People can't be free to live a decent life if they´re hungry and/or malnourished, until they themselves have control over where their food is coming from.
I personally get my dough out of an ATM and then go trawling the week´s bargains at the local food outlets. For the the Salvadorean campesinos (country people), that isn´t an option.
Land is the first issue; then the quality of the land, and finally the food value of the the crops.
The instability that led to various insurrections and, most recently, to the awful 1981-92 civil war, started in 1882, when government parceled out all the land to a few big families so they could grow coffee, which was hailed as a cash crop that would turn El Salvador into an earthly paradise. Unfortunately, the campesinos had only a few months´ work each year on the coffee plantations, and no place to grow corn or beans. Governments in general, take note: creating a starving underclass is not an effective way to promote national stability.
After the civil war there was land reform, but a string of governments allied to the "oligarchs" - the plutocratic families that still own most of the land and businesses - delayed giving people the titles to their new land. Between 1992 and 2009, there were only 4000 titles granted. The current government has given out 40,000.
SHARE doesn´t just do election monitoring. They´ve been in El Salvador since the civil war years. They started out giving aid to victims of the violence, then branched out to other forms of aid such as defending civil rights, giving literacy classes, micro-loans to start small businesses, and promoting sustainable agriculture.
The cooperatives we visited yesterday were some of the few that have been around for a while. The main one was CIETTA, the Center for Investigation, Experimentation and Transfer of Eco-agricultural Technology. They´ve been partnering with SHARE for over 15 years.
Land quality. This is related to farming practices on the one hand, and bigger issues such as deforestation and global warming, on the other. One of the SHARE staff, Mike (Miguelito), an expert on trees and climate, shocked me when he said that El Salvador is the 2nd most deforested country in Latin America. (Haiti is the 1st.) It´s so green! But the coffee bushes, pasture and weeds that make it so lush-looking provide a fraction of the carbon sequestering that a tree would have done. Now nine of ten Salvadoreños are at risk from climate change, either because their crops will fail if temperatures get past the optimal growing limits, or because they´ll be flooded due to fewer trees not being able to hold water in the soil, or because they live in the cities and the farmers won´t be able to get enough food into the mercados.
A representative of CIETTA talked about the "Green Revolution" in less than complimentary terms because they created plants that are dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Those fertilizers feed a) the plants and b) the chemical companies, who in turn use their profits to influence governments.
After 50 years of "Green Revolution" crops and chemicals, the land has been denuded of biological activity because of being bombarded with toxic chemical input. The land has got so it simply can´t respond without the chemicals. Salvadoreños say the land is "Fatigado," or fatigued. This means that farmers HAVE to buy chemical fertilizer and pesticides, or their crops don´t grow. It´s gotten so that production costs for farmers are HIGHER than for US agribusinesses. Then, because of the CAFTA free trade agreement (no tarriffs) US agribusinesses can flood the Salvadorean market. Local farmers simply can´t compete. Many of them move to the city, where they fill up the shanty towns you can see from your bus (but are discouraged from venturing into). Many others look for jobs -- where? Well, in the USA, for one place.
Eco-agriculture, or organic farming, on the other hand, "feeds the land itself," so it´s not only able re-establish a natural balance to the land, but to nourish people more safely, along with bees, birds, alternative crops, and everything.
SHARE and CIETTA are into education in a big way. They work with schools and the agronomy department of the National University, but more importantly they work with other farmers, in a "campesino to campesino" program to promote organic practices like creating organic fertilizers, inter-planting (having large fruit trees provide shelter for shade-dependent crops like cacao), and using native seeds which require less water than hybrids.
SHARE´s objective is to plant 10,000 fruit trees in the next few years, and they´re looking for varieties of native trees that are most resistant to climate change, that will have the best market value, and provide the best eating. Avocados fit the bill; so does Guanábana, a big fruit that provides the MOST refreshing juice I´ve ever tasted, AND has anti-cancer properties. The biggest hurdle to its popularity in the USA is that no one can pronounce it, and the English name (Soursop) doesn´t sound that tempting. So learn to say it (Gwa-NA-ba-na) and pester your local Quikki-Mart to get you some.
A big surprise was the bread-nut tree, or ojushte (oh-HOOSH-tay). It was known to the Maya, but totally ignored by the Spaniards when they came. A few Indians continued to make flour from the nuts, but it wasn´t until very recently that anyone thought to see if the flour was anything more than "poor people´s stuff they only ate if they couldn´t get anything else." Surprise! It has more protein than practically any other plant product, plus more calcium than a glass of milk and a load of vitamins and minerals. PLUS it tastesdelicioso, muy delicioso! Clever ol´ Indians!
Americans are afraid of cancer; the Salvadorean peasant farmer is afraid of kidney failure. It´s equally painful and just as terminal for a poor campesino who can´t afford dialysis or a transplant. And there has been an epidemic of kidney failure among farmers which has been directly tied to the use of agricultural chemicals.
Recently, CIETTA has gone to the National Assembly with a list of 53 toxic chemicals that have been shown to damage people´s health. They want these banned. Unfortunately, a lot of them are imported, and a lot of fat cats make a lotta moolah off them. The import value of just ONE of them was $500 MILLION. Not surprisingly, the cats with the fattest pockets pressured the President of El Salvador to take 11 of the worst ones off the list. There is fear among the farmers that if the fat-cat´s party wins this election, even the remaining 42 will never get regulated.
The campesinos are confident that, if their votes are counted, they´ll win. It´s the counting they´re worried about.