Historic moment in Costa Rican labour history

By Bert Schouwenburg

We are grateful to Bert Schouwenburg and to Banana Link for permission to reproduce this article. It was first published in The Morning Star who did not reply to our request for permission to reproduce the article. It was later produced in the first edition of the Banana Trade Blog which is produced by Banana Link (www.bananalink.org.uk )

Trade Union leaders are no stranger to hyperbole but when public sector union, ANEP’s General Secretary, Albino Vargas told delegates at the annual general assembly of SITRAP  (Agricultural Plantation Workers Union) that the event came at a historic moment in Costa Rica’s labour history, he was not exaggerating.

The assembly was held on January 20th [2019] in the heart of Limón’s banana growing zone at the Pococí Expo Centre in Guápiles. The 700 SITRAP members and their families were bussed in from all over the region during an operation that, for some, commenced at 3.30am to ensure that everyone was present for breakfast and an 8am start. Previous assemblies had been held at a much smaller venue in Siquirres where SITRAP have their premises, and before that in the main hall of their building itself when active membership of the union was at its lowest ebb.

GMB’s relationship with SITRAP began in 2003 under the auspices of NGO Banana Link’s ‘Union to Union’ programme aimed at establishing direct links with workers in Latin America’s tropical fruit plantations. SITRAP was in dire straits, its membership decimated by a sophisticated and ruthless campaign, headed up by the Costa Rican government, to drive trade unions out of the banana industry altogether. In the early 1980s, the then powerful unions’ fight for better working conditions prompted the employers to close down all their farms on the Pacific coast and throw thousands of people out of work. In a sustained propaganda exercise the closures of what were uneconomic plantations was blamed on trade union militancy and intransigence.

To this day, criticising the unions for the Pacific coast closures is an integral part of the banana producers’ strategy to dissuade workers from forming and joining them. Aided and abetted by the San José dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church, who have described them as being the work of the devil, they have spread the doctrine of ‘Solidarismo’, a concept enshrined in Costa Rican law whereby workers are encouraged to elect representatives to ‘permanent committees’ who then conclude ‘direct agreements’ with management to the exclusion of independent trade unions. Needless to say, these agreements are presented to the committees on a take it or leave it basis with no room for negotiation. Solidarista associations have been formed throughout the length and breadth of not just the banana industry but also in plantations growing pineapples of which Costa Rica is the world’s number one exporter. Where union organisation appears, workers are harassed, intimidated and, if they do not renounce their membership, are sacked and blacklisted.

One of GMB’s first initiatives was to raise funds so that SITRAP could complete much needed renovations to their building in Siquirres, a successful project that led to the assembly hall being dedicated to the late Brian Weller, a much-loved activist from London, in whose name the money was collected. This was followed by a memorandum of understanding between the unions and a two year funding agreement that kept SITRAP afloat and gave them breathing space to build their organisational capacity in an extremely hostile environment.

Slowly, but incrementally, SITRAP built its membership base in hostile multinational company farms belonging to Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole and also in plantations owned by vehemently anti-union national companies such as the Acon Group who made sure that the union could not make the sufficient inroads needed in order to reach the density required to trigger recognition, by sacking members under any pretext. However, a significant breakthrough occurred in January, 2016 when, after an 18 year struggle, the Labour Reform Process Law was put onto the statute book. This landmark piece of legislation dramatically speeded up the glacial pace of Costa Rica’s labour code and enabled workers to bring claims of unfair dismissal to court within days and empowered judges to order immediate reinstatement pending a full merits hearing. At a stroke, the legislation deprived employers’ ability to arbitrarily dismiss trade unionists at will, safe in the knowledge that cases brought against them could take years to be heard. Unsurprisingly, private sector employers are lobbying furiously to have the law overturned.

The cumulative effects of SITRAP’s continuing membership drive, the space afforded to it by the passing of the new law, and the pressure being brought to bear by motivated consumers in European markets allowed the union to make members to such an extent that, after 9 months of negotiation, it was able to sign a recognition agreement in a Del Monte plantation just before the assembly, the first such agreement to be concluded since the 1980s. It was this that prompted ANEP’s General Secretary to comment on the historic significance of the moment.

Banana production in Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Latin America, faces an uncertain future. The purchasing power of European and North American retailers has squeezed the margins of the multinational producers who are no longer the dominant force that they once were. The downward pressure on costs has been passed on to workers who find themselves the victims of a race to the bottom as producers react to the price wars of major supermarkets, particularly in the UK. The huge mono-crop plantations, drenched in pesticides, are environmentally disastrous and are prone to disease. So far, the deadly fusarium wilt virus has been kept at bay in Latin America but if it takes hold, that could be the beginning of the end for the industry as we know it and explains why serious thought is now being given to multi-cropping and diversification away from the ubiquitous Cavendish banana that is intensively farmed throughout.

