Tag Archives: Africa

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.


Repurposing Our International Leftovers

2 Apr


Yesterday Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development’s U.K. office sent around one of his usual announcements having to do with what’s happening in the world of development aid. Usually these have to do with some of interesting podcasts he hosts called Development Drums.

This one, however, described a new program that would see thousands of tons of otherwise wasted food from our First World supermarkets be sent to hungry people in the so-called Third World. After all, we throw out or otherwise waste an estimated 1.2 billion metric tons of food annually, wrote Mr. Barder –“because of losses in harvesting, storage, transportation and poor labelling.  This is between 30-50% of all food produced: yet at the same time, about 900 million people will go to bed tonight hungry.”

As a result, he said, “(a) consortium of donors, NGOs, supermarkets and agro-businesses are working on plans to use surplus food, currently wasted in industrialised countries, to the developing world to tackle hunger.”

Well, it did take a few seconds but then I realized that it was April 1st — and that Mr. Barder was just kidding us. He even concocted a rather brilliant acronym for this “plan” – the Africa Pilot for Repurposing International Leftovers (APRIL).

Nonetheless, the tongue-in-cheek message did offer some, ahem, food for thought.

How many of us were told , as youngsters refusing to eat something we didn’t like, “to think of the starving children in Africa,” and eat up? Most of us I imagine. Yet as the absurdity of Mr. Barder’s April Fools Day message makes clear, there is something awry in a system where so many people waste food and so many others don’t have enough to eat.

It is pretty clear by now that the reasons for this is not because there isn’t enough food in the world to feed us all. It is because millions of people in the Global South don’t have the money to buy it. Their incomes are so small — either from working, farming or running some kind of small informal business — that the percentage of income available for food is as negligible as our concerns about throwing away a third to a half of what we buy.

What’s more, we are not talking here about the wilted lettuce in your crisper, but the vast amounts that gets lost in the food chain before it even gets to our fridge.

Why is food so expensive in countries where so many people live on one to two dollars a day?

It is, in fact, the same system that still makes huge profits dumping a ton of misshapen potatoes, or pricing their produce so high it didn’t sell so it gets tossed. Poor countries, moreover, are often highly dependent on food imports — which is crazy when you think about it.

Haiti for example was self-sufficient in food, much as many people barely got by, until the 1980s. Now it must import from abroad about 80 per cent of its food, and when prices spike, as they did, in 2007, even people with jobs simply can’t afford the tax-payer-subsidized rice or pasta from abroad. Meanwhile, the farmers that once grew the rice themselves have long been put out of business by the cheaper subsidized product. Rural poverty not only means that farmers have no storage facilities or roads to transport their produce, but they lack enough land to make a decent living.

Yet the wealthy countries of this world continue to promote poor-nation dependence on our “leftovers.” They continue to say that agri-business is better for food production than small family owned farms. And, of course, they continue to receive billions in subsidies.

APRIL may be a joke, but it’s one that illustrates the upside down world of poverty and food. Let’s hope it hits our governments’ brains, for a change, instead of their funny bones.

The Dangerous Prospect of Protesting Palm Oil

24 Feb
Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

What’s worse than a palm oil company destroying acres of rain forest in Asia to plant palm trees for palm oil?  Those same companies doing the same thing in Africa.

And while they may not get away with threatening the life of someone organizing resistance to their bulldozing the forest and forest dwellers in Indonesia, it appears they are doing so in Nigeria.

The Indonesian Peasants Union, or SPI,  brought attention last week to the death threats and police harassment Odey Oyama is dealing with right now. Mr. Oyama, a barrister by profession, looks like a mild-mannered type of guy. He is the director of the Rainforest Resource Development Centre in Calabar, Cross Rivers state. He has charged one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, Singapore-based Wilmar International, with breaking Nigerian law by grabbing 50,000 hectares of land belonging either to a protected forest reserve or to local farmers for their business. And he has charged the local government for letting them do so.

Working to stem environmental havoc in his country for some 20 years now, Mr. Oyama previously tried to stop a cacao plantation in his state, one that would take over more than 5000 square kilometres of virgin rain forest part of which was under community management.

Wilmar is also going to take over dozens of small farms leased for 25 years to small holders in a poverty-alleviation scheme that allowed them to produce and sell palm oil , although not anywhere near the quantities a multi-million dollar multinational can.

