“Work won’t kill you, but not eating will.” Maria Cecilia Salinas began working when she was thirteen years old. She says, “I worked in the fields. I went to the capital and worked there.” Now she is a forty-five year old, single mother of three boys. She is taller than most Salvadoran woman, her body stretched, thin and wiry as she pulls her dark hair back and fixes it behind her head. Maria Cecilia, along with others in the San Vicente Region, received a small loan through SHARE’s Semillas de Esperanza, or Seeds of Hope program. Seeds of Hope combines micro-credits with organic growing workshops to offer an alternative means of growing, if not survival, for Salvador’s poorest residents. The credits hover in the area of $200-300 and are used for buying seeds, renting machinery and, in some cases, covers rent on a plot of land. The workshops train the participants in the basics of organic growing.
Sixto Rene Diaz says he stopped using chemical fertilizers and insecticides five years ago when he began having liver problems attributed to his exposure to harmful chemicals. He said he tried growing the first year without anything and lost nearly his entire crop to worms. He started asking around and got some tips from different people on ways to grow naturally. He spent the previous day at a workshop on organic growing techniques. He says he’s excited about what he’s learned, but also feels encouraged that other people are out there doing the same thing. The group says that when they first started, people laughed at them. They didn’t believe you could grow crops without heavy-duty chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They said they knew the chemicals were not good for them, but they had always been told it was the only way. Blanca Estela Ramirez, admits that she wasn’t sure at first either, but that she had had success raising cattle with the ACAMG Cooperative, another SHARE partner, so was willing to give it a try. “I believe it now,” she says. Many in the group say that they joined the program out of desperation. Chemical growing is expensive and the genetically-modified seeds don't reproduce which means you have to buy new seeds every year. They were skeptical, but also out of options. Now, they say that sometimes it seems too good to be true, that they can grow their food without poisoning themselves; not in the growing, nor the eating.
Don Lucio Porfirio Hernandez walks with us through his cornfield in the community of El Arco. He has recently “folded” the tall corn plants over so that water will not collect in the ears mold the corn. He explains to me, that once the plant is mature, it will continue to grow doubled over. He points to bean plants growing between the rows of corn. He says corn and bean plants are good friends and that they will grow well together; the corn stalks providing structure for the climbing bean plants. “You can’t do this if you harvest with a machine,” he says. When the corn and beans are mature he and his son will harvest the crop by hand. They will keep part for their families and sell the rest.
Don Lucio and Esmerelda Villalta, the project coordinator from CRIPDES – San Vicente, discuss the bean and corn market. He calculates the figures in his head and most of them come out pretty low. When CAFTA dropped tariffs on agricultural imports, it put small Salvadoran growers in direct competition with US corporations. With the aid of government subsidies, the industrial growers in the US were able to sell larger, genetically-modified products for less than native products, even after adjusting for transportation costs. Naturally, Salvadoran growers stopped growing and began buying. Recently, the rise in fuel costs has sent food costs soaring. But now, when Salvador most needs local growers and local products, there are few to be found. Don Lucio tells me that a lot of people don’t think it’s worth it in the end; to work so hard for so little.
“But it has its advantages,” he says, “This way, my family eats.”