For the thousands of workers in the Costa Rican banana industry, it is essential that they have a collective voice that can be heard, however the industry develops. SITRAP’s re-emergence as a significant player is therefore vitally important and they deserve the continued support of unions like GMB, and UNISON who have also given valuable assistance, especially as so much of the fruit their members produce finds its way into the UK’s fruit bowls.  

ANEP have produced the video report of the event below, which includes contributions from the General Secretary of SITRAP, Didier Leiton, Alistair Smith of Banana Link, and Bert Schouwenburg, who represented the GMB at the meeting.

700 agricultural workers attend historic SITRAP assembly from Banana Link on Vimeo.

Bert Schouwenburg
11 February 2019

Nicaraguan coffee farmers seek creative solutions to drought, climate change

by ZACH DYER, November 26, 2014

This story was originally published in The Tico Times. It is reproduced here by kind permission of The Tico Times. http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/11/26/nicaraguan-coffee-farmers-seek-creative-solutions-to-drought-climate-change

Key words: Coffee cultivation; coffee rust (roya); climate change; waste water management; river pollution

MATAGALPA, Nicaragua – Coffee drinkers in the United States reach for a warm cup of joe when the crisp autumn wind blows in November, but meanwhile, farmers in Nicaragua are looking at their coffee trees with trepidation.

The coffee harvest in Central America started in November but many farmers here have little to do. Drought ravaged much of Central America — especially Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras — earlier this year, and farmers are feeling its impact now. Fields that should be full of coffee pickers are empty. Mills that should be guzzling red coffee cherries by the basketful sit with their tanks nearly empty. Many farmers say the harvest could be four weeks late, at least.

A view of the upgraded wet mill at La Hermandad Cooperative in San Ramón, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

A late harvest doesn’t necessarily augur a small harvest, but it does mean farmers who rely on coffee as their main income will have to stretch their budgets for another month after several years of slim earnings. This year’s drought, attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon, is the latest hurdle for Central American coffee farmers who have seen their crop yield dwindle because of the devastating leaf rust fungus known as roya.

Francisco Blandon, a coffee farmer in the steep green hills outside Yali, Jinotega, said that two years ago he noticed the rains were no longer reliable. “It was dry when it should’ve been wet, and wet when it was supposed to be dry,” he said. Blandon said that a lack of rainfall and lingering damage from roya cut his harvest by 70 percent, to 53 60-kilogram bags of green coffee during the 2013/2014 season, compared to 184 bags in a normal year.

Francisco Blandon balances the pH of coffee wastewater on his farm in Jinotega, Nicaragua, on Nov. 20, 2014. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Blandon isn’t alone in his assessment. Drought and increasingly unpredictable rain cycles are among the symptoms of climate change that scientists say are making coffee a risky investment for farmers on the isthmus. Amid these conditions, farmers and other stakeholders in the coffee business have begun to look for ways to reduce the caffeinated crop’s environmental impact with a special eye on water management. A series of pilot projects in Nicaragua funded by the Dutch government and the sustainable certification label UTZ Certified have seen positive results in reducing water consumption, treating wastewater and providing farmers with a clean burning fuel as a by-product. Coffee is Nicaragua’s most valuable agricultural export and employs thousands in the poor Central American country. Changing the way farmers process their coffee for market could have a significant impact on the quality of life and environment in many coffee-growing communities here.

Effluent from El Carmen wet mill before treatment in Diriamba, Nicaragua. The wastewater has an average pH of 4, the same as acid rain. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Regardless if the coffee is organic or not, wastewater from coffee processing plants has been cited as a major source of river pollution in Latin America. The red fruit must be cleaned off the coffee in a process called de-pulping before the beans ferment, dry and are milled for export. Traditional de-pulping wet mills use large amounts of freshwater to transport the fruit though various stages of the milling and fermentation process. After de-pulping, the water is a brown frothy sludge. Coffee wastewater has a typical pH of 4 — the same as acid rain— compared to a neutral pH of 7 for pure water, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Farmers and processing plants would traditionally dump their coffee wastewater straight into streams without any treatment. The organic matter in the effluent encourages bacterial growth that pulls oxygen out of streams and lakes, suffocating fish and other marine life. A report from the Guatemalan Instituto Centroamericano de Investigación y Tecnología Industrial estimated that the processing of 547,000 tons of coffee during a six-month period in 1988 created the water pollution equivalent of the raw sewage from a city of four million people.

Blandon said that people downstream of his coffee farm would complain of stomach pains and irritated skin after drinking or bathing with water from the stream during the harvest.

Rigoberto Mendoza, another farmer outside Yali, has been farming coffee for 30 years. “Before, I didn’t understand the impact I was having on other people. I was harming them and others were harming me,” Duartes said, wearing a cowboy hat as he looked downhill from his farm.