Nigeria has enough problems, both environmental and social, without adding land grabbing to the mix. Despite its vast oil wealth, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. It is also one of the most corrupt countries on the Transparency International list, with even presidents slicing large chunks of palm-oil pie for themselves on land that is not theirs.

Nigeria is not the only poor — although I hesitate to write that word in an country that earns billion in petroleum revenue, but it is — nation in Africa to have come to the attention of palm oil magnates.

In Liberia, still recovering after years of brutal warfare characterized by drug-fueled child solders and a gleeful predilection for mutilating people,  palm oil companies are grabbing almost  a million hectares of land whilst violating the human rights of local communities.

And in Cameroon, an American company called Herakles Farms is currently clearing land for a 70,000 hectare palm oil plantation that will sit between and partly within two National Parks. Herakles says it is a champion of sustainability with its biofuel business, and claims that a) much of the forest land is already degraded anyway, and b) the local villagers using the forest for its renewable resources would actually prefer to have the employment instead.

It counters the complaints of various environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace by saying that the backing of local chiefs is proof that they have the communities’ support.

But just how democratic was the decision-making process in those communities? Do some people stand to gain more than others within them when a multinational comes to town?

After all, whether national or at the district level, cash-crunched local governments often like to think that these enormous plantations will bring economic growth, but like any gigantic agri-business, they only seem to improve the livelihoods of their CEOs and shareholders. As Silas Siakor, a campaigner for the Liberian NGO Sustainable Development Institute put it, “Allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades will push people further into poverty, as local income generating activities are curtailed and peoples’ earning capacities become limited.”

One can only hope that Mr. Oyama does not meet the same fate as Antonio Trejo, another lawyer who took on the biofuel bigwigs. After three years of representing peasant movements fighting land takeovers and palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguan, Honduras, he was gunned down last September.

Wiki-Solutions for a Hungry World

7 Apr

Sculpture: Natalia Porter

This month AlertNet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s news site for humanitarian issues, is posting submissions from the general public for its multi-media special report on  solutions to global hunger. This is my “silver bullet” idea:

A tragic paradox envelops the lives of small holding farmers throughout the Global South. They want to make a living from the land, but the economics of small scale farming force them to migrate to constantly expanding urban slums. Food prices rise as millions of peasant farmers lack the means — from enough land to sound eco-agricultural advice — to produce enough of a surplus to sell to the hungry. The world needs farmers while at the same time they make up the majority of its poor.

Yet the answer to the dilemma rests with peasant farmers themselves, and in ever increasing numbers, they know this. They are organizing themselves in democratic grassroots movements throughout the developing world, not only demanding but also working for change. From Indonesia to Senegal, and from Haiti to Brazil, the landless and the land poor are finding solutions to the contradictions of today’s macro-economic imperatives.

Here are just a few examples: The Serikat Petani Indonesia is not only working with their 700,000 members to reclaim land stolen during the Suharto dictatorship, but encouraging increased yields using organic techniques that cost nothing. In Senegal, regional farmers organizations, like the Union of Peasant Groups of Mehknes, ask all members to surround their plots with trees and to grow the drought-resistant crops their forefathers planted. Participation in Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement, or MST, has permitted more than 350,000 families to own land and to run cooperatives, schools and small enterprises. Even in Haiti, where land is at a premium and instability a seeming fact of life, peasant organizations working with La Via Campesina and Partenaires de Developement Locale are taking the initiative and breaking free from both top-down solutions to improve and manage better production methods. The government of Brazil, for example, is basing all of its agricultural foreign aid to Haiti on advice from the La Via Campesina and the MST.

These are just a few of the many organizations flowering throughout regions we typically associate with poverty and helplessness. Other developing world nations with national peasant organizations include the Philippines, Thailand and Mozambique.  While their members don’t lack ideas, a sense of initiative or  a determination to succeed, finding the funding to expand their outreach is always a challenge.

Meanwhile, little of the billions of dollars affluent nations spend on foreign aid is going to support farmers and their families.  Rather, too many First-World development policies comprise a vision of letting giant agri-business conglomerates take care food production and leaving farming families no choice but to join an already vast labour force that will struggle to survive on cut-rate wages in modern factories and sweatshops. No wonder donors are asking themselves why so much poverty still exists in the countries to which they have been sending their money for decades.

