During the several weeks that members of my family were visiting I took a vacation from the Reforestation project with CEPRODEL to travel with them.  Cerro Negro, a small but impressive volcano very close to León, is one of my favorite places to go.  I’ve been there three times, and climbed it twice.  This last time, my mother and I walked around the base where shrubbery is claiming old lava fields.  A group of farmers were taking advantage of the greenery, and had arrived with a large herd of cattle and horses.  So even while taking time off, I got to do one of my favorite parts of working with SosteNica/CEPRODEL – talk to farmers. 

Mom riding one of the horses at the base of Cerro Negro

Mom riding one of the horses at the base of Cerro Negro

The group of farmers were neighbors, who had come from their village 27 kilometers away with 30 cattle and about 15 horses.  They had plans to stay for three months in a small shelter they had built, letting the cattle graze in the surrounding volcanic hills.  When I asked them what they did during the summer, thinking that if they didn’t have enough pasture land near their village in the rainy season, what could they possible do in the six month drought that is the summer?  The answer was, sell cattle just before the drought and then try to add to their income with other agricultural projects.  The problem, they told me, is that the markets are very difficult.  The price of cattle has fallen sharply this year, and when one of them invested in honey he ended up giving honey away because he couldn’t find a good place to sell it.  They asked me if I had connections to an exporter for honey and sesame.  Could I buy their honey and take it to the states to sell for them?  They heard that farmers could get $5 for a hundred pound sack of sesame.  I asked him if that was a good price, and they said yes.

In the supermarket, how much does a quarter pound of sesame cost?  And if it’s organic?  Even aside from the vast markups between producer and retailer found in every agribusiness transaction, five cents a pound sounded like very little for a labor intensive crop.  I checked with a friend who exports sesame from cooperatives in the north, who assured me that $5 a quintal, or hundred pound sack, is a very low price. 

These farmers travelled two days to get to the park where there cattle will graze for three months.

These farmers travelled two days to get to the park where there cattle will graze for three months.

The group of farmers were very nice, offered us rides on their horses and later walked out to the base of Cerro Negro where were went to watch Colin and Becky slide down the sandy slope on boards. Thinking about our conversation afterward, I was struck with their fixation on exports.  I’m reading a book right now called The Roots of Rebellion: Land and Hunger in Central America.  Tom Barry’s argument is that the consistently low prices of export crops – controlled by transnational organizations – combined with oligarchic land ownership is the recipe for years of violence in every Central American country.  He doesn’t argue against export, but does highlight the difficulties of arranging fair trade agreements between countries with vast differences in their international economic standing. 

What would a project to improve the national market look like?  Could we replicate a Local Hero movement, or some of the projects that have helped the local food market boom in New England?  With a country that has such a huge informal market sector, and thriving urban market centers, it’s difficult to envision the changes needed.  I hope those cows get nice and fat on the side of the volcanic hill, and that if they do decide to invest in planting sesame, they find a buyer who gives them a decent price.

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