Sustainable Agriculture in El Salvador

Spring 2015
Edith Portillo (in the dark jacket) addressed a Unity College organic horticulture class in October, while Cori Ring-Martinez (in the white shirt) translated. Portillo said organic agriculture is “a life or death situation” in El Salvador. English photo.
Rosa is a member of the community council in Chilama, La Libertad. Chilama’s sister city has funded eight organic garden projects through CRIPDES and CORDES. Photo by Cori Ring-Martinez.
Our Salvadoran visitors marveled at the onions grown by Veggies for All and curing in the Unity College greenhouse. English photo.

In October 2014, Edith Portillo, community organizer and board member of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), spoke at Unity College in Unity, Maine, about Salvadorans’ move toward sustainable, organic agriculture – with a special focus on women’s roles in that movement. Cori Ring-Martinez, co-coordinator of U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities (USESSC) in San Salvador, translated for Portillo. The talk was part of a tour of sistering groups after the annual gathering of USESSC in Austin, Texas.

The USESSC is a grassroots network of 17 cities and organizations (including MOFGA) in the United States working in solidarity with organized rural communities in El Salvador to connect and strengthen movements for social justice in both countries through accompaniment, education, advocacy and by supporting the community organizing work of its partner organization, CRIPDES, one of El Salvador’s largest grassroots organizations.

Portillo said that CRIPDES has been working for the defense of agriculture and land since 1984. More recently it was a leader in creating an organization called Popular Movement of Organic Agriculture to promote organic cultivation, especially by working with rural women.

In this largely agricultural country, said Portillo, most people survive on plantings of corn and beans – and a little rice and sorghum – and the many subsistence farmers tend an acre or less. CRIPDES has been working for many years to get farmers to switch from chemical to organic agriculture, but people have used chemicals for so long that the switch is difficult.

However, more people have been transitioning to organic as renal failure has occurred increasingly in areas where industrial monocultures are grown using aerial and ground applications of Roundup herbicide.

Fifty-eight people in one municipality died of renal failure last year, and chemicals used in sugarcane are suspect. “People have sprayers on their back and sandals on their feet. The spray seeps in. Men, women and children are dying from this,” said Portillo.

The herbicide also drifts to surrounding produce farms, resulting in crop and economic losses.

“The biggest fish always eats the smallest,” said Portillo. “The rich never lose.” This has led to an economic crisis for El Salvador and to large-scale emigration.

Climate change is also impacting Salvadoran farmers. El Salvador is the fourth most vulnerable country to climate change, said Portillo, with 90 percent of the land deforested and with little access to water. Normally, the agricultural season begins in May with the rains, but in 2014 the rains didn’t come. The Ministry of Agriculture told people not to plant because of the drought, but many planted anyhow, as they are accustomed to – and lost 95 percent of their crops.

Because of pesticide toxicity and climate change, CRIPDES and 21 other organizations created local committees to promote organic agriculture. “We see this as a life or death situation,” said Portillo.

They started with assemblies to educate people about the consequences of using synthetic chemicals in agriculture. They encouraged people to cultivate at least a small parcel of their land organically and gave them seed for this. The organizations, in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, also train farmers to make organic fertilizer from materials such as rice byproducts, leaves and wood ashes.

“People are used to buying fertilizer and pesticides and spraying – it’s easy,” said Portillo. “Organic requires a little more effort.

“People are starting to see that they’re eating healthier,” she continued. “Some communities have developed organic agriculture so well that they have a reputation for this and sell organic fertilizers to others at a low cost.”

The success of these programs was unexpected, as few of the many farmers invited to early assemblies seemed excited. But after visiting many agricultural families and talking about organic, organizers were happy to see that farmers filled the hall at the next assembly.

“Everyone is committed to doing organic agriculture,” said Portillo. “Women’s cooperatives use organics to make soap, shampoo, etc. Trainings show people how to prepare a small plot of land. People are getting better nutrition – growing tomatoes, onions, chilies” and other diverse crops and are even raising fish.

Throughout the country’s history, Salvadoran women have been integral to agriculture. That continues to be true, especially for single mothers. Even when women have a partner, both work the land. “So we consider it important that the Ministry of Agriculture gives agricultural packets to women,” said Portillo.

An agricultural packet includes seeds worth about $200 and a packet of synthetic chemical fertilizer. “This is the first year we saw families not use that fertilizer but use organic fertilizer that they made themselves,” said Portillo.

The program is also succeeding in saving native (heirloom) seeds. During 20 years of right-wing rule after El Salvador’s civil war, the government handed out 5,000 packets of seed annually – Monsanto seed imported by then-President Christiani. Now the left-wing government distributes 11,000 packets and has been buying native seeds from local agricultural cooperatives for the last five years for this distribution.

A few members of the MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee, including Willie Marquart (far left), Betsy Garrold (far right) and Karen Volckhausen (next to Garrold). English photo.

The importance of strong communities and international solidarity was evident when the U. S. Embassy said it would hold $300 million in development aid from the Millennium Challenge Fund until El Salvador complied with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and opened bidding to imported seed from such multinationals as Monsanto. But native seeds are better adapted to the Salvadoran environment. The Embassy reversed its position after CRIPDES contacted Sister Cities and other solidarity organizations; protested outside the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador; and contacted the U.S. Congress, which wrote to the Embassy. “U.S.-El Salvador solidarity was crucial” in this happy ending, said Portillo.

CRIPDES is also working with the National Roundtable for Rural Women and the National Roundtable for Food Sovereignty to have a law passed supporting food sovereignty for El Salvador.

“As humans we have the right to access to food and many other things,” said Portillo. Ensuring these rights would deter emigration. Portillo distinguished food security – having enough food on shelves – from food sovereignty – when people have economic and environmental access to produce their own food and have a healthy lifestyle.

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– Jean English

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