Tag Archives: peasant farmers

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 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.

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 Free Houses No One Wants

17 Feb
Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

There’s a short video making the rounds of some websites that focus on development aid. It was made by the Institute for Development Studies and takes the viewer into a house in Chiapas, one of a few hundred, built by the state government in what their planners are calling a ‘Pueblo Rural Sustentable,’ or rural sustainable town.

This particular sustainable town was called Santiago El Pinar and, according to Proceso magazine, cost almost 400 million pesos — or about $27 million — to erect.  And in the words of the Chiapas government’s Institute of Rural Cities, the idea is “ to concentrate dispersed localities and faciltiate the provision of quality basic services and productive alternatives with dignified and paid jobs.”

The idea behind these towns is to bring indigenous peasant farmers, among the poorest in Mexico, out of their villages and into a central spot where there are proper roads, a school, a cooperative and a clinic. It’s not a terrible idea and the houses, painted in different colours, look nice perched on the ridge where they have been placed. The only problem is: they’re cheap and badly constructed, and the families who got them are leaving them in droves.

According to reports in the Mexican press, some families were willing to live in these houses despite the fact that they were still hauling water from a nearby stream and walking several miles to cultivate their bits of farmland.

I spent a fair amount of time in rural villages in 1994, the year the Zapatistas caught the world’s attention, and saw lots of rural houses. They were made with adobe, in general, or wood slats, with thatched roofs and were rather dark and basic. Sometimes a separate kitchen was built beside the house, which would be just a  thatched, open pavilion structure with an area to build a fire and cook. Chickens and pigs wandered around at will, and bathroom facilities, in other words a pit latrine, were rare indeed.

So  house with a corrugated metal roof, glass windows, a bathroom and a kitchen with a gas hook-up and running water would represent quite a change. But it’s a change that has proven to be ephemeral and raises some interesting issues.

Among them are: how can residents pay for gas and electricity if they are poor?  Why build them with cheap materials — like, in this case, plasterboard, when, in fact, adobe is perfectly good and durable? And if these peasants had money and these houses were offered for sale, instead of being free, would any of them  actually want to buy one? Would any of the city-bound planners in Tuxtla Gutierrez or Mexico City ever buy one, for example? And finally, what does the entire plan tell us abut how people with good intentions approach the whole notion of housing the poor?

I have lately been doing some research into the latter question, in the context of Haiti. It strikes me as interesting that organizations like Architects for Humanity have databases of useful and well-designed structures, created by professionals who are interested in innovation and at the same time recognize that the people who will use their structures need to have a say in what ends up getting built.  Or that organizations like the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India have designed apartments that were lofty, well-lit and inexpensive to build. And yet, when it comes to the majority of housing that is actually built for the poor, one tends to see the same thing: nicely painted (sometimes) shoe boxes, whether assembled into apartment buildings or laid out in rows, that become ramshackle in a matter of months. Or 25 square metre plywood huts that become ovens in the hot sun. The paint wears off, the material warps, the roofs leak, the drains don’t work, the electricity gets cut off and there’s nowhere to build a fire for cooking. In short, things begin to fall apart — sometimes in a matter of months. And then you have – tada! — what’s known as a slum.

If you are living in a tent, or a thatch-roofed adobe hut, these houses may look pretty nice. But if given a chance to specify what is needed and what is preferred, probably no one would want to live in one of them.

So in Chiapas, where two such Pueblos have been assembled, and five more are planned – all as part of the Millennium Development Goals apparently — a lot of money is going down the drain and the poor are no better off.

It’s not hard to set up a consultation process with poor communities, to give them the construction material  they want and get them to build themselves — after all, they have already built the houses they live in now — or to think about how they will pay for electricity. It just requires that governments and international bodies respect the poor, rather than seeking political gain — in the case of the former — or checking a box on a list — in the case of the latter.



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.

A stupid, ill-conceived and pernicious plan…

9 Jul

On the road to development?

A recent article in the New York Times about a new industrial zone in northern Haiti has inspired me to write something myself about the country’s notorious apparel industry.

Last May I spoke to the director of an International Labour Organization program called Better Work, mostly just to get some background on this controversial source of employment. Better Work doesn’t advocate for better wages and working conditions, as I had thought. Rather, it carries out twice yearly surveys of conditions in the factories in three existing industrial parks, two in the capital and one in Ouanaminthe, as stipulated by the U.S. act that allows in Haitian-assembled textile products free of the usual tariff. The current act, called HOPE II — for Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement — is an indication of a long-standing thesis that the overall cure to Haiti’s problems is to get peasant farmers and their families to abandon their tiny plots of land and pick up a salaried job instead.

