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Son necesarias políticas públicas a favor del agro

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Manuel Torres productor agroecológico, cantón Ambato

En el Ecuador, el 88% de las unidades productivas está en manos de pequeños y medianos productores; es decir, son los que proveen de alimentos a los hogares de nuestro país. Heifer Ecuador ha trabajado largamente con muchas de estas personas acompañado sus procesos y el de sus organizaciones. Hoy, la coyuntura económica hace que el país vuelva sus ojos al agro. Por lo tanto, es una oportunidad de hablar sobre sus necesidades y su futuro.

Heifer Ecuador, ha sido consultada por algunos medios del país sobre la situación de los sectores campesinos e indígenas con los que trabaja. Es importante para nuestra organización, plantear lo que nos preocupa frente a las medidas adoptadas por el Gobierno nacional, como las salvaguardias impuestas a varios productos importados de la canasta familiar. Al parecer esto podría ser una oportunidad para reconstituir la devastada producción de algunas frutas y hortalizas, que simplemente se dejaron de cultivar. O la situación adversa, inclusive, con la crianza de animales menores como los cerdos.

A continuación podrán acceder a las notas periodísticas que tratan sobre estos temas. La primera es una entrevista en Radio Centro realizada por los periodistas Carmen Andrade y Andrés López a Roberto Merino, presidente de la Asociación Holstein y a Rosa Rodríguez, directora de Heifer Ecuador.

Rosa Rodríguez inició su intervención planteando que a pesar de la profunda vocación agrícola de este país, el Estado gasta 20 millones de dólares para importación de carne y 138 millones, para frutas secas y frutas frescas, al año.

Nuestros campesinos y campesinas –acotó– tienen la capacidad de proveer carne, frutas, verduras, hortalizas a toda la población y la imposición de salvaguardias a productos como queso fresco, mantequilla, espinaca, cebolla, ajos, fréjoles, higos, piñas, mangos, debería presentarse como una oportunidad.

Para esto recalcó que es indispensable políticas claras para promover al sector, que no es pequeño ni marginal y que carece de créditos y asistencia técnica, entre otros aspectos.

Finalmente, dijo que hacen falta políticas coherentes e integrales y con un sentido de país para que en este panorama no existan unos grupos afectados y otros favorecidos.

Para escuchar el audio original:

La revista de investigación Plan V, realizó una entrevista a nuestra gerenta de proyectos en Heifer Ecuador para la Sierra, Fernanda Vallejo. Ella explica la situación del agro y la alimentación sana en el país.

Lea la nota completa pinchando aquí.

Public policy must favor agriculture

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Manuel Torres productor agroecológico, cantón Ambato

In Ecuador, small and medium farmers account for 88% of production units. These are the farmers feeding Ecuador’s homes. Heifer Ecuador has worked for many years with these people, accompanying their development and their organizations. Current economic developments are turning the country’s gaze toward agriculture. This provides an opportunity to discuss their needs and future.

Heifer Ecuador has been queried by the press about the status of indigenous and other small farmers we work with. It is important for our organization to publicize our concerns regarding measures being taken by the national government, such as the safeguards (import tariff barriers) imposed on several imported foods that are basic staples. This would seem to offer an opportunity to rebuild the devastated production of several fruits and vegetables, which farmers have simply stopped growing. Or the adverse situation involving small animal husbandry such as hogs.

We have brought together some news items discussing these issues. First is an interview on Radio Centro by journalists Carmen Andrade and Andrés López with Roberto Merino, President of the Holstein Association and Rosa Rodríguez, Heifer Ecuador Country Director.

Rosa Rodríguez began by pointing out that, although Ecuador is so profoundly agricultural, the Government is spending 20 million dollars a year to import meat and 138 million for dried and fresh fruits.

Ecuadorian farmers, she explained, have the capacity to supply the entire population with meat, fruits, and vegetables and the import safeguards levied on such produces as fresh farmer’s cheese, butter, spinach, onions, garlic, beans, figs, pineapples, and mangoes must be viewed as an opportunity.