At the same time the effectiveness and purpose of so many aid projects are being questioned, simple solutions are at hand — and have been for quite some time.

Just imagine if those of us in the rich countries could help the millions of small farmers in the developing world achieve land justice and plentiful crops.

Try and picture the results in farming villages when agriculturalists embrace their knowledge and abilities to produce healthy crops to sustain themselves and their urban counterparts.

Ask the average person who donates money to charity, and they are likely to react with enthusiasm at the idea, at the image of productive land, life-giving clusters of woods, decent schools and clinics, and vibrant markets filled with the fruits of the peasant farmer’s labour rather than wasted aid dollars, pounds and euros.

It is time to change the picture of rural poverty to one of rural power. Along with our donations to those NGOs that concentrate on empowering farmers, we can also pressure our governments to switch from foreign aid conditionalities that impoverish Third World economies to ones that insist on meaningful re-distribution of fertile land. In the United States, Canada and Britain, average people can tell their governments that we no longer want our tax money to spent on food dumping but on buying locally produced food for feeding programs and on practical help for farmers. How? Using a number of methods, from social media and the Internet to Amnesty International-style letter-writing campaigns, average people can influence government policies.

Aside from alleviating rural poverty, two immeasurably valuable consequences will come with this. First of all, we will find peasant farmers themselves taking on the task of conserving and protecting local forests and other fragile habitats. Environmental protection is already a hallmark of most if not all peasant movements.

Secondly, as their livelihoods improve, rural populations will feel empowered to demand accountability from their governments, insisting on honest and wise use of their nation’s financial resources.

The rural poor don’t want handouts and they don’t want banishment to dysfunctional lives in a slum. They want to land to till, fair markets in which to sell the fruits of their labour, and respect.  We can and must make it clear to our leaders and policy-makers that we want the same.

What do you think can be done to alleviate global hunger? I would love to hear your comments and your own ideas.

Six Things I Just Learned About Land Grabs in Post-Kony Uganda

18 Mar

Last week I suggested that digging deeper into the roots of conflict and injustice in Africa should be on the cards for many, what with the mega-blow-up (and bizarre melt-down) of the whole Kony 2012 affair.

And so, since my movie date was cancelled, I have taken the past two hours I would have spent in a cinema researching land grabs in Uganda.

I was specifically looking at northern Uganda, nominally at peace now, but for how long? I found evidence of one spectacular case in the area of Amuru. There, the Madhvani Group of Companies, one of Uganda’s largest consortiums, looks to have successfully managed to get hold of a whopping 40,000 hectares of land on which it will grow sugar cane. Not surprising since its owner is a good pal of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. There was no information on how many people this will effect.  But one plaintiff, Jackeo Oballim, who tried to stop the deal in court, put it, “If they try to use force against our people, there will be another LRA in name of the land.”

It was easier to find cases in central Uganda, where a British company called New Forest is leasing 20,000 hectares of forest to grow pine and eucalyptus. According to an Oxfam report for 2011, more than 22,000 people have been evicted from three areas in order to give New Forest free rein.  Meanwhile another 2,000 people have been evicted in the Mubende region by the Ugandan army so that a German company called Neumann Koffee Gruppe can use it for coffee plantations.

But the largest deal involved the government of Egypt that began talks three years ago with the Ugandan government to take over an astonishing 840,000 hectares throughout the country for wheat and corn production. Its test farm will be located in Gulu.

According to a study by Samuel Mabikke, ever larger percentages of the arable land in poor African countries are slated for lease by all manner of moneyed multinationals. Citing the Global Land Project, he points out that in Uganda the deals represent more than 14 per cent of its farmland, 21 per cent in Mozambique, and an astonishing 48 percent in the D.R. Congo. “ Thus,”  he writes, “the consequences of these land deals can be expected to be very large for the local population and environment, with impacts such as agricultural intensification, forest degradation, and displacement of local populations, increasing local food insecurity and increasing poverty.”

Is that six things? I have no idea. But the point is that, as I’ve argued in previous posts, injustice and land poverty continues to thrive in some of the poorest and most conflictive parts of Africa. But apparently while there are still profits to be made, land grabbing will not be receiving the kind of attention Kony 2012 did. And it is more than likely that, as Mr. Oballim suggests, wars and conflicts won’t be going away any time soon.

