Posted by: Lister | August 31, 2008


George Monbiot:

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis tells the story of the famines that sucked the guts out of India in the 1870s. The hunger began when a drought, caused by El Nino, killed the crops on the Deccan plateau. As starvation bit, the viceroy, Lord Lytton, oversaw the export to England of a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. While Lytton lived in imperial splendour and commissioned, among other extravangances, “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history”, between 12 and 29 million people died(1). Only Stalin manufactured a comparable hunger.

Returning to modern issues, Monbiot reports that Europe sends its fishermen to the waters of poor nations — using Senegal as an example. This puts too much pressure on the local fishing industries. The price of local fish goes up and people who depended on fish get a little more hungry.

[…] The government of Senegal knows this, and in 2006 it refused to renew its fishing agreement with the EU. But European fishermen – mostly from Spain and France – have found ways round the ban.

[…] Mandelson’s office is trying to negotiate economic partnership agreements with African countries. They were supposed to have been concluded by the end of last year, but many countries, including Senegal, have refused to sign. The agreements insist that European companies have the right both to establish themselves freely on African soil, and to receive national treatment. This means that the host country is not allowed to discriminate between its own businesses and European companies. Senegal would be forbidden to ensure that its fish are used to sustain its own industry and to feed its own people. The dodges used by European trawlers would be legalised.

[…] Now we learn that Middle Eastern countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are securing their future food supplies by trying to buy land in poorer nations. The Financial Times reports that Saudi Arabia wants to set up a series of farms abroad, each of which could exceed 100,000 hectares. Their produce would not be traded: it would be shipped directly to the owners. The FT, which usually agitates for the sale of everything, frets over “the nightmare scenario of crops being transported out of fortified farms as hungry locals look on.” Through “secretive bilateral agreements,” the paper reports, “the investors hope to be able to bypass any potential trade restriction that the host country might impose during a crisis.” (9)

Both Ethiopia and Sudan have offered the oil states hundreds of thousands of hectares(10,11). This is easy for the corrupt governments of these countries: in Ethiopia the state claims to own most of the land; in Sudan an envelope passed across the right desk magically transforms other people’s property into foreign exchange(12,13). But 5.6 million Sudanese and 10 million Ethiopians are currently in need of food aid. The deals their governments propose can only exacerbate such famines.

None of this is to suggest that the poor nations should not sell food to the rich. To escape from famine, countries must enhance their purchasing power. This often means selling farm products, and increasing their value by processing them locally. But there is nothing fair about the deals I have described.

There is certainly is talk about the poor nations getting something out of the deal. From the FT:

Khartoum is insisting that investors agree to terms that will yield clear benefits for Sudan.

“It’s not only to take back to their country. Local people will not accept that,” Mr Mohamed said. “It should be very clear in the agreements what proportion of food will remain in Sudan, what other social services they will provide, what new technology they will introduce, the employment they will create and the training for local people.”

Here is Monbiot’s source, though google didn’t turn up the FT itself. Gulfnews, quoting the FT:

Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers or lakes. Rainfall is low and unreliable. Cereals can be cultivated only through expensive projects that deplete underground reservoirs. Dairy cattle must be cooled with fans and machines that spray them with water mists. This is not, in short, a nation that would normally be associated with large-scale agriculture.

But that could be about to change. Boosted by revenues from the oil boom and concerned about food security, the country is scouring the globe for fertile lands in a search that has taken Saudi officials to Sudan, Ukraine, Pakistan and Thailand.

Their plan is to set up large-scale projects overseas that will later involve the private sector in growing crops such as corn, wheat and rice. Once a country has been selected, each project could be in excess of 100,000 hectares – about 10 times the size of Manhattan island – and the majority of the crop would be exported back, officials say.

[…] Food security is firmly behind every plan to invest in agriculture overseas.

[…] For countries rich in cultivable land and water but short of capital, such plans could also make a lot of sense. Wheat fields in Ukraine, for example, yield less than 3,000kg a hectare in spite of some of the world’s most fertile soils and abundant rain. That is well below the US’s yield of about 6,500kg a hectare, achieved in less optimal conditions. But more tractors, a lot more fertiliser, better techniques and higher-yielding seeds could change the situation.

[…] Yet such deals are likely to come at a heavy price for food-producing countries. Through secretive bilateral agreements, the investors hope to be able to bypass any potential trade restriction that the host country might impose during a crisis.

For some policymakers, this evokes the nightmare scenario of crops being transported out of fortified farms as hungry locals look on – although whether vast tracts could be defended in the manner of, say, oil installations, is open to question.

[…] Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, which initially encouraged foreign investment in agriculture as a way to boost global output, are moderating their previous support.

The change is clearly seen in the posture of Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, who initially described state-led foreign investment as a “win-win venture”. Now a spokesperson for the bank says: “This is a situation that could bring real benefits to people in some developing countries, but to be sustainable, land purchase or lease arrangements must benefit, and be seen to benefit, all parties including citizens of the host country, local communities and investors.”

[…] For example, in Sudan – one country targeted by almost all Gulf investors – the World Food Programme, the UN agency that deals with food emergencies, is feeding 5.6 million people. If the investment plans go ahead, Sudan, perversely, could be exporting to rich nations while its own population suffers.

[…] As western officials discuss risks and safeguards, Saudi Arabia and others appear to want to lease land ahead of the next planting season.



  1. Monbiot adds:

    After that column was published, several people wrote to suggest that the problem is worse than I thought. Senegal’s fish crisis is part of a bitterly ironic story.

    As Felicity Lawrence shows in her book Eat Your Heart Out, the people of Senegal have become dependent on fishing partly because of the collapse of farming(2). In 1994, Senegal was forced to remove its trade taxes. This allowed the EU to dump subsidised tomatoes and chicken on its markets, putting its farmers out of business.

    They moved into fishing at about the same time as the European super-trawlers arrived, and were wiped out again. So fishing boats were instead deployed to carry economic migrants out of Senegal.

    Lawrence discovered that those who survive the voyage to Europe are being employed in near-slavery by … the subsidised tomato industry.

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