A SEAT AT THE TABLE: Central American Small Farmers Challenge Structural Adjustment and Free Trade

A feature of the People-Centered Development Forum,  Release Date April 15, 1993

Wilson Campos

as interviewed by Alicia Korten

In December 1992 in Panama City, Central American small farmers strengthened their voice in the free trade dialogue that is currently dominating Central America's political arena. For the first time a farmer delegation joined the Central American Presidents at the region's annual economic summit meeting.

The delegation's sponsoring organization, the Association of Central American Small Farmers for Cooperation and Development (ASOCODE), was founded the year before. The group's membership includes more than 80 percent of Central America's organized small farmers or approximately 4 million heads of households. Many observers believe it also represents a new kind of organization among small farmers, a regional alliance to respond to the structural adjustment and free trade policies that threaten the existence of basic grains farmers.

The new farmer's movement is trying to deal with economic policies begun in the mid-1980's. At that time, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development began prescribing structural adjustment programs to reduce soaring inflation and burgeoning foreign debt. To increase agricultural export earnings, these structural adjustment programs called for a number of measures, including the devaluation of local currencies to reduced the prices of Central American products in international markets.

Incentives that previously encouraged farmers to grow beans, rice and corn for domestic consumption were removed in favor of incentives to plant non-traditional agricultural export crops, such as ornamental plants, flowers, melons, strawberries and red peppers. For example, credit once available for domestic crops is now available almost exclusively for export crops. Governments are now prohibited from buying basic grains from farmers at above market support prices and selling to consumers at subsidized prices. Finally, the government was required to remove import quotas that traditionally protected basic grains farmers from low international prices.

In the following interview Wilson Campos, ASOCODE's coordinator, articulates the group's development vision for Central America (one that is sharply at odds with policies currently promoted by their governments and international lending institutions) and their strategy for achieving their goal.

Q: What are ASOCODE's primary goals?

A: We [small farmers] are working to make the transition to an export economy, while at the same time we want to maintain our traditions of growing basic grains for local markets. At the economic summit our presidents continued to implement policies mandated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund through structural adjustment loans. [Their heavy emphasis on large-scale export promotion] continues to threaten the very existence of small farmers throughout the region.

To ensure our survival we are creating a regional committee capable of articulating a common Central American small farmers' agenda and applying pressure to ensure our governments implement our demands. International lending institutions and national governments fund projects to support small farmers, but rarely do they allow small farmers to participate in defining the policies that are meant to benefit us.

Q: What is ASOCODE's stand on food sovereignty?

A: We believe in food sovereignty. No country should be dependent on another to feed its own people. Once we have met the food needs of our own people we can use other lands to produce crops for international markets. The problem is that our governments have decided to produce only for export and meet our internal food needs through the world market. This is a mistake. We will fight for our right to feed our own citizens.

Small farmers can produce both export crops and domestic food crops. Traditionally we have maintained a diverse productive base as a survival strategy. If we grew only one crop, we would not exist today.

For example, I have always grown basic grains because they are part of my food culture. And I can feed them to the livestock. However, I also grow macadamia nuts and cacao for export. If I lose with one crop I gain with another. Part of a farmer's logic is to have many different kinds of crops on which he/she can rely.

This strategy also protects our lands and the environment on which we are dependent. Just as the environment is rich with biological diversity, so too are our lands. The government policy of promoting large farms that plant only one crop, as the banana plantations, is an ecologically unsustainable development strategy.

Growing basic grains is not only important for food sovereignty. Basic grain production can also be an important means for economic development. If the government invested in rural industries to strengthen rural productivity we could increase local employment and use local natural resources more efficiently.

Q: Through my travels in Costa Rica I have found that many farmers do not mix basic grains production with non-traditional export crops. Instead they often switch entirely to export crops. Why is this happening if as you say, farmers rely on a broad array of crop types?

A: The new dependency on export crops is a product of policies that our governments have imposed on small farmers. If I go to the bank for credit, but the bank says it will only give me credit if I plant macadamia nuts for export, then that is what I will plant. The government has used mechanisms like credit to force small farmers to abandon the goal of food sovereignty. However, even though we are not receiving incentives to continue basic grains production, we have continued to plant them in order to survive.

