Tag Archives: Senegal food security

Maritime Disaster 2.0

19 Apr

Photo by Yannick Garcin

It has not been easy, I admit, to link the two main things that have been on my mind over the past week: the media preoccupation with all things Titanic and the invasion of factory trawlers in Atlantic waters along the west coast of Africa.

The Titanic docs have been both awful and fascinating – with bad metaphors, stuff we already knew and use of  the word ‘fateful’ spun into overdrive. Last week, even the New Yorker ran a big feature on our ongoing obsession with the tragedy and kept me occupied during at least half my flight to Mexico. But with all of this commemoration/exploitation there has come a kind of anxiety, a depressing sensation of knowing how it all ends. All those new anecdotes, photos or scientific explanations that seem to have been dug up especially to herald this dreadful anniversary — it doesn’t matter.

The real and overwhelming ‘take-away’ of the story of the Titanic is not fascinating. It’s hugely messed up and horrific. It’s the hundreds and hundreds of people left to drown in frigid waters in the middle of the night because no-one insisted on there being enough lifeboats on board. And that most of them were poor.

Almost nobody, meanwhile, has paid any attention to another maritime disaster, the unfolding tragedy off the coast of Africa. It’s a sad tale of hapless fishermen in wooden pirogues sinking deeper into poverty as ocean liner-sized behemoths scoop up anything with a fin within miles of coastline running from Morocco to Sierra Leone.

One of the countries affected is Senegal. I recall how surprised I was when I went there a few years ago, and learned that its two main sources of national revenue were ground nuts and fish.

Groundnuts and fish? How could any country run itself on ground nuts and fish, I asked an economist one afternoon at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar – a question, I noticed, that only seemed to elicit a sort of irritated sigh. “Well, it does,” he said.

But now their catch is down by a massive 75 percent, according to the Guardian, as European Union ships, subsidized by the taxpayer to the tune of a billion euros a year, take in “235,000 tonnes of pelagic species and tens of thousands of tonnes of other species” annually.

And it’s not just Senegal that is suffering. The FAO estimates that 1.5 million local fishermen in several nations are sunk in this dilemma, unable to compete with the trawlers from developed nations from around the world. Some companies have purchased contracts to fish from African governments, but an equal number are apparently pirate ships, in their waters without permission.

And speaking of pirates, the collapse of the East African fishing grounds is cited by many – although some organizations refute this – as the source of actual piracy. In Somalia, the falling apart of government and the invasion of bigger, better equipped fishing boats left many fishermen with nothing much else to do but join the dangerous and well-armed gangs prowling for another kind of fish —  sailors for whose lives they demand million-dollar ransoms.

But if all that were not serious enough, the real potential tragedy – the conclusion I can just see coming – is the utter depletion of yet another series of fish stocks. The rabid greed for sea life, the paradoxical situation whereby, for example, half of Britain’s North Sea catches are thrown back dead because they are not the right species, is set to destroy our oceans.

Worst of all, there seems little average people can do about it. Who knows the context out of which the fish we see for sale on supermarket beds of ice came? How long will it take for the Japanese, to name just one super egregious example, to heed the international approbation and stop killing whales and dolphins because they just feel like it? What happens to all that fish anyway? Does it get eaten, or does a lot of it get thrown away?

It’s like we’re all stepping up the gangplank of the Titanic assuming that the people who have the power to do things also know what they’re doing, that they’ve thought about the possibility of looming disaster. For humans and their oceans, however, looming disaster may be just another ‘fateful’ plot twist we are, yet again, powerless to stop.

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.