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Small Farmers Try to Recover

MORE than 1,000 indigenous organic farmers in thesouthern Caribbean region of Talamanca have followedall the advice of how to survive on their own.Environmental sustainability? Check. Crop diversification?Check. Alternative markets? Check.But when torrential rains swept through the regionlast month, causing their farms to be taken over by waterthat destroyed crops and left land covered in rocks andsand, many of the small farmers found themselves, onceagain, facing an uphill battle.SINCE 1987, the members of the TalamancaAssociation of Small Producers (APPTA) have beenlearning to use doctrines of sustainable agriculture toproduce a variety of organic crops for a growing nichemarket. The organization has grown from 73 farmers to nearly 1,000, 80% of whom are from theBribrí and Cabécar indigenous tribes.The association, and three similarsmaller organizations, had grown to produce120 tons per week of organicbananas, one of their principal crops.That production was cut in half in earlyJanuary by the flooding, which APPTAproduction manager Juan Carlos Barrantessaid was the most destructive the organizationhas seen. President Abel Pachecoechoed the sentiment last month when hecalled it “the worst flood in 100 years” inCosta Rica (TT, Jan. 21).Four days of rain killed five people,including two boys, and sent more than8,500 people to shelters (TT, Jan. 14).THE rains also drowned bananaplants, which Barrantes said suffer aftermore than 48 hours of continuous rain.When the flooded rivers receded they leftbehind sand and rocks that rendered riversideland useless, particularly in the upperelevations of Talamanca, he said.“These are the farmers who lost everything.The land is ruined,” he said. “Theymust relocate.”Fortunately, one of the precepts of sustainableagriculture is crop diversification,and on the farmers’ hectare and half-hectareparcels, among the bananas, growproducts such as corn, yuca (an edibletuber) and beans, all under the shade offruit-trees.These crops and the farmers’ other primarycrop – organic cacao, fared better inthe floods, Barrantes said.In addition, while some producers losteverything, others operate within a systemthat has left them with some protection.“Some, for cultural reasons, have sixdifferent parcels in different areas. It is aform of food security, in the case of somethinglike this,” Barrantes said.WITH their organic banana productioncut by 50% – to 60 tons a week – representativesof the four associations areworrying about how they will continue toprovide for their clients, particularlyGerber in Costa Rica,which uses thebananas for babyfood, and a Canadiancompany, to whichthey directly exportbanana puree.“Gerber is pressuringus for moreproduct, because themarket has grown.And then this hit us,so there is even morepressure,” saidChristian Thommen,president of Associationof CampesinoOrganic Producers(ACAPRO). “This could open the door toother producers.”However, Thommen added few CostaRican producers are growing organicbananas outside the Talamanca region, andhe is working with the company to guaranteetheir future relationship.Barrantes estimates it will take at leasttwo years for farmers’ to recuperate theirprevious banana production level.“When you lose the market, it is not soeasy to get it back,” he worried.To help its producers, the organizationis now buying bananas from them for 35%more than before, at $0.45/kilo, an increasethat is being passed on to Gerber.THE Ministry of Agriculture andLivestock has announced the CentralAmerican Economic Integration bank hasdonated ¢32 million ($70,000) to supportsmall producersthroughout Talamancaand Matina.The money will beused to purchasepesticides, organicfertilizers, seedsand tools, accordingto Lloyd Foster,the ministry’s regionaldirector forthe Atlantic coast.Ministry officialsalso said theywill assist smallproducers with atleast ¢11 million($24,000) inresources such as gas, vehicles, and technicalassistance.The organic producers of Talamancashould see the aid in 10-15 days, accordingto Foster.Thommen said little support has comeso far.“We haven’t had much response fromthe state. We have always been a little separate.They have only been talking aboutthe large fincas, and the loss of jobs ofbanana workers, but they don’t talk aboutthe organic market,” Thommen said.Losses for large banana companieshave reached more than $31 million,according to the National BananaCorporation.The Ministry of Agriculture is stilltrying to determine total agriculturallosses before requesting more internationalaid.MEANWHILE, Thommen saidACAPRO and APPTA are working withother Talamanca organizations to developa recovery plan to request internationalsupport.“In the meantime, we are just trying tofigure out how to feed the farmers whohave lost everything,” Thommen said.With their families, the four associationsaccount for more than 6,000,Barrantes estimates.Despite a January outpouring ofnational support to the flooded region (TT,Jan. 21), he said donations of food andclothes to the indigenous in the regionhave been “very little.”APPTA is working on a program inwhich farmers work in teams of six to helpeach other replant banana crops.“They can’t just fold their arms andwait for help,” Barrantes said.For more information, or to help thefarmers of Talamanca, contact APPTA(751-0118, or ACAPRO(751-0170,


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