Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 323 | Junio 2008



We Need More Action and Less Talk About the Food Crisis

Reflections by a leader of Nicaragua’s agricultural cooperative movement about the much-discussed food crisis and the lack of government policies or coordinated actions by the different economic actors to deal with it.

Sinforiano Cáceres

We hear about the food crisis around the world every day. We in the cooperative movement are working to educate our associates to understand this problem better, analyzing the factors that have the most influence on the crisis so we can construct alternatives as producers. We see it as an environmental and social crisis as much as a food one, triggered by the even greater energy crisis.

The ravaging consumer-based development model all over the world is demanding more and more natural resources that the planet can’t guarantee. It’s a model that sparks an excessive demand for energy, which up to now has been generated mainly by oil derivatives, but this growing demand for oil is reducing the supply. In response, new energy sources based on air, water, volcanoes and sun are being explored. But so far barely 10% of the world’s demand is being covered by these sources, which is why an alternative is beginning to be sought in agro-fuels. We call them that, rather than bio-fuels, because “bio” means “life,” and these fuels are negatively affecting people’s lives, especially the lives of the poorest.

Agro-fuels and transgenic food

The food crisis is linked to the boom in agro-fuels, which in turn is closely related to another problem that also concerns us: transgenic foods. The logic that links the two must be analyzed to be able to think about true alternatives and try to recover rural initiatives that have so far been isolated and dispersed, but could offer us results if they were integrated into a national logic of self-sustainability. We in Nicaragua need a work methodology, a logic of organization, relations and coordination among those of us responsible for agricultural production so we can deal with this challenge successfully without necessarily needing more financial resources. The government doesn’t seem up to this challenge.

We’ve identified the six most important factors triggering the food crisis: the energy crisis, trade liberalization, the increased demand for food, natural phenomena, the marginal attention paid to agriculture in recent decades combined with the structural adjustment problems, and finally, international cooperation or development aid. And all of these are inter-related.

The energy crisis is
expanding agro-fuel production

The food crisis is linked to the search for alternative fuels to resolve the energy crisis. The world grain trade is now virtually in the hands of five huge corporations—Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Dupont Agriculture and Nutrition. They control 85% of the world’s food production and thus its grain market. They now decide how much grain goes to produce agro-fuels, how much for animal feed and how much for human consumption. With their media power, these companies have magnified the revolts that have taken place in Haiti and other countries where there has always been structural hunger to justify the need for massive production of grains based on transgenic seeds.

But as many people are afraid of transgenics, knowing they might be harmful to health, these companies are promoting transgenics to produce agro-food. The idea they’re trying to spread is that they’re producing healthy food for people and non-healthy food for vehicles. That idea is a smokescreen behind which to hide the major impact on people’s lives that the strategy of massively cultivating transgenic products to obtain agro-fuels can have. The reality is that the agro-fuels strategy is affecting climate change, greenhouse gases and genetic erosion. It is damaging the biodiversity and food security and sovereignty and is increasing hunger, poverty and rural-to-urban migrations. It is a perverse strategy in which the remedy will be even worse and more costly than the illness.

The demand for food crops has increased enormously because it’s a double demand: for both edible food and agro-fuels. With this double demand, the huge companies that control the grain trade are manipulating prices, which is a barely visible element in the analyses being made but is crucial given the oligopolic control of the food products that are circulating in today’s world.

Aggressive vertical integration
and horizontal alliances

A reconfiguration of the world food and financial markets and also of agricultural production is currently taking place. There’s an increasing vertical integration of the global firms involved in distribution and trade. In Nicaragua, Wal-Mart is now involved in both aspects down to the tiniest detail, as it bought Palí, a supermarket that caters to low-income consumers, not only in Nicaragua but in all of Central America. We’re also seeing that Cargill is buying or absorbing national and regional agro-food companies and even around the world—in Nicaragua we have the case of Tip Top Chicken. And this same aggressive vertical integration of the whole food distribution chain is happening with the banks. National and Central American financial capital has already integrated, and those now-regionalized banks are being absorbed by huge international financial capital, as in the case of Citi-Corp’s purchase of Banco Uno.

