Guatemala pays high price for failures of global food system
Domingo Tamupsis works on a Guatemalan sugar plantation for a company that exports bioethanol to fill the fuel tanks of US cars. He has a job as a harvester, six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, in a country that is a major producer of food for global markets. His settlement in the fertile Pacific coastal area is surrounded by industrial farms, but he earns so little that his family can’t afford to eat every day. Some days he survives his shift of hard physical labour on nothing but the mangoes that drop from trees by the roadside.
His wife, Marina, is 23-years-old, but is so slight she might be mistaken for a young teenager. She has two daughters, Yeimi aged six and Jessica aged two. Jessica is the size of the average European one-year-old, her distended stomach a sign of chronic malnutrition. When she tries to smile, hollow creases form in her cheeks, betraying her semi-permanent state of hunger.
Last year, Marina gave birth in the eighth month of pregnancy to a stillborn child. She had been ill and hungry throughout, but then felt severe pains one day while making a breakfast of a small corn tortilla for Domingo before he went out to work. She carried on, knowing that if they miss a day on the plantation the men often get fired.
When she finally reached the nearest medical help, a hospital a 45-minute bus ride away, staff told her the baby was dead. They operated and returned the baby’s body to her, but she and Domingo had no money for the return bus fare. A compassionate doctor gave them the price of a fare, and a friend in town lent the money for a coffin. So it was that their third child, Marvin Orlando, a brother for their two little girls, came home to be buried.
Guatemala is a prime example, according to a new report by Oxfam, of how the global food system is failing. It predicts that the average price of staple foods will double by 2030. “Spiralling food prices, climate chaos, rising demand on top of a collapsing resource base, and markets rigged against the many in favour of the few” are taking us into a new era of crisis in which more and more people are going hungry, the charity warns.
Its new research predicts that the international prices of key staples will more than double in the next 20 years, raising “the prospect of a wholesale reversal in human development”. The world’s poorest people spend up to 80% of their income on food and will be hit the hardest. The global food system is broken and its power structures must be overhauled, it says.
Developing countries like Guatemala are on the frontline of the crisis. Half of all its children aged under five are malnourished, one the highest rates of malnutrition in the world – yet it has food in abundance. It is the fifth largest exporter globally of sugar, of coffee, and of bananas. Its rural areas are witnessing a palm oil rush as international traders seek to cash in on demand for biofuels created by US and EU mandates and subsidies.
Despite being a leading agroexporter, half of Guatemala’s population of 14 million live in extreme poverty on less than $2 a day, and the indicators are getting worse. The money to be made from the food chain here, as in most poor countries, has been captured by elites and transnational corporations, leaving half the population excluded.
No way out
No way out
Domingo Tamupsis can see no way out of his dilemma. “The money I make is not enough to feed us,” he says. “We feed the children first because the girls cry so much when they are hungry, but it’s not enough and I think that’s why they get ill and don’t thrive. I don’t know where to get more money: I can’t work any harder and I can’t steal because they shoot you if you steal.” If he had a little land, he would grow food to support the family, but the promised government redistribution of unproductive land that drew him to the area never took place.
“The food is here,” Oxfam’s country director, Aida Pequera, says, “but the main problem is distribution. Land is concentrated in very few hands. The big companies pay very little tax. Labour conditions on plantations are appalling. It’s a classic case of how a very productive country with high rates of exclusion, especially among the indigenous population, cannot feed its own people.”
The economic policies favoured by the international financial institutions in the last decades have here, as in so many developing countries, weakened food security.
In the 1980s, a structural adjustment programme imposed by the IMF on the debt-laden nation resulted in the slashing of technical assistance provided by the Ministry of Agriculture to small farmers. Guatemala, which had been self-sufficient in grain, was encouraged to pursue growth through agricultural exports. Local production of staples declined.
Although the government disputes it, Oxfam believes that Cafta, the free trade agreement between the US and central American states approved in 2005, has undermined local farmers further, as subsidised US grains have poured in. (Industrialised countries, including the US and the EU, subsidise their farmers to the tune of $252bn a year, making it impossible for small farmers in developing countries to compete.)
The result is that Guatemala is now dependent on imports of staple foods, mostly from the US and at the mercy of increasingly volatile food prices internationally. The average poor rural family here spend 80% of their income on food, so when world prices go up dramatically, they simply can’t afford to eat. When the food price spike occurred in 2008, the price of corn locally was 240% higher than the year before.
The government is now distributing food rations to around 90,000 desperate families. The programme is led by Sandra Torres, who has neatly sidestepped the law that bars spouses of presidents from standing to succeed them, by divorcing her husband, President Álvaro Colom. But critics say money for the handout is being diverted from other vital government services, and that what is needed is fundamental structural reform.
Over two-thirds of productive land is in the hands of 2% to 3% of the population. The current social democratic government drafted legislation to promote rural development, including some land reallocation, but it was blocked by the congress after fierce lobbying from agribusiness, which makes substantial donations to political parties and members of congress. Land reform is a subject freighted with a violent history in Guatemala.
When the leftwing President Jacobo Arbenz was elected in 1950, he began a programme of expropriating unused lands owned by major exporters. These included a large chunk of territory owned by the American United Fruit Company. Arbenz said compensation for the land would be based on valuations calculated from the companies’ declared taxable profits. UFCo countered that this was a fraction of what they were really worth. Arbenz was labelled a communist and Soviet sympathiser by President Eisenhower, who, with much urging from UFCo, authorised the CIA to sponsor a “liberation army”. The army invaded in 1954 and led a coup against Arbenz. A return to repressive rule followed, and marked the beginning of decades of agrarian conflict and civil war.
