A feature of the People-Centered Development Forum, Release Date April 15, 1993
as interviewed by Alicia Korten
In December 1992 in Panama City, Central American small farmers strengthened
their voice in the free trade dialogue that is currently dominating Central
America’s political arena. For the first time a farmer delegation joined the
Central American Presidents at the region’s annual economic summit meeting.
The delegation’s sponsoring organization, the Association of Central
American Small Farmers for Cooperation and Development (ASOCODE), was founded
the year before. The group’s membership includes more than 80 percent of Central
America’s organized small farmers or approximately 4 million heads of
households. Many observers believe it also represents a new kind of organization
among small farmers, a regional alliance to respond to the structural adjustment
and free trade policies that threaten the existence of basic grains farmers.
The new farmer’s movement is trying to deal with economic policies begun in
the mid-1980’s. At that time, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund
and the U.S. Agency for International Development began prescribing structural
adjustment programs to reduce soaring inflation and burgeoning foreign debt. To
increase agricultural export earnings, these structural adjustment programs
called for a number of measures, including the devaluation of local currencies
to reduced the prices of Central American products in international markets.
Incentives that previously encouraged farmers to grow beans, rice and corn
for domestic consumption were removed in favor of incentives to plant
non-traditional agricultural export crops, such as ornamental plants, flowers,
melons, strawberries and red peppers. For example, credit once available for
domestic crops is now available almost exclusively for export crops. Governments
are now prohibited from buying basic grains from farmers at above market support
prices and selling to consumers at subsidized prices. Finally, the government
was required to remove import quotas that traditionally protected basic grains
farmers from low international prices.
In the following interview Wilson Campos, ASOCODE’s coordinator, articulates
the group’s development vision for Central America (one that is sharply at odds
with policies currently promoted by their governments and international lending
institutions) and their strategy for achieving their goal.
Q: What are ASOCODE’s primary goals?
A: We [small farmers] are working to make the transition to an export
economy, while at the same time we want to maintain our traditions of growing
basic grains for local markets. At the economic summit our presidents continued
to implement policies mandated by the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund through structural adjustment loans. [Their heavy emphasis on large-scale
export promotion] continues to threaten the very existence of small farmers
throughout the region.
To ensure our survival we are creating a regional committee capable of
articulating a common Central American small farmers’ agenda and applying
pressure to ensure our governments implement our demands. International lending
institutions and national governments fund projects to support small farmers,
but rarely do they allow small farmers to participate in defining the policies
that are meant to benefit us.
Q: What is ASOCODE’s stand on food sovereignty?
A: We believe in food sovereignty. No country should be dependent on another
to feed its own people. Once we have met the food needs of our own people we can
use other lands to produce crops for international markets. The problem is that
our governments have decided to produce only for export and meet our internal
food needs through the world market. This is a mistake. We will fight for our
right to feed our own citizens.
Small farmers can produce both export crops and domestic food crops.
Traditionally we have maintained a diverse productive base as a survival
strategy. If we grew only one crop, we would not exist today.
For example, I have always grown basic grains because they are part of my
food culture. And I can feed them to the livestock. However, I also grow
macadamia nuts and cacao for export. If I lose with one crop I gain with
another. Part of a farmer’s logic is to have many different kinds of crops on
which he/she can rely.
This strategy also protects our lands and the environment on which we are
dependent. Just as the environment is rich with biological diversity, so too are
our lands. The government policy of promoting large farms that plant only one
crop, as the banana plantations, is an ecologically unsustainable development
Growing basic grains is not only important for food sovereignty. Basic grain
production can also be an important means for economic development. If the
government invested in rural industries to strengthen rural productivity we
could increase local employment and use local natural resources more
Q: Through my travels in Costa Rica I have found that many farmers do not
mix basic grains production with non-traditional export crops. Instead they
often switch entirely to export crops. Why is this happening if as you say,
farmers rely on a broad array of crop types?
A: The new dependency on export crops is a product of policies that our
governments have imposed on small farmers. If I go to the bank for credit, but
the bank says it will only give me credit if I plant macadamia nuts for export,
then that is what I will plant. The government has used mechanisms like credit
to force small farmers to abandon the goal of food sovereignty. However, even
though we are not receiving incentives to continue basic grains production, we
have continued to plant them in order to survive.
