Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Politics of Agriculture

A question that has to come to mind in light of recent observations in the community in which I have been working is what is considered a fair price for food? In my opinion, if produce has been grown organically, it should cost more, no matter what the size of the vegetable. I always thought in terms of size and amount but now that I am on the other side of the coin, that is, observing how farmers cultivate and working for a pro-rural environmental organization, my perspective has greatly changed. Food is a precious thing and it does not simply appear out of nowhere, it takes a lot of hard work to produce and it is this hard work that usually goes unrecognized by the rest of the world.
Is pricing a complicated issue? Should it be a tug of war between consumer, buyer and farmer? How do politics fit in? As I see it, so much is involved in the cost of our vegetables, especially if they are organic. In my opinion, those who have money to spend need to adjust their perception and start to re-think the terms “cheap” and “expensive.” I consider my food my medicine…and just for one minute, let’s stop and think about how much you might pay to make yourself feel better if you struggled with a bad cold come winter time. What if you knew that your diet and the food you ate could help to avoid those nasty colds? Take out all those pesticides and you are left with a real vegetable that will not contaminate your body. If food has a power to heal, then it should be anything but cheap.

Beyond having healing properties, growing and producing food is quite the costly and laborious task. Within the cost of produce has to be considered a transport fare to get the food to and from the farm where it was grown.  The person who is doing the organizing and shipping of the vegetables needs to be paid, so labour should be included in the cost. But the biggest portion I believe should go towards paying the farmers. Growing vegetables organically involves much more labour than growing conventionally; the management of the soil, the preparation of organic compost, and companion planting to name just a few. Farmers perform most of the labour and are doing the growing and oftentimes the selling! Beyond this there is just simply something called a “fair price”, to me that would mean market price or higher, especially if produce is organic.

As my internship continues, or what I see as a journey of constant and never ending learning, I am developing a greater sense of the situation facing rural Nicaraguans on a daily basis. I visited a project I worked on last year in a community called Santiago, to have a chat with a community leader Marta Hernandez. Marta’s was one of the first plots we worked with and she fell into her leadership role quite naturally! I remember feeling so uncertain about the project, would the living fencing make roots or would it rot? Would the garden plots be plagued with insects? Would the families give up?  Or worse would the families start to use pesticides? After talking to the intern who currently manages projects, some of my fears came true, but some of the families, six to be exact including Marta’s, had patience and it certainly paid off.  Many families are perfectly successful producing beautiful organic vegetables (albeit smaller in size than pesticide, genetically modified produce) and they have even expanded their plots to grow more and are now selling their crop to a local restaurant and the Eco-Hotel and Spanish School where I worked.

The community I work with currently, Pueblo Viejo do not grow organic and still struggle to even enter the market with their produce, the market is flooded from so many producers that farmers become desperate and sell at an ultra-low price, usually being ripped off in the process. Farmers do not end up gaining anything from the transaction, safe money for gas they used to get their truck to and from the city.

I would suggest that the families organize and sell between themselves, however there isn’t a custom of eating vegetables in many rural Nicaragua communities such as Santiago or Pueblo Viejo . Beyond this are cultural patterns that have been warped and changed over time based on colonial interference, for example the creation of a culture of mistrust.  In conversing with Gloria, I said “but I don’t understand, it hasn’t always been this way in Nicaragua, has it?” “No,” she replied “It is something that was introduced by foreign powers when creating colonies, the indigenous were split apart into separate communities and forced to rival against one another.” 

Organizing one’s community involves investing a great deal of trust in your neighbours. This sense of trust and openness does not tend to exist in many rural communities in Nicaragua. I was baffled. In the small town and big city where I have lived, I have found the sense of openness so refreshing as people appear to be so friendly, neighbours talking to neighbours, making eye contact as opposed to flippantly walking past each other on the street (as in a big city like Toronto), and taking care of each other’s children, rather than depend on a day care facility. But perhaps these behavioural patterns are just the remnants of what was left after colonial powers stripped Nicaragua of many things, including systematic norms set in place by the indigenous. It appears as though small communities don’t even trust their own local leader as he or she is considered to be corrupt.

Individual men and women could theoretically come together and sell their produce collectively, this way they would make a fairer profit selling to one buyer who is in need of a large quantity of one particular produce, i.e. rice or beans. (gallo pinto is the country’s national dish: red kidney beans and white rice cooked in olive oil and onions…quite delicious !) The lack of trust between community members however halts any collaboration of any kind.

Some suggestions and solutions have come up in conversation with Gloria to the aforementioned problems. Nutrition trainings, government food policies that restrict the market and only allow farmers to sell in their region based on the amount and type of produce they have to sell, and education. When I refer to education, I refer to the kind that promotes fundamentals like collectivity, trust, peace, honesty and a just society for everyone. But as I am quickly learning, just like so many things, trust and collectivity are not cultivated overnight.

I am learning that although there appears to be deep ingrained behaviour in a particular society, it does not mean this behaviour is desired or benefiting the country’s development. Changing behaviour is not necessarily a bad thing; it simply depends on who is doing the changing, how and what is their motive for wanting to change it.