Both Blandon and Mendoza were selected among the first 19 UTZ pilot programmes here that started rolling out in Nicaragua in 2010. Water savings are achieved by recycling water up to three times through the mill before the discharge is sent to a septic tank where the large solids are filtered out and the remaining fluid passes on to a bio-digester. There, the effluent mixes with manure and bacteria breaks down the organic matter from the coffee, producing methane gas that is captured and stored for use later. Filters in the digester isolate the physical waste from the water, which can be sent to a retention pond after lyme and other bases are added to it to reduce its acidity. At this point, the wastewater’s pH and organic concentration levels are safe enough to release back into the environment.

Before and after: Coffee wastewater prior to treatment, left, and once it’s safe to release back into the environment, right, at El Carmen laboratory in Diriamba, Nicaragua. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Small farmers benefit from these programmes, but they also have application for large commercial wet mills. In the Pacific town of Diriamba, CISA Exportadora — the largest exporter of coffee in Nicaragua, accounting for 30 percent of the country’s annual crop — has reduced its water consumption by 70 percent at the El Carmen wet mill, according to Tito Sequiera, vice general manager in Nicaragua for Mercon, the mill’s owner. CISA has the largest wet mill in Nicaragua and processes some 2,300 metric tons of green coffee, consuming up to 3,000 litres of water daily, depending on the volume of coffee processed. Before, CISA used 1,500 litres of water to process 256 kg of coffee fruit; now, the wet mill has reduced its water usage to 400 litres to process the same amount of coffee. Besides using less water, El Carmen’s water management system reduced contamination in the effluent by 80 percent.

“I’m from this area. For me, this project lifted a weight off my conscience because before I knew we were polluting,” said Gilberto Monterrey, chief of operations for the CISA wet mill. Monterrey said that CISA used to receive complaints from the community about the effluent’s vinegar-like smell. “You’d smell it in the homes and when it rained, the [retention] ponds would overflow. With this project, all that stopped,” he said.


(I am also grateful to Zach Dyer for his permission to use his article in The Violence of Development website, as well as to The Tico Times. Amongst all the negative news of violence from the region of Central America, it is pleasing to be able to report on developments that have a beneficial effect on both people and the environment.)



ANEXCO harasses and fires union members

The following is a report reproduced here by kind permission of Banana Link.
ANEXCO harasses and fires union members – update on our Urgent Action
November 2015

baThank you for supporting our recent urgent action appeal in support of union members at Costa Rican pineapple producer ANEXCO. More than 23​,000 emails have been sent to the company, calling on them to end harrassment of union members and to engage in constructive dialogue with the union SINTRAPEM (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores/as del Sector Privado Empresarial). This massive effort, plus several articles in the trade press and an intervention by the UK’s Ethical Trade Initiative combined to convince Fyffes of the need to try and resolve the issues we raised.

Initially, three union members were sacked shortly after the urgent action appeal was launched. However, the pressure against union members inside the plantation ​i​s reported to have diminished since then and a meeting at the Costa Rican Labour Ministry on 20th October generated an agreement to explore the potential for the reinstatement of these three most sacked workers.

Subsequently, a meeting in San José on 30th October – involving SINTRAPEM, COSIBA (the Costa Rican banana and pineapple union coordinating body), COLSIBA (the Latin American banana and agro industrial union coordinating body), Banana Link, ANEXCO and Fyffes – did not achieve the real breakthrough that was needed to put an end to the anti-union activities. But ANEXCO and Fyffes did, however, agree to another meeting to review the list of the union’s complaints, provisionally scheduled for 6th November.

Although there is not yet a satisfactory conclusion to our urgent action appeal, the progress made so far would not have been possible without your support. We will keep you updated.​

You can still add your voice. 
SEND an email

The growth of pineapples in Costa Rica

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production. Source: Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production.
Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

Exploring alternatives to hazardous pesticides in Costa Rica

Dr Stephanie Williamson

Dr Stephanie Williamson reports on project work by the Regional Institute for Research on Toxic Substances (IRET) at the National University (UNA).

I am grateful to Stephanie for permission to include this article in The Violence of Development website. Clearly, this represents an attempt to stem the environmental violence of development.

Despite its ‘green paradise’ image, Costa Rica has one of the highest intensities of pesticide use in the world. Pesticide use is particularly high on export crops of banana, pineapple, melon and coffee. Much of this production is on large farms but medium and small-scale farmers are also involved. Pesticide use is often high on vegetables grown for local consumption too.

To raise national awareness of the level of use of hazardous pesticides in Costa Rica, agronomist Fernando Ramírez and his team at IRET surveyed pineapple and coffee farmers to find out which pesticides they are using. The team also analysed government data on pesticide imports.  Their findings revealed that in 2015 over 10,000 tons of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) were imported. Coffee farmers reported using 18 different HHPs, while pineapple farmers reported 8 HHPs in common use.

The team has shared these findings with government decision makers, farmer associations, university students and agricultural extension staff, along with training on understanding how pesticides can harm people and the environment. An important message for farmers was that not only the ‘red’ labelled pesticides under Costa Rica’s hazard colour coding qualify as HHPs, due to their acute toxicity to humans, but others are problematic too. These include known and probable carcinogens, pesticides causing foetal abnormalities or harming the reproductive system, plus numerous pesticides highly toxic to bees, aquatic life and those that persist for months or more in soil or water.

