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By Edgardo Ayala
"Here we have our source of income to support our children," the farmer told IPS, while carrying out her usual tasks at the Cooperativa La Maroma, one of the seed producers, located in the La Noria canton, in the municipality of Jiquilisco. in the eastern department of Usulután.
The United States government, through its ambassador in El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, conditions the delivery to the country of a non-reimbursable aid package of 277 million dollars, the so-called Millennium Fund II, to which this Central American country bid and open to US companies the purchase of certified seeds.
Excluding them, the diplomat has told local media, violates clauses of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Central America-Dominican Republic (DR CAFTA), signed by El Salvador in 2004.
Since 2011, the Salvadoran government buys 88,000 quintals of corn seed annually from 18 producers, which it annually distributes for planting some 400,000 farmers, to revive the Family Farming Plan. Each one receives 10 kilograms of improved seed and 45 kilograms of fertilizers.
Among those 18 producers are the La Maroma cooperative and four more from the El Bajo Lempa area, in the south of the department of Usulután.
These lands were parceled out and handed over to ex-combatants of the then guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), after the 1992 peace accords that ended 12 years of civil war, in which there were 75,000 deaths.
It was the first FMLN government, in power since 2009, which opened the participation of local producers in the certified seed business.
The administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander who became president on June 1, maintains its relationship with cooperatives, but has also shown its willingness to include international companies in the bids.
Certified seeds are varieties that offer better performance and react better to the adverse effects of the weather. They are the result of crossing genetic material but without modifying it, unlike transgenic ones. Cooperatives also produce some native seeds, albeit on a smaller scale.
The quality of the grain is monitored and endorsed by the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture, which together paid 25.9 million dollars in 2013 for the acquisition of seeds, mostly corn and beans, essential in the Salvadoran diet.
Until the new model was applied in 2011, 70 percent of the market was dominated by a subsidiary of the American biotechnology giant Monsanto, Semillas Cristiani Burkard. Since then, other actors have joined, such as cooperatives, with certified seeds of better quality and more competitive prices.
Last year's purchase was made by executive decree, approved by the Legislature in December 2012, which effectively shut out US companies. The embassy demanded a public and "transparent" tender.
In January 2014, legislators approved a new decree that allowed a bidding process with the participation of international companies. But the process, carried out in April, was won by the same 18 producers.
Ambassador Aponte is now pressing for a different tender that favors her companies, in a position highly criticized by social organizations and rural producers, who in June protested at the diplomatic headquarters in San Salvador.
"The embassy's position is to promote Monsanto's seeds," environmentalist Ricardo Navarro told IPS, referring to the world leader in transgenic seeds, against which there are many demonstrations in Latin American countries.
The ambassador never mentioned the transnational in her arguments, but for Navarro "it is implicit that she refers to Monsanto, the largest in the sector", whose local subsidiary "lost a market that it believed was its own."
The diplomatic headquarters did not grant an interview with economic adviser John Barret, who requested IPS.
But on Wednesday the 2nd it issued a press release in which it says it is pleased that the Salvadoran government has committed to putting in place "a transparent, competitive and respectful mechanism" for national laws such as CAFTA, in future purchases of seeds.
Monsanto, for its part, limited itself to sending IPS an email, signed by spokesman Tom Helscher, in which it denies any involvement in the embassy's campaign.
The dispute reached Washington. Sixteen congressmen sent a letter to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, on Tuesday, expressing their concern about the pressure exerted by the Office of the Trade Representative (USTR, in English), which is promoting the campaign of his embassy in San Savior.
Nathan Weller, director of EcoViva, an American organization that works on development projects in Bajo Lempa, told IPS that companies from the North American country have won contracts from the Salvadoran government, not through public tenders, but through direct purchases. or by invitation.
Both mechanisms are legal, but lack the transparency that the embassy now demands for seeds.
For example, in 2009 and 2010 Chevron Caribbean was granted the supply of fuel by direct contracting, for $ 340,000 and $ 361,000 respectively, according to information from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Those companies "offered a product at a much higher price (than the competition), and yet the USTR did not comment on this," Weller alleged.
The seed of a better life
The sowing of seeds has also promoted sources of employment in an area with great poverty.
In rural areas, 43 percent of households live in poverty, compared to 29.9 percent of urban ones, according to the 2013 annual survey of the Ministry of Economy.
"In addition to generating employment, we are highlighting the productive potential of cooperatives in the area," farmer leader Juan Luna, Coordinator of the Agricultural Program of the Mangle Association, told IPS.
Gladys Cortez, who is busy taking care of the corn plants in the La Maroma cooperative, is one of the beneficiaries of a job generated by the seed program.
"Besides that we have work, they also give us the seeds so that we can grow them for our food," said Cortez, a 36-year-old woman who has to deal alone with the care of her two children, a 17-year-old adolescent and a girl of 13.
Along with her, fifty men and women worked in one of the corn fields in La Maroma. Almost all of them wore long-sleeved shirts and caps or hats, to avoid sunburn, on the day IPS visited the site. Everyone earns five dollars a day.
Only in this area of Bajo Lempa, around 15,000 farmers dedicated to the cultivation of improved grain have jobs, calculate cooperatives, for longer periods than in traditional sowing, since it requires more attention and care.
"It's not that we're making a lot, but since we have an income, it's a great thing for a single mother like me," Cortez said.