Tag Archives: Indonesia

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.


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.’


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.

From Rhinos to Orangutans, Criminal Activity is So Depressing

24 Oct

Photo Credit: Marboed

Whether it’s been about palm oil or rhino horn, recent news items I’ve seen about the dire effects of criminal activity on our planet’s forests and wildlife are truly depressing. From the photo of a Vietnamese woman gleefully grinding rhino horn that she believes will cure her gall stones (honestly, someone there ought to do a television news segment on the chemical make-ups of endangered animal parts and how they don’t cure anything) to the map of Sumatra’s shrinking forests, I’m wondering when if ever criminals will be stopped from helping destroy the natural world.

And there’s the article I saw on organized crime gangs’ increasing destruction of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve and surrounding Selva Maya. Salvadoran drug dealers are slashing and burning tens of thousands of officially protected hectares to establish ranches to launder their narcotics cash, Chinese gangs are plundering the region for rare hardwoods — before moving on to the jaguars, which they’ll kill for body parts — and Mexican cartels are razoring the forest to land their illicit cargo, one three-strip airport alone accounting for the loss of 40,000 hectares of pristine jungle.

It almost makes me want to applaud the folks who simply go out and rob a bank or liquor store (not that I will: As Jockin Arputham (of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, who I write about in my book, Broke But Unbroken) would say, you guys need to get some value change.)

The Sumatra problem was recently highlighted in an NBC news program that focused on the impact of shrinking habitat on orangutans, and an Australian man who has been trying to move them to places where there is still some forest left. The illegally cleared land gets turned into palm oil plantations, already a billion dollar industry in Indonesia, thanks to the fact that we now find palm oil in everything from chocolate to ice cream, as good a reason as any to boycott these products, quite frankly.

There was no word on how these well-armed gangs given a blind eye by local authorities are affecting the forest dwellers in this area. No doubt my friends at the Serikat Petani Indonesia would have something interesting to say about that.

But the article on Guatemala did tell some pretty sad tales about how local forest community groups, given concession rights and financial assistance to protect the forest from these ignorant, money-hungry marauders, are fighting a losing battle in keeping them out. In one case, an ethical community leader was even killed, and the local management project fell apart.

So while it’s hard to use arguments get crooks to stop with the environmental mayhem, it should be possible to find the financial means to do so. Companies using palm oil can and should stop buying the stuff if they can’t triple check its provenance. And if they don’t, we should know who they are and what they’re selling us. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending institutions, being arguably useless at encouraging effective development, should at least demand that Vietnam uphold its own laws on sales of endangered animal parts there. And countries like Guatemala that are trying to safeguard their natural resources with nowhere near enough money ought to be given more help.

But, sadly, I think it unlikely that people with power will actually do much to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Here in Canada, we were recently treated to a news story about conservative Member of Parliament Alice Wong enjoying some shark fin soup at a news conference for Asian media in Richmond, B.C. Ms. Wong was apparently supporting local restaurateurs’ opposition to a municipal ban on the so-called delicacy — a ban her host labels as “culturally insensitive.” (As if culture and cultural sensitivities do not evolve — or does he also support a return to foot binding?)

And with more than a third of all shark species threatened with extinction because of finning, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, isn’t this cruel practice ‘environmentally insensitive?’

A New Democrat MP is now tabling a private member’s bill to make it illegal to import of shark fins to Canada, but with the Tories holding a majority in parliament, and their own environmental insensitivity a point of pride for them, I’m afraid it stands little chance of passing. “It’s part of the culture and (the government) has no intention of banning the soup,” Ms. Wong told the Richmond News.

So I guess that means there are two things that couldn’t be more depressing: criminal activity’s destruction of the environment — and Tory politicians.

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.

News Flash! Global Food System Fails Millions

25 Feb

A recent article about a new report on hunger and food security caught my attention recently, just as work and the news of mass protests across North Africa have kept me from paying any attention to it. Not that the headline in the Guardian, or rather the deck, wasn’t compelling: “The existing food system fails half the people on the planet and needs radical change if world is to feed itself, report warns,” it said.

