NicaNotes: Feeding the People in Times of Pandemic: The Food Sovereignty Approach in Nicaragua

By Rita Jill Clark-Gollub (Washington), Erika Takeo (Managua), and Avery Raimondo (Los Angeles)

(A longer version of this article was published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs on June 22, 2020: https://www.coha.org/feeding-the-people-in-times-of-pandemic-the-food-sovereignty-approach-in-nicaragua/)

Emerita Vega of the Marlon Alvarado community in Santa Teresa, Carazo, coordinator of the ATC women’s group, in her pineapple parcel. (photo-credit: ATC)

“A nation that cannot feed itself is not free.”
Fausto Torrez, Nicaraguan Rural Workers Association

An array of UN agencies is predicting a global hunger pandemic triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns, with the head of the World Food Program [David Beasley] stating that there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.”  There are clear signs that the food shortages have already arrived, as flags indicating hunger are spotted outside homes from Colombia to the Northern Triangle of Central America, while violently repressed hunger protests have occurred in places such as Honduras and Chile. As a street vendor in El Salvador put it, “If the virus doesn’t kill us, hunger will.”

But in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, there are no hunger flags flying. The market stalls are stocked, customers are buying, and prices are stable. Nicaraguan small farmers produce almost all the food the nation consumes, and have some left over for export. We will examine how this is possible.

[Nicaraguan peasant organizations like the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC, or Rural Workers’ Association), were founding members of the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina (LVC), who have exposed problems in the corporate food system including during the pandemic as in this statement from LVC:]

The pandemic has highlighted yet another ill of countries becoming too dependent on large international food industries [and their international supply chains]. For decades, governments did little to protect small farms and food producers which were pushed out of business by these growing dysfunctional corporate giants. … They stood idle as their countries grew increasingly dependent on a few major suppliers of food who forced local producers to sell their produce at unfairly low prices so corporate executives can keep growing their profit margins.

La Vía Campesina’s answer is food sovereignty, which is defined as “the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” It prioritizes: 1. local agricultural production in order to feed the people; and 2. peasants’ and landless people’s access to land, water, seeds, and credit. This approach actually works in combating hunger, as peasants and smallholders produce 70-75 percent of the world’s food on less than one quarter of the world’s farmland. When peasant movements partner with progressive governments, the results can be astounding, as in the case of Nicaragua.

Food Sovereignty in Nicaragua since 2007

In the current stage of Sandinista governance that started in 2007, the strategy to increase food sovereignty by providing land has continued. Almost 140,000 land titles (some from land distributed during the 1980s land reform) were issued to small producers from 2007 to 2019. Women have particularly benefited from receiving proper titles to their land (55 percent) and 304 indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on the Caribbean coast have received collective titles. The titled area amounts to 37,842 Km2, or 31.16 percent of the national territory.

Social programs that help small farmers feed themselves and their communities have imbued life in the countryside with dignity while reducing hunger. These initiatives are inspired by Augusto C. Sandino’s vision of an economy based on land-owning peasants and indigenous peoples farming in organized cooperatives—a core component of the FSLN’s Historic Program. Law 693 on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security, enacted in 2009, was one of the first in Latin America to recognize the concept of food sovereignty and actually build it with government support.  The commitment of the FSLN government to food sovereignty has led to dozens of programs to improve the livelihoods and autonomy of small farmers while strengthening local food systems.

The signature initiative is the Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger) program which began in 2007 and provides pigs, cows, chickens, plants, seeds, and building materials to women in rural areas to diversify their production, improve the family diet, and strengthen women-led household economies. By 2016, the program had benefited 150,000 families or 1 million people, increasing both their food security and the nation’s food sovereignty.

Additionally, the Ministry of the Family, Community, and Cooperative Economy (MEFCCA) and municipal governments organize farmers markets to improve peasant incomes while making nutritious, locally-grown food accessible to consumers that is produced without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) works to improve and maintain the country’s genetic material by organizing community seed banks, and the National Technological Institute (INATEC) provides free technical degrees in agriculture, livestock care, value-added processing, and beekeeping, to name a few. A new program called NicaVida will reach 30,000 rural families with tools, fencing, water tanks, chickens, and other materials to improve family diets and household economies in the Dry Corridor areas which are particularly impacted by climate change.

The breadth and territorial reach of these programs keep Nicaragua’s peasants and small farmers free from dependence on global markets; their diversified production is organized to feed their families and local communities, with increasing access to seeds, water, and credit, thereby creating the conditions to achieve food sovereignty.