Rodríguez stressed that clear policies to promote the agricultural sector are indispensable. Farming is not small or marginal but is receiving too little credit or technical assistance, among other aspects.

Finally, she said that these policies must be coherent and holistic, to build the nation so that there will not be winners and losers but favoring the entire country.

To hear the original audio (Spanish), click here:

“Plan V” investigative journalism magazine interviewed our Heifer Ecuador project manager for the Highlands, Fernanda Vallejo. She explained about the country’s agriculture and healthful food situation.

Read the entire report here:

David vs. Goliath, small farmers besieged on several fronts

Modern societies have abandoned the idea of food as the time – even sacred – when we connect with Mother Earth who reproduces life. Eating has become a routine, even a nuisance, just to replace the energy burned in order to continue producing. This explains, for example, the industrialization of foods, both food preparation and even food consumption. Fast food is covering the planet. And the social and cultural of ritual eating has been pushed off into second place.

The whirlwind of individualism and metropolitan life have opened a gaping divide between human beings and the way they feed themselves. Those practices linked with eating that set the basic features of all cultures seem to have been left behind. Pre-colonial pottery often features motifs portraying soil fertility and food in general. This all seems to have been lost or at least pushed aside.

This Sunday, 15 March, we celebrate World Consumer Rights Day. And this year, the consumer organizations promoting this commemoration have dedicated it to healthful diets.

But what does a healthful diet mean? In Ecuador, thanks to improved income, ample sectors of the population have joined the ranks of consumers. Further, there are governmental efforts, such as food labeling regulations, promoting a more healthful pattern of consumption. On supermarket displays, a traffic-light icon shows the amount of sugar, salt and fat in each product, and a warning if the food contains GMOs.

However, we have to wonder how real that information is, and how consumers read it. In large supermarkets, almost everything for sale is highly processed. Sauces, dressings, canned products, cereals, flours, and dairy products contain many additives, preservatives and even antibiotics, as do meats, which say nothing about this on their labels. Un-transformed foods (vegetables, fruits, etc.) are very limited, and also come from production systems highly dosed with agrochemicals. If fresh produce is limited, the supply of so-called organic products, foods derived from Cleaner Production, is practically meaningless.

As a consequence of this reality, conscious consumers, concerned about their health, have found an interesting source in recent years, at alternative market fairs in the larger cities of our country, bridging the gap between producers and responsible consumers – that is, buyers with a conscience.

Llano Chico is a parish located northeast of Quito. Less than a 20-minute drive from downtown. Most residents there are small farmers, with crops and livestock – many of them agroecological. Agroecology, according to a publication by the Heifer Ecuador Foundation, is “a way of producing food that prioritizes cultural appropriation, collective forms of social organization, systems of values, rituals and economies of rural communities, revaluing traditional practices in local agricultural production” (2014). How many shoppers in the capital city know that farmers are growing high-quality foods a few kilometers from their home? Very few.

Nationwide “88% of farms are small and medium units” (Heifer, 2014), many with agroecological crops or in transition toward clean farming. However, that figure is unknown to most of the population. The lack of clear governmental policies to consolidate the small-farming sector is alarming. On the contrary, agrarian policy concentrates on fostering monocrops, using agrochemicals and even agro-fuels.

Now that the national government has seen the need recently to raise import tariffs on many elements of a basic family diet, it is time to ask whether this will make things worse or perhaps mean the opportunity to take a turn for the better in agricultural policy. The outlook is not easy, but may be promising, if we can understand what could be encouraged. After prolonged deterioration in small-farm production conditions, due to open-import policies and support for agri-business, which has boosted the supply of standardized produce, it is now time to reflect and make a change.

We must get back to the countryside, farming properly according to food sovereignty as established in the Constitution. Many small farms – mostly being managed by women – have stopped growing apples, peaches, onions and even keeping small animal such as pigs, because they can no longer make a profit. Rebuilding that production will take several years, but this is our opportunity to do it.

