On February 17th, the FMLN officially launched the program ALBA Foods El Salvador, which aims to promote the development and growth of the domestic agriculture sector. The new program comes under the umbrella of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA (which means “dawn” in Spanish), an economic cooperation agreement started by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 as an alternative to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Fittingly, the inauguration ceremony included a minute of silence to honor long-time FMLN leader Schafik Handal, who passed away in February 2006, an outspoken proponent of the regional integration and solidarity at the heart of ALBA.
Medardo Gonzalez, Secretary General of the FMLN, says the ALBA Foods project is designed primarily to support small and medium producers in the country through technical training to improve agribusiness practices and extending lines of credit to small farmers. The three primary goals are to increase the economic capacity of the producers, increase the country’s food sovereignty and protect the environment. ALBA Foods will invest $90 million in El Salvador’s agricultural sector over the next 3 years, ending in 2014, at the end of President Funes’ term.
Luz Estrella Rodriguez, the FMLN mayor of Apopa, who also serves as the Executive Director of ALBA Food El Salvador, said the new program was born from the initiative of the presidents of ALBA countries (including Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia) who recognized the importance of food sovereignty and security during their 2008 summit.
ALBA Foods is a program of ALBA Petroleos, a joint project between the Venezuelan government and the FMLN, was co-founded and co-funded in El Salvador beginning in April 2006, in order to reduce dependence on oil from transnational corporations. The profits from the Venezuelan gas stations are channeled back into the municipalities to stimulate various sectors of the local economy, for example, providing discounted gas for bus drivers to maintain a subsidized fare for riders.
Representatives from Petrocaribe, the alliance of participating Latin American countries, initially approached then-President Tony Saca, from the right-wing ARENA party, with the proposal for El Salvador to join. When Saca refused, eliminating the possibility of bringing lower-cost gas to the entire country, a group of FMLN mayors pursued it. After various legal intricacies, a number of ALBA gas stations are now located throughout the country, predominantly in FMLN municipalities.
As Executive Director Rodriguez noted at the ALBA Foods inauguration, “This great project started with the arrival of ALBA Petroleos, which was our economic initiative. Today, we have begun the social and socioeconomic part of this project for the well-being of the country.”
The short-term goal is to bring the program to five thousand agricultural workers, starting in fifty municipalities. The long-term goal is to expand to all 262 municipalities and to cultivate more than 300,000 acres of land that have gone uncultivated for years.
Historically, the cultivation of corn and beans, primarily for subsistence, as well as coffee, rice, and sugar, primarily for export, has been the primary work of the majority of Salvadorans and a foundation of the Salvadoran economy. While subsistence farmers have long been neglected or, at worst, violently oppressed by the state, for example, during the Civil War, the situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past 20 years.
Carlos Ruíz, the FMLN mayor of Soyapongo considers it worrisome that countries like El Salvador, which has all the necessary conditions for a vibrant agricultural sector, “is currently obligated to import more than 90% of its national food consumption.” He invited the question, “What conditions have created this very serious situation in this country?”
By opening the borders to factories and sweatshops, and thus providing new profits to a small handful of international businessmen and factory owners, rather than investing in agriculture, consecutive ARENA administrations undermined this important sector. Their actions, for example, cutting credit lines to small farmers and slashing taxes on imported goods, have led to El Salvador now importing the majority of its food, including basic grains, which has also increased profits for transnational companies.
President Funes has condemned his ARENA predecessors for effectively destroying the agricultural sector through neglect. As he stated, they “tried to put a roof over the whole country and turn it into one big free trade zone, and failed miserably in the process.” For this reason, the new government has renewed its investment in agriculture, for example, through the Family Agriculture Plan, which supports over 300,000 small-scale farmers with free corn and bean seeds with a goal of rebuilding the “productive fabric” of the country and reaching agricultural self-sufficiency by 2020.