A poverty and hunger fighting program targeting urban residents is Zero Usury, which is part of the national food ecosystem since it serves many who work in open-air markets. This program, administered by the MEFFCA, gives low interest loans and grants to small business owners (primarily women) and offers free entrepreneurship training, funded in part by Venezuela and other ALBA countries. Over 800,000 women have benefited from the program since 2007, which has been crucial to the success of the popular economy (self-employed workers, small farmers, family businesses, and cooperatives) which accounts for over 70 percent of employment.

Long-time activist and current presidential advisor Orlando Núñez explains the philosophy behind these programs and why they work:

“The heart of the Hambre Cero program is giving capital to peasant families. A cow is capital because she reproduces; sows, seeds, and hens reproduce. The first message is not to treat people like poor people; they are only poor because they have been impoverished. … Offering poor people a glass of milk or a slice of bread is an act of charity, not revolution. … The revolutionary thing about Hambre Cero in Nicaragua is that it treats people like economic actors. …That is the most revolutionary message of the Sandinista revolution.”

The initiatives for this second phase of the Sandinista Revolution are all complemented by the grassroots work of social movements. The ATC and LVC have established a campus of the Latin American Institute of Agroecology (IALA) in Nicaragua for youth from Nicaragua and throughout the Mesoamerican and Caribbean region. The school not only imparts technical training on agro ecological production of crops and animals, but also political and ideological education so that students come to understand today’s clash between two models of agriculture: one (the agribusiness model) in which food is a business for the benefit of corporations, and another (the food sovereignty model) in which food is a human right for all. The program encourages peasants to be each other’s teachers and have agency over their own lives, reclaiming their peasant identity and culture. It is an education that focuses on staying in the countryside and producing food that stays within the local market.

Throughout the country the ATC and other peasant organizations have been organizing local workshops to train agroecological promoters, support women’s cooperatives in marketing their farm products, formalize peasants’ land titles, and prepare on-farm biofertilizers and composts. All of this supports the construction of food sovereignty.

Hunger outcomes in Nicaragua and Central America
All indications are that these programs have resulted in a better fed population in Nicaragua. In its 2019-2023 Strategic Plan for Nicaragua, the United Nations World Food Program said that “In the last decade… Nicaragua is one of the countries that has reduced hunger the most in the region,” while the government reports that chronic child malnutrition dropped from 21.7 percent in 2006 to 11.1 percent in 2019 for children under 5 years of age. Nicaragua was also one of the first countries to achieve Millennium Development Goal Number 1 of cutting undernutrition in half from 2.3 million in 1990-1992 to 1 million in 2014-2016, placing it among the countries of the region that had reduced hunger the most in the previous 25 years.

Nicaragua’s advances are reflected in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Hunger Map. Unfortunately, that map shows that neighboring Honduras and El Salvador did not achieve the Millennium Development Goal on hunger reduction, and that Guatemala did not even make progress. This stagnancy may be related to the fact that US exports to the Northern Triangle countries increased substantially since the signing of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). These three countries imported about US$5.9 billion of agriculture products from the world in 2016, including beans and dairy products from Nicaragua, and corn, soybean meal, wheat, poultry, rice, and prepared foods from the US. Imports of many of these US foods increased by 100 percent or more from 2006-2016, coming to comprise about 40 percent of all food imports for these countries. Unfortunately, food prices in these countries are on the rise precisely when people have less income with which to purchase food due to COVID-19 lockdowns at home and in the US, from which Central American countries receive remittances. Parts of Guatemala are already receiving half the remittances they received at this time last year. Even Nicaragua’s wealthier neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, has become dependent on imported beans, rice, beef, and corn after opening the market through free trade agreements. At a recent LVC regional meeting, a Costa Rican peasant leader discussed how vulnerable the country has become, saying “COVID is stripping us bare.” Not only are grain prices rising while vegetable crops rot because they cannot reach consumers, unemployment is expected to double from 12.5 percent to 25 percent, and 57 percent of Costa Ricans report having trouble making ends meet. This brings major worries of increased hunger.

Food sovereignty and the pandemic in Nicaragua
Ninety percent of the food consumed in Nicaragua is produced within the national borders, 80 percent of it by peasants. This includes all of the beans, corn, fruits, vegetables, honey, and dairy products, while there is sufficient surplus of beans and dairy to export. Nicaragua’s food self-sufficiency is growing precisely while other developing countries are increasingly becoming agro-exporters of a few crops (e.g. pineapples or bananas) while ever more dependent on imports to feed their populations. Rice is the only component of the basic Nicaraguan diet that is not completely homegrown, but domestic rice production has increased from meeting 45 percent of the country’s demand in 2007 to 75 percent of demand today. The government is working with producers to bring it up to 100 percent within 5 years. Nicaragua is indeed very close to achieving food sovereignty, the true anti-hunger model, which bodes well for times of crisis such as now with the economic impacts of the pandemic and the interruption of food distribution supply chains in other countries.