Said report, handily named ‘Foresight,’ has called for a “transformation on the scale of the industrial revolution.” Wow. Its suggestions include the provision of technical support in more modern agricultural methods to poor countries, greater investment in GM crops and even animal cloning, all in an effort to beef up the amount of food the world produces. It also calls for better transport links and for cutting down on the vast amounts of food that goes to waste — anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of everything produced. (To me, that would seem like the answer right there.)

But while it makes clear the imperative that increases in food production need to come without the corresponding increase in greenhouse gas, it also warns that organic agriculture “should not be adopted as the main strategy to achieve sustainable and equitable global food security.” (my italics)

So here is where many, including myself, start to find the short-sightedness in ‘Foresight’ (which was originally commissioned by a branch of the British government). While the U.N.’s Olivier de Schutter points out that hunger is not a technical question but a political one,  Devinder Sharma said the authors “call for radical change but they really want to intensify existing policies.”

In fact, the report acknowledges the concerns many have regarding corporate concentration in the global food business, but says that “there does not seem to be an argument for intervention to influence the number of companies in each area or how they operate…” (my italics again)

Nor could I find any reference at all, in the executive summary at least, on the need for land reform – to take land away from governments, companies and big private landowners and give it to landless peasants along with, yes, technical advice and good infrastructure.

This is odd considering that the summary does indicate that in poor nations like those of Africa, “agriculture provides not only food for households but also very important means of broadly based income generation.”

It cites studies showing that a one per cent gain in GDP from agriculture “generates a 6 per cent increase in overall expenditure of the poorest 10 per cent of the population, while the equivalent figure for GDP growth originating in non-agricultural sectors is zero growth.” So land reform does make economic sense.

Yet for all its headline-grabbing rhetoric, Foresight’s recommendations are really pretty conventional. Compare them to those of the eye-glazingly-titled  International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; despite the boring name, that study does, for example,  see “increasing access by small-scale farmers to land and economic resources” as an “important option” for improving the lives of the rural poor.

Whether it’s planting ‘cade’ fruit trees around crops in Senegal or transforming urban wasteland into organic vegetable plots in São Paulo, personal experience has shown me numerous examples of peasant farmers themselves finding ways to increase production and enhance environments at the same time. From Indonesia to Africa and Mexico to Brazil, having sufficient land, fairer market access and freedom from expensive commercial fertilizers and pesticides have brought the poor not only better livelihoods and nutrition, but dignity.

On Balance – Organic is better

20 Jul

While I was travelling in Brazil and Indonesia meeting members and visiting the farms of the Landless Rural Workers Movement and the Peasant Union of Indonesia, I heard a lot about better crops from organic methods.

In west Sumatra for example, the SPI’s Rustam Efendi told me they were getting rice yields of 7 tonnes per hectare compared with 4 or 5 using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Now their personal experiences have found some academic backing – from Washington. State University A recent study, published in Nature, found that organic techniques actually offer better pest control and larger plants that the agric-chemical competition.

Study author David Crowder and his team surveyed potato farms in Washington state. Their focus wasn’t so much on yields as on another important aspect of both agriculture and environment – the concept of evenness. That’s the relative abundance of different species, including predators and pests, in a farm’s ecosystem. In other words, rather than the number of species present on a farm, it is this “relative abundance,” they noted, that may determine the success of one technique over another. This idea also helps explain why certain commercial pesticides lose their effectiveness.

The WSU researchers found that “although organic and conventional farms did not differ markedly in the richness of (potato) beetle eaters, the evenness of predators differed drastically. Organic fields … had far greater evenness than those where pesticides were applied regularly.”
What happens when evenness increases what Crowder called a “powerful trophic cascade,” resulting in fewer potato-munching beetles and larger potato plants. in layman’s terms, that means 18% lower pest densities and 35% larger plants. And bigger plants generally mean greater potato yields.
Evenness is really another word for balance, even though the struggle to stymie the power of agribusiness and unfair land distribution remains a grossly uneven one. But as Crowder pointed out in nature, “What our study suggests is that organic agriculture is promoting these more balanced natural enemy communities and they may have better, organic pest control.”