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Got Food?

“There is no real food here!” This thought came into my head one day last November as I waited for the bus near my home in Managua. I was hungry and had decided to buy something to eat at one of the nearby food kiosks around the bus stop. To my dismay, the only “foods” available were a variety of colorful chips, cookies and artificial juices appealing to consumers, especially children, but lacking any nutritional value. I started asking myself, “What are we feeding ourselves? Where is our food coming from?

Not too long ago, fresh food was more available and affordable for the people of Nicaragua and I am saddened to see how processed food is replacing traditional food. Now it is often cheaper to buy junk food or drink artificial drinks. Bottled water and milk are becoming more expensive than soda. Supermarkets and open markets are filled with all kinds of instant soups, canned foods and artificially flavored and colored products. One day when I was shopping at the supermarket, I went to the dairy section and picked-up a package of “cheese”. As I read the list of ingredients and noticed the absence of “milk,” I naively wondered, “How come this is cheese, but there is not any kind of milk in it?” Then, of course, I realized I had missed something on the label that read: “imitation cheese”!

As in the past, agriculture continues to be the most important economic activity of Nicaragua. There is one thing to notice, though. With an economy based on an agro-export model, producing food for the people takes a lower place on the list of agricultural priorities. It is more important for the economy to produce as much coffee, tobacco, peanuts, sugar cane as possible and even, more recently, roses and flowers for exports. The government even plans to reactivate cotton production in Nicaragua despite the tragic ecological disaster this activity brought during the cotton rush in the 1960s-1970s. In the western cities of Nicaragua, people are still suffering the consequences of the massive contamination of water sources caused by cotton production. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Each year cotton producers around the world use “more than 10% of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides.” Nevertheless, the government is providing loans to cotton producers, who already started to harvest the first 423 hectares of cotton last December.

A couple of weeks ago, as part of my work, I had the opportunity to visit a rural community. Even though this village is not so far from Managua, it lacks public transportation services and the only access is through a winding dirt road that becomes impassable during the rainy season. My visit into the heart of this small village gave me a firsthand glimpse of what is happening in most impoverished rural communities in Nicaragua. I could not help connecting this reality with food production and food access issues. Since the 1990’s, the implementation and reinforcement of neo-liberal economic agendas, market liberalization, and prioritization of cash crops have deepened the destruction of the peasant economy. Small producers and subsistence peasants cannot compete with low tax or free tax imports that came along with free trade agreements signed by Nicaraguan governments, or with rich countries “dumping” subsidized produce on developing countries. Peasants struggle to survive.

The economy of the community I visited revolves around coffee production, the main export product in Nicaragua. Most people do not have a stable job or income, and those who do have to walk several kilometers everyday to get to work outside the community. Most of those who are employed are men. The majority work picking coffee or as security guards on large plantations owned by wealthy families who are often linked to the economic and political elite ruling the country. The community survives mostly from the little coffee they can produce, which they sell at very low prices to middlemen or large coffee-growing landowners. Many women work in large coffee plantations, too. They pick coffee in return for low wages after long hours of exhausting work under harsh conditions. One afternoon I saw a young woman who came from a distant coffee plantation where she had spent the day picking coffee “to earn some money to feed the children.” Her hands look dry, cracked and stained. “When we pick the coffee cherries, the liquid coming out stains our hands,” she explained. She carried a bucket of dirty water on her head that she would use at home, maybe to wash clothes or bathe. Water access is also a critical issue in this community. It only has running water once a week and sometimes this could take even longer, as long as a month. I had the opportunity to walk with a group of women from the community all the way through the narrow and winding path they have to walk to get water when the water company “does not open the faucet”. It was hard to believe they walk all those kilometers carrying a bucket of water on their heads over a difficult and dangerous rocky road.

Another day, I talked with Dolores Esquivel, known as Lola, a strong woman who is the leader of a women’s cooperative formed several years ago. From her house, we beheld the large extensions of land surrounded by barbwire, dividing the poor from the rich and keeping the poor peasants away from the “private” water springs. Lola spoke about the lack of food people will face in the next months. Right now the community and many that surround it are suffering the consequences of a heavy rainy season that caused the loss of most crops in the last harvest, leaving them with little to eat.