In addition to this vertical integration process is the initiation of alliances of transnational oil companies (Esso, Shell) with transnationals involved in biotechnology and genetic engineering (Monsanto, Novartis, Aventis), agri-business corporations (Bunge, Cargill, Monsanto) and the transnational auto industry. These perverse alliances are geared to rapidly consolidate control over the whole value chain of agro-fuels and transgenic products. This is why we say that producers are increasingly dependent on these transnational oligopolies. It’s also why we believe that farmers won’t receive many benefits in the medium and long run and, on the contrary will be forced to give up their land.

Agro-fuels are based on people’s basic foods

There are two kinds of agro-fuels: ethanol, which is produced from sugar cane and maize; and bio-diesel, produced from African palm and soy. In short, the base in both cases is primary products, people’s basic foods. This means that bio-fuels are going to begin to compete with what’s left to us for survival: tortillas, sugar and soy, the latter an economic protein alternative. The height of irony is that basic consumer products here in the third world are now becoming exportable to the North, not for consumption by its population, but for consumption by their cars.

In the North, the gamble on massive production of agro-fuels is displacing traditional agricultural subsidies; the subsidies now go to those who produce agro-fuels. In one international event a French farmer was telling me that if he produced a barrel of ethanol he would receive a $100 subsidy whereas if he produced a hectare of rape he’d only get $60. These new subsidies have already penetrated deep into the European community’s agricultural policy and are distorting its objectives because agricultural subsidies always went to the big companies and big growers. Now, with this shift, small national farmers who cover the foods each European country consumes are starting to produce agro-fuels, and this is beginning to cause concern in the North, because it means having to import more foodstuffs. But where from, if everybody’s joining the agro-fuels race? This explains why the North has to control the South’s biodiversity, technology and production systems.

The huge companies will control the
competition between stomachs and fuel tanks

We’re entering into a competition between stomachs and fuel tanks. And as the largest companies determine the financial and economic policies of the countries and international financing institutions in this competition, we have every reason to think that in the medium run it won’t be the national farmer who obtains the benefits touted by those who applaud the food price rises because of the “opportunity” offered us. When these huge companies solidify their linkage into these value chains, they’ll totally control the prices and the benefits.

The Kyoto agreements, which have to do with halting the climate change, demand that 20% of fuel consumption be sustainable by the year 2020. This means using land even more intensively and significantly increasing current planting areas. Both of these goals exceed the capacities of the countries in the North, so the Europeans decided the countries of the South have to do this work, dedicating their lands and people to agro-fuel production for the vehicles in the North.

In Nicaragua we’re already seeing the Pellas Group increase its ethanol production. What does this concretely mean on the ground? It means renting land from farmers at roughly $100 a hectare to stop growing what they grew before and instead grow sugar cane for the production of ethanol. These farmers explain that “$100 is more than you can get growing maize, sorghum or other crops.” And it’s true. So that farmer, egged on by his problems, rents his land for five years, dreaming that with that money he’ll be able to cover all his needs for that period. But he hasn’t factored in that he’ll now have to buy the food he previously produced for self-consumption, and at ever higher prices as it gets ever scarcer. The winners and losers in this transaction are clear: this “busines” is increasing poverty and hunger. Because of cases like this, which we see so close at hand, we can state that the food crisis expresses the mechanisms that are making it ever harder for small, poor farmers to produce food.

The countries in the South today are being asked to sacrifice our lands dedicated to producing food and shift instead to producing agro-fuels. In the 2006 electoral campaign Eduardo Montealegre talked about expanding the cultivation of African palm to bring Nicaragua fully into agro-fuel production. It’s a good thing he didn’t win and his project didn’t go forward, because the massive planting of African palm would have meant moving further into Nicaragua’s rainforest, where we have our biodiversity reserve. We would have been sacrificing the most valuable thing we have for the short-term gain of a handful of already very rich people.

