Monday, February 07, 2011

Food can overthrow a government

Just a couple of years ago, Madagascar went through an overthrow of government that was caused by a lack of food. Half of the country is chronically malnourished despite having enough farm-able land to feed all of the people. The ruling government however was leasing half of that land to the company Daewoo. The people grew tired of seeing food grown for South Koreans instead for themselves and revolted.

From this Christian Science Monitor article that we found at MinnPost, writer Scott Baldauf gives us this background on Madagascar and on other so-called "land-grabs" throughout Africa.
Madagascar looks quite unlike the lush tropical paradise portrayed in the Disney movie of the same name. In the dry season, viewed from a plane at 36,000 feet, the island off the southeast coast of the African mainland looks like a giant plate of potatoes au gratin. Every square inch of the island – an area roughly the size of Texas – is chopped up into small, overlapping, often parched, dust-colored terraced plots.

Farmed for centuries by traditional slash-and-burn techniques, Madagascar's soil is depleted, and the pressure of a growing population – now 19 million – means that farmers must struggle to feed more people with less fertile land.

How large well-funded corporate commercial farms can make a go of land that small subsistence farmers have given up on is a story of 20th-century farming technology and 21st-century venture capital funds. Like the green revolution, which favored those with access to modern tractors and irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and specialized seeds, today's corporate farming groups like Daewoo have the technology and financial backing to make unused land bloom.

Without much of that kind of investment, Madagascar is a net food importer, with 40 to 50 percent of the population, by UNICEF estimates, suffering chronic malnutrition, even during good harvests.

"In some areas, people go without their main food staple, rice, for four to six months," says Patrice Charpentier, project manager for food security at Land O'Lakes, an aid group. "Production is erratic. People don't want to overproduce if they're not sure they can sell it on the market. So they produce just enough to survive."

In an average year, people are able to make do with the rice they have saved up and fruit they find in the wild. But the boom-and-bust period of 2007-08 was no average year. Driven by the pell-mell growth of China and India, which demanded increasing fuel and raw materials, crude oil prices surged upward.

The price spike was a temptation for large agricultural companies to divert corn intended for food staples like cornmeal into more profitable biofuels like ethanol instead. It was classic supply-and-demand economics, and it sparked a land rush to buy up farmland across Africa.

But for the ordinary African consumer, it was a disaster. Corn prices jumped 119 percent from June 2007 to June 2008.

The economic collapse in the United States and much of Europe helped to cool things off, but the sleepy world of African subsistence farming had changed forever: The 21st-century African land rush had begun.

The World Bank estimates that worldwide, 115 million acres of land are leased to foreign investors, and the bulk of that is in Africa. A small sampling of countries targeted by foreign agricultural investors documented in the past five years by the International Food Policy Research Institute includes:

Democratic Republic of Congo: 7 million acres secured by the Chinese firm ZTE to grow oil palm for bio­fuels; and 24.7 million acres offered to the South African farmers' union, AgriSA.

Mozambique: Nearly 250,000 acres secured by the Swedish firm Skebab to produce biofuels.

Tanzania: Nearly 1.25 million acres requested by the Saudi Arabian government for food production; more than 110,000 acres purchased by the British firm CAMS Group for biofuels made from sweet sorghum.

Sudan: 1.7 million acres secured by the South Korean government to grow wheat; nearly 1 million acres secured by US-based Jarch Capital; nearly 75,000 acres secured by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development to grow corn and alfalfa.

Ethiopia: More than 32,000 acres secured by the German firm Flora EcoPower to produce biofuels.

Not all deals are made alike, to be sure. Deals on leased farmland to produce food do manage to create jobs and can also help to transfer state-of-the-art farming skills, such as erosion control, to the local farm-labor force. Deals to grow crops for biofuels sometimes also involve simple refining, which also creates jobs. But many land deals are decidedly one-sided, with all food produced sent away for export

"Setting aside the 'you're selling our land' histrionics," says a Western diplomat who has closely studied Madagascar's agriculture sector, "I think that countries of Africa would benefit from foreign investment by creating low-end jobs, some of it on larger commercial plantations and even some on the small-holder farms."

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