Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Agatha and the Number Crunchers


Below is an update from Patrick Chasse, who is currently working as a BTS volunteer with the CCDA:

We had a really great presentation this morning by a woman from CONGCOOP, an NGO that works with NGO's and Co-operatives here in Guatemala. First the scene. The CCDA salon was bursting with people, many of whom had come long distances to hear Zully Morales speak. These were the grassroots representatives of the CCDA, and came from as far away as Coban, Huehue, and Quiche. I'll say a few more words about these rep's later. Mrs. Morales came to talk about the budget of MAGA (the Ministery of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food); a vitally important department in a country of where most people depend on small scale farming. Theoretically, they should be helping small farmers improve their crop yields, get access to land, and thinking about issues like food security. But reality doesn't have much to do with theory in Guate. Looking through the numbers provided by Mrs. Morales it's pretty clear that the current government isn't doing anything but paying lip service to the plight of small farmers. Consider this, the budget of MAGA in 2007 was 1, 305.24 million Quetzales and the department actually spent more, 1 430.41 million. Every year since the budget of the department has been cut, now in 2010, its frozen at 827.58 million. The budget has been cut despite the fact that food security is a major issue facing small food producers in this country. Last year in the Eastern part of Guate was gripped by near famine. With the explosion of Pacaya, the arrival of Agatha and the incessant rains this year looks to be even worse. (see this article in the Atlantic for a good overview of last years food shortage:(http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/hungry-in-guatemala/7675/)

The current economic impact of Agatha is pegged at approximately 646.7 million Q, or over half the budget of MAGA. The department currently has a paltry 15.83 million Q assigned to help the production of basic grains. Even if there wasn't a food crisis, this would be a pretty low number for a country where most people depend on subsistence farming to survive. Yet with losses to corn crops reaching over 81.5 million Q by MAGA's own estimates, small scale producers need economic help and they need it fast. Unfortunately, Congress has been dragging its heels and still hasn't approved emergency aid for people affected by Agatha. International funds donated after Agatha have been used to help rebuild bridges and roads instead of helping small producers get back on their feet. To use a local example, growers of Berro in Quixaya used to make around 800 Q monthly on the sale of berro (watercress) and the small snails that lived among the berro. When the river rose it destroyed most of the berro plantations on the river, not to mention bananas, pacaya, etc. Recently the Alcalde of San Lucas came by to offer help in the form of alternative crops; he made the outrageous offer to sell hass avocado plants to locals at around 25 Q a plant (the CCDA sells them for maximum 15Q, or two Canadian dollars a plant).

But it isn't simply a question of underfunding that plagues MAGA. A closer look at the budget shows a consistent trend. The government will approve x amount of dollars for a program, and then quietly spend far less on said program. For example, the Agricultural Development and Food Assistance Program (key for small producers) was cut by 116.95 million Q from 481.94 million Q down to 364.98 million Q. Of that, only 36.53% had been spent by June.

Not only is this trend simply troubling, but it has real social impacts in a country trying to rebuild its infrastructure after Agatha. One program that MAGA manages is Food for Progress. The idea is pretty simple, the government will cover the food costs associated with volunteers working on community projects. CONGCOOP argues that if this program was properly managed it would help clean up Agatha related damages that are affecting many communities. Indeed, the Government increased the Food for Progress budget by 10 million Q to 25 million Q at the start of the year. They may have increased the budget but in six months they spent a paltry 1.09 million Q (4.28%).

These are funding decisions with decisive short term impacts. Yet MAGA has also been stingy in its funding of El Fondo de Tierras (the land fund that is supposed to help campesinos buy unused fincas). Supposedly the Fund is planning to buy 10 fincas this year, and has allotted almost 45 million Q to this. Yet we're at the half way point in the year and the Fund has only bought two fincas. In contrast, the Fund has alloted over double the amount of money (110 Q) to help small farmer lease or rent small plots of land from large land owners (finqueros). The politics of this supposedly social democratic government of Alvaro Colom and UNE are clear: help large landowners and stall small farmers trying to gain land and make slight improvements in their standard of life. Instead, small producers are relegated to perpetual renting and they struggle year upon year to pay for their right to scratch out a meager living. It's a situation that equates pretty readily with medieval serfdom.

If you are still in doubt, consider this. One program in the MAGA budget has seen a substantial increase this year. It's called Secure Food Aid (Apoyo a la seguridad alimentaria) and it's budget was almost doubled this year from 67.12 million Q to 117.17 million Q this year. Oh, and they've already spent almost 80% in just six months. What are they spending this money on? The President's wife, Sandra Colom, is in charge of social assistance programs like Bolsas Solidarias and Mi Familia Progressa (or, as the CCDA staff jokes, mi familia probreza—probreza means poor). Her projects are funded through this MAGA program. As Mrs. Morales pointed out, countries like Nicaragua have similar programs aimed at bridge the gaps between rich and poor in the short term but they received separate funding. So while MAGA slashes its programs that might effect slow but sure systemic changes—improving crop production and incomes for small scale farmers—it increases the amount of money it spends on one time hand outs that feed dependency.

So, the message is simple. Direct international aid to small NGO's like the CCDA is needed. The government should be pushed and bullied into funding small scale farmers trying to recover from Agatha. That's the CCDA's message and they have have a clear vision of their role; I've heard Leocadio say often and insistently we're not here to do the government's job we are here to push the government to do its job. But since effective and responsible government in Guate is still a pipe dream, direct aid through trustworthy NGO's is a desperately needed to help small farmers protect themselves from starvation.