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« Global Partnership on Food and Agriculture: Where Is It Going? | Main | Joined at the Hip: The Food and Financial Crises »

February 06, 2009

This is what colonialism looks like

When I landed in Geneva for a conference in mid-November, after the usual grueling 35 hours or so of travel from Adelaide, one of my first treats was to order a "renversé" (Genevois for café au lait) and to sit down to read the Financial Times, one of my favorite papers. It arrives in Adelaide so late and so expensive that I rarely get to indulge off-line. The story that grabbed my attention, and clearly that of the FT's editors as well, was about Madagascar. The South Korean firm, Daewoo, was announcing a deal with the government of Madagascar that would give the firm a 99-year lease on half the country's arable land. The proposal was that for no money at all, Daewoo would get the land to grow crops for the South Korean market (primarily maize and palm oil). Labor would be imported rather than local. And Madagascar would get to keep Daewoo's investment in the infrastructure needed to bring the production to port for export. 

I was shocked. Not into silenceI could hardly talk to anyone in the following weeks without bringing up the story. But shocked nonetheless, and at many levels. What of food production? Madagascar was and continues to be in misery, with an estimated 20 million people who are poor, hungry and, increasingly, angry. (That leaves about 40,500 people with enough to live well. Some, inevitably, live very well). What of the people who lived on or from that land? What of the need to create local employment? What were the implications of building infrastructure to service exports rather than local markets? What right does an elected (and contested) government have to sign anything away for 99 years?
More than one person I talked to shook their head sorrowfully and said, "Well, the country probably needs the money." But what kind of investment was this anyway? The land could be outright sold and perhaps generate more for the government. And surely there are 1,001 ways that an investment in land could both make a profit for the investor and meet some of the local priorities, like increasing access to food, creating local jobs, and strengthening the national economy through decreased dependence on food imports.

Earlier this week, I caught a new story about the situation in Madagascar. Law and order is breaking down as a political crisis drags on. Between 40 and 100 people are thought to have been killed in the violence. Madagascar's problems are not all related to land grabs, but it is hard to imagine that a government that rules thanks to a High Court decision after a hotly contested election (yes, it happens in other countries, too) thinks it can sign away half the country's arable land and win over the half of the country that liked the other guy better.

The panic triggered by the rapid and dramatic price increases in most agricultural commodity markets over about a year, from mid-2007 to last July, prompted quite a few wealthier countries to look around for land beyond their shores on which to grow more food. The NGO GRAIN has kept track, and their briefing on the subject includes an annex that lists more than 100 recent contracts for land. 

I don't know how the trend can be stopped. The breakdown in accountable politics is deep and in some countries will be hard to uproot. Many of the governments involved will likely ignore any attempt to set even guidelines at the multilateral level. But at the least, guidelines might offer governments that did want to do better a chance to join in some collective thinking on what kinds of agriculture investment make sense, versus those that are profoundly exploitative. Looking ahead, our immediate future offers us depleted soils, exhausted aquifers and ever less certain rains, coupled with a population of people living with hunger that has started once again to increase after several decades of shrinking. Surely we can hope these circumstances might prompt at least some governments to act? And not by signing away the land their people need to survive.
Governments just got home from Madrid and a follow-up UN meeting on the global food crisis. The verdict was lukewarmIATP had this to say; La Via Campesina released this statement. Some are disappointed; others relieved that (from their perspective) the situation was not worsened. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, just published his statement. The statement notes that the summary by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, embraced the right to food as a mechanism for "analysis, action and accountability." Hooray! The Special Rapporteur provides a much stronger framework for realizing this goal than the governments agreed to in Madrid. His summary focuses on four points: The importance of national strategies for the realization of the right to food; the need to transform trade into a tool against hunger; the need to redress violations of labor rights in the agricultural sector; and, the need to protect the rights of landusers. 

In making that final point, Dr. de Schutter writes: "The questions of rights on the land and of responsible governance of land resources should therefore be central to the efforts of the international community to provide sustainable answers to the current challenges." Precisely. I hope the governments of South Korea and Madagascar, as well as Daewoo's Board of Directors and shareholders, are listening.
Last year was a wake-up call for food and agriculture. Those of us who collectively have been talking about a food revolution for decades need to use that momentum. The worldgovernments, local communities, farmer organizations, investors and agribusinessesneeds to sit down and rethink food and agriculture. It is not that we cannot do it: yes we can. What we cannot do is continue with business as usual. It won't be as profitable for some (frankly, I categorize as obscene the amount of money some companies made out of last year's hunger). And it won't be a local food system utopia, either. But it will move us closer to something that is healthier, fairer and more stable.

Sophia Murphy


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