Q: Many people have told me ASOCODE represents a new unity among Central American small farmers. What is fueling this new cooperation?

A: Several factors have changed within Central America. Firstly, there is a new political opening within the region as Guatemala and El Salvador end their civil wars. The peace agreements are mobilizing popular sectors to take advantage of new spaces in which they can organize and engage in dialogue.

No one won the wars. The guerrillas, the government and the people¾we were all losers. Finally we have decided to stop fighting so we can begin a dialogue to decide how we want to develop the region.

Secondly, free trade policies and structural adjustment have given small farmers a common concern. We are all struggling to find our place within an increasingly globalized economy.

Finally, we have gained new credibility as farmers themselves have begun to lead the small farmers' movement. In the past small farmers were organized through political parties and unions. Leaders were rarely farmers and decisions were often made without consulting members. Now we are trying to create a movement led by the grassroots with small farmers themselves acting as leaders. We want our goals and strategies to come from the grassroots, not from an elite group of leaders that have little contact with us. Our principal challenge is to ensure we remain responsive to the grassroots.

However, keeping the grassroots involved means decision-making and organization is a very slow process. We do not expect to see changes for many years. We need time to experiment, discuss, change, fail and later succeed. Together Central American farmers need to look for answers to the problems we face.

Q: What were ASOCODE's goals in participating in the presidential economic summit?

A: ASOCODE had two principal goals. Firstly, we wanted to establish an official space for dialogue with Central American governments regarding agricultural policy for the region. Secondly, we used this time to heighten Central American small farmers' awareness regarding the consequences of free trade policies for the agricultural sector.

We face two primary problems as we try to unify. Firstly, there is an overwhelming amount of information we have to learn and disseminate regarding free trade. This is a tremendous task as these are new issues for us.

Secondly, there is not yet a clearly defined consensus among Central American small farmers regarding our positions on free trade. Our lack of coordination with U.S., Mexican and Canadian farmers' groups is yet another problem.

Q: Did you achieve these goals?

A: The greatest achievement was in legitimizing ASOCODE as a Central American political voice. Just being allowed to speak at the summit meeting helps establish the possibility for real dialogue and participation in the future. Our challenge now is to ensure that this presidential recognition is transformed into action.

Secondly, the presidents agreed at the summit to establish a regional fund for small farmers to support our development efforts and production capabilities.

Q: Where will these funds come from and how much are governments proposing to allocate to this fund?

A: This is not yet clear. However, their proposal that we manage our own development through a fund controlled by us is an important step.

Q: In the letter ASOCODE representatives gave to the Presidents at the summit, you state that all Central American countries should adopt equally strict environmental and social regulations. Do you really believe that Guatemala, for example, will raise its environmental standards and minimum wage to say that of Costa Rica? Isn't it more likely that Costa Rica will be forced to reduce its standards to be able to compete with Guatemala? Might a social charter only serve to hide this reality?

A: What you are saying is true. The reality is that such a charter would be very difficult to implement. But we believe we have to support legislation that will encourage regional environmental and social standards even though we don't believe this proposal is very realistic. All the most important historical transformations have occurred through ideas that looked utopian to many.

Q: The letter also demands that governments help peasant groups buy public sector agricultural processing and storage facilities that structural adjustment requires governments to privatize. Do you believe Central American small farmers are sufficiently organized to manage their own processing facilities?

A: Gaining control over processing and marketing facilities is fundamental if we are to become a powerful and dynamic regional economic force. In the past we have not had a clear vision of such a development strategy. Central American small farmers' demands tended to focus mainly around agrarian reform.

Small farmers in every Central American country already have experience managing firms. In Costa Rica we have a long tradition of cooperatives. We have learned much from developing and managing sugar and coffee cooperatives, for example. Through the Sandinista revolution Nicaraguan small farmers have even more experience in managing agricultural firms.

Q: What has caused this shift in emphasis from solely agrarian reform towards control of processing units?