We’re already seeing thousands of small growers involved in crops destined both for food and agro-fuels. In Nicaragua, 160,000 of the 200,000 maize growers are small farmers. The transition from food crops to agro-fuel crops means not only a change of course, but also an unequal internal competition between agro-fuels and human food for water, land and other natural resources and for financing. As agro-fuels shove us off the best lands, food production will be done on marginal lands, where the yields will be lower and the costs higher, and where the benefit this production generates will be ever less. This human problem, which is quickly becoming a tragedy, makes one’s hair stand on end, but it isn’t yet found in most analyses or incorporated into the poverty statistics.

Nor does the Nicaraguan government have any clear suggestions about these enormous challenges. All we get is diffuse rhetoric. We’re in a moment of crisis and we all need to analyze and discuss together with the utmost seriousness how we’re going to deal with these problems. We need a clear policy. For example, we need a territorial plan that clearly establishes which lands are for food and which for agro-fuels. The government could establish priorities in the territories, urging growers to produce what the territory requires or what the country is prioritizing based on a clear development strategy. This is a function of government and it had better get on the case very quickly… although it may already be a bit late.

Agro-fuel production leads to mono-cropping

The agro-fuel project will foster mono-cropping, and we already know that mono-crops destroy flora, fauna, in fact whole ecosystems. Furthermore, the agro-chemicals they require provoke greenhouse gases that contribute to the Earth’s global warming. The climate change is already making agricultural production increasingly uncertain, with unpredictable hurricanes or droughts becoming more and more frequent. In Nicaragua in 2007 we already saw crops fail due to floods in Chinandega and León, normally dry areas, and due to drought in the north, normally more rainy areas. A Bolivian colleague commented to me that “when Mother Earth gets angry, Nature lashes out.” Nature is punishing us for what we’ve done. The Nicaraguan government has a crucial responsibility to prevent the imposition of mono-cropping. Sugar cane for ethanol production is already being imposed and it’s starting to gobble up the best lands in Malpaisillo and Posoltega. We’re watching what’s happening, some of us patiently and others impatiently.

Mono-cropping means destroying peasant agriculture and the productive diversity of peasant farms, and that means losing their capacity to be self-sufficient. Nicaragua’s food sovereignty won’t be obtained in international forums or presidential summits. It’s obtained by promoting and supporting each farmer so they can be sustainable. The sum of all these sustainable farmers is what will give us national sustainability, not the other way around. Food sovereignty and security require more than political speeches. They require economic actions, ecological actions and productive actions. The government has taken up this problem rhetorically and done very little in practice. That’s why this problem is continuing to get worse, despite so many speeches.

When Brazil’s President Lula is questioned about the massive planting of transgenic soy in Brazil, he justifies it by saying that there’s “good soy” and “bad transgenic soy,” and that Brazil is exporting the bad soy and using it to produce agro-fuel, while the good soy is used to feel the people. The little detail that doesn’t come out in this discussion is that the massive planting of “bad” soy creates an imminent danger of huge proportions through genetic contamination and erosion of both Brazil’s biodiversity and ours. It will work like it did with the Africanized bees fifty years ago. Bees from Africa were introduced into Brazil to increase honey production in a genetic improvement program. All that was needed was for one queen bee to escape from a hive and crossbreed with native bees for these “Africanized” hybrid bees to be born. They are very aggressive and can even cause death. Since that one queen escaped, they’ve expanded all over the continent; we even have them in Nicaragua. The same thing happens with transgenic seeds. We don’t need thousands of seeds; a contamination process, an erosion involving sterilization of the native seed varieties can occur with just one. On the borders between Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia there’s what they call the Republic of Soy: 50 million hectares of transgenic soy. That’s a larger expanse of land than all of Nicaragua.