Cheap labour plus the ability to export products tariff-free into the world’s largest market equals a competitive edge over other nations with low-cost labour. It means Haitian companies can offer an attractive package to foreign companies like Levis, Hanes or Montreal-based Gildan Activewear, to name only a few, assembling their clothing for them and shipping it to the U.S.

But right now, those companies and their Haitian contractors have a problem: a global economic recession that means that not enough consumers are buying their products. This hasn’t stopped the kind of people I consider pathological altruists from insisting that Haiti needs more textile assembly plants, whether they actually foster working-class prosperity or not. Nor has the fact that the 26 existing apparel factories in Haiti — down from about 80 in the late 80s/early 90s — are apparently having problems receiving enough orders.

And so, as part of U.S. post earthquake reconstruction efforts, a new factory complex is being set up in the north, near a town called Caracol. The plan garnered some harsh scrutiny in the Times, and is well worth a read. The article describes how, defying logic, a square mile of fertile farmland in a coastal area previously scheduled for environmental protection because of its vulnerable mangrove forests and reefs was chosen, its 366 peasant farmers paid to leave their lots and to dream big. Fulltime jobs and 365-square-foot houses were on their way!

A Korean firm called Sae-A Trading, which makes over $1 billion a year supplying clothing to retailers like Wal-mart and Gap Inc., is moving in. It will apparently kick in $39 million (compared to an estimated $224 million in US taxpayer subsidies) and has pledged to hire 20,000 workers. It will get housing for its workers, a port, and a special heavy-oil-burning power plant to generate a steady supply of electricity, all for free. For the U.S. power brokers who imposed the deal on Haiti, moreover, the fact that Sae-A has a bit of a nasty history with their former workers in Guatemala was immaterial.

And so is the reality of the entire history of cheap-labour enclaves in other parts of Haiti, the glaring picture of poverty their presence has done absolutely nothing to mitigate.

That’s why my interview with Better Work was so interesting.

Until 2009, a day in a textile plant earned a Haitian worker the equivalent of $1.75 or 70 gourdes.  Then-president Rene Preval wanted to raise that to 200 gourdes, but sector bosses cried foul, saying that because they used a quota system — whereby workers had to finish so many pieces a day — this meant that they would in fact have to pay more and they had already agreed to contracts with their foreign buyers calculating the lower rate. The Haitian government said, ‘OK, the minimum wage will be $3, or 125 gourdes, and if a worker fulfils his or her quota, they’ll get the $5.’ (In 2010, the minimum went up to $5 — and to $6 if quotas are filled.)

But according to Better Work, only 22 per cent of workers manage to actually do so in an 8-hour day. That means they are working 9 or 10 hours to get their six bucks.

“It’s not so much that targets are set too high,” said my Better Work contact, “they are probably a little bit too high, but it’s more that the workers arrive at work after not sleeping well. They live in houses that are very hot, they have no electricity or fans; there is a lot of noise, a lot of discomfort. They must be (at the plant) at 6:30 and some walk, some take two or even three tap-taps; some do not eat breakfast, some have one meal per day, so they are not properly fed. They do not drink much water and often this water is not clean. The factories are very hot and the machines are old. Only a few factory managers invest in new equipment, so most of the machines are bad quality.”

He offered other details that fill in the despairing picture of the life of the average industrial park worker. Only a few of the plants — most of which employ 1000 each — has a cafeteria. Instead, workers get an hour to sit in the searing sun by the side of the street to eat their lunch. There are a few areas with benches and trees but many workers don’t want to use them because they don’t want their co-workers want to see that they have brought nothing but some boiled spaghetti to eat.

And he told me about one plant that tried to comply with the Haitian labour law that allows nursing mothers an hour off to breastfeed their babies, but stopped when eight babies were left behind because their anonymous mothers couldn’t afford to keep them.

Yet, for people like Bill and Hilary Clinton, not to mention hundreds of foreign government bureaucrats, this is the right road to take towards development. Investments in industry — as opposed to, say, land reform and agricultural assistance — are to be not only encouraged but celebrated.

Caracol will simply join the ranks of exploitative workplaces where wages are a mere step up from starvation. It will pollute the bay on which it is built and ruin the tiny remnants of a local fishing industry. It will destroy the environment, as much as the souls of its workers, and contaminate the air with its noxious fuel-burning power plant.

And the only way it will ever provide jobs to 20,000 workers is by gutting the business of existing factories in a place where post-earthquake construction really is needed.

So it is a stupid, ill-conceived and pernicious plan. But sometimes it seems there is no use arguing common sense to a foreign person who thinks he — or she — knows what’s best for Haiti. And as so often when I looked at foreign projects landed like aliens from outer space into a nation few understand or want to, I can’t help but wonder who exactly is supposed to benefit? Because when it comes to Caracol, the clear winner is Sae-A Trading. And the losers, yet again, are the people of Haiti.