Part of the reason for continued reliance on harmful pesticides is that farmers and policymakers often feel there is no option but to use pesticides or they fear that alternatives will be less effective. IRET therefore carried out pilot field trials to explore safer alternatives. In pineapple, they looked at alternative methods to the HHP ethoprophos for controlling nematodes, microscopic worms which attack the roots of young pineapple plants. Ethoprophos is a priority for phase-out as it is acutely toxic to humans, putting farm workers at risk, and it is also extremely harmful to soil life. The team trialled two different biological pesticides, based on fungi which feed on nematodes, plus ‘wood vinegar’, distilled from burning woody material, and compared these with the standard ethoprophos treatment. Results indicate all three alternatives can be as effective as ethoprophos. Even better is that the alternatives are much cheaper than ethoprophos and can be applied without special equipment or extensive training. An interesting result was that pineapple plants were significantly lower in weight in plots treated with ethoprophos, suggesting harmful side-effects on soil organisms needed for growing a healthy crop.

Sampling pineapple plants in the trials on alternatives. (Photo credit: IRET)

The project held a regional workshop on experiences in growing coffee without the use of HHPs, with speakers from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Presenters highlighted the importance of improving soil health (physical structure, chemical composition and microflora/fauna) to nurture coffee bushes more able to resist pest attack and diseases. Farmers from Cooperative Nahuala in Guatemala are reviving soil life by making solid fertilisers on-farm (worm compost, composted chicken manure). The co-op has a small ‘biofactory’ to make their own organic biofungicides, bioinsecticides and biofertilizers. They report good results in coffee rust control but explain that organic products take more time to work than synthetic fungicides so farmers need to understand that using organic methods is not a quick fix.

The Ecological Coffee Cooperative La Labor (COCAFELOL) in Honduras is helping its members recover from major outbreaks of coffee rust disease but without relying on fungicides. It trains farmers on how to improve biological activity of the soil and to enhance nutrition of coffee bushes, making groves more resilient to pest and disease attack, especially under changing climatic conditions. COCAFELOL have gained good experiences using home-made mineral preparations and biofermented products, plus recycling pulp from coffee processing as fertiliser.

otor-strimming at Monsol farm. (Photo credit: Juan R. Montero Gamboa)

In Costa Rica, medium-sized farm Monsol described their success in eliminating herbicide use, controlling weeds instead with strimmers and manual slashing. Along with pruning of shade trees, this generates around 50 tons of green material cuttings per hectare each year, which the farm owners view as a valuable resource. They use some of this material to mulch the soil around coffee bushes and apply home-made biofermented microbial products to the remainder to speed up its breakdown into compost. Non-competitive plants are allowed to grow between coffee rows to protect the soil from erosion. By recycling horse manure, waste from livestock feeding stalls and making their own worm compost, Monsol farm has hugely reduced its use of synthetic fertiliser, while rebuilding soil fertility in an area where many conventional farms suffer from degraded soils.

These positive experiences show that reducing reliance on agrochemical inputs is feasible, technically and economically, for large and small farms.

For more information about the project Phasing out Highly Hazardous Pesticides in Costa Rica, visit the web pages hosted by PAN UK at http://www.pan-uk.org/phasing-out-hhps-costa-rica/

For more information about the work of IRET, go to: http://www.iret.una.ac.cr/

The Bitter Price of Tropical Fruits – new video

Banana Link gave notification of a new video about pineapple production in Costa Rica. I recommend that readers of this website give the video a viewing.  From Banana Link email newsletter, 14th May 2018.

Key words: pineapple production; plantation labour conditions; chemical pesticide use; supermarket power.

 The Bitter Price of Tropical Fruits

Pineapple production is wreaking havoc on human health, livelihoods and the environment in Costa Rica. This documentary (in English) from Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, takes a look at how low prices in European supermarkets encourage cheap labour and extensive use of toxic pesticides.


Definitions of food security and food sovereignty

The concept of ‘Food Security’ reigns supreme as the practical means of achieving access to food (Madeley, 2000)[i]. The term is largely a United Nations construct, originating from the institution’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) formed in 1945.

The organisation defines food security as when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.[ii]

Despite the problems associated with food aid (see text), the FAO decided food security would be best achieved with unilateral cooperation; hence the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security where participating states reaffirmed “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”.[iii]

This spawned the Millennium Development Goal Target 3, to ‘halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’.