Agro-fuels aren’t really “clean and green,” but destruction of the biodiversity and genetic erosion are the least frightening aspects in the common logic of agro-fuels/transgenics. People don’t feel or even believe those realities if they haven’t experienced them. The problem requires a more scientific and complex explanation than a 10-minute chat can provide. We try to explain the complexity to our people, putting together an argument that makes it graspable. We aren’t talking about radical ecological preoccupations here; it’s about understanding a global situation that has profound local effects and that requires an education process, information and training to make it comprehensible. And while we’re making efforts to get the issue known, the laws, capital and technology, which respond to an imperial and neoliberal logic, are advancing faster than we are, and having increasing success in linking up what makes us increasingly poorer.

The transnationals and the mass media have sold us agro-fuels as “clean and green,” bolstering the positive image of what they tout as “bio-fuels.” It’s true that the combustion process of ethanol and bio-diesel to produce energy is cleaner than the combustion process of oil and its derivatives, but if we analyze the process as a whole, from the production of the first African Palm, soybean, maize and sugar cane plant, it looks quite different. For example, the agrochemicals required by African palm seriously contaminate the water and erode the soil. The sowing of African palm is ten times more contaminating than petroleum combustion. And the massive production of corn and sugar cane is 1.5 times more contaminating than the combustion of oil derivatives. So it’s not true to say that they’re “clean” fuels. We’re also told that they don’t cause deforestation because they’re cultivated in areas already dedicated to agriculture, but they don’t mention that those shoved off these agricultural areas now used for agro-fuels emigrate to unclaimed forested areas, which they clear-cut to continue living. We’re further told that they bring rural development because they involve technology, new seeds, an injection of capital and new investments. And finally we’re told that they don’t cause hunger. At least that last part is true, because what they cause is death.

The governments of Nicaragua and the other Central American countries and all the economic and social stakeholders of the region have an obligation to lay out the problem in these terms: agro-fuels vs. food; agro-fuels vs. food security and sovereignty; transgenics vs. biodiversity; agro-fuels and transgenics vs. climate change; depredating agriculture vs. ecological and sustainable agriculture; junk food vs. healthy food. And this last contradiction is serious because they’re sending us transgenic foods via the World Food Program, the Glass of Milk Program and the program for pregnant women while they’re buying our organic production. Isn’t there something very wrong with this picture?

Trade liberalization vs. regulation

Trade liberalization is another factor influencing the food crisis. We’ve been participating lately in various international forums where this problem is addressed and we’ve begun to sense a change in the neoliberal trend, which up to now has been that we have to liberalize and not regulate. Neo-liberalism’s representatives are beginning to accept the idea that it’s also necessary to regulate aspects of the economy, trade and production. The food crisis is indicating to them that the liberalization established in the free trade agreements isn’t the best approach, and that the new realities need to be reviewed, analyzed and adjusted. The free trade agreements legalize dumping (selling at below production costs to bankrupt our production) and unfair competition, provoke the triangulation of products, distort the prices of the subsidized products we import from the North and dismantle agricultural protection by obliging us to lower our import tariffs to zero and make the non-tariff barriers as flexible as we possibly can. All this destroys the economy of our farmers and in the best of cases motivates them not to continue planting. They become consumers instead. And let’s be clear: it’s not the same to be a consumer in the North as it is in the South. In the North you have an old-age pension, an unemployment fund; all kinds of safety nets. Here, if you don’t produce you don’t eat.