Lola described the deterioration of living conditions in her community. Once, the people could grow enough to subsist, receiving some support from governmental programs, such as technical assistance and loans for buying supplies for growing crops. Now, things are not the same. Even though most people in the community own a piece of land, thanks to the agrarian reform that took place in the 1980’s in Nicaragua, government assistance no longer exists and the situation continues to be one of hardship and mere survival. Lola said that thousands of peasants throughout the country have lost their lands to the banks because they could not repay the loans they had acquired. Land grabbing in Nicaragua is an old ghost coming back. Large estate owners are spreading over the country, just as before the revolution of 1979.

Lola has been involved with the Association of Rural Workers of Nicaragua and has for decades defended the rights of peasant workers, their livelihoods and traditions. In the last years she has been very active in articulating the demand for a new Food Security and Food Sovereignty Law in Nicaragua. Lola recalled the struggle she and her fellow peasant workers had to endure in defense of food sovereignty, a term coined by Via Campesina, an international peasant movement. She explained, “We worked very hard to make the National Assembly pass the law. At the beginning the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) opposed it, because they wanted to use the term ‘food security’. For us it is important to talk about food sovereignty instead. Food sovereignty has to do with access to resources such as land, water, seeds; and it is also about eating healthy food and implementing an organic agriculture system.” Finally, after four years of struggle, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved the Food Sovereignty, Food Security and Nutrition Law in June 2009. Unfortunately, the law has not been implemented because the government has not yet allocated a budget to support it. Even so, the passage of the law represents an outstanding achievement for the peasant movement. Around the world, similar peasant movements are fighting for the implementation of an organic and sustainable agricultural system.

The concept of food sovereignty challenges the hegemonic free market economy that advocates for the progressive liberalization of international markets. Nicaragua, for example, has signed different free trade agreements that leave local producers unprotected from subsidized and low priced agricultural and food imports. A country that feeds its population with massive food imports, even at moderate prices, may be achieving relative food security, but it is not a free and sovereign country. It depends on the will and prices of multinational corporations or foreign governments. Food must be produced, in quality and quantity, in the same country, in order to achieve real food sovereignty. Food sovereignty goes even beyond this idea. When peasants use this concept, they also mean they should not have to depend on foreign materials such as pesticides, fertilizer and seeds.

When I saw the people struggling to put a meal on their tables amidst all the land that could be available in that one community to produce food, I felt some drastic changes need to be made. I wonder why people cannot decide what they want to eat and how they want to produce it. Why are just a few people grabbing the land in this country to produce crops for export, instead of producing food for the people? Why does the government have big plans to increase biofuel production in Nicaragua? Yes, there are programs already in place, to grow large tracts of palm oil to feed cars in developed countries, while small farmers and those who have produced our food for generations are being forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods. They have no alternative but to become cheap labor on large cash crops farms or in sweatshops in the cities.

According to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report in 2010, the gap between the wealthy and those who have less in Latin America and the Caribbean is the widest in world. It is not hard to confirm this data. Just enter the heart of any rural community in Nicaragua, as I did, to experience outrageous injustice and inequality. It took me only about 45 minutes to get to this place from my home in Managua, to hear the voices of those working to raise awareness about the need to change the agricultural system in the country. Sadly, their voices are rarely heard in mainstream news media. Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed or even think there is not much we can do about it, but to achieve the recognition of all human rights, we must start with a small, first step. At least in my country, I can start talking more about the issue of food sovereignty, sharing information with people and urging them to support and join initiatives already being organized by grassroots peasant movements to demand the implementation of the Food Sovereignty, Food Security and Nutrition Law. I would like to raise awareness of what we are eating and how it affects our health. One day I want be able to go to a market in Managua to buy “real” food that is both healthful and affordable.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Comments

usha kc's picture

Maddy,

Maddy,
I follow your thoughts dear. Artificial foods are dominating the natural food. We so called advanced,educated people also love to have ready made food. Childern love the color of food and bottles.

nice to read your post sister.

Maddy M.'s picture

Thank you for your comment,

Thank you for your comment, Usha!!

JaneWells's picture

Raising awareness

Dear Maddy,

Thank you for this well written and thoughtful article. You gave me an excellent understanding of the politics of food in Nicaragua and the social injustices that surround it. I liked how you connected personal experiences with the larger political and economic context and created a compelling picture of the current challenges. Your writing does a lot to raise awareness about these critical issues!

