On an empty stomach
November 20, 2011
Moniza Inam explores the policy factors which have turned many a farmer’s life upside down, depriving him of his crop, and even two square meals a day
Allah Dino, a farmer residing in a southern district of Sindh, owned a medium-size farm where he cultivated various cash and food crops. On a small patch of this farm, he also grew vegetables for his own consumption and at times he would barter these.
From this produce, he saved some for his family and the next year’s cultivation. His wife kept hens, goats and a cow to fulfil their dairy and protein needs and they lived a relatively happy and contented life.
Over the last decade, he was asked to use certified seeds and unlike the indigenous varieties, these crops needed excessive water, fertilisers and insecticides. Using the modern techniques, he says, eventually his land began losing its fertility. The inputs used to farm these crop species were expensive and with declining productivity from loss of fertility, he soon found himself in debt. After last year’s flood, his crop yield was destroyed and he went bankrupt.
Left without a choice, he had to migrate to Karachi, where he now lives in an empty plot next to a drain and his wife is employed as a domestic helper while his children roam the streets. More often than not, their household income cannot satisfy their family’s appetite and they end up sleeping hungry.
Allah Dino barely understands the policies which changed his life and instead blames it on luck and floods. He is amongst the thousands of farmers, urban poor and landless peasants who face similar conditions and have had their lives turned upside down by policies and interventions beyond their control.
In a rather economic and technical jargon, they are victims of the Structural Adjustment Programme, trade liberalisation, globalisation, privatisation, regulation, climate change, green revolution and genetically modified seeds, amongst others.
Politics of developed against the developing world, multinational corporation greed, protectionism and trade agreements like Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), General Agreement on Trade and Agreement (GATT), World Trade Organisation (WTO), also play a role in engineering systemic hunger.
But as they often say, every cloud has a silver lining; likewise, countless activists and organisations globally are now protesting against such gross injustices and corporate greed and have devised a better concept which is capable of measuring food security, also known as food sovereignty. In a nutshell, food sovereignty is “the right of people, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.
“It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.” –Food sovereignty: a right for all, political statement of the NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty, Rome, June 2002.
With this concept now making its way to Pakistan’s policy discourse, conditions seem rather bleak as the Sustainable Development Policy Institute’s (SDPI) report on food crisis suggests that nearly 48.6 per cent of the population lacks food security. This scenario presents a Herculean challenge for development experts given that Pakistan is an agrarian country, and supposedly, ‘food self-sufficient’ for that reason.
Explaining the correlation between food sovereignty and hunger in Pakistan, Najma Sadeque, Director of the Green Economics Initiative, Shirkat Gah, (which focuses on globalisation issues and ecological agriculture, especially for women), says, “Hunger and malnutrition were not endemic in South Asia in pre-independence times. Even landless rural people had customary access to land to fulfil family food needs. British colonisers brought mass hunger and malnutrition to the subcontinent—24 famines during their stint here! The best lands were forced under selected crops to feed their Industrial Revolution.
“When peasants are deprived of land or a say in what they grow, they lose their sovereignty and fundamental rights.” This loss has affected over a billion people the world over. It’s the new internal colonisation—local oppressors replacing or acting on behalf of long-gone foreign ones,” adds Sadeque.
Different environmental, socio-structural, cultural, governance and economic reasons contribute to the constraints which the agriculture sector faces. Amongst cultural factors, there is long-standing structural discrimination in the farming sector against small farmers. Governance and policy fiascos, including economic liberalisation, have reduced the capacity to support small scale food producers and make them extremely dependent on market economy.
Another phenomenon is landlessness, the concentration of land in the hands of few individuals, institutions or corporate entities. As the government has not invested adequately in agriculture and implementation of redistributive land reforms, socio-structural problems are aggravated by policy and governance failures. Incompetent governance has failed to promote sustainable model of production which has intensified land grabbing, commercialisation of natural resources, loss of common properties and forced eviction of vulnerable groups and rural to urban migration.
Furthermore, farmers are, on the one hand, steadily losing income due to the high input costs and, on the other hand, due to price volatility their purchasing power has been compromised. Also, climate change is threatening the already fragile eco system by frequent flooding, droughts and irregular precipitation patterns. Last but nor the least, corporate farming is increasing water and sea pollution affecting the livelihoods of the peasants and fishermen.
Marginalisation and social injustice are caused directly by rulers and vested interests, says Sadeque. Governments can remove them if they genuinely want to. Global hunger and extreme inequality did not occur because people brought it upon themselves. “It happened because governments, whether by design or ignorance, introduced policies that caused deprivation by enriching the few,” she adds.
“Large-scale industrial chemical monoculture has degraded most of the world’s farmlands. The UN concedes only traditional organic practices can repair the damage. The previous government introduced corporate farming—lease of thousand-acre blocs to foreign investors was allowed to repatriate all output and profits without tax in the first decade. By then the soil would have been done to death. Instead of the present government abandoning this policy and redistributing land amongst the landless, it has gone along with the instituted practice wholeheartedly.
“Even the media fails to highlight agriculture as the most indispensable sector in the world, historically providing employment to two-thirds of populations—the sole source of food and essential raw materials,” says Sadeque.
“Local priorities come before global,” she emphasises, “Before catering to global financial and trade interests, and feudalism disguised as capitalism, countries have to fulfil their own people’s needs. That’s what governments are elected for—not to make a buck for themselves and their cronies,” concludes Sadeque.
Note: Please see the attachments for further information about the issues of food crisis and need for food sovereignty.