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Food security initiatives from the South

Is the "International Community" really willing to support food security initiatives from the South?


by Karla Jacobs

The "international community" (namely, rich country governments and the multilateral international organizations they dominate) succeeded in demonstrating its unwillingness to resolve the global majority's severe food insecurity during the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) summit in Rome. Meanwhile in Latin America a number of progressive governments, including the Sandinista FSLN government in Nicaragua, are taking steps to reverse the state of nutritional insecurity imposed on most countries in the region. The initiatives being undertaken by President Daniel Ortega's government in Nicaragua reflect the recommendations made recently by the UN High Level Task Force on the global food crisis, recommendations subsequently taken up in the final declaration of the FAO summit. It remains to be seen, however, whether the international élite will allow such programs to succeed.

It is hard not to feel dismayed by the extent of the hypocrisy expressed at the FAO summit (World Food Security: the challenges of climate change and bioenergy, Rome, Jun. 3 - 5) by rich nation diplomats and their (perhaps to some extent reluctant) accomplices in the UN, World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

While World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that "without fast action, this crisis will steal the potential of a generation," (1) UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said "today's problems will only grow larger if we do not act now," neither of these two most influential men pushed at the summit for a comprehensive timeframe within which the recommendations made in the final declaration should be implemented.

During their speeches to the plenary and subsequent comments to the press, both Zoellick and Ban Ki-moon, along with FAO Director General Jacques Diouf, World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy and US Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, insisted that doubling global food production over the next few decades would help to guarantee global food security. None of them bothered to mention, however, that according to the FAO, the world already produces enough food to feed itself twice over, (2) or that the three fold increase in global food production registered between 1961 and 2007 has not helped to reduce levels of malnutrition significantly in the world's poorest countries. (3)

One can be relatively confident in assuming that figures like Robert Zoellick, Pascal Lamy, Ed Schafer and other rich nation representatives enjoyed excessive influence in drafting the summit's final declaration. So it was no suprise that the document not only failed to include a specific timeframe, but also failed to commit rich nations to eliminate or reduce agricultural subsidies. There was no commitment to take concrete steps towards mitigating the effects of climate change for which they are mainly responsible nor did those countries undertake to suspend or reduce biofuel production or donate resources to finance the recommendations made in the same document. (4)

Considering the severity of the current global food crisis and the unquestionable role multi million dollar agricultural subsidies for export crops in rich nations, carbon dioxide emission triggered climate change and largescale biofuel production have played in creating and exacerbating that crisis, the declaration's final pledge, "to eliminate hunger and to secure food for all today and tomorrow," seems tragically unrealistic.

Ziegler: summit a "true scandal"

According to Jean Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the UN Human Rights Commission, the outcome of the summit is a "true scandal: private interests have been imposed over the [global] common interest. The decisions taken in Rome may even provoke an increase in levels of hunger around the world." (5) Representatives of the International NGO/CSO Planning Committee's simultaneous forum "Terra Preta" (fertile earth), concluded that the Rome declaration "will not fill even one empty plate." (6)

Interestingly the loudest voices of objection from within the plenary hall were Latin American. During the final plenary session the Argentinian delegate criticized the lack of concrete measures in the final declaration and came to the conclusion that "if one diagnoses a problem incorrectly, one will not prescribe a suitable remedy, which is what has happened at this summit." (7) This comment sparked a series of fierce criticisms from other Latin American delegates, representatives of more progressive leftwing governments.

Progressive government delegates object final declaration

The Venezuelan delegate said he "deeply regretted ... the lost opportunity to fight against this scourge. ... Hunger in the world is a structural problem," he said, "resulting from patterns of distribution and consumption." The Nicaraguan delegate said she had hoped for a "more realistic" declaration not one which failed to reflect the "fundamental contributing factors of this crisis." For the Cuban delegate the declaration represents the "lack of political will from the North to put a definitive end to hunger in the world." Delegates from Ecuador and Bolivia also spoke out against the general lack of committment in the final document before the plenary chairperson said he could not allow any more interventions.

