The Cruel Insanity of Obama’s Agriculture Export Plan

When President Barrack Obama stated in his recent State of the Union address that one avenue to advance the economy was to increase U.S. agricultural exports, I cringed.  Right out of Milton Friedman, export agriculture is the neo-liberal free market capitalist approach to agriculture that, if anything, has been successful in destroying family farmers. Obama’s announcement was yet another death-knell to the world’s family farmers. It was a gift to corporate agribusiness. It meant yet another wave of family farmers throughout the world being forced off the land resulting in another period of rural repression and dislocation. Don’t think when you read this that the scenario is somewhere other than the United States. This is a U.S. story as well.

However, looking outside the U.S can be constructive to understand how this works. When Robert Williams, an Alabama native, came out with his excellent book Export Agriculture and the Crisis of Central America in 1986 he dedicated the book as follows:  “For the people of my own southland, whose history runs parallel to Central America’s”. So what was this history?

Williams offers at least one model of how devastating export agriculture can be for communities when it is introduced and implemented in rural areas. This is in contrast, however, to the usual critique of export agriculture, which refers to when massive amounts of commodity crops are grown in the U.S. and dumped on largely third world countries by corporations that then compete with and destroy local farmers. This model destroys food sovereignty, local sustainability and income, and leads to more poverty and devastation and it is precisely what Obama obviously, unfortunately, wants to implement. It essentially makes corporations wealthy at the expense of everyone else, especially family farmers.

Williams begins with the disaster in Guatemala in 1954 when the CIA ousted Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán because he had the temerity to develop programs and land reforms that would actually benefit the Guatemalan people and small farmers.

The U.S.-owned United Fruit Company in Guatemala was appalled at the Arebenz reforms. The company had, of course, a cozy relationship with the large landholding oligarchy, plus President Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA director Allen Dulles and his brother were shareholders in the United Fruit Company. The CIA orchestrated a coup and ousted Arbenz. It was similar to the contra invasion of Nicaragua in the 1980’s by President Ronald Reagan to destroy the reformist government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. There were to be no more reforms for Guatemala!

Then the Cuban revolution took place in 1959. This was more than the U.S. government and corporate America could handle. ‘No more Cubas’ was the cry and U.S. corporations, banks and military swept into Central American countries as a result. They wanted to co-opt the rural oligarchies as their puppets and by doing so expand  export agriculture production throughout the region. This meant an orchatrated shift from the traditional crops of coffee and bananas to an emphasis on cotton and beef. In other words, the U.S. corporate elite wanted to adapt Central America, inappropriately, to an Iowa agriculture model of one commodity crop or of cattle on huge acreage. They also did not want to allow for any of the reforms of land and wages or other tantalizing improvements of peasant life and labor rights. These reform efforts, they thought, could be controlled by increased military support in the region and by waves of terror by trained Central American officers from the School of the Americas in the U.S.

The U.S. paid no attention to the Central American history of culture, agriculture or land tenure traditions in the plans. It paid no attention to the possible devastating social and environmental impacts of these export policies. The intent of the plan was all for money and control. Those who benefited were the Central American elite and U.S. corporations. As Williams writes, “For a number of reasons, Washington has encouraged the development of non-traditional exports from Central America. Policy makers have understood that without a steady stream of export earnings, international banks are less likely to lend money for development, multinational corporations are less likely to invest, and local investors have greater difficulty importing modern technology and capital equipment”.

No one included peasant farmers in the discussion of any of this policy. Rather like share croppers, they lived and farmed on land owned by the oligarchy. This life was not the best for small farmers, but it was tradition and there was a collaborative, albeit hierarchical, relationship between the landowner and peasant farmer. But in the end these small farmers were considered expendable. Their voices were not heard.

