Sunday, April 24, 2011

'we export food in order to import food'

The price rises in global food has prompted certain countries to seek cheap and fertile farmland beyond their borders in order to guarantee food security for themselves. To achieve this goal such states are encouraging their domestic agro-businesses, tied to their national interests, to invest in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, Tanzania and Argentina, to name a few. Capital invested in far-away farms will produce food cheaply, which will then be exported back to the country where the original capital came from. In this way, the volatility of the international food market can be avoided and national food security achieved. It is important to point out that some of these include states with dreadful human rights records such as Saudi Arabia.

To accomplish this goal, a key step is to convince developing nations to give up their fertile land to foreign investors. One of the baits designed for the purpose of persuasion is the promise of infrastructure and the sharing of information and technology in agricultural science. The other promise made to host nations is of capital gained from food exports, which can then be reinvested in the country. For underdeveloped countries, who face serious food insecurity, and who are often unable to feed their population, this may sound too good to pass by.

The government of Ethiopia promises this process will mitigate the nation's chronic food insecurity and allow domestic farmers to gain knowledge from the expertise of foreign agro-business. It also says dollars gained form exporting food can alleviate Ethiopia's endemic food crises. In Ethiopia, hundreds of foreign investors grabbing fertile land at incredibly low cost. The scale of the spree is unprecedented. Investors are describing the deal as 'green gold'. Ethiopia's untilled land, located in some of the most fertile parts of the country, is now being sold to foreign interests for less than its true worth. Foreign investors are given perks, tax holidays lasting years, and essentially they are exempt from any royalties. According to the government, these lands given to foreign investors were idle lands, ready to be gobbled up into the global food system without much disturbance. However, this view depends on one's definition of 'idle land'. Pastureland may seem idle, but its usefulness is undeniable. In an effort to rush through this controversial issue unimpeded, the government has sought to bypass all transparency. It is fully aware that an open discussion on the issue would expose the absurdities of its claim. Deals with foreign investors were approved backhandedly for this reason.

Although this issue of land-grabbing by foreign interests is new to Ethiopia, it is no stranger to other parts of the developing world. The history of foreign agro-business intrusion in some Latin American and Caribbean countries is enlightening to say the least. In northeastern Brazil, the region was extensively farmed by foreign agricultural interests for centuries. Unfortunately this region has nothing to show for it now. Today the region is the poorest part of the country with the least food security and one of the highest malnutrition rates in Latin America. Contrary to the promises made by companies that farmed Brazil's fertile soil, the outcome has been very grim. In his famous book 'Open Veins of Latin America', Eduardo Galliano, commenting on Brazil's northeast, says, 'Naturally fitted to produce food, it became a place of hunger. Where everything had bloomed exuberantly, the destructive and all dominating plantation left sterile rock, washed out soil, and eroded lands.' Are Ethiopia's own fertile lands headed for the same fate? What makes the current foreign agricultural adventure in Ethiopia any different?

Employment offered by these farms is purported to be a benefit for local communities. Never mind that the main reason why locals seek this work is primarily because the agro-businesses have forced them to abandon their old pastoralist way of life. Take away this option of survival and people are left with no other choice but to accept slave wages working on foreign farms. In a way the agri-business creates the labour surplus for itself and manages to keep wages extremely low. The wage paid to workers, on average about $1.50 (25 Birr) for a day's work, is nowhere near enough to survive without additional food aid. According to a recent documentary, some farm workers in southern Ethiopia complained they were getting paid seven birr per day, instead of the 25 birr initially promised. That is about 50 cents a day in dollar terms. By these estimates the lives of these workers were considerably better before the introduction of foreign agri-business. Instead of food security, food insecurity is created, perhaps even serious malnutrition. To add insult to injury none of the produce from these farms will be available to local markets. However, there is talk of selling some of the produce to aid agencies. The World Food Program intends to buy some of this grain in order to assist hungry people. Ironically, this group of intended food aid recipients will include those working to produce it in the first place !!

The people of Ethiopia are being asked to believe absurdities such as 'we export food in order to import food' as a viable economic option to guarantee national food security. However, the most basic comprehension of economics tells us this is nearly impossible. Given Ethiopia's dwindling currency exchange, what sense is there in purchasing grain from the international market, while exporting domestic grain? Can exported grain used as a cash-crop generate enough capital to be able to import food affordably and sustainably? If Indian, Saudi, and Chinese companies are extending their reach beyond their national borders to secure national food security for their domestic economy, why can't Ethiopia do this within its own lands?

Taken from here

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