Q: Many people have told me ASOCODE represents a new unity among Central
American small farmers. What is fueling this new cooperation?
A: Several factors have changed within Central America. Firstly, there is a
new political opening within the region as Guatemala and El Salvador end their
civil wars. The peace agreements are mobilizing popular sectors to take
advantage of new spaces in which they can organize and engage in dialogue.
No one won the wars. The guerrillas, the government and the people¾we
were all losers. Finally we have decided to stop fighting so we can begin a
dialogue to decide how we want to develop the region.
Secondly, free trade policies and structural adjustment have given small
farmers a common concern. We are all struggling to find our place within an
increasingly globalized economy.
Finally, we have gained new credibility as farmers themselves have begun to
lead the small farmers’ movement. In the past small farmers were organized
through political parties and unions. Leaders were rarely farmers and decisions
were often made without consulting members. Now we are trying to create a
movement led by the grassroots with small farmers themselves acting as leaders.
We want our goals and strategies to come from the grassroots, not from an elite
group of leaders that have little contact with us. Our principal challenge is to
ensure we remain responsive to the grassroots.
However, keeping the grassroots involved means decision-making and
organization is a very slow process. We do not expect to see changes for many
years. We need time to experiment, discuss, change, fail and later succeed.
Together Central American farmers need to look for answers to the problems we
Q: What were ASOCODE’s goals in participating in the presidential economic
A: ASOCODE had two principal goals. Firstly, we wanted to establish an
official space for dialogue with Central American governments regarding
agricultural policy for the region. Secondly, we used this time to heighten
Central American small farmers’ awareness regarding the consequences of free
trade policies for the agricultural sector.
We face two primary problems as we try to unify. Firstly, there is an
overwhelming amount of information we have to learn and disseminate regarding
free trade. This is a tremendous task as these are new issues for us.
Secondly, there is not yet a clearly defined consensus among Central
American small farmers regarding our positions on free trade. Our lack of
coordination with U.S., Mexican and Canadian farmers’ groups is yet another
Q: Did you achieve these goals?
A: The greatest achievement was in legitimizing ASOCODE as a Central
American political voice. Just being allowed to speak at the summit meeting
helps establish the possibility for real dialogue and participation in the
future. Our challenge now is to ensure that this presidential recognition is
transformed into action.
Secondly, the presidents agreed at the summit to establish a regional fund
for small farmers to support our development efforts and production
Q: Where will these funds come from and how much are governments proposing
to allocate to this fund?
A: This is not yet clear. However, their proposal that we manage our own
development through a fund controlled by us is an important step.
Q: In the letter ASOCODE representatives gave to the Presidents at the
summit, you state that all Central American countries should adopt equally
strict environmental and social regulations. Do you really believe that
Guatemala, for example, will raise its environmental standards and minimum wage
to say that of Costa Rica? Isn’t it more likely that Costa Rica will be forced
to reduce its standards to be able to compete with Guatemala? Might a social
charter only serve to hide this reality?
A: What you are saying is true. The reality is that such a charter would be
very difficult to implement. But we believe we have to support legislation that
will encourage regional environmental and social standards even though we don’t
believe this proposal is very realistic. All the most important historical
transformations have occurred through ideas that looked utopian to many.
Q: The letter also demands that governments help peasant groups buy public
sector agricultural processing and storage facilities that structural adjustment
requires governments to privatize. Do you believe Central American small farmers
are sufficiently organized to manage their own processing facilities?
A: Gaining control over processing and marketing facilities is fundamental
if we are to become a powerful and dynamic regional economic force. In the past
we have not had a clear vision of such a development strategy. Central American
small farmers’ demands tended to focus mainly around agrarian reform.
Small farmers in every Central American country already have experience
managing firms. In Costa Rica we have a long tradition of cooperatives. We have
learned much from developing and managing sugar and coffee cooperatives, for
example. Through the Sandinista revolution Nicaraguan small farmers have even
more experience in managing agricultural firms.
Q: What has caused this shift in emphasis from solely agrarian reform
towards control of processing units?