More recently, the concept of ‘Food Sovereignty’ has gained prominence. The term, which refers to the right to produce food on one’s own territory, was coined by the NGO La Vía Campesina in 2002. This includes the right of peoples to sustain themselves and define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their circumstances.[iv]

It defines seven principles of food sovereignty which are: the right to food, agrarian reform, protecting natural resources, reorganising food trade, ending the globalisation of hunger, social peace, and democratic control. As Jefferson Boyer states, the notion of “food sovereignty was a direct attack on official food security, especially its eschewal of local production.”[v]

[i] John Madeley (2000) Hungry for Trade, London: Zed Books.
[ii] FAO (2005) Food and Agriculture Organisation [on-line] www.fao.org (accessed 25th June 2009).
[iii] Rome Declaration, [Ref required ???]
[iv] La Vía Campesina, www.viacampesina.org accessed 29 June 2009.
[v] Jefferson Boyer (April 2010) ‘Food security, food sovereignty, and local challenges for transnational agrarian movements: the Honduras case’, the Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 319-351.

Seguridad alimentaria en Panamá

El gobierno le roba el plato de arroz al pueblo

Marco A. Gandásegui .

Panamá, 22 de diciembre de 2016.

Reproducido por autorización de alainet.org (Agencia Latinoaméricana de Información)

Palabras claves: seguridad alimentaria; arroceros; importaciones; tratado de libre comercio; gobierno de Panamá


La situación en el agro panameño llegó a su límite con los ataques más recientes del gobierno a los productores. Aprovechando la falta de planificación, el gobierno promovió la compra de arroz en el exterior para que los especuladores quebraran a los productores nacionales.

La operación fue pensada y ejecutada con maestría por los políticos al servicio de los intereses neoliberales. Son un puñado de especuladores que tienen sus garras dentro del gobierno. Crean y hacen desaparecer empresas en el registro de la propiedad con el sólo objetivo de transferir millones de dólares de las arcas fiscales a sus cuentas secretas.

¿Cómo se justifica que mientras los productores preparan la cosecha de arroz para colocarla en el mercado, el gobierno aprueba la compra de millones de quintales del rubro en el exterior y comienza a desembarcarlos en los puertos nacionales? Las cuatro empresas importadoras autorizadas para la operación fueron creadas con ese solo propósito. Los productores, desde Darién hasta Alanje, pasando por Chepo y Coclé, han protestado sin que el palacio presidencial reaccione. Los especuladores están demasiado ocupados celebrando con la música de sus cajas registradoras. Para responder a la indiferencia gubernamental, los productores organizaron una marcha hacia el Palacio de las Garzas.

Durante la marcha de los productores agrícolas hacia la Presidencia de la República realizada el pasado lunes, se exigieron soluciones. El secretario general del Movimiento Independiente de Refundación Nacional (MIREN), Juan Jované, planteó, en un comunicado, que “el pueblo demanda una solución efectiva y rápida a la escandalosa arremetida del gobierno contra la producción agrícola nacional y la seguridad alimentaria de la familia panameña”.

Denunció al gobierno, por la política corrupta y la rapiña “contra el presupuesto de los trabajadores de las ciudades y de los productores del campo”.

En el comunicado del MIREN, se “propone un sistema ordenado y planificado de la producción agrícola, basado en criterios científicos y donde prime una política seria y responsable”. En el caso del arroz, los gobernantes tienen en sus manos las estadísticas que hablan del engaño que pretenden realizar. “Saben muy bien cuál es la demanda nacional y tienen la información necesaria para saber cuántas hectáreas de tierra se necesitan para satisfacer esa demanda”.

En la actualidad, los productores nacionales siembran 92 mil hectáreas de arroz y cosechan 6.2 millones de quintales. Con un plan de trabajo, los productores de arroz pueden sembrar el doble y cosechar aún más. El gobierno puede reabrir los silos para guardar cualquier sobrante y tenerlo disponible para los años de malas cosechas. Incluso, Panamá, en el pasado, ha exportado arroz. Con estas prácticas mercantilistas, hemos regresado a los años más corruptos de la historia en que los gobiernos y especuladores conspiraban para arruinar a los arroceros y otros productores agrícolas.

En la década de 1950 se sembraba la misma cantidad de hectáreas de arroz que en el siglo XXI. En la década de 1970, con mejor planificación, se sembraban 105 hectáreas.

El comunicado del MIREN señala que la situación de los arroceros se reproduce para cada rubro agrícola. “Los gobernantes y sus malos socios – especuladores y financistas – hacen sus cálculos no para satisfacer las necesidades del país. Sus planes, cuando llegan al poder, consisten en crear más confusión y aprovechar las oportunidades para robar más”.

El negocio de las importaciones de arroz se ha disparado perjudicando a los consumidores. Entre 1970 y 1990 Panamá era auto-suficiente: no importaba arroz. En 2000, después del TLC con EEUU, se importaron 1.8 millones de quintales, en 2010 las importaciones alcanzaron las 2.5 millones de quintales y en 2015 fueron 2.3 millones. ¿Quiénes se hacen millonarios? Los especuladores y monopolistas asociados a los gobernantes.

El MIREN hace suyas las demandas de los productores nacionales que coinciden con las necesidades del pueblo. El comunicado dice que “apoyamos la planificación de la producción por parte de los agricultores para asegurar una competencia sana y erradicar los tentáculos de los monopolistas enquistados en el gobierno”.

