Protesting farmers win a concession — perhaps

Farmers marching on the Cinta Costera toward the Presidencia. Unattributed photo circulated on Twitter.

Farmers win one — or do they?

by Eric Jackson

Juan Carlos Varela is a scion of one of Panama’s most successful businesses, Hermanos Varela SA, which in turn is a big-time farming enterprise. Yes, the family business is about the production of rum and seco. To do this and be less at the mercy of market forces, they grow vast tracts of sugar cane to supply their raw material needs. So would that make the president more sensitive to agricultural issues?

Perhaps it does, and perhaps the traditional Panameñista Party bastions in Panama’s central provinces make sensitivity to the demands of farmers well nigh imperative. But it also seems that the Varelas, whose business is one of the relative few Panamanian enterprises that exports goods rather than services, have this conservative imperative when it comes to international trade. Honduran hustlers might have filed bogus documents to get a dam concession that Panama does not need and the rule of law would have struck down, but Varela would not mess with the European banks behind the Barro Blanco project. He can say what he will now but the political fact of that is that his party has more or less blown the usual main swing vote, the indigenous comarcas. That’s the probable result of upholding foreign trade interests above those who were run out of their homes and had their water supply and fishery confiscated by force of arms.

The policy backdrop to the farm dispute is “free trade.” The farmers’ contrary insistence is “food security,” that is, maintaining Panama’s farmers’, ranchers’ and fishers’ ability to feed the country.

Food security is the contemporary slogan of an international mostly small farmers’ movement, but it’s a very ancient concept. A nation needs to be self-sufficient in the most basic and vital supplies, or else an enemy, human or natural, might lay it low notwithstanding how strong an army it may have. That’s why, for example, Jerusalem is where it is. They have an underground river to which an ancient well was sunk, a river so deeply underground that an enemy can’t dam it upstream or dump poison into the water to make the pre-Arab, pre-Jewish and perhaps pre-Canaanite city surrender due to thirst.

In the name of “food security” Panama created the Panamanian Food Security Authority (Autoridad Panameña de Seguridad de Alimentos or AUPSA). In name only. The authority, created during the Martín Torrijos administration in 2006 and charged with regulating food imports so that Panamanian farmers would not get put out of business, was “reformed” in 2010 by the administration of Ricardo Martinelli, one of Panama’s biggest food importers. It became one more example of the global phenomenon of “alphabet soup agencies” being captured by the interests that they are supposed to regulate. Local farmers complain, for example, that just when their harvests are coming in AUPSA likes to approve massive and cheap exports, so as to drive down the prices that farmers can command.

The abolition of AUPSA was one of the key demands of the July 26 farmers’ protest, which marched to the Presidencia and was followed by talks between the protest leaders and President Varela and key members of his cabinet. That evening the government announced that it had agreed to replace AUPSA.

But with what? Varela said that would be determined by talks among farmers, importers, business groups, “civil society” and government officials. But some of the main farm organizations, particularly the cattle ranchers’ ANAGAN, reject that formula. They say that they have been deceived in those sorts of expanded talks games before and will not participate in a supposed negotiating process in which the numbers are stacked against them from the start.

Stay tuned to see what happens to AUPSA.

Farmers and Varela
President Varela and his team meet with farm leaders. Varela committed to replacing AUPSA, but an end to the authority’s practices of which the farm groups complain may be more elusive. Photo by the Presidencia.


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