In the context of the pandemic, both the government and social movement organizations are determined to take food sovereignty to the next level.

This graphic by the Fundación Entre Mujeres (FEM) of northern Nicaragua shows the difference between market-based food systems and agroecology-based ones.

For the full text of this article, including food sovereignty during the pandemic, social movement testimonies, references, and more photos, see: https://www.coha.org/feeding-the-people-in-times-of-pandemic-the-food-sovereignty-approach-in-nicaragua/

 

BRIEFS

By Nan McCurdy

3% Reduction in Electricity Rate
The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) and the Nicaragua Energy Institute (INE) announced a 3% reduction in electricity rate starting July 1. As a consequence of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, the slippage of the Cordoba to the dollar will not be applied to the new electricity rate for a six-month period. MEM Minister Salvador Mansell said, “The new measures seek to guarantee technical and economic stability for the benefit of the people.”(Editor’s note: Many people have been complaining about their energy bills since April due to the fact that they are working at home and children are studying at home; much more energy is being used at home.) (Nicaragua News, 6/26/20)

Nicaraguans Practice Tropical Storm Response
The National Center for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention (SINAPRED) carried out virtually the II National Exercise for Preparation and Preservation of Life. SINAPRED Director, Guillermo González reported that 202,608 Nicaraguans participated in the exercise, simulating a tropical storm in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. They were able to coordinate with 2,334 Local Emergency Committees identified as the most vulnerable to the effects of a tropical storm. “The exercise tested the alert and communication systems between institutions and the population which is essential for the preservation of life in the face of national emergency situations,” Gonzalez said. (Nicaragua News, 6/26/20)

ALBA Members Promote Health and Food Security
Vice President Rosario Murillo highlighted the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA-TCP) meeting held June 29. The virtual meeting was to develop a work plan to promote health security, reactivate the ALBA Health program, promote food security with the ALBA Food program and re-launch the 15-year-old Petrocaribe initiative which brought about many social advances in member countries. “in the midst of difficulties and aggressions we are always trying to make advancements for our peoples,” commented the Vice President. (19Digital, 6/29/20)

Fewer Deaths from Covid-19 during Week of June 23-29
Through July 29, 1,750 Nicaraguans have recovered from Covid-19. Since the beginning of the Pandemic until June 30, 2,182 people have been attended and given Responsible and Careful Follow-up. Nine people died with Covid-19 in the last week and the total number of Covid-19 deaths since March is 83. (Radiolaprimerisima, 6/30/20)

New Electric Beds for Covid-19 Patients
The Health Ministry purchases 40 new electric beds that will be distributed in different hospitals to strengthen patent attention in the context Covid-19. The beds were imported by the Health Ministry from the US to guarantee quality care in the public hospitals, especially where patients with Covid19 are being treated. The Government invested US$114,752.61 in the purchase of these beds. (Radiolaprimerisima, 6/29/20)

Virtual Workshop from India on Covid-19
Health Ministry representatives participated in the virtual workshop: “Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Experiences and Best Practices.” Organized by the Institute of Medical Sciences of India (AIIMS) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the course was convened to explain the protocols established in India for respiratory health, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) use and management, as well as measures implemented for healthcare personnel in the fight against Covid-19. (Nicaragua News, 6/25/20)

New Advances in Health Care
The second LINAC medical linear accelerator to fight cancer will be available free of charge for patient treatment in four months. It will be installed at the Nora Astorga National Radiotherapy Center. The LINAC is most commonly used to give external beam radiation therapy to cancer patients. It delivers high-energy x-rays, or electrons, to the patient’s tumor. The Sandinista Government is developing a number of programs and making investments to strengthen the fight against cancer. Similarly, early detection clinics in health centers have been strengthened and equipped with colposcopy and cryotherapy for exams and the treatment of injuries. A new protocol is that once a woman has a Pap smear, she is given a breast exam, which increases prevention of cancer. (Radiolaprimerisima, 6/29/20)