The loss of food self-sufficiency gradually leads to the transformation from being a producing country to being a consuming one. Such a policy is triggering those who know the most about production and know their land best to leave agriculture. With that the peasant culture stagnates and finally is lost. Here in Nicaragua we already have many peasants who don’t have a productive culture, which is tragic. We in FENACOOP are now working more closely with former members of the Resistance to show them how to organize into cooperatives. When we meet with them a lot of them tell us: “I was born in the countryside, but I went to war at 15, returned at 30 and don’t know how to cultivate the land. I’m a peasant, but not a producer.” The war followed by the postwar governments’ abandonment of agriculture and liberalization of trade have provoked massive rural-to-urban migration, a productive brain drain out of the rural areas.

The environmental changes
are complicating agriculture

In the environmental terrain we have accelerated soil loss in Nicaragua, serious erosion and major deforestation. And using what water we still have in this country for irrigation is no longer profitable given the high cost of fuel and of the electricity that moves the irrigation systems. Although there’s more awareness of the damage done by agrochemicals, the “dirty dozen” are still commonly used, even though they generate greenhouse gases and harm both crops and farmers. All this affects the climate change, which is destroying ecosystems and altering the countryside’s traditional productive logic. We have to review our production model to improve it, adjusting it to the current food crisis, because even though we still have resources in Nicaragua, we’re not going to be able to produce. Or if we do, it will be at high costs that won’t translate into a good price benefiting the farmers, but rather the middlemen.

The climate change is totally changing the logic of peasant agriculture. Our agriculture is increasingly affected by hurricanes, tropical storms, dried up riverbeds and other natural phenomena that aren’t the traditional rains in the traditional seasons. Now farmers are guided more by the forecasts of storm periods and hurricanes than by their traditional knowledge of the rains based on observing and recognizing the many signs nature gave to announce the imminent arrival and intensity of the rainy season, or of when to plant taking into account the brief dry spell in the middle of the rainy season or the traditional hot spell in June known as veranillo de San Juan or the movement of the moon. Now we’re guided by storms and hurricanes that represent rain and benefits for agriculture, but whose violence is dangerous for the large part of the population that lives in precarious conditions.

Our own governments have some of the blame...

We believe this whole situation is international in nature, but we have to add Nicaragua’s own problems—giving first place to the recent governments’ abandonment of peasant agriculture. And that’s still persisting because the governments, both obliged by and in agreement with the international agencies, largely dismantled the institutions that attend the rural world—the development banks, agrarian reform institutes, technical assistance and research programs, etc. All this meant the loss of production capacity and of our agricultural productivity. The gamble was that trade and the free market would resolve everything, efficiently redirecting the resources in which the most efficient would survive, and they, once made wealthy, would have so much riches that some would trickle down to the poor. That theory was a clear failure.

At the same time the country was putting its bets on that scheme, the existing development promotion programs were replaced by social compensation programs and political patronage. The programs that existed in the countryside during the neoliberal governments, and now as well, are mainly patronizing and party-based. If we review the criteria for being benefited by one of the current government’s programs, what we find is a political party logic based on patronage and charity, not on a development strategy. To deal with the current crisis, the government needs to change that logic, as well as the objectives of the resources earmarked for the rural sector.

...and so does development cooperation

International development cooperation also has some responsibility for the crisis, and it needs to be said clearly. When we analyze the non-reimbursable aid granted by the donor countries, we see that support to the rural sector has been eliminated as a priority, and that’s somewhat contradictory because this sector is where the highest poverty levels are concentrated. Do they find it easier to evaluate governability, democracy and transparency than realities that are measurable and verifiable to the naked eye? Taking advantage of the round of negotiations for the Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and Central America we pointed out to them that they determine how much money comes, where it will be used and who will use it. And then at the end of the project or program they claim that the anticipated impact wasn’t achieved because we didn’t use the resources and support from cooperation well. In our opinion the responsibility for whatever failures there have been has to be shared.

It’s good to remember that when implementing projects of several million dollars or euros, they design a strategy for moving into the territory or starting to work with the target group, but generally don’t design departure strategies. They only start talking about sustainability six months before the project is scheduled to end. We also believe that when international cooperation ties its aid to the International Monetary Fund‘s conditionalities, it’s denying its own poverty reduction and sustainable development programs and projects the opportunity to obtain the best results.

