How Might CAFTA Affect Agriculture?

September 21, 2007

At the weekend open-air market in the western suburb Escazú, farmers such as the slender, soft-spoken Ovidio Quesada, of Puriscal, about an hour southwest, cling to their traditional  way of life. Japan, where shipping costs make the endeavor less profitable.

The National Agriculture and Agro-Industry Chamber (CNAA), the country s largest conglomerate of agricultural chambers, associations and cooperatives, believes that CAFTA is in the best interests of most of the country s farmers.

According to Alvaro Saenz, president of the chamber, most farmers will find new opportunities and markets for their products.

The rest, such as rice and milk, industries that would compete against heavily subsidized counterparts in the United States, simply need more help from the government to become competitive, Saenz said.

We re not asking for free gifts from the government, but if this treaty passes, we will need more investment in agriculture for certain sectors to compete, he said.

He cites the need for further investment in certification and testing laboratories, development of new technologies for farmers, better systems of transport and improved sanitary and Customs processes.

He added that some farmers, particularly rice farmers, will simply have to become more efficient or switch to crops that compete more readily against U.S. imports.

There s a lot of work that must be done internally to make every industry more competitive, he said.

Into the Fire

Marvin Rojas, a Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator who spends his days milking cows at a farm in the Northern Zone town Río Cuarto, agrees with Saenz to a point.

He s worried about the dire lack of support he says the government provides farmers and feels those issues must be dealt with before throwing the nation s dairy farmers into the fire by approving CAFTA.

Right now in this country, the government simply doesn t care about the agricultural sector. This puts us at a great disadvantage and must change, he said.

He fears that the influx of U.S. milk, meat, chicken and pig would leave him, and his 50-hectare farm, with nothing.

Others, such as environmental group Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Protection (FECON), which sits stridently on the side of no , are concerned with more abstract issues.

 They see the country s long-standing, traditional agriculture sector which makes up 8% of the gross domestic product (GDP) as threatened by looming multinational companies that would force them out of business and make competition impossible.

This is about much more than just selling cassava or chayote squash, said Fabián Pacheco, an agricultural engineer who represents the group and has campaigned vocally against CAFTA.

Pacheco worries that the country would eventually become dependent on U.S. imports for such basics as rice, tomatoes and beans, and that such a situation could present a security crisis for the country if relations with the giant to the north ever faltered.

Such dependencies could one day present a danger to our people, he said.

According to Pacheco, seeds, even those that farmers in Costa Rica have spent generations developing to be resistant to the vagaries of the country s insects and weather, would fall under patent laws.

This is another step toward making vegetables, and the seeds they grow from, the property of multinational corporations, and not of all of us. This is about our heritage, he said. Growing plants from a seed could become a crime.

Alvaro Saenz, of the agriculture chamber, doesn t buy it.

It s a lie. The law would protect any seed that already exists, so all seeds currently in use by Costa Rican farmers would be unaffected, he said.

Such is the way of the debate, he said. People simply don t understand. This is a treaty. It s not going to be good for everybody, he said.

Meanwhile, Quesada, like other small farmers interviewed by The Tico Times who sell their products in town markets throughout the country, said he s not worried.

He doesn t have enough land to produce for export, so he sells locally instead. His prices are fair because he sells directly to the consumer, and he makes enough to live comfortably, he said.

We ll always have this market to sell our products, he said. Whether the Americans come, or not.

Quesada represents the crux of the debate, say both sides.

The no side, including legislator Rojas, argues that CAFTA would require equal treatment of all agricultural vendors, foreign and national meaning that suddenly, U.S. oranges and tomatoes could appear in booths alongside those of local farmers.

They are deceived if they think they would be able to compete, Rojas said. Saenz, of the agriculture chamber, says the opposite. He believes life will continue as it always has for Quesada, who will remain largely unaffected by the outcome.

He says products grown exclusively in the United States shouldn t affect farmers who focus on tropical fruits like banana and mango, and that everything else such as tomatoes are protected by the distance and expense of transporting goods between the two countries.

In small markets like these, it s simply not cost-effective or competitive for U.S. businesses to sell their products here against similar products grown in Costa Rica, he said.

 

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