El Salvador’s Agriculture & Food Policy

More than you ever thought you wanted to know about El Salvador’s agriculture and food:

El Salvador…that little heard about country in Central America, the only one with no Caribbean coastline, the one that everyone says is the size of Massachusetts. It is smooshed next to Honduras, below Guatemala and has, not surprisingly, a tropical climate,with rainy and dry seasons. The country is mostly mountainous apart from a narrow coastal belt and a central plateau that’s also nice and flat. El Salvador’s main agricultural crops are coffee (comprises 30% of total agricultural output), sugar, corn, rice, beans, sorghum, beef, and shrimp. Agriculture as a percent of the GDP has declined dramatically: in 1981 it was 34%, compared to 9.5% in 2001. The country is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire (think earthquakes and volcanoes) and in a region perpetually afflicted by hurricanes. Flooding, landslides, and volcanic ash deposit compound the current threats to food security, which include poverty, insufficient local food production, high food prices, and low education levels. Want to know more? Keep reading:

El Salvador was colonized by Spaniards in 1524 and gained its independence from Spain in 1821. At that time, most Salvadorans had equal access to land, but in the 1880’s, common land was consolidated into latifundios, which required 25% of the land to be planted in specified cash crops. At first, the primary cash crop was indigo, but as synthetic dyes became cheaper, coffee became the focus. This type of communal land was soon abolished and private ownership was allowed, but the trend had been set. More and more coffee was planted for the export market in the higher elevations, sugar or cotton in the lowlands. As the cultivated borders expanded, large estates developed and the poor who didn’t own any land became the estate workers. The estates grew larger as exports and revenues increased, and as the export crops spilled onto land previously used for subsistence agriculture, peasants  were forced to move onto less and less desirable lands. Some of the peasants rented land legally, but many were squatters. The profitability of exports continued to increase, but so did the rural population; and as one land reform after another failed to find a balance between the land-owning rich and landless poor, tensions rose. According to one source, “absolute landlessness for rural families rose from 12% in 1961 to 41% in 1975…and by 1980, [El Salvador] had one of the largest and poorest work forces and one of the most intransigent landowning classes of Central America” (Vargas 2001).

Lago Suchitlan…the reservoir that drowned the breadbasket of the country.

So what happened? Well…a bloody 12-year civil war, during which time agricultural production declined because of attacks on farms and processing plants, because of the lack of or poor infrastructure, or simply because the laborers were afraid they would be killed while trying to grow food. I also heard from a man who grew up near Suchitoto, that the construction of the Cerron Grande Dam on Rio Lempa in 1976 was one of, if not the most important reason for agricultural production decline in El Salvador; he said that when the land behind the dam was flooded,  the country had to start to rely on importing food to meet its need. The dam, 800 meters long by 90 meters tall, produces 488 GWh of electricity per year (max capacity), and the reservoir created by the dam covers 135 square kilometers. According to my source, much of those 135 square kilometers was some of the best, most fertile, most productive land in the country. He called the region “the former breadbasket of El Salvador.”

But we left off at the civil war…during that time, major land reform was attempted in three phases, but only phase one and three were completed (apparently phase two was not needed to move to phase three). These reforms attempted to redistribute the land to the rural poor through cooperatives. However, by the time the war was over and the reforms were deemed complete, the general conclusion was that due to violence, uncertainty, and other, well, complications during the war, the problem of access to land had not been solved. A major factor exacerbating the whole problem: El Salvador simply doesn’t have enough land – and certainly not enough arable, productive land – for all of its inhabitants. But, at the end of the civil war, one-fifth of total agricultural land had been distributed and nearly half a million formerly landless peasants had legal access to land (this is total numbers, not just the labor force). However, 54% of the population still did not. Currently, a Land Administration Project (run with support from US AID) seeks to sort out land tenure disputes and investigate the best, risk-free areas for people to inhabit. Land use today varies wildly; a lot of land is intensely over-utilized, such as hillsides with poor soil. Farmers have few resources and farm on hilly rain-fed plots and commonly use slash and burn techniques. Oddly, reports from the UN World Food Program (WFP) have found a fair amount of productive land underutilized. Are you cross-eyed yet? Phew…and I haven’t even started to talk about how the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) affects farmers in El Salvador…but I’ll save it for later.

What about food policies? I was surprised to find out that El Salvador does have a national school meals program, providing lunches to children in 4,150 public schools. There is also a mother and child health nutrition program and several relief and emergency food programs for times of disaster (which is sadly a constant need). The UN-WFP also mentioned a program called Purchase for Progress, which addresses food insecurity, strengthening local production, and stimulation local food markets. I will be looking into this further and will post updates on the main blog.

(This information was largely taken from the UN World Food Program, International Food Policy Research Institute, and a paper by Alberto Vargas of the Land Tenure Center of UW-Madison.)