MAMADOU, a rice farmer on an irrigation scheme in Mali, is surrounded by a good harvest but still doesn’t know whether his family will have enough to eat next year. He explains his dilemma. The state owns the land and the harvest, and he knows that ‘they won’t let us die, because they need us to bring in the next harvest too. But they never tell us how much rice they will leave us to live on until they have seen how good the harvest is. Then they decide how much to take for water and taxes. Until the man comes to tell us. no matter how good the harvest is. I never know if I’ll be laughing or crying.’
The prospects of people like Mamadou and his family are better understood by looking at the sharing of their harvests. The result of their farming can be divided into two To begin with, there is the food which a peasant family grows for itself. At first glance, this appears to be outside any economic system. It does not have to be sold or exchanged in any market; the family will eat it. Then there is the food which is appropriated by those who have not grown it, for taxes, rents, and interest on loans.
But this is an artificial division, as Mamadou knows only too well. His family do not sell their surplus crops to support the state. The state takes what it wants first and leaves them with the remainder. So Mamadou and all the other peasant farmers, women and men, are not self-sufficient or outside the economic system. They are integral to a system which gives priority to providing cheap food for the volatile masses of the city slums. For rioting in the marketplace has brought down governments.
If the state needs more income, it increases its taxes so that peasants have to sell more of the food they hoped to eat that year. Or the government can provide subsidies and advice to encourage richer farmers to convert their land to crops like cotton or sugar.
And the authorities can make sure that they collect every penny of their taxes by locating wells near to towns so when herders come to water their animals, all the livestock can at last be counted and the appropriate tax charged.
The problem facing Mamadou’s family is repeated a million times in dozens of countries, To understand it we have to recognize that there is a direct and growing conflict between the state’s demands from rural areas and the needs of those exploited.
Whether we talk of debt, international trade, multinational corporations or inappropriate government policies, it makes little difference to Mamadon. There is a panoply of powers ranged against him. Starting with the landlord in his own village to whom he owes half his harvest. Going through the state marketing board that gives him a poor price for his crops. Right up to the EEC and North America who by subsidising their farmers ensure that world market prices are kept below production costs.
When it comes down to it, the real problem for peasant families is that they are poor and powerless. It is the poor who have been dying in Africa, not the rich. But this reality has been masked by the way discussions on African food self-sufficiency are conducted. If you take national food production figures, divide them by the size of the population and the calculation gives you the magic UN approved figure of 2,339 calories per adult per day,* then food self-sufficiency has apparently been achieved. But in reality the food is not divided up so evenly.
And globally, the issue is the same: there is more than enough food in the world to feed everybody. It simply misses the point to concentrate on overall increases in food production in Africa as a solution for Mamadou’s hungry family.
Africa’s problem is who has access to the food that is grown. African governments are often aware of this issue, but they can do little. They are under pressure to go for the fast solution, the one which statisticians can use to show that nobody is hungry any more.
The World Bank and other major donors still support a version of the ‘trickledown’ theory: ‘targetting those areas where the physical resource base and existing human and physical infrastructure provide the preconditions for rapid payoff from additional investment’.1 In other words, invest in rich farmers for fast results. But the iron laws of poverty dictate that such investment, using high yielding variety seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, ends up being lavished on crops which are then sold to acquire the foreign exchange to pay the World Bank loan, the increasingly expensive chemical inputs, and the food imports.
A detailed village study in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in 1984 showed that it is the poorest 26 per cent of farming households which don’t have enough grain to feed themselves.2 They have poor harvests and lack the money to buy tools and improve their crop yields. Instead, they have to work as labourers to buy the food their families need. Of course this means there is not enough time to farm their own fields properly. Their harvests will get worse and worse. Eventually, they will have to sell their land and subsist by working for richer farmers.
There can be no doubt that this World Bank-led strategy will produce more crops in Africa. But they seem unlikely to end up benefitting farmers like Mamadou and his wives. European and North American agricultural history suggests that the process of ‘modernisation’ will mean the disappearance of most peasant farmers. But whilst rural people flocked to the cities in the North to find jobs, the boom years are behind us. The improved’ agricultural systems of the South are for the most part aiming for a smaller labour force, and there is scant evidence of mushrooming industries in the city willing to employ the landless rural migrants.
While we look with horror at excessive food consumption in the North and famine in the South, the biggest and growing imbalance in consumption is that between the rich and poor citizens of the South itself. The wealthiest 20 per cent of Brazilians now have an income 33 times greater than that of the poorest 20 per cent - the widest income disparity of any country in the world. Unless strategies aimed at food self-sufficiency directly attack such gross injustice they will continue to be irrelevant or positively harmful.
The inevitable conclusion is that the African famine which has so shocked the world has had little to do with drought and much more to do with the way the bulk of rural people are treated.
The final irony of the famine has been the reversal of the usual process: instead of cities depending on the country for food, now we see the rural poor with withered and stunted harvests depending on the urban authorities have only their appearance to tweak the to supply them with imported food. But there compassion of the city. is a crucial difference. The urban areas always have the power to extract more food from the farmers: the starving rural peasants have only their appearance to tweak the compassion of the city.
Nigel Twose worked in Oxfam UK’s West Africa field office from 1979 to 1984.
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