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Food Sovereignty in Africa

category international | environment | opinion/analysis author Tuesday August 25, 2009 14:35author by F Anderson E Russo - Food Sovereignty Ireland Report this post to the editors

Ireland needs to speak out - neoliberalism cannot save Africa

International companies and foundations are pushing for a "Green Revolution" in Africa - promoting a model which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and represents the kind of "same box thinking" which has left up to 1 billion people in the world hungry.

It is time for us to recognise that the system some believed in so blindly through the Celtic Tiger years is in fact causing increasing poverty, hunger and desperation at its “other end”. Around the world, countries and peoples are looking at ways to fight back.

A farmer surveys his crop in Manica province
A farmer surveys his crop in Manica province

At the recent G8 summit in L’Aquila Barack Obama said "There is no reason Africa should not be self- sufficient when it comes to food”. Of course this is true – Africa would have been feeding itself a long ago were it not for the policies which have prevented it from doing so. In order to really emancipate the people of Africa they need to be given back control over their own food systems, their own internal markets. This control has been constantly eroded by these same systems which purport to promote “development”.  In this not-so-pretty world of our real here and now, one fact stands out more starkly than any other. With all the wealth, growth and seeming abundance of our times, it is now estimated that over 1 billion people in the world go hungry every day. It is another number which in these heady days of tumbling stock markets is so difficult to quantify in real terms. One billion is one thousand million, 250 times the population of our little island. This is the greatest shame on our planet, an embarrassment, an epic failure of our civilisation. It requires us, and our leaders to ask some hard questions.

The most shocking thing about this figure of course is not so much its magnitude, but the fact that it has arrived after twenty to thirty years of so called “development aid” and after government after government has committed to the eradication of hunger. Even more, it arrives in the wake of the declaration of the so-called Millennium Goals, which aimed to halve the numbers of hungry people in the world by 2015, and in spite of their efforts, the numbers have increased. There are more hungry people in the world now than when the governments of the world made those pledges. This is a catastrophic failure. One would imagine that it puts into question the method, the system of change which these governments propose. And the fact that it does not, the fact that the industrialised countries continue to push for further market liberalisation, to throw money at governments and NGOs and keep pushing forward with private investors for Africa, is more than embarrassing, it is irrational.

Differing views – AGRA?

The “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” is an example of the kind of same-box thinking which has led to the current calamity. Backed by the Rockefeller Foundation as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AGRA calls for help for small farmers – good – but then begins to talk about seeds, inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and the need to increase their use in African agriculture. AGRA would provide farmers with “affordable soil additives” read “sell them fertilisers” and establish private seed companies in Africa (SEPA program) read “sell them GMO seeds and herbicides in a contract package”. It would also put into place the infrastructure for agri-business to have access to the one big remaining agricultural market in the world – Africa (APA program).

It is precisely these kinds of “aids” for small farmers in Africa, which envisage these farmers as potential clients in a liberal, open economy which have made the situation worse, not better. Small farmers in Africa and all over the world feed the majority of the world’s population – any measures which threaten their survival or make their lives more dependent on unpredictable markets are potentially life threatening. AGRA focuses on an increases in technological and commercial inputs, not on structural change. Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist, has denounced the Gates Foundation’s role, saying it is the “greatest threat to farmers in the developing world.” Many of these worries may stem from the staff the
Gates Foundation is hiring – many come from multinational agribusinesses, such as Rob Horsch, head of Biotechnology in Monsanto, and now working for the Gates foundation.

Such voices are worried that the “Green Revolution” the Foundations propose may just be a way of engaging directly in African markets, without making any of the necessary structural changes which have caused the current problems – changes which many say need to be made now, and urgently. Taking back control of food In Africa, the food system has been broken for years -effectively since states were obliged to make major changes to their economies by the IMF and World Bank in order be allowed to restructure huge debts (which they had threatened to default on). The IMF effectively “bailed out” many banks which had lent much more than their capital to countries in the south.

The systems of concrete state supports – government stocks, price boards and other instruments of market regulation which are anathema to governments of the north were removed from almost every country in the south through structural adjustment programs enforced by these international institutions, often at the behest of private corporations. Put in the place of these government controls was the faith that markets could and would regulate themselves, providing a better deal for everyone. As we have increasingly seen, the market is a flawed instrument and for food, where normal market rules do not apply (inelastic demand, variation in supply) - these uncontrolled and speculative markets have been lethal. It is in these very countries where the greatest challenges to the dominant “development paradigm” outlined in the Washington consensus are now being articulated.

The way of the peasants

Mozambique is one such example. Pressures upon land, as well as increased dependence on imports due to the liberalization of the internal market in Mozambique meant that the “Food price Crisis” of last year hit the country particularly hard. The prices of staple foods which had once been produced internally (such as rice) but which are now imported shot up, meaning that farmers (above all farmers producing export crops) found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Many farmers are subsistence farmers, and any fluctuation in prices can put them and their families into danger.

