Land Crisis Growing in Costa Rica
Large Landholdings to Return, Warn Unions
We used to hear fools occasionally claim that "natural resources no longer matter in the economy, only technology matters," but those fools have fallen silent. More and more parts of the world find themselves facing land and water crises.
by Nifer MuñozSAN JOSE, May 3 - Costa Rica, long famed for its social tranquillity, is on the verge of serious agrarian conflict as unions and peasants fight reform measures they say would return rural lands to the hands of the wealthy few.
The Costa Rican Congress is studying major agricultural reforms included in a set of 12 bills, known as the ''agricultural combo,'' which peasant organisations and unions say would bankrupt many small farmers if they are approved.
''This will lead to the resurgence of large landholders and 'latifundios','' charges Walter Quesada, a leader of the Employees' Union of the Agrarian Development Institute.
There are an estimated 150,000 farmers in Costa Rica, which has a total population of 3.5 million.
Leaders from the country's most powerful unions have already made known their opposition to the agricultural combo and are planning street protests for the moment Congress begins to debate the bills' details.
Quesada explained that the government's Agrarian Development Institute (IDA) manages peasant settlements throughout the country, which has channelled land grants to some 35,000 farmers.
Current laws require these farmers to maintain ties with IDA for 15 years, during which time they cannot sell their parcels of land. However, the new legislation would allow peasants to sell their land after only three years.
Unionists point out that the problem lies in the fact that large landholdings surround the smaller plots the government has granted to the peasants, and these estate owners would soon be able to buy up the peasants' land.
''This law would also mean that hotel companies would have their pick of the best land,'' stated Quesada.
For the critics of the agricultural combo, another central problem is that many of the bills included in the package attempt to increase the private sector's participation in defining agricultural and trade policies.
That is not the job of the private sector, maintain unionists and some local economists, it is the government's responsibility.
The legislative bill that seems to be causing the greatest tension refers to the management of trade negotiations. The bill calls for creating a consultation committee made up primarily of business delegates, who would be entrusted with defining and carrying out trade policies, a job currently performed by the Foreign Trade Ministry.
The year 2000 is apparently the beginning of social turmoil in Costa Rica. Throughout the last month, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest a bill that would attempt to privatise the telecommunications system, which is currently a government enterprise.
But some economists maintain that the nation's agricultural sector needs immediate reforms if it is to overcome the serious crisis it currently faces, the result of ''poorly managed protectionism.''
''Agricultural protectionism is no longer viable. It is clear that we cannot abandon the farmers, because they would starve, but it is essential to promote an orderly change to growing other crops,'' said former Foreign Trade minister Francisco Chacón (1994- 1998).
Hundreds of small farmers in Costa Rica plant potatoes or onions, for example, which on the national market end up being more expensive than the same products imported from other Central American countries, even with the region's high tariffs.
Costa Rica charges a 45 percent tax on potato imports and 49 percent for onions.
''We cannot keep fooling ourselves. Continuing to produce crops like this is not sustainable,'' Chacón said.
But the peasant organisations refute these arguments, saying the non-competitive prices are the result of factors beyond their control.
''It is very easy to say that we are not competitive, but the reason is that we farmers have to deal with high costs in this country,'' said Basileo RodrĄguez, secretary general of the Union of Small and Mid-Sized Costa Rican Farmers (UPA National), which represents some 19,000 peasants.
RodrĄguez told IPS that the tax burden on agricultural production reaches 42 percent, and in other countries, such as Canada, interest rates on farm loans average eight percent, while in Costa Rica they run no lower than 24 percent.
''None of the bills included in the agricultural combo responds to the problems we face,'' said RodrĄguez, adding that the new legislation under consideration is a ''band-aid'' that does not even cover the sector's critical needs.
UPA National instead proposes structural reforms that would make the research done by Costa Rican scientists available to the peasants.
The union also calls for eliminating the factors that elevate the prices of agricultural inputs, as well as getting rid of most of the paperwork currently required for obtaining a farm loan.
This article was originally distributed by the InterPress World News Agency.
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