Best wishes,

Jane

Maddy M.'s picture

Thank you, Jane, for all your

Thank you, Jane, for all your support during this process.

Madeline

Leslie Stoupas's picture

A benchmark piece

Maddy,

Your article is so well-articulated and identifies a problem that is beginning to spread across the globe. I wasn't familiar with the term "food sovereignty"; I am glad to learn that new term. How ironic that it was a trip to Managua and Teotecacinte 11 years ago that made me more conscious about eating in a healthy and sustainable way. I am sad to hear this has changed so much since that time. Thank you for sharing this look at the way that food production affects the socio-economic structure.

Best,
Leslie

Leslie Stoupas

Maddy M.'s picture

Leslie, I'm so glad to know

Leslie, I'm so glad to know my story helped you discover that fascinating approach Via Campesina Movement has developed: food sovereignty. Sadly, Nicaragua continue to change since your last visit. The country is focused on the same development conception that is destroying our world.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.

Blessings,
Madeline

ikirimat's picture

You aer right

Indeed your article is timely. Even in Uganda, I see the coming in of giant super markets everywhere in the city is begining to change what people buy as food.

Please keep writing. I love your work

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."


Maddy M.'s picture

Than you for reading and

Than you for reading and commenting!! It's so important to come together around the world and demand "food sovereignty".

God bless you,
Madeline

R's picture

Maddy, This article is

Maddy,

This article is beautifully written and your strong, clear and determined voice needs to be 'out there' on the global stage. I can hear your anger at the injustices suffered by the people who are denied the right to grow their own nutritious food and your passion as well as your resolve to take as many 'baby steps' as possible to help give a voice to the grassroots peasants movements. Congratulations Maddy...I have no doubt that you will change the world to a better place, wherever you go!

Warmest wishes
Rosemary

Maddy M.'s picture

Thank you, Rosemary. Your

Thank you, Rosemary. Your words are very encouraging to me. I feel deeply grateful to all the people, like you, taking the time to read and comment my stories.

Many blessings,
Madeline

Monica Clarke's picture

Hi from France

Hi there Maddy

I just read your article today, and am struck by the intensity of your intention to make changes. I also looked at the ILEAP International Faculty Website and thought: This young lady is on exactly the right platform to start her talking. She is walking on the ground where the grassroots peasant movements are, and at the same time has her arms and head in the right organisation where she can start sharing the information with other people so as to push them into supporting the grassroots initiatives.

So this little message is to encourage you, Maddy, to continue to look for opportunities as you are doing, to raise awareness of the issue of food security and sovereignty, as you so aptly put it. Your dream of going to a market in Managua to smell, taste and pass positive comment and share your dream about real food is a great one. Keep this in your mind as you go about finding opportunities to realise your 'one day'.

With love from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Maddy M.'s picture

Monica, thank you so much. I

Monica, thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind and encouraging words. It's a true privilege to be part of this amazing global community WorldPulse has made possible for all of us. It's a blessing to be connected with incredible and courageous women like you.

Thank you,
Madeline

Paulina Lawsin's picture

Hi Maddy. Your story is

Hi Maddy. Your story is moving and touched me to the core as a mother and community worker. I can imagine the women struggling everyday thinking of where to get the next meal. It's unfortunate that your government has neglected to attend to the most basic of the needs - food. Access to healthy and sufficient food is a human right. People, the poor and those in government should know this. Your article is a good start. Use your voice to knock on doors and to get the attention of decision makers. Let people demand "We want real food".

Good luck from the Philippines.

Paulina

Maddy M.'s picture

Hello Paulina. Thank you for

Hello Paulina. Thank you for your comments. It's a privilege to have the opportunity to make those underrepresented voices heard. Yes, "healthy and sufficient food is a human right", not just merchandise sold on the market to make money. The right to healthy food is a global struggle we must undertake.

Blessings,
Madeline

Ofalla's picture

Well done!