Gonçalves Fundramo, a farmer in Mozambique says: “Nowadays most of our staple foodstuffs are imported from Europe, South Africa and Asia. The price is too high for the small farmers to afford, and it has increased every year. For example most of our rice comes from Thailand, India and Pakistan.” José Basquete, another farmer in the west of the country says it clearly: “A good number of small farmers have already renounced growing cash crops like tobacco, cotton and piri-piri [African bird-eyes chilli], because peasants don’t have a big margin of negotiation in the prices. Generally they don’t get well paid by big companies, so they don’t have enough money to buy all the foodstuffs they need to feed their families,
especially at present with the rising price of staple foods. They understand that the solution is to grow what they need directly, and to diversify crops, not to depend on just one. First to provide what their families and community need and then the rest.”

The peasants unions advocate the importance of growing crops in a sustainable way according to local traditions (in particular depending on the consumption habits of each region), and ask the government to promote and secure their access to land, water, seeds and credit.

The director of the Peasant Farmers movement in Mozambique gives us a clearer idea of the new framework they follow - “Food sovereignty gives priority to local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture...it promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition, and it ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.”

He adds, referring to the “Green Revolution”: “It is important to recognise the difference between “development” and advancement in technological terms. Technological advancement does not necessarily equate to improved standard of living for poor rural peasant farmers – more often than not it further entrenches their impoverishment. Technology is not always the panacea.”

Far from the image of Africa so often shaped by pictures of hunger and helplessness, the farmers of Mozambique are well organized and want to have control over their own future, and to be free to feed themselves, their families and their communities. There is a clear recognition here that the corporations at the heart of the food system have clear obligations to their shareholders – none of which are farmers in the global south.

Feast and Famine

There are many reasons for the increase in the number of hungry people in the world, including Climate change, population growth and other factors. The most overriding reason however, is structural, and has to do with the way the food system has been changed and transformed in the last fifty years. The change that has happened in the food system has not happened alone, but with a parallel push for the liberalization of capital, above all in the global south. This liberalization of capital, of market expansion, coupled with the changes within the food chain and its associated systems, have led to the current catastrophe, which is not only social, but political.

Essentially this change has come about through a constant increase in concentration. Concentration of seed, fertiliser and other chemical ownership, concentration of land, of resources. Concentration of processing facilities, of the entire input and downstream sector. This concentration has made a system of simple, short chains of production and consumption of foodstuffs into an incredibly complex web or cluster dominated by companies which reduce the input of farmers to “labour” and the input of consumers to “profit”. The changes have caused a huge level of rural to urban migration. Literally millions of people have been pushed off their land in the countryside and into the mushrooming cities of the south, where many live in shacks and slums in the huge outlying suburbs.

Farmers in Mozambique want the government to give them the chance to improve their conditions through more investment in agriculture and to protect their internal market from cheap imports so that they have the chance to develop their internal markets and feed their people. These ideas are not new, and they have been increasingly refined and developed into a whole new political and social framework for food – a framework which offers an alternative to the policies which have consistently failed over the last thirty years. From market liberalisation and concentration of agricultural systems to the radical alternative – food sovereignty – when people, farmers and consumers, take back control of how and where their food is produced.

When Peter Power, Ireland's Minister of State for Overseas Development addressed the High Level Summit on Food Security in Madrid earlier this year, he spoke at great lengths about our deep “understanding” of hunger in Ireland. He referred to the Irish Famine, pointing out that this made us credible in the eyes of the world. Mr. Power also supported the propositions of the World Bank and other international institutions at the conference, institutions whose past actions have to a great extent brought us to the sorry place we are today.

The Irish famine, like most of the famines of the last two hundred years - including many of those in sub-Saharan Africa – was not caused by a lack of food resources. There was enough food produced in Ireland during the famine to feed the population, but the population did not have access to the market, the food was grown for export. Similarly, there is no shortage of food in the world today. The world easily produces enough to feed the population. The failure is a failure of the population to feed one another – and to let the vagaries of the market, profit, and corporate control manage this area of human life. We have also experienced the impact of a neoliberal economic model here in Ireland. The situation is not the same here as in the global south, but those of us shaking our heads at the consequences of  uncontrolled, unregulated expansion – as our property market demonstrated – should also be thinking hard about how such calamities can be avoided in the future. When we talk of food, the stakes are infinitely higher. Ireland, always the small country with the big personality, needs to speak loudly, and to support the voice of the most disenfranchised – the farmers and people all over the world who are crying out for real change, not for more of the same.

This project was funded by the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund

Women pick sweet potatoes near Maputo
Women pick sweet potatoes near Maputo

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