Tag Archives: Cambodia

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.

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Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’

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The Price of Sugar

13 Jul

It’s true. I haven’t wanted to replace my previous post on Brazil because the information in it is extremely important — and personal.

I also have been busy trying to make headway on my book about development aid.

But here is a must-see vide0 from the Guardian about sugar cane cutters in Cambodia, a tough, dirty job — cane is usually burnt before it’s harvested by machete — earning the people you will see a couple of dollars a day, if that. What makes it even worse is that they are working on land that used to be theirs, and was taken away, handed over to a corporation and is producing sugar for consumption in Europe. In other words, the kinds of farming practices that would never be allowed anywhere in Europe or North America are okay as long as it is carried out far away from the consumers.

This is a post about Cambodia …

9 Oct

People who keep up on these things — and it’s too bad that there aren’t more who do — are already probably aware of the troublesome spread of corporate agriculture into some of the world’s poorest countries, and how this cruelly deprives some of the most economically distressed people on the planet — small-holding peasant farmers — of their land.

But did you know that the World Bank actually helps them do so? And with your money?

A study by the WB’s own monitoring arm actually admitted that about 30% of its agribusiness-investment projects involved what it euphemistically called “involuntary resettlement” and impacted the lives of more than a million people.

This year the WB earmarked $5 million in soft loans for agribusiness in Cambodia, a nation where more than 2 million hectares of farmland has been cleared over the past several years so that the government can lease it to corporate agriculture.

Interestingly, the WB’s receiver bank in Cambodia didn’t get much interest (no pun intended) from potential borrowers. Other local banks were apparently offering loans at cheaper rates, according to a project report.

The WB also said that a portion its/our money was going to help “SMEs” — small and medium sized growers. While the Bank has no stats on its website to show sizes of acreages of the farmers who did borrow, I am guessing that the guy with a big family and a hectare or two would not be seeking help from the World Bank, then finding somewhere else with lower rates. It just doesn’t make sense.

And who certainly is in no position to borrow are the estimated 400,000 small-holding farmers who have been evicted by the Cambodian government in order to clear it for foreign takeover.

Violence has also been part of this whole enterprise. So far, three people have been killed, including a teenage girl during one of the forced evictions. And thirteen women are in jail for trying to stop the loss of their families’ lands and livelihoods.

According to a study by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, or CDRI, international banks are buying most of the vast leases on offer, and some 85 companies utilizing the areas to grow everything from teak to rubber to biofuels to sugar cane. There is even a Canadian company, based in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, of all places, that is about to expand onto 5000 acres to grow stevia, a plant that offers us first world fatties a zero-calorie sweetener.

According to the Guardian, perhaps the only paper covering these atrocities, “Those evicted to make way for superfarms are entitled to compensation, but rarely get it. Cambodia’s land title system is in shambles, and poor farmers rarely hold deeds for their land – even if they are legally entitled to them, based on possession rights.” (Actually it was Khmer Rouge psychopaths who destroyed all of the country’s landownership data.)

But today’s violence is indicative of something else: a fight back from below by peasant farmers, organized to demand justice. It includes human rights activists, land and environmental activists and even monks.

This follows the strike last May of 5000 garment workers, demanding a $30 pay rise on their incredibly meager monthly salary of $61. They are part of a $3.4 billion industry in Cambodia, making clothing for companies like J.Crew, Old Navy, Levis and The Gap.

We are increasingly dependent, it seems, on the global poor, who make the clothes we wear and give up the land on which the ingredients of our everyday possession are made, from soap to tires to furniture. They get a few dollars a day to make what we buy, all of this mediated by businessmen and banks.

But we should at the very least be aware of what the poor, whether in Cambodia or Haiti, are putting up with to supply us with our ‘things.’ And to recognize the strength and determination of the human spirit when they do their bit, at least, to push back against the machine.