padres” (the parents). Many of these imbalances are expressed today in climate change, which is a global, not national, phenomenon that affects more than just the rural world, and we human beings produced it. To deal with climate change we have to start right now forging new values, a new culture, new ways of doing things. We have to relearn our know-how. We in the rural world are beginning to understand that the old ways of producing aren’t the most appropriate because they create more problems than they resolve.

In Nicaragua we’ve talked more about the 2009 drought than about climate change. But the drought provoked by El Niño is a passing phenomenon, while climate change is permanent and more destructive. It’s common for us to talk more about what’s urgent than what’s important. And while we’re occupied talking about what’s urgent, what’s important will impose itself and finish us off.

…and assume our responsibilities to the planet

From the different sectors we work in, we have to condemn the way we human beings are acting. We feel ourselves to be victims of the drought, but we’re the victimizers behind what’s happening to the planet. I think we need to feel less sorry for ourselves and be more self-accusing, because when we act like victims we don’t feel responsible for anything. That’s an error we make from all perspectives: productive, organizational, political, Christian… We have to find our rightful place in the hierarchy of responsibilities we human beings have in this world.

To understand all this, we need to educate ourselves and others in a new culture of life. To respond to climate change, we’ve already begun to develop actions to conserve both soil and water, convinced that the drought is temporary but the lack of water is turning into a permanent problem for us. Without water there’s no production, no life in fact. We’re thinking of organizing and educating technicians and leaders with an agro-ecological approach so they can foster a new culture.

It’s essential to reduce the extractive culture and develop a new culture in harmony with the environment. And that’s not easy. All governments have promoted indiscriminate use of agrochemicals to increase production, dominated by a predatory extractive mentality. The first thing we believe has to be changed in the rural world to reduce the impact of climate change are the production systems that are destroying the environment and biodiversity.

Another priority is the appropriate and rational use of the little water we have, which we’re contaminating and not prioritizing for human consumption and the production of food as a human right. We also believe it’s urgent to recover our traditional productive culture, because our technicians still don’t know how to produce seed varieties that withstand climate change. But the companies that produce transgenic seeds are now claiming that they do, that they have seed varieties that produce even in temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade, without water and in saline terrain. We’re facing a strong assault from these companies, because while the tragedy of climate change is becoming a threat for us, it’s an opportunity for them, a great opportunity to sell us siren songs and create irreversible ecological disasters, worse than the ones we’ve suffered as a product of that highly lauded Green Revolution.

We can’t go on producing in the new climatic conditions like we have up to now. We still don’t have enough answers, and finding them implies generating new ideas, new attitudes, new ways of doing things. We have to become aware that each of us has something to say and to do in response to climate change. And if we don’t say it and do it, we’re going to have cities full of displaced, impoverished, hungry peasants, and ever greater food scarcity. We have to learn quickly. If we don’t, we’ll be remembered as a generation that acted irresponsibly with our children’s future and the future of the planet, which has allowed us to live on it despite all our abuse of its resources, beauty and generosity.

Sinforiano Cáceres is president of the National Federation of Cooperatives (FENACOOP), which organizes 620 cooperatives representing more than 41,000 peasant families around the country. Together they are responsible for the production on over 52,000 hectares.

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