The minster of agriculture today, Juan Alfonso de León García, is not optimistic that serious land reform can now be achieved. “Agriculture is the engine of our economy, but we have to recognise that Guatemala has a very complicated agricultural structure that is very unequal. We have big owners who have the best land, and the majority have a very small percentage of the fertile land,” he explains.
“Food security is a serious problem for us. We have to talk about land distribution, but it’s not easy. In the 1950s, we tried to have agricultural reform but that promoted the fall of the government and marked the beginning of armed conflict that lasted 36 years.”
However, he still hopes some land that is not being used can be acquired for reallocation to smallholders. Meanwhile, his government has increased technical assistance for small farmers to help improve yields. The theory of the agroexport model of development is that growth stimulated by increased foreign revenues will trickle down to the rest of the population. But most of the profits made from Guatemalan resources have so far gone untaxed. Total tax revenue amounts to less than 12% of GDP (roughly less than half that of rich countries).
As De León García explains: “We have very low rates of taxation, and we cannot even determine whether the agroexporters pay even that. But it’s not just big business that avoids tax here, all taxpayers do.”
The global food system in the last two decades has seen a dramatic flight of capital, as transnationals make use of offshore subsidiaries to minimise the tax they pay both in the countries where they produce food and in the countries where they sell it. To take one example, UN trade data, analysed by Christian Aid, also shows that Guatemala received an average export price of just $0.18 per kilo for its bananas. By the time those bananas had reached their destination of importing countries, the average price of the same bananas was $0.46, suggesting various costs are added offshore by trans-nationals trading with their own subsidiaries in other jurisdictions. Christian Aid estimates more than $50m a year may have been lost by Guatemala as a result in 2006 and 2007.
Low minimum wage
In theory, agroexport-led growth also benefits the rural poor by enabling them to move from marginal subsistence farming to becoming waged labour, but in Guatemala the minimum wage is so low it does not meet the most basic needs. The pattern is repeated in many developing countries that depend on agricultural exports. Labour relations in Guatemala are also characterised by extreme repression and violence.
Earlier this month, Idar Hernández Godoy, one of the secretaries of Sitrabi, the banana workers’ union, was shot several times by unknown assailants on a motorbike while on his way to local union headquarters in the Atlantic region.
His death brings to five the number of banana union leaders assassinated since 2007. Trying to organise workers or demand better conditions is likely to result in death threats. Luis Fuentes, Guatemalan representative of the Danish food workers’ union 3F, describes typical conditions on the plantations – whether banana, sugar or palm – as “inhuman”. He too has received many death threats. In the sugar sector, unions were effectively dismantled in the 1970s, when leaders were persecuted and assassinated.
All the transnational companies and national producers in the country say they respect labour rights, respect the environment and have corporate social responsibility policies in place to tackle any abuses. However, the Guardian interviewed several current and former plantation workers from each of the sugar, palm and banana sectors this month. Many were afraid to speak out, and said it was only safe to do so on guarantee of anonymity. A consistent account emerged: many were working day to day with no proper contract. Most reported being set impossible targets by middle managers and then given warnings or having pay deducted if they failed to meet them.
Many were working with highly toxic agrochemicals, often without protective clothing, including paraquat, which is banned in Europe. Several reported chronic health problems from chemical exposure. They also reported workers being bitten by poisonous snakes in the palm plantations.
They typically earned 1,500 ($190) to 1,800 quetzales a month, whereas the National Statistics Institute, a Guatemalan government organisation, has calculated that a minimum of 4,100 quetzales a month is needed to feed the average family.
Without exception, they said that joining a union would be a sackable offence that would lead to blacklisting. Even where top management has tried to put in place contracts or better conditions, usually under pressure from outside buyers, they said the managers in the field abuse workers. When auditors arrive, they are told what to say and given protective clothing for the day. Persistent allegations also emerged of a new phenomenon, of workers being given or taking stimulant drugs to help them through the pain of the punishing shifts.
Those who have land supplement their exhausting work with growing their own food. Those without are often driven into illegal migration to the US. The week of our visit, two US-bound tractor-trailers packed full of illegal migrants were stopped by the Mexican border authorities. The 513 men on board were half dead from suffocation. Most of them were Guatemalan. One of them told reporters: “We have no choice, there is not enough food for us at home.”
- Hunger Crisis Worsens, Food System Broken: Oxfam (scientificamerican.com)
- Oxfam: ‘Broken’ food system leaving millions hungry (via This Just In) (techweev.com)
- Food crisis will create millions more hungry: Oxfam (cbc.ca)
- “OXFAM says food prices will double by 2030″ and related posts (povertynewsblog.blogspot.com)
- “Food prices will double in 20 years causing mass world hunger, says Oxfam” and related posts (peakoil.com)
- ‘Food prices will double in 20 years causing mass world hunger’ – Daily Mail (news.google.com)
- Food Prices Will Double by 2030: Oxfam (newser.com)
- Food prices to double by 2030, Oxfam warns | Environment | The Guardian (talesfromthelou.wordpress.com)
- Oil prices, inflation worsen hunger crisis: Oxfam (business.financialpost.com)
- Food prices ‘will double by 2030′ (bbc.co.uk)