If one takes a brief look at the type of food security measures being implemented by the governments these delegates represent, it becomes clear that, unlike rich nation and international financial/trade organization delegates, they actually do have a moral leg to stand on during forums like the FAO summit in Rome.

In Venezuela, the state owned food distribution company PDVAL plays a crucial role in ensuring internal food security by buying basic goods directly from producers or importers and distributing them across the country at fixed prices, thus reducing the negative impact of hoarding and speculation. Simultaneously, the government subsidized food chain, Mercal, provides the most impoverished sectors of society with access to basic products at substantially discounted rates.

In Cuba the success of food production and distribution policies implemented over the last 50 years by the country's revolutionary government have resulted in "remarkably low percentages of child malnutrition," according to the FAO nutrition country profile, which put Cuba "at the forefront of developing countries." (8)

While reading through the FAO summit's final declaration and listening to the speeches of rich nation diplomats, specifically that of US Agricultural Secretary Ed Schafer, anyone familiar with government policy in Nicaragua will be struck by the correlation between many of measures recommended to combat hunger in developing countries and the sort of agricultural and rural economic policies the Sandinista government has been implementing in Nicaragua.

Among the UN High Level Task Force recommendations were to "boost smallholder farmer food production through an urgent injection of key inputs (seeds and fertilizers) in time for this year's planting seasons." Schafer echoed this idea in his address to the plenary: "our approach is to support the rapid increase of production and availability of key staple foods in developing countries ... and access to rural credit and livelihood programs for farming families."

Zero interest loans for small farmers

The Ortega government has been successful is providing zero interest rate material loans (certified seeds and fertilizers) for over 177,000 smallholder farmers to produce basic grains this year. The loans will be repayable with agricultural produce at harvest time.

The Rome summit final declaration underlined the importance of developing countries increasing their stock capacity and implementing food distribution networks to guarantee access to basic products for the most impoverished sectors of society. Schafer also underlined the need for "investment in distribution networks and storage facilities."

Food for the People program

The Nicaraguan government is currently working on the reactivation of the ENABAS (National Basic Food Company) warehouses nationwide as part of their program ("Food for the People"). Over the last year and a half ENABAS has been working to incoporate as many smallholder farmers and agricultural cooperatives as possible into the government program. In November 2007 it was reported that ENABAS had signed agreements with over 50,000 smallholder farmers and 72 agricultural cooperatives to buy basic grains and other basic food products at fixed rates. ENABAS distributes the produce bought from local farmers directly to the community supervised points of sale in impoverished neighborhoods and communities which are being set up across the country, where they are sold on to the population at below market rates.

In the FAO summit final declaration it was stated: "We support the development of agricultural systems and sustainable forest management practises that positively contribute to the mitigation of climate change and ecological balance." Here it is worth mentioning two Nicaraguan government initatives which should warrant the support of those countries that signed the final declaration; the "Zero Hunger program" and the "National Reforestation Cruzade."

Zero Hunger Program

The "Zero Hunger" program, which is coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAGFOR) is essentially the widespread implementation of a model pioneered by the Nicaraguan NGO CIPRES during the last decade or so. This model constitutes a realistic, ecologically friendly, integrated proposal for the revival of impoverished campesino families' productive capacity so they can again become self sufficient in food production and sell surplus basic food products locally. The model is adjusted to the economic, social and environmental realities of rural Nicaragua today.

Those families chosen to participate in the program are awarded a food production package which includes a pregnant cow, a pregnant sow, chickens, a cockerel, seeds, fruit trees, endangered forestry species saplings, a gray water filter (which recycles soapy or dirty water so it can be reused for irrigation), a biodigestor (which produces cooking gas from animal dung thus eliminating the damaging effects of firewood usage on the environment and on human health) and other essential tools and materials. The goods are registered exclusively in the name of female campesinas who must commit to producing food, reforesting part of their land and to not selling on anything from the original production package.

The government's aim is to integrate 75,000 smallholder farming families into the "Zero Hunger" program before 2012. Last year MAGFOR gave out 13,000 food production packages. MAGFOR is on course to award 14,537 packages during 2008.