A: When our only organizing structures were unions and political parties our vision was more limited. Instead of leading ourselves we were dependent on leaders who mainly viewed us as a voting constituency, not a potentially powerful economic force. Indeed, most of them viewed us as a declining sector. It is a central ideological thesis of both capitalists and Marxists that small farmers will disappear as countries industrialize.

We failed to see ourselves as a potential Central American development alternative because we were being led by people who did not understand the important role we play within the region. It has only been a few years since farmers themselves have begun to take control of the farmers' movement.

Q: What actions will you take if Central American governments ignore your demands?

A: In Central America almost all change has occurred as a result of wars because we have established so few official channels for popular sectors to influence government policy through dialogue. Violent confrontation has often been the only way for popular sectors to articulate their demands.

As Central America undergoes a peace-making process, presidents are increasingly articulating the need to include popular voices in decision-making in order to guarantee social harmony within the region. Of course, what they say and what they do are two very different things. They have continued to talk and to write documents about dialogue, but we have seen very little action.

We are ready to dialogue. We have told government officials that we would much prefer to concentrate our energy on dialogue than on organizing protests, blocking highways and taking over lands. Before we apply this type of pressure we want to see if anything materializes out of discussions with our governments.

However, we are not naive. We understand that their speeches about social harmony and dialogue are largely not genuine. They are buying time so that they can implement their economic policies without popular resistance. The process is like arm-wrestling. However, through the negotiation process we are also strengthening our ability to respond through action if our demands are ignored. If military violence again erupts in the region, farmers all across the isthmus are going to unite.

Q: Will the World Bank's structural adjustment program hinder your efforts to implement the policies you are proposing?

A: We are very practical. Our movement's face is glued to reality. We are not going to stop structural adjustment. We cannot forever use up our energy saying no, no, no to structural adjustment. Now we are looking for ways to join the dialogue to ensure structural adjustment does not wipe us out.

If we are to survive, structural adjustment needs to happen much more slowly. Producing non-traditional export crops requires an entirely new form of organization for us. We need time to organize exporting cooperatives. These cooperatives need to make contacts with foreign markets and gain access to international transport systems. Farmers need to learn how to produce a quality export crop. To successfully make such a transition takes many, many years.

Q: What is the most important idea you would like to convey to a U.S. audience?

A: At the most fundamental level, we are all being threatened, the North as well as the South, by economic policies that are destroying the little this planet still holds. The current development strategy the U.S. is advocating is simply suicidal.

Structural adjustment and free trade are based upon the trickle-down theory. Supporters believe first our countries must grow and then we can distribute the benefits of this growth. The idea is that a few need to gain a lot before they can share their wealth with the rest of the population. But what has happened? Poverty has deepened and environmental destruction has accelerated.

Fortunately, now we have the statistics to prove that structural adjustment has not produced the results advocates promised. What this theory supports is violence against both the environment and the poor. Structural adjustment does not address Central America's fundamental problems such as the unjust distribution of control over natural resources in the region.

However, we believe there are alternative forms of development that incorporate people and the environment more fully. Together people in the North and South must begin to explore alternatives that ensure every person on this planet meets their basic needs.

We want U.S. citizens to help us gain a voice within institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Right now it is almost impossible for us to influence dialogue within these institutions.

We want these institutions to stop tying loans to the restructuring of economic policies we have fought for decades to establish. And we want our countries to maintain the right to subsidize domestic market production and protect domestic producers through tariffs.

U.S. citizens are capable of pressing their government to change these policies. The Vietnam war is an example of a popular movement successfully ending a useless war. The Vietnam war demonstrates that U.S. citizens can influence and change the political discourse within their own country.


Wilson Campos, is coordinator of La Asociacion de Organizaciones Campesinas Centroamericanas para la Cooperacion y el Desarrollo (ASOCODE), the federation of Central American small farmer associations. Alicia Korten is a Fulbright Fellow conducting research on structural adjustment in Costa Rica. Her address is: c/o Amigos de las Americas, AP 8424-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica. This interview article is distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.

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