We were lucky enough to get a copy of an evaluation of cooperation’s aid to Nicaragua in the past five years and there are some shocking data in it. The independent consulting firm that did the evaluation states that 30% of that aid stays in the salaries of the national government officials and in the international consultants’ fees. And if you add the fixed cost of the international officials who work on the project, that figure increases to such a level that the direct beneficiary only received $0.15 of each cooperation dollar for development.

On numerous occasions we’ve heard the thesis that the donors and funders are looking for an alignment of priorities, systems and procedures in the partner countries, with the logic of having an impact on fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals and improving the capacities of the partner countries. But this is pure fiction, because the donors align themselves with a country strategy and plans whose contents and fundamental directives they designed or imposed, not the partner country receiving the aid. What we see is that the donors are aligned with themselves, following a logic that starts and ends with them…

The international forums and summits—especially the one that established the Millennium Development Goals—are all about resolving effects, not causes. The reality is that even if the food crisis hadn’t blown up into such proportions, the governments wouldn’t have met the goals, and of course now, with the crisis, they’ll have an excuse not to. We should have promoted summits with strategies that attack the causes, not the effects; strategies that have to do with changing policies, changing trade rules, changing the nature of the institutions administering the international and national policies. We think this food crisis should be given a more exact name, because it’s not a crisis of food, but a crisis of values in the transnational corporations, the governments and international cooperation.

We all need to sit down together
to see what role each can play

What clues can we see in Nicaragua’s situation? We see it as a problem affecting many stakeholders and they all ought to be seated at the same table with the government. This isn’t a problem just of the Ministry of Agriculture or the public agricultural sector. It’s a multidimensional problem and therefore a multi-actor one, so it requires a serious discussion with the government where each party presents its resources, its ideas, its experiences, to construct an alternative based on all of them. The government must discuss the problem with cooperation, the private sector and the cooperative sector to see what role each one has to play. But none of this is happening; the problem isn’t being addressed seriously.

We were deeply concerned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Forestry’s recent recognition that there are over 400,000 hectares that aren’t being planted in our country. It’s because we’ve had decades without an incentive policy, an organization policy or a development promotion policy so the producers can take advantage of this “opportunity” they’re going to have for the next five to eight years.

We know that many peasants are rapidly falling into poverty and even into levels of extreme poverty right now. We think that a program to strengthen the peasant family economy and production, small-scale production, should be promoted to prevent people from losing their capacity to feed themselves. And that means avoiding them renting their land to the sugar refineries; instead producing what they need to eat so they diversify rather than getting stuck in mono-cropping. We see this as a very central and very essential task, because it can generate self-employment in a country in which unemployment is on the rise and allow peasants to continue being food producers rather than turning into unemployed people who conclude that the only solution is to emigrate. The farmer needs to be a possible ally in the solution of the food crisis.

We need to strengthen our technical capacity

It seems fundamental to us that the producer associations’ technical capacity be strengthened. These associations are the primary social capital that the small farmers, the poor, the communities have, and they are the most stable over time. In 16 years of neoliberal governments and a year-and-a-half of the current government we’ve seen many changes: of institutions, programs, policies, priorities and subjects… but the producers’ associations are still here. Grassroots organization is always here. The social movement’s institutionality, which is made up of such organizations, has to be strengthened to keep all the governments—including the present one—from continuing to do what they’ve done so far: when it suits them, they refer to you as an association, and when it doesn’t, they refer to you as a person. That manipulation is because we aren’t demanding recognition of our right to have our institutionality as a social movement, as a valid institution to dialogue with any other entity. If that’s lost, the movement can easily be manipulated and manhandled.