National Reforestation Crusade

When the Sandinista (FSLN) government came to power in January 2007 a National Reforestation Crusade was announced. Some reports estimate that over 60% of Nicaragua's forests have been destroyed during the last fifty years. The crusade aims to mitigate the devastating effects of massive deforestation during recent decades on the local environment, the livelihood of the most vulnerable sectors of the population, on public health and on the national economy. It is important to note that the vast majority of the timber felled in Nicaragua is exported by multinational companies and therefore leaves little to no economic benefit behind it.

The initial aim of the National Reforestation Crusade's for the five year governmental period (2007 – 2012) was to reforest 300,000 hectares, or 60,000 hectares a year. Despite falling significantly short of these perhaps unrealistic initial aims, the FSLN government was able to reforest an area five times larger (14,000 hectares) than the average area reforested by previous governments during the last forty years (2,333 hectares).

The National Reforestation Crusade is supervised by the the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR) in coordination with other state institutions and local governments which promote and facilitate the participation of members of the general population including school and university pupils and members of the recently established Councils of Citizen Power.
Finally the FAO summit final declaration stated that "South-South cooperation must be encouraged," and that considering the "urgent need to help developing countries expand agriculture and food production, all relevant organizations and cooperating countries should be prepared to assist countries, on their request, to put in place the revised policies and measures to help farmers, particularly small scale producers."


Could OPEC subsidize HIPC agriculture?

On Jun. 2 President Ortega announced that members of his government and his Honduran counterpart Manuel Zelaya's government are currently working on an initiative to request funding, in the form of discounted rates on the importation of oil and other petroleum derived products from OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), to invest in the agricultural sectors of the world's poorest countries (including those countries involved in the World Bank's Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative) as part of an effort to encourage food sovereignty in these countries.

The idea behind this initiative came from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who, during a recent OPEC conference, insisted that a mechanism to subsidize oil exports to the world's poorest countries must be found. During a subsequent meeting between Chavez and Ortega it was agreed to take the idea further and incorporate it into an initiative to increase food security in the most impoverished regions of the world. Ortega and Zelaya are in the process of contacting the governments of the poorest countries of Latin America and Africa and representatives of international organizations to consult their proposal.

Grass-roots rural workers organizations and cooperatives in Nicaragua welcome the Sandinista government's agricultural policy priorities aimed at rapidly increasing food production and boosting consumption among the country's most vulnerable socio-economic sectors. But it is far from clear whether the diplomats and officials who drafted the FAO Summit's final declaration on June 5 will back initiatives like that of Presidents Zelaya and Ortega. It remains to be seen how far US and European governments will go to defend their corporate agribusiness interests in the region against moves to consolidate Latin American integration processes in defence of the region's peoples.

*************

Karla writes for tortillaconsal.com

Notes

(1) All quotes from speeches and addresses at the FAO summit taken from http://www.fao.org/foodclimate/conference/statements/en/

(2) Information about global agricultural production levels can be found at http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx

(3) Information about fluctuations in the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty can be found at http://www.fao.org/faostat/foodsecurity/MDG/MDG-Goal1_en.pdf

(4) FAO Summit Final Declaration can be read at http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/foodclimate/HLCdocs/declaration-E.pdf

(5) "The FAO Summit is Rome was a total failure," interview with Jean Ziegler by Laura Marzouk, Le Monde,
http://archives.lemonde.fr/organisations-internationales/article/2008/06/06/congres-de-la-fao-a-rome-un-echec-total-pour-jean-ziegler_1054589_3220.html

(6) "Cumbre de la FAO fue un fracaso ..."
http://www.cooperativa.cl/p4_noticias/site/artic/20080605/pags/20080605065300.html

(7) Quotes from Latin American delegates taken from http://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/30929

(8) FAO Nutrition Country Profile http://www.fao.org/ag/agn/nutrition/cub-e.stm

(9) Information about the Nicaraguan government's Zero Hunger programme can be found at
http://www.magfor.gob.ni/webppa/index.html

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