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Got Food?

“There is no real food here!” This thought came into my head one day last November as I waited for the bus near my home in Managua. I was hungry and had decided to buy something to eat at one of the nearby food kiosks around the bus stop. To my dismay, the only “foods” available were a variety of colorful chips, cookies and artificial juices appealing to consumers, especially children, but lacking any nutritional value. I started asking myself, “What are we feeding ourselves? Where is our food coming from?

Not too long ago, fresh food was more available and affordable for the people of Nicaragua and I am saddened to see how processed food is replacing traditional food. Now it is often cheaper to buy junk food or drink artificial drinks. Bottled water and milk are becoming more expensive than soda. Supermarkets and open markets are filled with all kinds of instant soups, canned foods and artificially flavored and colored products. One day when I was shopping at the supermarket, I went to the dairy section and picked-up a package of “cheese”. As I read the list of ingredients and noticed the absence of “milk,” I naively wondered, “How come this is cheese, but there is not any kind of milk in it?” Then, of course, I realized I had missed something on the label that read: “imitation cheese”!

As in the past, agriculture continues to be the most important economic activity of Nicaragua. There is one thing to notice, though. With an economy based on an agro-export model, producing food for the people takes a lower place on the list of agricultural priorities. It is more important for the economy to produce as much coffee, tobacco, peanuts, sugar cane as possible and even, more recently, roses and flowers for exports. The government even plans to reactivate cotton production in Nicaragua despite the tragic ecological disaster this activity brought during the cotton rush in the 1960s-1970s. In the western cities of Nicaragua, people are still suffering the consequences of the massive contamination of water sources caused by cotton production. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Each year cotton producers around the world use “more than 10% of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides.” Nevertheless, the government is providing loans to cotton producers, who already started to harvest the first 423 hectares of cotton last December.

A couple of weeks ago, as part of my work, I had the opportunity to visit a rural community. Even though this village is not so far from Managua, it lacks public transportation services and the only access is through a winding dirt road that becomes impassable during the rainy season. My visit into the heart of this small village gave me a firsthand glimpse of what is happening in most impoverished rural communities in Nicaragua. I could not help connecting this reality with food production and food access issues. Since the 1990’s, the implementation and reinforcement of neo-liberal economic agendas, market liberalization, and prioritization of cash crops have deepened the destruction of the peasant economy. Small producers and subsistence peasants cannot compete with low tax or free tax imports that came along with free trade agreements signed by Nicaraguan governments, or with rich countries “dumping” subsidized produce on developing countries. Peasants struggle to survive.

The economy of the community I visited revolves around coffee production, the main export product in Nicaragua. Most people do not have a stable job or income, and those who do have to walk several kilometers everyday to get to work outside the community. Most of those who are employed are men. The majority work picking coffee or as security guards on large plantations owned by wealthy families who are often linked to the economic and political elite ruling the country. The community survives mostly from the little coffee they can produce, which they sell at very low prices to middlemen or large coffee-growing landowners. Many women work in large coffee plantations, too. They pick coffee in return for low wages after long hours of exhausting work under harsh conditions. One afternoon I saw a young woman who came from a distant coffee plantation where she had spent the day picking coffee “to earn some money to feed the children.” Her hands look dry, cracked and stained. “When we pick the coffee cherries, the liquid coming out stains our hands,” she explained. She carried a bucket of dirty water on her head that she would use at home, maybe to wash clothes or bathe. Water access is also a critical issue in this community. It only has running water once a week and sometimes this could take even longer, as long as a month. I had the opportunity to walk with a group of women from the community all the way through the narrow and winding path they have to walk to get water when the water company “does not open the faucet”. It was hard to believe they walk all those kilometers carrying a bucket of water on their heads over a difficult and dangerous rocky road.

Another day, I talked with Dolores Esquivel, known as Lola, a strong woman who is the leader of a women’s cooperative formed several years ago. From her house, we beheld the large extensions of land surrounded by barbwire, dividing the poor from the rich and keeping the poor peasants away from the “private” water springs. Lola spoke about the lack of food people will face in the next months. Right now the community and many that surround it are suffering the consequences of a heavy rainy season that caused the loss of most crops in the last harvest, leaving them with little to eat.