An organized civil society is critical to achieving economic and social transformations. Social cohesion is vital to promote development and achieve victories over poverty. National and regional organizations, cooperatives, district committees, productive and social associations and their leadership form part of the institutionality that must be recognized, respected and taken into account to achieve a real inter-institutional relationship. It’s neither healthy nor appropriate to continue with government/poor person relationships or cooperation/poor person relationships. The government institutions and international cooperation agencies need to recognize that small producers, cooperatives and the poor in general have their institutions, their reference points and their interlocutors.

We also need to have
our institutionality respected

We need to discuss the instruments that the government, together with society, should use to cope with this crisis. The new government has replaced the Bolaños government’s PRORURAL with a Five-Year Plan (2008-2012) explained in a document titled “The revolution in the agricultural, forestry and rural system.” There was one draft in November and another in February but both were discussed in secret. We managed to get hold of one these drafts and discovered that it’s a very deficient document: it was done more from a sociological logic than an economic and productive one. It has a lot of political analysis and very few practical proposals, and no indicators or policy instruments. When we analyzed the current goals and those of the next five years, we saw contradictory and confusing data. So it’s a very fragile, poorly structured plan, and the worst part is that it isn’t being subjected to debate; it isn’t being discussed with the supposed protagonists and potential beneficiaries.

The other government document is called “Human Development Plan,” and the government presented it to international cooperation without first having presented it to Nicaraguan society. Why discuss human development with them, if it’s development for us? The government and cooperation both do the same thing: they interpret us rather than consult us; they guess about us instead of listening to us.

The dialogue with the government has been very difficult and scanty. The peasant organizations that have come together around the Agricultural and Forestry Working Group feel they exclude us from the discussion and concertation arenas that we see as vitally important. Just to give one example: presidential decree 22-2008, which created the national consultation commission to negotiate the Agreement of Association between Central America and the European Union, gives two of the six seats designated for economic/productive associations and social organizations to COSEP, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise, which only represents large private businesses. The six peasant and cooperative organizations that represent all the small producers and cooperatives that form part of the Agricultural and Forestry Working Group were totally excluded from that commission, despite the fact that we’ve made concrete written proposals to that negotiation process. This surprised us enormously because barely eight days earlier the deputy foreign minister, who coordinates the negotiations for Nicaragua, had personally told us that the Agricultural Working Group and the Central American Initiative (CID) of which we form a part would be forming part of the commission.

Why do they treat us like that? We feel like they only call us when they need us. But despite these exclusions, when they do call us we agree to go because we can’t give up our role, which is to negotiate with the governments, whatever their strategies and their political leanings may be.

The Zero Hunger Program
isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

A lot is said in the government about the reach of the Zero Hunger program. This program has a lot of resources that could successfully buttress the struggle against food dependence and poverty, but only if it can first resolve three basic problems. The first is that the people receiving the animals have problems feeding them and maintaining them in acceptable conditions. The second is that there are supply problems with the heifers and sows this year because the inventory is rotating but not growing.

The third problem is the most complex: Zero Hunger isn’t generating organization as anticipated. The plan was that a joint liability group, in the form of an association or a cooperative would be formed for every 50 beneficiaries. That meant 300 organizations per year over five years of government, totaling 1,500 cooperatives or associations and 75,000 people organized. Furthermore, that group of 50 people who in May 2007 received a cow, a sow and everything else the Zero Hunger productive bonus offered was supposed to start paying 5,000 córdobas this year to create a revolving fund: 50 people at 5,000 córdobas each is 250,000 córdobas and with 300 groups that makes 75 million. But that devolution isn’t working and since there’s no organization and the revolving fund isn’t being created, there’s no one to pay it to and no one to administer it in any event. So after a year of this, the program hasn’t had its main impact, which was to generate organization to deal with and resolve problems, create alternative solutions and seek social cohesion. The idea wasn’t to create a group to receive a donation, but so far that’s what’s happening, and it’s distorting the program’s objectives.