El sector más golpeado por la corrupción oficial es el pequeño productor de arroz. Entre 1990 y 2010, de los 1154 productores pequeños sólo quedan 717. Entre los grandes, hubo una aumento del 35 por ciento.

A su vez, el MIREN exige que se renegocie el Tratado de Libre Comercio con EEUU que en cuestión de pocos años acabará definitivamente con lo poco que le queda a la agricultura panameña.


– Marco A. Gandásegui, hijo, profesor de Sociología de la Universidad de Panamá e investigador asociado del Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Justo Arosemena (CELA)





Activists are Dying for Your Food: Environmental Defenders Murdered in Record Numbers Last Year

I am grateful to Sandra Cuffe and to the progressive organisation Toward Freedom for permission to reproduce this article here. Although the article refers to environmental defenders in many parts of the world, it is also relevant to Central America where the abuses and threats suffered by environmental defenders are as bad as or worse than those suffered elsewhere in the world.

By Sandra Cuffe, July 25, 2018 


It could be your morning coffee, your bananas, your sugar, or the palm oil found in approximately half of all packaged products at your grocery store, including breakfast cereals. Land and environmental defenders were killed in record numbers last year, and for the first time, agribusiness is tied to more killings than any other sector, according to a report published Tuesday by Global Witness, a London-based NGO (https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/at-what-cost/).

The organisation documented 207 killings of land and environmental defenders in 22 countries around the world in 2017, a slight increase from 2016. However, the number of people killed while protesting large-scale agriculture in 2017 more than doubled.

“For the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose, as 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017,” noted the authors of ‘At What Cost?’, the Global Witness report.

Last year also saw a rise in massacres, many of which were linked to agribusiness conflicts. Global Witness documented seven cases in which more than four land and environmental defenders were killed. In Brazil, three massacres had a combined death toll of 25, more than 40 percent of the total 57 defenders killed last year – the most killings Global Witness has ever recorded in any country.

In the Philippines, killings of activists and community leaders skyrocketed. “President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fuelling the violence. Almost half of the [48] killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness,” according to the report.

On the southern island of Mindanao, an indigenous village leader engaged in a heated struggle against the expansion of a coffee plantation, and four of his relatives, and two other residents were all killed by soldiers on December 3. The government claimed the deaths were the outcome of fighting between the army and leftist guerrilla forces, but there was little evidence to support the claim. Between the government’s announcement that it would earmark more lands for industrial plantations and the increased militarization of Mindanao, killings of locals opposing land grabs are unlikely to cease.

Global Witness identified several root causes underlying threats to defenders, regardless of whether cases are tied to agribusiness, mining, logging, or other activities. Corruption and impunity are on the list, but so is the failure to recognise customary or collective land rights and secure land tenure. Failure to seek the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities also underpins the violence, according to the organisation.

“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets,” said Ben Leather, a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness.

A United Nations intergovernmental working group continued to work on its draft of a binding international instrument concerning transnational corporations, but at the moment, most international guidelines concerning business and human rights are just that: guidelines. They’re voluntary. Products are sometimes labelled ‘sustainable’ by industry-led groups regardless of the facts on the ground.

Sugar and palm oil linked to violence and killings can be ingredients in all kinds of everyday products. Amnesty International traced palm oil from Indonesian plantations with reported human rights abuses to nine multinational food and household corporations with dozens of brands.

“We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard,” said Leather.

Whether they are linked to conflicts over agribusiness or extractive industries, killings are at the extreme end of the spectrum of violence and harassment against land and environmental defenders.

A banner highlighting the legitimacy of resistance hangs along the road in Casillas, Guatemala, where a regional resistance movement has shut down traffic to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine for more than a year. (Photo: Sandra Cuffe)

Criminalization, death threats, sexual assault, and intimidation are everyday occurrences in many parts of the world.

Franklin Almendares is all too familiar with targeted intimidation. The head of the National Centre for Rural Workers (CNTC), he had been meeting with representatives from other Honduran land rights organisations this past February to discuss land struggles and the ongoing political crisis in the country, and there was much to talk about.

It was after midnight by the time he left the meeting. There was almost no traffic in Tegucigalpa at that time of night, but Almendares did not make it more than three blocks from the meeting when a vehicle suddenly crashed into his. Due to past attacks against him, Almendares opted to keep driving, but the other vehicle maneuvered around to the front of his, blocking his path. Two of the four men got out, pulled Almendares from his vehicle, frisked him for a weapon, and searched his bag.

“The only thing they robbed was my agenda,” Almendares told Toward Freedom. It was not the first time this had happened to him. “I’ve had my agenda stolen four times,” he said.

A police patrol truck had suddenly appeared a few minutes after the incident and officers tried to convince Almendares to get in and accompany them to search for the perpetrators. He declined, and the police officers did not bother to take notes, ask for details, or even inspect vehicle damage before leaving.