Hi Maddy,
I just finished reading your excellent article about food and agricultural issues in Nicaragua. As a bit of a "Foodie" myself, I was very disturbed with your description of the situation in your region and country. It is a shame that the people who have the skills and knowledge to grow foods are needing to grow non-nutritious products to make a living. I am sure they would rather be feeding themselves and their communities. You are very articulate about the multi-faceted aspects of the food concern, and the power of politics to change healthy practices into those of shifting healthy practices from the past just to make enough money to feed themelves and their families. As you know, this is also a pressing issue in the USA where agri-businesses now run most of the food producing operations. There has been a big movement toward community gardens among many people in the USA in response to this....many yards or park land have been converted into vegetable gardens to benefit the community. This, of course, does not solve the problem, but does give people a sense of empowerment and access to food that is grown right down the street (seasonal, of course).
Keep up your writing, it is powerful to read your concerns and how the inter-play of politics is affecting everyone and their ability to eat natural, fresh foods.
Best wishes,
Ann

mrbeckbeck's picture

Maddy, you're spot on

Maddy, you're spot on here. You've raised such an important issue, and have told the story in a very clear and compelling way. Blending your personal experience <>, testimonies from people in your community, and research pieces, you've covered all of the important angles. Great work!

Food is life. When people have to slave away on a large plantation for food they will never see, it is injustice. When I was in Nicaragua back in 2003, I volunteered with students from URACCAN and an organization called Bridges to Community to plant organic vegetable gardens and build composting latrines in a rural area. It was such an eye opening experience, and helped me realize some valuable lessons about food, community, dangerous international policy, and the importance of growing-your-own.

Thanks for sharing this article here. I'm going to recommend it far and wide!
Cheers,
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Manager

MaDube's picture

Hi Maddy

I was struck by your article especially when you asked “Why are just a few people grabbing the land in this country to produce crops for export, instead of producing food for the people?”We have a similar situation in my country and it is very distressing to be surrounded by so much land yet people are starving. I am glad though that the Food Sovereignty statute has been passed and that you can use it as a starting point in lobbying for improved food production. You could also use it to litigate. I am not sure if the right to food is enshrined in the Nicaraguan constitution and whether you have a Constitutional Court but this is one of those rights that you could litigate and get the remedy that you need to ensure the availability of food for the Nicaraguans people. Thank you for educating me on the difference between food sovereignty and food security.

Much love,

MaDube

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Global Issue

Hi Maddy,

I really enjoyed your article. It is not only an issue for Nicaragua, but for the entire world. Developed countries have such a big part to play in this, not least because they tend to drive the international free trade agreements to the detriment of under-developed countries, but because of the mindset of people who live in these places. In the US, we expect to get tomatoes in January, Melons in February, and bananas year round. We have such a dependence on imported food from other nations, or food that has been shipped from Florida to Oregon, or California to New York. Our way of life is incredibly unsustainable. There are many movements in the US now to eat within the 100-mile diet--or only eat food that comes from 100 miles away. I think the more we can change the mindsets of the people demanding bananas in winter, or cheap sugar produced in Nicaragua, the better off we'll be. Also, I completely agree with you the damage that export-oriented economies have on the world's population. I can't remember where I found the statistic, but most countries that experience famine are net exporters of food. Now tell me that isn't screwed up! We need both sides of governments (developed and developing nations) to realize the damage they are doing to people with free trade agreements, promoting tomatoes in winter, and making coffee production more important than food production for local consumption.

Keep up the great work!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

AnjanaP's picture

Spot on!

Maddy,

Stellar account of a very real challenge faced by people who's story needs to be heard. Hopefully as the awareness of the issue and the possible solutions increases there is momentum built in the country to get to that place of self sufficiency with respect to food. As you so effectively point out so many macro factors causing this issue in Nicaragua and across the world. My wish is as the Food movements around the world grow and build momentum the people will force change in industry and in governments! But for now hope like Rachael states to do our part as individuals by buying locally and use our economic power to slowly shift these movements in the right direction! Thank you for the education and wish you great strength to continue to do your part to drive change on this issue.

Best,

Anjana

Monica McCarthy's picture

Your Post Resonates

Maddy,
I am working in northern Nicaragua with small producing rural women organized in cooperative with La Fundacion Entre Mujeres, and your post really resonates with what we are doing here. Although coffee is their main product, we are they are now diversifying to produce basic food staples like corn and beans for auto-consumption, and also gardens with fruits and vegetables for their nutrition. Food severeignty is key! Another one of our projects is providing these women with their own local seed bank so that they are in control of their production and do not have to count on middlemen coming along and selling them over-priced, low quality seeds every season.

Seeing farmers exporting luxury goods while they wonder if they will be able to feed their own children throughout the year is heartbreaking. Kudos to you for drawing attention to this issue.

Best,
Monica

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