But that is not everything. In-country, small farmers run up against plenty more pitfalls. A series of regulations prescribed by trade agreements such as the one under way with the EU, also burden small farmers' marketing. In the case of milk, hundreds of small dairy farmers – many belonging to grassroots organizations – are smothered by standards almost impossible to meet, such as Good Manufacturing Practices, which only large companies bulking and processing milk can apply. Such regulations are practically a death sentence for small cheese or yogurt plants, or small farmers producing eggs and chickens.

Such regulations are necessary, undoubtedly. However, to begin with, such standards must be devised and enforced in accord with the concrete reality of Ecuadorian farming, and even the different realities within this one country, enabling small farmers to be in compliance – which means relieving them of the large producers’ impositions.

We must also understand that public health deteriorates worse with hyper-processed foods than with foods that failed to meet a minor standard or two. Small farmers could see the light at the end of the tunnel with standards adapted to their reality, suited to local realities. In principle – this is fundamental – regulations issued for large agri-business cannot be the parameters for small farmers. For example, the standards for craft breweries cannot be the same as for brewing monopolies, which have patented practically every possible shape of bottles, even though they don’t use them.

Here we appreciate the importance of food sovereignty, as the other side of the coin. If small farmers have the right to control their own agriculture, we consumers have the right to control our own food. This can be achieved by getting free from monopoly food chains, producers of all types of agrochemicals, and practices encouraging monocrops and the mono-culture of junk foods. This all forces us to create conditions that can bring producers ever-closer to consumers.

Ecuador is a country with enormous potential. Let’s turn the current crisis into an opportunity. We have the possibility to provide a highly varied assortment of nutritious foods, and build a new food culture. We must regain control over our lives. We have delegated our true power, as consumers, to the logic of agri-business and simple exportation of commodities. Consumers and producers who are active, demanding, curious and interested are definitely going to be able to change the way this country feeds itself, the inarguable foundation of a new society.

 

Interview with Fernanda Vallejo. Heifer Ecuador Project Manager for the Highlands. For 25 years, she has worked with rural people, mainly indigenous communities, to sustain, revitalize and strengthen sustainable livelihoods, managed by communities.

This Sunday, 15 March, we celebrate World Consumer Rights Day. Is this something worth commemorating? What does society stand to gain from this type of celebrations?

Although the calendar is full of commemorative dates that we have never heard of, it is still important, and an opportunity to discuss and reflect on issues that are everyone’s business in our day-to-day lives and which would otherwise go un-noticed.

There seems to be a tread toward consuming healthful foods – how real is this?

Increasingly, worldwide deterioration in quality of life, greater incidence of diseases, the high cost of foods, among other factors, has led families to be more concerned about what food they put on their tables. There has genuinely been an “awakening” of this concern for healthful foods, searching for information and places to buy them.

However, this process is only now sprouting. We are quite far from a numerous, well-informed public who take actions and decisions to improve their access to more healthful, ecologically friendly and socially sustainable foods.

Responsible consumption involves changing habits, values, routines and priorities. Eating healthful foods should not be the privilege of a small segment of middle- and high-class urban population, but it is. Nevertheless, there are valuable experiences by urban collectives that organize to reduce their food costs and have increasingly grasped the importance of eating locally-produced small-farm produce free of pesticides, hormones and chemical fertilizers.

What do we mean by healthful foods?

Locally-grown produce, without bought-in chemical fertilizers (in other words, grown in healthy, living soil), not exposed to programmed, systematic poisoning, from nearby, grown by the dignified work of farming families, not depending on fossil fuels but rather grounded in production systems that replace what they deplete.

Small-scale meat is also healthful, from animals fed what their species should eat, without crowding or intensive inoculation with antibiotics and/or hormones, free of stress or inhuman treatment.

Is there, or should there be, a relationship between producers and consumers?

Yes, definitely. It would seem complex and unreachable, but we are not far from the time when producers and consumers will interact directly, on the basis of mutual trust. The industrial model of producing, distributing and marketing foods has caused this estrangement, setting up these barriers. Supermarkets (displacing market fairs), convenience stores (replacing  neighborhood shops), and trucking foods thousands of kilometers (requiring huge amounts of fossil fuel, coolants, plastic containers, and so on – instead of foods that used to be produced locally) – for example, broccoli and apples.