Almendares decided to go to the police station downtown to file a formal report, but he was intercepted along the way by a different police patrol truck, this time with both police and military personnel aboard. They knew who he was and what had happened. Fearing for his safety, Almendares declined their offer to accompany him and quickly took off for home, making sure he wasn’t followed. Regional CNTC leaders also face frequent intimidation, threats, and attacks.

“At CNTC we’re in a permanent state of crisis,” said Almendares. “Lands are being handed over for monoculture crops, dams and mining.”

Thousands of campesinos have been criminalized, and both public security forces and paramilitary groups have been attacking communities defending their lands, he said. Between the increasing concentration of power since the 2009 coup d’état and the fiercely contested re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández last November, Almendares expects things to get even worse, and he is not alone.

The new Global Witness report addressed Honduras in its review of trends in 2017. The group documented four killings of land and environmental defenders in the country, a sharp drop from the 14 in 2016. However, Honduras still had the second most killings per capita in 2017, after seven consecutive years with the notorious distinction of holding the lead. Despite a drop in killings, repression of human rights defenders in general increased, as did attacks, the report authors noted.

In neighbouring Guatemala, killings have shot up drastically this year. To date in 2018, at least a dozen land and environmental defenders have been killed, and most of them were indigenous. According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), the first eleven killings this year included five Campesino Development Committee (CODECA) members, three members of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), a Maya Chorti community leader, a Quetzaltenango social pastoral land group affiliate, and a member of the Coordination of Communities Affected by Sugar Cane Agribusiness.

“In 2018, it’s possible to predict a greater risk, not just due to the political and social context but also because the cost of attacking a defender has greatly dropped due to the inaction, tolerance, complicity and behaviour of the state, opening the door for state and non-state actors to consider that impunity will be guaranteed if they act against [defenders],” UDEFEGUA noted in a report published earlier this year.

This month, on July 12, another Guatemalan defender was killed. Ángel Estuardo Quevedo, a community leader from Casillas, Santa Rosa, was shot several times in broad daylight. He was an active participant in the powerful regional resistance movement to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine, and was involved in coordinating the rotation of residents participating in protest actions.

Locals from several municipalities in the area have been working together for more than a year to maintain an ongoing roadside protest in Casillas to block mine traffic and stop mine production. The movement also maintains a round-the-clock presence outside the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City pending a ruling concerning the mine.

For years, community leaders, activists and residents organised in opposition to the Escobal mine have been killed, attacked, jailed, and threatened. Miguel Ángel Payeras is one of the countless Casillas residents who experienced repression last year, when police attempted to violently evict the roadside protest camp in order to escort fuel to the mining project.

“They came with the intention of fighting with us,” Payeras told Toward Freedom in an interview last year. “They shot tear gas at people running away.”

A diabetic with vision and leg issues, Payeras uses a wheelchair and was unable to flee. Police dragged him away in his chair, and the foot in which he has no feeling was dragged along underneath the footrest, hitting his ankle over and over. Despite the repression, people regrouped and others poured in from nearby communities and other municipalities to maintain the protest camp and the selective roadblock to prevent mining operations. The resistance has continued every single day since.

If the first half of this year is any indication, the next annual Global Witness report could very well reveal that Guatemala took over as the country with the most per capita killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018. Despite the life-and-death stakes, defenders are not backing down.

“We’ll be here until the mine is shut down,” said Payeras. “If they kill me, I’ll die in the struggle.”

Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist based in Honduras. You can find her on twitter at @Sandra_Cuffe or read more of her work on her website at sandracuffe.com

Toward Freedom (https://towardfreedom.org/) is an organisation that has been offering a progressive perspective on world affairs since 1952.

Honduras, Ethiopia and the crazy logic of food supply

News in June 2011 that Honduras had begun to import beans from Ethiopia caused some anxiety amongst local food producers in Honduras who questioned policies which seemed to run counter to the idea of food security and very much in favour of growing biofuels.[i] The strategy is promoted by the World Bank and USAID (US Agency for International Development). The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations notes that in Honduras 60 per cent of the population have no salaries, no access to the means of production and no way of ensuring adequate food provision.[ii]

The worst element of this strategy is that red beans are now being imported into Honduras from one of the poorest countries of the world, Ethiopia, a country with 13 million people dependent on food aid from the international community. Ethiopia has a policy of renting or selling vast expanses of land to foreign companies and expelling from those lands the peoples who have used them for hundreds if not thousands of years.[iii]

The Indian company Karuturi Global leases 2,500 sq km of fertile land in the Gambella region of Ethiopia at a knock-down price of $245 (USD) per week for fifty years. The company plans to grow and export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods. In all, Ethiopia has offered 3 million hectares of land to foreign corporations, and companies from 36 countries have leased land there.[iv]

Although local government officers deny claims that people are being forcibly displaced to make way for these companies and their farming techniques, others report that no consultation was carried out with local people. Kassahun Zerrfu from Gambella’s Department for Investment has acknowledged that 15,000 people are being relocated “to give them better access to water, schools and transport,” but claims that “it is a coincidence that the investors are coming at the same time as the villages are being relocated.”[v]

Honduras used to be self-sufficient in beans, one of the staple crops of the Honduran diet. Now, the most fertile land in Honduras is being used for biofuel crops such as palm oil and other crops for export. In Ethiopia on the area taken over by Karuturi Global, the land is also remarkably fertile and full of organic matter – as project manager Karmjeet Sekhon states, “We don’t need fertiliser or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow in it.”[vi]

This is the logic of big capital. It can show that yields and overall food production increase. It can glory in its own success. But at the same time, it increases landlessness amongst those who need it most; it reduces food security and food sovereignty; it increases dependence; and the final result is increasing hunger. The logic of finance and the profit motive fail humanity.

