Our Own Recipe
issue 183 - May 1988
Our own recipe
The International Monetary Fund has taught the
Third World some bitter lessons about the costs of depending
on quick-fix foreign loans to underwrite development. The price of
dependency is usually paid by those who can afford it least.
For these peasants and shantytown dwellers a secure
future means standing on their own two feet.
It's eleven thirty - time to start serving the mid-day meal at the February 10 Comedor in the San Martin de Porres section of Lima, Peru. A few women, children in tow, are starting to make their way up a long flight of stairs to a large bare room. Inside, three other women have just finished cooking. They scoop the day's meal of chicken soup, beans and rice from huge metal cook pots into smaller pots and little plastic pails. The women who have just arrived joke and gossip a bit with the cooks, then they pick up containers of food and head down the stairs for home.
'Comedor' means dining room in Spanish, but the February 10 Comedor - like most of the other 600 odd comedores in Lima - is really a co-operative kitchen. Its 21 current members buy food as a group and take turns cooking the day's meals in the group's kitchen. Tomorrow most of today's cooks will come by just to pick up their own food. There is no room to eat in the comedor, just enough to hold three kerosene stoves and two long unpainted wooden tables crowded with plastic colanders, knives, cutting boards and pots.
For Angela Navarro participation in the co-operative kitchen is just a matter of common sense. I have three kids and my husband earns minimum wage - 40 intis - doing temporary jobs. That's when he can find a job. His pay doesn't stretch far enough to feed us.' Right now the comedor charges three and a half intis per portion. Angela says if she tried to buy all the ingredients to feed her family a similar meal on Sunday, the day the comedor is closed, it would cost her four times as much.
The community kitchen movement dates back so the late 1970s when Lima's working class districts were reeling under surging inflation and unemployment fuelled by a series of factory closures. Health studies at the time revealed an alarming rise in malnutrition-related tuberculosis. Necessity became the parent of invention. The first comedores grew up in the San Augustino parish and were inspired and nurtured by the local church. The movement caught on and spread like wildfire across the city.
From the beginning it was the women who played the leading role, gaining daily in self-confidence and organizing ability. Some say the idea of the comedores grew from the tradition of the 'ollas comunes' (collective pots) that many Peruvian unions used to sustain their members during a strike. There too it was the women who took the initiative.
The economic crisis of the late Seventies did not disappear. According to Lima community organizer Catalina Salazar: 'before it was a question of trying to provide better, cheaper food. But now, the economic situation has gotten so much worse the comedores are simply a means of survival.'
On the surface, the comedores are an exercise in popular self-reliance by the poor women of Lima's shantytowns. Without them nutritional levels in city slums would have plummeted. Yet there are real limits to how self-reliant the comedores can be. For one thing, they have little control over rapidly escalating food prices. At February 10, menu prices do not cover costs. Meat, for example, is just too expensive. The comedores are faced with the unpalatable choice of cutting quality or raising prices - which would effectively cut off the poorest families in the community.
Many of the comedores in the poorest communities are forced to rely on food donations in order to keep meals on the stove. Most also depend on basic food stuffs from FOVIDA, a non-profit Lima agency that buys in bulk and sells staples like fish and beans at subsidized prices. These programs are heavily underwritten by outside agencies like France's Comité Catholique Contre la Faim. But as the economy worsens and limited outside funds dry up, the comedores movement is looking desperately for other solutions. For some, this may be income-generating projects in the local community. For others, it means building direct links between farmers and poor consumers to cut out the large portion of food costs that line the pockets of merchant traders and stores.
The most optimistic development is the formation of an association of Lima comedores to pressure the government for a change in priorities. Peru itself is highly dependent on expensive food imports; nearly 90 per cent of the wheat and much of the milk comes from abroad. It's a big step for the comedores so start overhauling Peru's food production and distribution system. But that is exactly what they are trying to do. According to Catalina Salazar, 'Before we talked about problems of members who came late, or didn't work their shifts or didn't pay. Now we realize it's the food situation in the whole country that's important. Why should Peru keep on producing cotton and flowers for export when we need food?'
The limits of self-reliance for community kitchens have led the women of working class Lima to question the costs of limited self-reliance in the Peruvian economy as a whole. A certain level of national self-sufficiency is needed so complement self reliance as the local level. Without it, the rights and needs of poor people will always take second place to the land owner's need for a second car, the army's need for new tanks, the politician's need for publicity or the International Monetary Fund's demands for fiscal restraint.
The struggle for a self-reliant development path is never an easy one. Absolute self-reliance may not be possible or even desirable. However basic control over one's own resources and decisions is a prerequisite for any healthy, democratic development.
It's a long way from Lima's crowded shantytowns so the barren hills of northern Eritrea, but here the value of doing it for yourself is a hard-earned lesson. In this part of Africa, self-reliance is not a distant goal but a tactical necessity in the fight for independence.
Through the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the Eritreans have been fighting the Ethiopian occupation of their country for decades. They lack any superpower angel who is willing to bankroll their struggle. As a result, they have one of the most impressive records of self-reliance in the Third World today.
The EPLF has built an excellent network of village clinics and a preventive health care program. They produce dozens of drugs (more than most independent African countries) to deal with diseases like malaria and dysentery. They have even developed their own field microscope as part of their health program.
There are extensive agricultural development systems and road networks in some of the most difficult terrain in Africa. They produce basic goods from rubber sandals to sanitary napkins. They produce their own school books in several languages. And their capacity to fix any kind of broken machinery from a Mercedes truck engine to a wrist watch is truly impressive.
The Eritreans do all this in rural workshops and clinics dug into hillsides or camouflaged from the air because of the constant threat of bombardment by Ethiopian MIG fighter planes.
Simon Bibby, field staff for the development agency Euro-Action Accord, has extensive experience in Africa. But he was amazed by his first trip into remote Sahel province in EPLF-controlled Eritrea. 'In many parts of Africa things don't work despite ideal conditions and lots of resources. Here things work despite some of she most difficult conditions I've ever seen.'
Commitment mixed with necessity has made the Eritreans a model of self-reliant development. But poor soil, unreliable rainfall and the disruptive effects of the world's longest war has often left the EPLF dependent on outside relief to keep the rural population alive. When peace comes, the Eritreans believe their ability so do things for themselves will stand them in good stead as an independent nation.
In both Eritrea and Peru pragmatic self-reliance is the key to survival. Getting food on the table is the immediate goal, and that may call for some outside assistance. But both organizations have seen the drawbacks of relying on the good will of private and government donors. The rug can quickly be pulled out from under them, or their activities may be deemed too 'political' to warrant funding. There seems so be a good rule of thumb: take help if needed, but always try so work towards a time where it won't be needed any more.
Peru files by Jo Ann Kawell.