A: When our only organizing structures were unions and political parties our
vision was more limited. Instead of leading ourselves we were dependent on
leaders who mainly viewed us as a voting constituency, not a potentially
powerful economic force. Indeed, most of them viewed us as a declining sector.
It is a central ideological thesis of both capitalists and Marxists that small
farmers will disappear as countries industrialize.
We failed to see ourselves as a potential Central American development
alternative because we were being led by people who did not understand the
important role we play within the region. It has only been a few years since
farmers themselves have begun to take control of the farmers’ movement.
Q: What actions will you take if Central American governments ignore your
A: In Central America almost all change has occurred as a result of wars
because we have established so few official channels for popular sectors to
influence government policy through dialogue. Violent confrontation has often
been the only way for popular sectors to articulate their demands.
As Central America undergoes a peace-making process, presidents are
increasingly articulating the need to include popular voices in decision-making
in order to guarantee social harmony within the region. Of course, what they say
and what they do are two very different things. They have continued to talk and
to write documents about dialogue, but we have seen very little action.
We are ready to dialogue. We have told government officials that we would
much prefer to concentrate our energy on dialogue than on organizing protests,
blocking highways and taking over lands. Before we apply this type of pressure
we want to see if anything materializes out of discussions with our governments.
However, we are not naive. We understand that their speeches about social
harmony and dialogue are largely not genuine. They are buying time so that they
can implement their economic policies without popular resistance. The process is
like arm-wrestling. However, through the negotiation process we are also
strengthening our ability to respond through action if our demands are ignored.
If military violence again erupts in the region, farmers all across the isthmus
are going to unite.
Q: Will the World Bank’s structural adjustment program hinder your efforts
to implement the policies you are proposing?
A: We are very practical. Our movement’s face is glued to reality. We are
not going to stop structural adjustment. We cannot forever use up our energy
saying no, no, no to structural adjustment. Now we are looking for ways to join
the dialogue to ensure structural adjustment does not wipe us out.
If we are to survive, structural adjustment needs to happen much more
slowly. Producing non-traditional export crops requires an entirely new form of
organization for us. We need time to organize exporting cooperatives. These
cooperatives need to make contacts with foreign markets and gain access to
international transport systems. Farmers need to learn how to produce a quality
export crop. To successfully make such a transition takes many, many years.
Q: What is the most important idea you would like to convey to a U.S.
A: At the most fundamental level, we are all being threatened, the North as
well as the South, by economic policies that are destroying the little this
planet still holds. The current development strategy the U.S. is advocating is
Structural adjustment and free trade are based upon the trickle-down theory.
Supporters believe first our countries must grow and then we can distribute the
benefits of this growth. The idea is that a few need to gain a lot before they
can share their wealth with the rest of the population. But what has happened?
Poverty has deepened and environmental destruction has accelerated.
Fortunately, now we have the statistics to prove that structural adjustment
has not produced the results advocates promised. What this theory supports is
violence against both the environment and the poor. Structural adjustment does
not address Central America’s fundamental problems such as the unjust
distribution of control over natural resources in the region.
However, we believe there are alternative forms of development that
incorporate people and the environment more fully. Together people in the North
and South must begin to explore alternatives that ensure every person on this
planet meets their basic needs.
We want U.S. citizens to help us gain a voice within institutions such as
the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Interamerican Development
Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Right now it is almost
impossible for us to influence dialogue within these institutions.
We want these institutions to stop tying loans to the restructuring of
economic policies we have fought for decades to establish. And we want our
countries to maintain the right to subsidize domestic market production and
protect domestic producers through tariffs.
U.S. citizens are capable of pressing their government to change these
policies. The Vietnam war is an example of a popular movement successfully
ending a useless war. The Vietnam war demonstrates that U.S. citizens can
influence and change the political discourse within their own country.
Wilson Campos, is coordinator of La Asociacion de Organizaciones Campesinas
Centroamericanas para la Cooperacion y el Desarrollo (ASOCODE), the federation
of Central American small farmer associations. Alicia Korten is a Fulbright
Fellow conducting research on structural adjustment in Costa Rica. Her address
is: c/o Amigos de las Americas, AP 8424-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica. This
interview article is distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.