Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nicaraguans can grow their own food, but not without land

     Who has the right to own land?
     In countries like Canada, we decided some time ago that it’s either government, aboriginals or people with enough money to buy a piece of tierra firma, and many of us get along just fine without owning land. While almost 70 per cent of Canadians own their own homes, it’s not a prerequisite to happiness.
     But the issue is more complex in countries like Nicaragua, where owning land can make the difference between being able to feed your family and going hungry.
     Subsistence farmers in Nicaragua can survive on the most minimal incomes if they own enough land to grow their food. Their basic diets of corn and beans may be monotonous and not diverse enough to guarantee good nutrition, but at least the calories are sufficient to keep a family going. 
     But that breaks down when a poor family doesn't own land or can't plant on someone else's land.
     If you have to buy your beans and corn at the local market, you’re going to need money – something that’s in scarce supply in much of rural Nicaragua. If you have to rent land to grow your food, every harvest has to be sufficiently productive that you don’t find yourself in the hole at the end of the day. With little access to affordable credit for land purchases and climate change wreaking havoc with production cycles in Nicaragua, these are difficult days for small-scale farmers. 
     Land ownership is a critical concern for the 2,200 women farmers that belong to the organization I work for here in Managua, a federation of women’s farming cooperatives that goes by the acronym FEMUPROCAN. Much of the organization’s advocacy efforts these days are focused on one section of an agricultural reform law that promises credit to women farmers so they can buy their own land, but has never been enacted.
     Only eight to 12 per cent of the country’s private lands are owned by women.  That places them at a huge disadvantage, not only in their ability to feed their families but to be able to participate in the country’s economic development. They’re up against the culture as well; even when a farming family does own land, more times than not the title is in the name of the husband only. In the event of his death, it’s not uncommon to see that title pass to his brother or other male member of the family, leaving the wife with neither land nor recourse.
     Without land of her own or her name on title, a woman in Nicaragua also struggles to qualify for credit – vital for small farmers given that they have to borrow against tomorrow’s harvest to be able to afford the seed today. Bank interest rates are brutal, upwards of 30 per cent.
     This year has been particularly harsh for FEMUPROCAN’s members in the parts of Nicaragua hit hard by drought, where some farmers who rent their lands are so afraid to lose what little they have that they didn’t even plant at the start of the second growing season in September.
     In Somoto, a particularly dry region, a woman farmer told me that with land renting for around 2,700 cordobas ($120 Cdn) per hectare, poor farmers risk ending up worse off financially than if they’d never planted at all if the rains don’t come on time. The owners of those lands expect to be paid regardless of how the growing season turns out.
     And with no additional money to buy more seed if the rains start late and the first crop dies in the field – as has happened this year in the country’s “dry corridor” – farmers are in some cases choosing to scrap the whole season and wait until next May to plant, hoping that the drought will be over by then.
     That means at least one member of the family will have to find day labour somewhere between now and then, because otherwise there’s no money for food. But day labour is in short supply as well, seeing as most of that work involves earning money by helping land-owning farmers with their own harvests. With the drought now in its second year, this is a tough time to be a small-scale farmer in Nicaragua.
     The solution is simple enough: Find ways to help women buy farm land. FEMUPROCAN's members have said over and over again that they don't expect to get anything for free, but they're going to need realistic interest rates, a generous amount of time to pay back their loans, and at least a little understanding that in a year when the weather doesn't cooperate, they're going to be strapped and might need a break. 
     It's all doable. Unfortunately, nobody's doing it, and probably won't be until Nicaragua works out the whole other complicated issue of a largely non-functional land registry system.
     But as I’ve come to expect from Central American farmers after almost four years of working here, they carry on. The Somoto woman I spoke to said all of 2015 has been a disaster, from the drought that disrupted both of the year’s two growing seasons to the community well that ran dry. But then she smiled, shrugged, and added that the women of FEMUPROCAN will just keep fighting the good fight. “That’s what we do,” she said. 

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