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NICARAGUA
Nicaragua: Fake Food Fight
Gideon Burrows
5/23/2003
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Last-gasp efforts to raise GM crop awareness among rural communities.

Years of war and political unrest and two decades of soil erosion and plant disease, combined with the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (LP, Nov. 19, 1998), have taken their toll on small-scale farmers in and around the small industrial town of Ocotal in the country’s northern highlands. Nicaragua has the highest malnutrition rate in Latin America, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, which reported in 2002 that 31 percent of the country’s 5.2 million people suffer from poverty-related malnutrition. The highest rates are in rural areas.

In the face of such a grave situation, it would be easy to see genetically modified (GM) crops as the only way forward. Belgian development worker Franck Tondeur is in Estelí, just south of Ocotal, on behalf of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) to work with the Agriculture and Livestock Union (UNAG) on a five-year project covering GM crops.

"It’s a big task to explain to the farmers that new seeds — which are genetically engineered — might create problems for them in the future," said Tondeur.

The debate over GM seeds is raging worldwide, with transnational corporations promoting genetically manipulated basic grains like beans and rice as the solution to the world’s hunger problems. They are, so the pitch goes, bigger, stronger, more resistant to infection and produce larger yields (LP, Mar. 1, 1999 and Aug. 20, 2001).

Anti-GM activists claim this manipulation of nature could be dangerous, not just to the fragile ecosystem on which simple farming depends, but also to the health of those who eat food produced using GM crops.

Traditional small-scale farmers, unaware of new farming methods and debates, are caught between both sides.

UNAG represents more than 3,500 small farmers in the northern region who each use less than one hectare of land to grow enough beans, plantains, maize or raise livestock to feed them and their families, sometimes with a little extra to sell.

The Estelí chapter is especially concerned about the potential of GM crops to make the lot of small-scale farmers even worse. Though the national UNAG has, as yet, taken no clear position on the issue, Estelí has made known its opposition.

"The problems are many and wide, and could spell disaster for peasant farmers," said Tondeur, adding that, apart from the health risks, which he insists tests in Mexico have proved, there is also the potential that these "cheaper" seeds could cost farmers more in the long-term. Farmers could have to buy special fertilizers to grow the crops and pay companies a "patent-tax" for the right to grow. "To us the problems with GM crops and seeds are clear," said Tondeur. "Now we must alert the farmers."

Although the Nicaraguan government, led by President Enrique Bolaños Geyer, is not ready to introduce GM crops, it does want to test them. Given Nicaragua’s desperation to open borders to international investment and free trade, Bolaños’ timidity could be short-lived. His eldest son, a maize specialist now working as an advisor to the government agriculture department, used to work for GM giant Monsanto.

While Enrique Bolaños Abaunza has advised caution over the introduction of GM maize in Nicaragua, he has kept quiet on GM potatoes, beans, tobacco and other crops that are the livelihood of small-scale Nicaraguan farmers. But UNAG warns that the GM threat could also come directly from the United States. According to two non-governmental organizations in Managua, the Humboldt Center and the Health Information and Consultation Service Center, tests showed genetic modifications in samples of corn and soy flour and seed corn donated by the US through the United Nations’ World Food Program (LP, July 29, 2002). Food and grain were provided to combat severe malnutrition resulting from a drought that destroyed much of Central America’s harvest in 2001 (LP, Sep. 10, 2001).

While UNAG lobbies the government for a clearer position on GM crops and seeds, and better assurances regarding their potential dangers, on a local level it aims to inform and facilitate discussion with peasant farmers — empowering them to make informed decisions.

Many of the farmers use centuries-old farming methods and can’t even imagine the problems raised by the GM issue. Tondeur is attempting to develop a learning process for the farmers. "It’s very participative," he said. There are meetings, workshops and talks, as well as leaflets and other information for those who can read." UNAG also contributed to a series of radio "infomercials" outlining the issues.

But ever-present political differences, fuelled by a history of corruption and distrust of Nicaragua’s institutions, make the job more complicated. Many farmers distrust UNAG, regarding it as a front for the Sandinista party, but they don’t have much faith in the government either, with the regime of ex-President Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2002) riddled by corruption (LP, Oct. 7, 2002) and Bolaños Sr. accused of receiving two salaries. The danger is that transnational corporations pedaling cheap solutions see such a situation as an opportunity to "save" Nicaragua and make a tidy profit in the process.(www.ciir.org)

 

 


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Small-scale farmers caught between sides in GM debate.
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