The peaceful greening of Central America

Once despised, campesino farmers have become instructors in organic agriculture

By John Bacher | 1995-05-01 12:00:00

The bitter civil wars in Central America were fought, in large part, by Indian communities' defence of their ancient lands against the incursions of U.S.-based agro-business. In the remote highlands of Guatemala, Indian communities have fled into the deep forest, to continue their subsistence agriculture. Communities that were unable to flee to the forest or to exile in Mexico were forced into "strategic hamlets." There, under the watchful eye of U.S.-trained fundamentalist Protestant preachers, they were trained in alien farming techniques. These methods require purchased seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides produced by multinational chemical corporations. This technology makes Indians dependent on tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides that are beyond their control.

Now with the peace accords in Central America the campesinos are returning to practise the farming techniques of their ancestors. Marketing cooperatives were established for the one million people displaced by the civil war in El Salvador, following the U.N.-brokered January peace accords between the rebels and the government.

An important part of the transition to peace, democracy, and social justice is organic farming, often based on the traditional Indian "three sisters"--corn, beans, and squash. The success of such ventures is crucial to a transition to a sustainable economy for the region.

Cultivation of three sisters is low cost, nutritious, and ecologically sustainable. Native people steer away from new seed varieties that depend on expensive and polluting chemical-and petroleum-based inputs. In remote areas in Mexico and Central America, Indian communities still propagate ancient corn varieties, using methods that sustain the soil through rotation of small plots and the use of organic fertilizers.

The three sisters approach balances soil chemistry. Beans climb corn stalks, fixing nitrogen that would otherwise be depleted by the demands of corn. Squash and pumpkin vines cover the ground for mulch. These methods can be carried on as they have been for thousands of years on the basis of Indian or campesino farmers' own skills and knowledge.

Under the terms of the peace accords, ex-combatants were promised $2,000 loans for farming investments and three to 15 acres of land, according to its quality. Campesinos who owned only small plots receive a $1,200 loan. The accords establish a national "Bank of Lands," which is responsible for buying private properties from plantation owners and distributing lands and loans to small farmers.

Traditional organic farming techniques are vital to the success of the new farming communities protected by the peace accords. High cost farming methods, with their lower returns in comparison to organic methods, will give the Bank of Lands a pretext to stop its land redistribution and seize campesino lands. Farming success also keeps the army out of villages. International and Salvadoran NGOs are providing campesinos with viable alternative farming methods. In Santa Marta, a 32,000-tree nursery has been established for reforestation. Families receive U.N. food donations in exchange for building erosion barriers.

One organization that is assisting the campesinos is the U.S.-based EarthTrade company. Begun with $700,000 in startup loans raised by Progressive Asset Management, a socially-conscious mutual fund company, Earth Trade acts as a bridge between organic farmers in Latin America and U.S. markets.

In less than two years of business, EarthTrade has established a basis in Mexico and Central America from which farmers are marketing tons of organic products, including soybeans, black beans, sesame seeds, honey, and cashews. These are sold to a growing number of small markets and food distributors in the U.S.

EarthTrade came to the rescue of one farming co-op in Leon, Nicaragua, which (fortunately) had been unable to buy fertilizers or pesticides for two years. It was facing bankruptcy. EarthTrade explained that its unsprayed fields could be certified as organic farming. Chemical sprays were replaced by those using "neem-seed" emulsion, soaps, and chili powder. The farmers subsequently doubled production and sold their crop at twice the local price. They have become the largest certified organic agricultural growers in Nicaragua.

As the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico shows, the prospects for peace in the region depend on the ability of Indian farming communities to make the transition to organic agriculture and defend their land base. A major spark for the Chiapas uprising was the removal of constitutional guarantees of the land of native communities. One of the best ways to safeguard these lands is to revitalize traditional farming methods, through the new markets that networks such as EarthTrade make possible.

Although the NAFTA agreement did not provide a supportive environment for Indian agriculture, many Indian communities still carry on subsistence farming in a surprisingly productive and ecologically sustainable way. One study found that the pasture fields of traditional Indian farms near Veracruz are four to eight times more productive than those of modern ranches. This is achieved by the Indians' integration of green fodder derived from corn and other crops. Families are able to be nearly self-sufficient in both food and energy, and are also able to sell surplus corn, milk, meat, vanilla, and forest products.

The new strategies of native communities in Mexico and Central America are part of a broader greening of the left in Latin America. Mexico now has a Green Party, which garners 1% of the vote. There is even a greening of the left in its embattled bastion, Cuba.

Cuba's survival since the collapse of the Communist bloc has in large part been because of new, greener approaches to its economy, encouraged by the end of oil subsidies. While this has had quite dramatic impacts, with bicycles and horses replacing truck transport, it has had even more significant implications for the development of organic farming.

Before the end of the Communist bloc, the campesino farmers who resisted collectivization were regarded as backward, stubborn kulaks. Now the high energy input farming methods that Cuba copied from the U.S. and the USSR are no longer economically viable. These once-despised peasants have new roles: They have become instructors in organic agriculture to the state farms that are now decollectivizing. The three sisters have become as sacred to Cuba's path to economic survival as they are a vivid symbol of native cultural integrity.

The new strategies of the left in Latin America offer new hope for intertwined peace and ecology movements. The old left's reliance on the Soviet bloc encouraged an imitation of the very earth-assaulting ways that the native-based left in Latin America has resisted. Now a more radical approach to America's domination has deveoped. It does not seek to beat them at their own industrializing ways, but to nurture a different type of society, based on native agricultural methods that were developed before the advent of the "war-chemical-petroleum complex".

John Bacher is an historian and environmentalist based in St.Catharines, ON.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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