[i] Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH) (21 June 2011) ‘Rapiña de territorios: el olor a saqueo de los frijoles importados de Etiopía’, email communication, OFRANEH, La Ceiba.
[ii] La Tribuna (9 June 2011) ‘Más de la mitad de los Hondureños sufren por hambre’, La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa.
[iii] Op.cit.. (OFRANEH).
[iv] John Vidal (21 March 2011) ‘Ethiopia at centre of global farmland rush’, The Guardian, London.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.

Food security in Panamá

The government steals the rice dish from the people

Marco A. Gandsegui

Panamá, December 22nd 2016

Reproduced by kind permission of alainet.org (Agencia Latinoaméricana de Información)

Translated by Rick Blower, February 2017

Key words: food security; rice producers; imports; trade treaty; Government of Panamá


The situation in the Panamanian agriculture sector reached its limit with the most recent government attacks aimed at the producers. Taking advantage of the lack of planning, the government promoted the purchase of rice from abroad in order that the speculators bankrupted the national producers.

The operation was conceived and executed with skill by the politicians at the service of the interests of the neoliberals. It is a handful of speculators who have their clutches within the government. They create and make firms disappear in the land registry with the sole objective of transferring millions of dollars from the tax coffers to their secret accounts.

How can this be justified? While the producers prepare the rice harvest for the market, the government approves the purchase of millions of bushels from overseas and begins to unload it in the national ports? The four export companies authorised for this operation were created with this sole purpose. The producers, from Darien up to Alanje, through Chepo and Coclé, have protested but without a reaction from the presidential palace. The speculators are too busy celebrating to the sound of their cash machines. To respond to governmental indifference, the producers organised a march towards the Palace of the Herons.

During the march towards the Presidency of the Republic, the agricultural producers demanded solutions. In a communication the general secretary of the Independent Movement of National Refoundation (MIREN), Juan Jovane, stated that “the people demand a quick and effective solution to the scandalous onslaught of the government against the national agricultural production and the food security of the Panamanian family.”

He denounced the government for corrupt politics and theft “against the budget of the workers of the cities and the producers in the fields.”

In the statement from MIREN, they “proposed an orderly and planned system of agriculture, based upon scientific criteria and in which serious and responsible politics takes the lead.” In the case of rice, those governing have in their hands the statistics which speak of the deceit they seek to make.” They know very well what is the national demand and they have the necessary information to know how many hectares of land are required to satisfy that demand.”

Nowadays, the national producers sow 92 thousand hectares of rice and harvest 6.2 million bushels. With a work plan, the rice producers can sow double and harvest even more. The government can re-open the silos to store whatever is surplus and have it ready for when there are poor harvests. In the past, Panama even exported rice. With these mercantile practices, we have returned to the most corrupt years in our history where governments and speculators conspire to ruin the rice producers and other agricultural producers.

In the 1950s the same amount of rice was planted as throughout the 21st century. In the 1970s, with better planning, 105 [thousand] hectares were planted.

The statement from MIREN signals that the situation for the rice growers is replicated for each agricultural category. “Those in government and their bad associates – speculators and financiers – make their calculations not to satisfy the needs of the country. When they come to power, their plans consist of creating more confusion and taking advantage of the opportunities to steal more.”

The business of importing rice has triggered hardship for the consumers. Between 1970 and 1990 Panama was self-sufficient: it did not import rice. In 2000, after the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Panama imported 1.8 million bushels, and in 2010 these imports of rice increased to 2.5 million bushels. The amount in 2015 was 2.3 million. Who have become millionaires? The speculators and the monopolists associated with the government.

MIREN endorses the demands of the national producers that match the needs of the people. The communication says that “we support the planning of production on behalf of the farmers to ensure healthy competition and to eradicate the tentacles of the monopolists entwined in the government.”

The sector worst hit by official corruption is the small rice producer. Between 1990 and 2010, of the 1,154 small producers, only 717 remain. There has been an increase of 35% among the larger producers.

For their part, MIREN demands a re-negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States which in a matter of a few years will definitely finish off  what little remains of Panamanian agriculture.


– Marco A. Gandásegui (son) Professor Of Sociology at the University of Panamá and Research Associate at the Justo Arosemena Centre of Latin American Studies (CELA).