Tele-classes Begin in Nicaragua
The Ministry of Education (Mined) and the state television channel that broadcasts on frequencies 6 and 15, launched the tele-classes June 29 during the 2020 inter-semester break. “The tele-classes began today as a response to the present context so that during the inter-semester break, our children and adolescents can strengthen and reinforce their learning,” said Salvador Vanegas. Classes will be televised by a professional team of teachers who will be on the screen, in addition to the signal being transmitted in audio through the state radio station (Radio Nicaragua) and all the educational portals,” he added. In special education, nine expert teachers who are fluent in sign language will participate; 19 primary school teachers will explain to students how to fill out the learning guides. Twenty secondary school teachers will be part of the tele-classes for math, natural sciences, social sciences, biology and chemistry. The program times for the different ages are printed here. (19Digital, 6/29/20)

Government Supports Small Farmers
The Nicaragua Ministry of Family Economy (MEFCCA) is allocating US$147,058 to 700 small poultry and pig farmers for the purchase of tools and supplies in Nueva Segovia, Boaco, Chontales, Nueva Segovia, and Masaya. The funding is part of the Creative Economy Model that the Government is implementing. (Nicaragua News, 6/29/20)

Schools, Wheelchairs, Rural University, Food Packages and Home Improvement
These photos show several important social programs of the government and Sandinista organizations:  The rehabilitation and expansion of the Morrito school in the department of Rio San Juan includes improved classrooms, special preschool rooms, multipurpose courts, a kitchen and bathrooms. Wheelchairs for people with disabilities were delivered in Nandasmo, and in six communities of Niquinohomo. The Nicaraguan National Autonomous University in Chontales opened the Universidad en el Campo (University in the Countryside), in San Lorenzo, department of Boaco, with a sustainable tourism degree – a new professionalization opportunity. Reforestation day commemorates the Strategic Retreat from the Somoza bombing of Managua with the accompaniment of government institutions and families of the area. The Ocotal Youth at Risk Committee carried out activities to mark the “International Day for the Fight Against Drug Abuse and Trafficking” on June 26. The Ocotal Mayor’s office delivered housing materials to those whose roof was damaged in the rains. Food packages were delivered throughout the country to Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, protagonists of Todos con Vos (Everyone is with you) and to families in critical socioeconomic situations. In San Jorge, Rivas, a museum is being built for the local population and to attract tourists. Property titles were turned over to farmers in the Santa Maria community of El Cua.  (Radiolaprimerisima, 6/29/20)

Nicaragua: Fire Wall in Central American against Trafficking
The National Police announced that US$ 4.6 million and a truck were seized during an operation carried out on June 26 in La Peña, San Lorenzo municipality, Boaco department. Commissioner Victoriano Ruíz, Deputy Chief of the Judicial Assistance Directorate (DAJ), reported that an individual was detained, and another is being sought on charges of money laundering and organized crime. The successful operation is part of the Fire Wall Strategy that the Nicaragua Government is implementing in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. (6/29/20)

Nicaragua Assumes Presidency of SICA Health Ministers
Last Thursday, the 52nd Ordinary Meeting of the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA) was held virtually, convened by the Honduras Health Secretariat with support of the COMISCA Executive Board. The event was organized to formally transfer the Pro-Tempore Presidency of COMISCA from Honduras to Nicaragua, as well as to evaluate advances on the Regional Contingency Plan: Central America United Against Coronavirus. The Nicaragua Health Minister Martha Reyes congratulated Honduras for leading the efforts of the Joint Negotiation Mechanism for access to medicines, equipment, and medical supplies, as well as the approval of the “Biosafety Guidelines Against COVID-19 for Central American Freight Transportation”. Minister Reyes noted that “the Nicaragua Government is committed to continue working to achieve the objectives of the regional plan in the fight against CORONAVIRUS ” and also emphasized the importance of continuing the work to achieve further progress on the Regional Health Agenda. Nicaragua will hold the SICA Presidency for the period covering July-December 2020. (Nicaragua News, 6/29/20)

Nicaragua to Hold SICA Presidency
The Central American Economic Integration Council of Ministers (COMIECO) held a virtual meeting June 23. The event was organized to evaluate biosecurity measures adopted by Central American countries and the effects on regional trade, as well as advances on the Central American Economic Recovery Plan established within the framework of the Regional Contingency Plan: Central America United against Coronavirus. The ministers agreed to support and reinforce the strategic lines of cooperation for economic integration 2022-2027 and also approved the SIECA-ITC (Secretary of Economic Integration for Central America-Center for International Trade) “She Trades” Project that prioritizes participation of women in economic growth and job creation. At the end of the meeting, the Honduran Minister for Economic Development, María Antonia Rivera, formally transferred the COMIECO Pro-Tempore Presidency to the Nicaragua Minister of Development, Industry, and Commerce, Orlando Solórzano. Nicaragua will hold the SICA (System of Central America Integration) Presidency for the period of July-December 2020. (Nicaragua News, 6/25/20)