The result of this collaborative effort of private industry, government and the military was the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of peasant subsistence farmers to allow for huge acreage devoted to cotton and beef. These dislocated farmers landed in cities to seek wage jobs for the first time, if jobs were available that is. These farmers, now victims through no fault of their own, could no longer feed their families through diverse vegetable and fruit production as they had done for centuries.  Then there were waves of terror from the military when reforms were attempted to help peasants and others seeking decent wages and better living conditions.

All this also meant that thousands of acres of rich fertile land and rain forests of Central America were destroyed through this massive commodity production that included chemical inputs and mechanized impersonal agriculture.

Perhaps most tragic of all, is that Central America lost thousands of its skilled farmers and their important husbandry handed down for hundreds of years and from generation to generation. Like farmers throughout the world, these skilled farmers were saving seeds and adapting their crops to their unique soil and weather; and like other small farmers, these family farmers were the best stewards of the land. All this was lost.

Family farmers are an invaluable resource. They are not oil or gold but they are an invaluable resource nonetheless, and renewable as with wind or sun as they pass on their priceless knowledge from generation to generation. We lose them at our peril.

Williams describes two major waves of terror. Importantly, however, in the 1970’s the second wave of terror against the reformers met with resistance from better-organized and unique alliances to counter the oppression. It ultimately became harder for the elite to control through terror. The upside of all this is that these former farmers were also finally demanding justice in the society in alliance with other groups in urban areas. This is exactly what the U.S. did not want – independent voices. Though, in Central America, there were some U.S. entities helping to develop a better civic life, it was probably primarily to control the agenda of those demanding justice.

The assumption was, according to Williams, that “export expansion and diversification, foreign investment incentives, and other measures intended to promote rapid private sector growth will also promote social stability.” Williams questions this premise. Were that the case then why, he asks, was Nicaragua, which had the most rapid growth economically in this program, “the first to break out in revolution” when the world economic crisis struck in the 1970’s?

Williams infers, in fact, that the U.S. involvement in Central America after World War II in its efforts to develop the export agriculture markets in the area was the leading cause of the violence and revolutionary fervor. This was true in all the countries of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.

Not mentioned in this article are updates of U.S. and Central American agriculture policy since the 1980’s, but unfortunately this tragic export agriculture policy described above still resonates across the globe as farmers everywhere are being forced off the land and/or committing suicide because of the destabilization from the introduction of industrial and commercial export agriculture.

To understand the above model is also important because its first test was here in the United States in the 20th century prior to the Central American debacle. Because of an export agriculture policy and demands for increased production of commodity crops, we in the U.S. have also lost thousands of family farmers and good farmland through mechanization and chemical inputs in the 20th century. Farmers were and continue to be forced into cities to seek wages jobs. Congress has not provided for labor rights for farm workers and the remaining family farmers have been marginalized by the export agriculture policies. This has been thanks to the complicity of private industry, government policy and outreach by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that largely supports corporate demands rather than the needs of farmers, the environment, the general public and rural communities.

And, like Central America, there are now new alliances being created in the United States to challenge this damaging model. Many Americans are finally beginning to recognize the insanity of export agriculture policy and are attempting to develop their own food sovereignty and local economies.

Williams ends his book with recommendations for U.S. policy in Central America which are as relevant today as were then and also relevant to U.S. domestic policy. He starts by saying that the U.S. should stop funding and training security forces in the region. Secondly, trade policies and technology transfer should be determined by not “basing it on the desires of the Central American elites and U.S. investors” but rather should be done in consultation with grassroot organizations. And, thirdly, grassroot organizations should be the ones developing reforms and they should not be controlled through pressure from the United States.

If Obama wants to expand agriculture exports, he should also first consult with family farmers and grassroots organizations here in the United States before doing so. It’s unlikely they were consulted before he made his State of the Union speech.

In fact, given the evidence, to plan further expansion of U.S. agriculture exports is folly. It certainly doesn’t appear to help family farmers or rural communities anywhere in the world, including, of course, those in the United States.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at


Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at