Selling Land, Stealing Livelihoods

14 Dec

Today the International Land Coalition released a report they and several other organizations joined together to produce on the buying up of arable land in poor nations for immense personal and corporate profit. Think of a country where protests erupt — like Egypt — or where donors send money to help the poverty stricken — almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa — and you will find rural families’ inability to make a living at the root of their poverty. While they own tiny parcels of land that don’t allow them to eat, let alone prosper, either wealthy families or the state itself control extremely large swathes of it.

So the report and its findings make for dire news indeed. In fact, it’s hard to know where to begin. Researchers found purchase or lease deals adding up to 203 million hectares between 2000 and 2010, most of them in Africa. While 78 per cent of those deals they were able to cross-reference went to agriculture, only about a quarter was destined for the cultivation of food. The rest was for revenue-rich bio-fuel production.

Other scary conclusions include the fact the best, most fertile land is usually targeted for lease or purchase; that poor farmers are being dispossessed of both land held by custom and access to water; that rural women are particularly vulnerable; and that extensive areas of natural ecosystems are being felled for bio-fuel, tourism, industrial projects and so on.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal,” said ILC Director Madiodio Niasse in a press release from the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs.”

I have posted twice already about these ‘new enclosures’ and written about foreign companies coming in to desperately poor nations to make use of their best land. But apparently, national elites – who are often let off the hook for taxes in order to attract investment — are playing a far larger role in land grabbing than previously thought.

What else lies behind this pernicious trend that will only deepen rural poverty in the third world?

It is actually the same political and economic structure that has people protesting from Wall Street to West Africa: the notion that financial elites know what is best for the rest of us. It simply flies in the face of common sense to think we should help the poor of the developing world with meager handouts and let big business convert their land into mega-estates.

But as the IIED’s Lorenzo Cotula (one of the report’s authors) put it, “Part of the problem is … that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.”

Personally, I don’t think many policy makers truly believe that. I can’t help but surmise instead that affluent nation governments and the corporations that donate to their legislators think that there are still more ways to squeeze what little they have out of the world’s poorest.

Famine and Future

6 Aug

The Food Voucher

The famine in the Horn of Africa is giving rise not only to terrible stories of refugees, images of dead livestock and indignation over hard-ass Somali militants in Al Shabaab refusing to let international relief organizations distribute food to their starving countrymen, but a debate in the blogosphere about the merits or lack thereof of development aid itself. I have read a couple of interesting posts recently that point out how much worse the situation would be without such aid, using Ethiopia as an example of where the presence of both a functioning government and aid infrastructure is reducing the scale of the disaster to simply a crisis.

Various other sources however, point out other complexities.  Islamic Relief director Jehangir Malik, for example, has been writing in the Guardian about how local Somali NGOs are able to make it to the worst areas of drought, but that they need more resources to purchase more food. There are other articles pointing out how the worst off in the region are its pastoralists, who tend to be ignored as backward nomads, that their ability to move around has been severely curtailed by government policies.

Then there is BBC’s Newsnight investigation that found instances in Ethiopia of development aid being denied to groups opposed to the government. While they also pointed out that emergency aid does seem to be available to everyone, if those allegations are true, they indicate a serious problem for international donors. I myself recently came across a study that showed how small a percentage of Ethiopia’s arable land is actually even made available for agriculture. While all land is public property, the state allows for only 14 million out of 74 million hectares to be cultivated by peasant farmers. At the same time vast expanses of it are being leased to foreign companies to grow everything from flowers to bio-fuels for export.

It is understandable that average people around the globe should be confused about why the situation is so dire, about why in a world where there is plenty of food, millions are starving. Yes, one needs to keep in mind the fact that there is a big difference between emergency aid and long-term development aid, and to my knowledge no one is criticizing the distribution of the former. But why not talk about the need to improve our understanding of development as well as how development itself works?

Because there seems to be a real lack of clarity about the dilemma in the Horn of Africa — other than that it is truly terrible — and all that underlies it. Are we any closer to feeling we have a handle on how to prevent those appalling scenes of death and dying in the future? Despite the coverage and the pleas for donations, my feeling is that the answer so far is no.