Is there a gap between rural consumers and those living in cities?

Yes, as I said, the corporate industrial food system has erected increasingly more formidable barriers. Even though supermarkets have cropped up even in the smallest towns, people have a deep-rooted culture of valuing fresh foods, interacting with farmers as the best guarantee certificate, getting up early to shop at the market fair – this is an important difference from large-city consumers: shoppers in nearby towns prefer and value small farmers’ produce.

What is the situation of small farmers in Ecuador?

Small farmers – mostly family farms – are a model of efficiency and initiative in dealing with all possible adverse conditions: weather, soil fertility, lack of access to basic resources such as land and water, or credit; forced to abide by measures, standards, norms and controls that are not even applied to corporations, without any serious budget for public policy. In fact, the Government is building up a heavy debt in the incentive policies it owes small farmers.

What concrete progress has the work of the Heifer Foundation made in Ecuador’s countryside?

Heifer Ecuador is an organization that interacts, promotes and facilitates. Heifer’s work – but also the integrity of rural organizations and the active contribution of private and public stakeholders in local territories – is getting organizations better pricing for their products, such as milk; or positioning their products better at local agroecological markets; or winning respect and recognition for their own ways of sustainably managing community páramos (mountaintop moorlands). Heifer helps organizations generate simple mechanisms for self-support and distribution of productive resources, as well as funding projects through its system of sharing resources: “Passing on the Gift”.

We know that Heifer worked with a formula for Child Development Centers. What results did you get?

This experience was in partnership with Mundo Cooperante, a Spanish NGO with whom we joined efforts and resources to improve nutrition for children ages 0 to 5 in child centers, tapping the support and productive experience of Ecuador Radio Schools (ERPE), who work with indigenous farmers in Chimborazo province, preparing a mixture of cereals, legumes and chocolate from their farmer allies. This mix was distributed for months among children at child centers and their families, as a food supplement, and it was very popular. This experimental activity showed us the local capacity to produce local foods from small farmers, nutritionally appropriate, which the Government could see as a way of improving agriculture by turning farmers into suppliers for their social assistance programs.

The main causes of death in Ecuador include diseases resulting from malnutrition and sedentary lifestyles – why does it seem that consumers don’t get healthier foods?

This is a complex set of problems, combining multiple factors, all associated with unbridled urbanization, dislocation of human biological cycles, overwork, stressful livelihoods and almost exclusive access to highly processed foods. This context gives people little chance to be active, crowded into stressful, polluted, aggressive public spaces, exhausting them with overtime work, missed meals and poor-quality food (which is all that is available at work and at home). There is no time even to wonder why there is less and less fresh, chemical-free food from nearby farms.

Will raising import tariffs for foods provide an advantage for local farmers?

On the face of it, this should be good for domestic production. However, the thing is that, with no preparatory encouragement for fruit crops, families with orchards stopped producing fruit almost 20 years ago when the market was flooded with lower-priced imported fruit. So, the imported fruit is gone, but so is the domestic production. Getting a fruit tree into production takes from two to four years. I hope that by then there will still be a domestic market for fruit. The overall result is that imported fruit is more expensive, and so is all food production.

What does the signing of a Free-Trade Agreement with the EU mean for consumers and producers?

Free trade treaties, whatever version they pursue, harm countries’ domestic production and livelihoods. They are asymmetrical, drive by the corporations represented on the WTO. They also affect natural resources, especially water. They undermine in-country mechanisms for local retention and distribution of wealth. In the long run, they break down social fabric, ecological cycles and freedom to produce food.

To conclude, where does food sovereignty stand in our country at this time?  

Despite progress in norms and minor efforts by local governments and some national government dependencies, Ecuador has not stopped losing self-sufficiency and sovereignty in staple food production for the last 30 years. Unless the change the perspective of all food production stakeholders, the scenario is discouraging.

However, it is essential to highlight the courage of small farmers, who continue growing foods and not commodities, bucking the trend of this unfavorable scenario.

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