Things happened the way they did because the Zero Hunger program got off the original course the government had conceived: it was going to use the existing capacity in the rural areas—NGOs, producer associations, cooperatives or other organizations—to develop the project. But it didn’t do it that way. It used the Councils of Citizen’s Power instead. Now it has announced that it’s going to increase the number of the productive bond handouts, while cutting back on the components, as they can’t include everything. But even at that, the underlying question remains unanswered: are we going to put our money on giving out gifts or on creating organization? Because if we don’t create organization, we do more harm than good by giving things to people rather than supporting them so they can take care of themselves. We would be returning to the culture of handouts, of nonpayment, of “let’s make merry with what doesn’t cost us anything”… We already made the historical error of moving into the communities with these freebie methods and, as we should have learned, that style is very damaging. We can’t see the damage it at the moment, but it will soon become visible. There are already communities where we can see this attitude.

We have to keep fighting for our values

Despite everything we’ve been going through in these months because of our constructive criticism of the government’s policies and defense of our associations’ autonomy, we still have hope that the governing party will have the courage to go back to the principles that are valid not only when it was in the opposition but also, and very especially, when it’s in government. There’s no need to look very far for these principles. They’re laid out in the FSLN Statutes: revolutionary mystique, criticism and self-criticism, honesty, tolerance, freedom of opinion, nondiscrimination, internal democracy and unity.

We can’t renounce our dreams. We can’t resign ourselves to accepting as normal that a comrade is seen as an enemy and a threat, is excluded or thrown into unemployment and loses the “chief’s” confidence just for thinking differently, for giving an opinion, for simply putting into practice the right to healthy criticism and freedom of opinion, which is not only a party principle but also a constitutional one.

We cannot and must not accept as normal the institutional repression the public officials and advisers are practicing so blithely against people, institutions and organizations that question or criticize a government action, program or policy. Why must we applaud or admire arrogance and intolerance, a reactionary unwillingness to hear criticism or suggestions?

Why must we accept that productive guilds and social organizations aren’t considered valid interlocutors with the government? Why must we resign our right to point out errors and criticize in order to correct or improve attitudes and behavior by many compañeros who were revolutionaries in the opposition and are now reactionaries in government? Why should we have to give up criticizing and denouncing the opportunism of compañeros who went from being revolutionaries to being privileged business wheeler-dealers and influence peddlers? This opportunism is doing a lot of harm to the poor, the country and the government itself.

We firmly believe that this food, environmental, social and energy crisis is providing an excellent opportunity to re-launch rural development, strengthen that sector of the social economy, promote association, foster and promote cooperative autonomy and develop cooperative businesses that contribute to social cohesion, economic democracy and, hence, social justice.

But we must avoid the food crisis getting interpreted as a scarcity of food. We’re convinced, and the studies confirm it, that there is no food scarcity, but rather obstacles to access to food by the poor and to their ability to produce it themselves.

Our proposal

This whole analysis would be just one among many if we didn’t also propose some minimum actions to seek alternative solutions. We propose the creation of a national working committee to discuss and analyze how to deal with the crisis of food sovereignty and food security, in which all sectors of the agro-food chain are represented: the government, cooperatives, business, finance, agricultural services, consumers… This committee must produce various results, at the very least the following ones: 1) the definition of a legal framework that protects and fosters agro-food agriculture, avoids monopoly control over foods and the use of transgenic seeds, and protects diversity; 2) state policies and programs that define and implement food sovereignty and security strategies; and 3) short- and medium-term actions to contain and reverse the immediate effects of the crisis.

Doing that, we can keep the food crisis from further worsening the crisis of values we‘re currently going through in Nicaragua. If we don’t act in time, no world summits or cooperation funds will be able to save us.

Sinforiano Cáceres is president of the National Federation of Cooperatives (FENACOOP), which has 620 organized cooperatives to which more than 41,000 peasant families belong and which work a total of nearly 52,000 hectares.

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