Turning garbage into Chiriqui’s future

I was urged to write a piece about Demetrio Diaz and Aboquete and their quest for a Latin American Innovators award. I am proud to consider Demetrio and his wife Giovy friends and would love to see them win the award and the $40,000 prize. I have no idea how the only popularity contest effects the award since a jury of preselected people will make the final decisions but, please vote for them anyhow, vote early and vote often, just like Chicago.


The real significance of the this innovation goes far beyond this prize. Aboquete takes refuse, organic refuse and turns it into compost, not too amazing. They also develop funguses that are used to attack other devastating fungal diseases. I use their products on my farm and wrote about them in 2009, that part is important innovation.

What makes Aboquete particularly relevant now is a political change, the US – Panama free trade agreement. If this agreement proceeds to have the impact similar agreements have had in other Central American countries and Mexico, it will devastate the agricultural sector in Chiriqui and much of Panama. Agricultural exports from the USA are heavily subsidized by the government. Large agra business in the US destroyed the small family farm in the US, it has done the same in Mexico. Ross Perot discussed the huge sucking of jobs to Mexico with NAFTA, the sucking happened but not as predicted. The jobs went to China, the agricultural goods to Mexico and the displaced, unemployed farm workers, well they looked for work up north and became “illegal immigrants”.

This happened in the meat packing industry as a documented example due to Reagan era policies, displacing US workers with cheaper subsidized latinos. Reference Harvard Latino Law Review, Volume 9, Spring 2006. The link is a PDF download.

According to Eric Jackson the future for the local farmer in Panama is bleak.

“Not only will Panama be targeted to receive fewer benefits from the FTA, the new arrangement should result in an array of negative alterations in Panama’s economic status quo. Previously, local agrarian sectors have been able to hold onto their protectionist tariffs, thus assuring their continued competitiveness for over a decade. The proposed FTA will reduce the import tariffs on pork, chicken, and agricultural crops. These tariffs range from 15 percent to over 273 percent and while they exist are able to shelter these products from international competition. These tariffs have been essential to the wellbeing of the average Panamanian, since over forty percent of the rural population depends upon the income from one of these sectors.

Panama’s agricultural sector is vital to the nation’s rural income, as it allows rural communities to subsist above the poverty line. FTA advocates who effectively control Panama insist that the FTA will immediately reduce import tariffs and expose Panama’s agricultural sector to the influx of US farm machines and manufactured products. Multinational corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, and Tyson use goods obtained from industrialized farming and modernized food production operations to sell food at a reduced market price. Local Panamanian rural farmers cannot possibly compete with these companies, and the scheduled reduction and eventual elimination of tariffs will inevitably bring about the massive displacement of Panama’s rural population, which is not a cheerful prospect to anticipate. ”  The Panama News

If you think Eric is alone in his perspective you might want to read this article on how NAFTA is starving once fruitful Mexico.

“Seventeen years after NAFTA, some two million farmers have been forced off their land by low prices and the dismantling of government supports. They did not find jobs in industry. Instead most of them became part of a mass exodus as the number of Mexican migrants to the United States rose to half a million a year. In the first few years of NAFTA, corn imports tripled and the producer price fell by half.”  CIP Americas

So how can Panama’s agricultural sector survive. There are two options, produce food cheaper or produce food for export. There is no way the small subsistance farmer can produce food cheaper.When Tyson chickens show up for a couple of cents a pound less than Melo, people will buy them. The fact those chickens are laden with hormones and antibiotics will not affect the decision, price will.

The only real option is exportable products, either tropical goods that cannot be grown cost effectively in the north or quality organic products. In May I had the opportunity to meet a large grower from Cerro Punta, he already saw the handwriting on the wall and was converting his farms to all organic. This is where Demetrio and Aboquete enter the future for Panama. They have been producing organic fertilizer and organic fungicides for years, they are Panama’s market leader. We, all of us, need to see them grow to help support our neighbors of we will see a slide back into poverty for many of our neighbors who live off $10 a day and the output of their small farm.

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