Lola described the deterioration of living conditions in her community. Once, the people could grow enough to subsist, receiving some support from governmental programs, such as technical assistance and loans for buying supplies for growing crops. Now, things are not the same. Even though most people in the community own a piece of land, thanks to the agrarian reform that took place in the 1980’s in Nicaragua, government assistance no longer exists and the situation continues to be one of hardship and mere survival. Lola said that thousands of peasants throughout the country have lost their lands to the banks because they could not repay the loans they had acquired. Land grabbing in Nicaragua is an old ghost coming back. Large estate owners are spreading over the country, just as before the revolution of 1979.

Lola has been involved with the Association of Rural Workers of Nicaragua and has for decades defended the rights of peasant workers, their livelihoods and traditions. In the last years she has been very active in articulating the demand for a new Food Security and Food Sovereignty Law in Nicaragua. Lola recalled the struggle she and her fellow peasant workers had to endure in defense of food sovereignty, a term coined by Via Campesina, an international peasant movement. She explained, “We worked very hard to make the National Assembly pass the law. At the beginning the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) opposed it, because they wanted to use the term ‘food security’. For us it is important to talk about food sovereignty instead. Food sovereignty has to do with access to resources such as land, water, seeds; and it is also about eating healthy food and implementing an organic agriculture system.” Finally, after four years of struggle, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved the Food Sovereignty, Food Security and Nutrition Law in June 2009. Unfortunately, the law has not been implemented because the government has not yet allocated a budget to support it. Even so, the passage of the law represents an outstanding achievement for the peasant movement. Around the world, similar peasant movements are fighting for the implementation of an organic and sustainable agricultural system.

The concept of food sovereignty challenges the hegemonic free market economy that advocates for the progressive liberalization of international markets. Nicaragua, for example, has signed different free trade agreements that leave local producers unprotected from subsidized and low priced agricultural and food imports. A country that feeds its population with massive food imports, even at moderate prices, may be achieving relative food security, but it is not a free and sovereign country. It depends on the will and prices of multinational corporations or foreign governments. Food must be produced, in quality and quantity, in the same country, in order to achieve real food sovereignty. Food sovereignty goes even beyond this idea. When peasants use this concept, they also mean they should not have to depend on foreign materials such as pesticides, fertilizer and seeds.

When I saw the people struggling to put a meal on their tables amidst all the land that could be available in that one community to produce food, I felt some drastic changes need to be made. I wonder why people cannot decide what they want to eat and how they want to produce it. Why are just a few people grabbing the land in this country to produce crops for export, instead of producing food for the people? Why does the government have big plans to increase biofuel production in Nicaragua? Yes, there are programs already in place, to grow large tracts of palm oil to feed cars in developed countries, while small farmers and those who have produced our food for generations are being forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods. They have no alternative but to become cheap labor on large cash crops farms or in sweatshops in the cities.

According to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report in 2010, the gap between the wealthy and those who have less in Latin America and the Caribbean is the widest in world. It is not hard to confirm this data. Just enter the heart of any rural community in Nicaragua, as I did, to experience outrageous injustice and inequality. It took me only about 45 minutes to get to this place from my home in Managua, to hear the voices of those working to raise awareness about the need to change the agricultural system in the country. Sadly, their voices are rarely heard in mainstream news media. Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed or even think there is not much we can do about it, but to achieve the recognition of all human rights, we must start with a small, first step. At least in my country, I can start talking more about the issue of food sovereignty, sharing information with people and urging them to support and join initiatives already being organized by grassroots peasant movements to demand the implementation of the Food Sovereignty, Food Security and Nutrition Law. I would like to raise awareness of what we are eating and how it affects our health. One day I want be able to go to a market in Managua to buy “real” food that is both healthful and affordable.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Northern America
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