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Black Land, White Land: the right to food

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 179 - January 1988

Nourishing equality

FOOD is essential for life. That makes it the most basic of the five human rights covered in this magazine. But measuring the amount of food that reaches the poor is not easy. UN statistics on food supply, for instance, are misleading - they simply divide the amount of food available in a country (both production and imports) by the population. This gives absolutely no indication of how the food will be shared out. It is a much-trumpeted fact, for instance, that India is now self-sufficient in food. While encouraging in itself this does not mean there are no hungry Indians. On the contrary, the poor and landless there still go hungry because they do not have the money to buy enough food. Meanwhile their government exports 'surplus' grain to other countries for ready cash.

So the most useful yardstick to use in this section is a government's commitment to combatting hunger. Except in emergencies, this does not mean simply distributing a certain amount of available food to the right people. Instead it means dividing land and wealth more fairly so that food can be grown or bought by the poorest members of society who need it most.

Medal winners
Cape Verde
is so tiny that few Western people are even aware of its existence, let alone that it is one of the great success stories among newly independent Third World countries. An archipelago of ten islands lying 400 kilometres off the West African coast, it could hardly have faced a worse situation when it achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. It was afflicted by chronic drought its average annual rainfall is just 200 millimetres, compared with 400 millimetres in the driest parts of Ethiopia and 900 millimetres in Mali. Its unemployment rate of 60 per cent was the world's highest; it imported 20 times more than it exported; and only eight per cent of its land was fit for agriculture.

Since then the transformation has been so dramatic that even Western countries and the World Bank have expressed their approval of (and offered aid to) Cape Verde's one-party Marxist government The Portuguese farmers left immediately after independence and, realizing that drought made land reform impossible for the moment, the Government acted as landowner while mobilizing people to build dams and irrigation channels in a collective effort reminiscent of Maoist China. But, more unusually, it has put as much effort into ecology as into infrastructure, planting millions of new trees in an effort to stop desertification. As a result 7.5 per cent of the country's total land surface has been reforested since 1975.

Resources are still very scarce but they are evenly distributed so that the famines common under the Portuguese are now a thing of the past. Annual rice consumption, for instance, increased from 200 tons in 1974 to 600 tons in 1985. And the Government is now proceeding with the land reform measures that were postponed at independence. Cape Verde's record for meeting the needs of the poor in the face of adversity cannot be matched by any other country in Africa.

As for Zimbabwe, while there is some disappointment that the Mugabe Government has not grasped the nettle of land reform more tightly, on the whole it has the best record on land and food of the major African countries (see feature).

No one could claim that all the inhabitants of Nicaragua have an adequate diet. This is largely because food production continues to be disrupted by the war against the US-backed Contra rebels. But the Sandinista Government has made a priority of growing the staple foodstuffs of the poor, rice production more than doubled between 1977 and 1984 and the bean crop increased by 37 per cent

Votes of censure
In this category more than any other it would be unfair to single out three Third World governments for special criticism this would be tantamount to blaming developing countries alone for the hunger of their people. Of course individual governments can pursue policies which benefit the poorest people in society. But they can only do this if they are prepared to stand firm against enormous pressure from international institutions and Western governments. Any developing country which achieves food self-sufficiency and a prosperous, just society, does so in spite of a global economic system which was constructed for the benefit of the rich world.

Throughout the 1980s the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has operated like an unelected global government. This is because it has the power to dictate to and economic policies they should pursue.

Countries in financial trouble may seek a loan from the IMF to help them weather the storm. But they are only granted one if they agree to 'stabilize' or 'adjust' their economies. This involves swingeing cuts in public expenditure, in food subsidies, in public sector wages - in anything that interferes with the operation of the 'free market'. The main problem with this approach is that developing countries' financial troubles are usually external (for example, a drop in the world price of the tea on which its economy depends), in which case a dose of internal medicine is of questionable value.

Another problem is that the IMF's policies always rebound on the poor first, because it is the poor who need public expenditure and subsidies the most. In Costa Rica, for instance, the proportion of poor people increased from 17 to 29 per cent between 1979 and 1982 following the introduction of IMF adjustment policies. While in Sri Lanka, according to UNICEF, 'a radical reduction in real food subsidies led to an increase in third-degree malnutrition among the children of the poorest'.

IMF policies are essentially the monetarist ones once favoured by the influential governments of Reagan and Thatcher. The irony is that while major Western nations have moved away from this discredited economic doctrine it is imposed in full on Third World countries, most of whom never believed in it in the first place. It is not overstating the case to say that IMP policies cause the death of hundreds of thousands of poor people around the world each year. In that sense they are the most blameworthy 'government' of all.

World Bank World DeveIopment Report 1982 to 1987; UNICEF State of the World Children, 1983 to 1987; UNICEF, Ed Cornia. Jolly and Stewart .Adjustment with a Human Face, Oxford 1987; Carlos Castilho and Carlos P Santos, Beyond Viability', in Third World magazine, July/August 1987; informal consultations with representatives of the Institute of Food and Development Policy, Development Gap, UNICEF, Oxfam, Euro-Action Acord.

Aotearoa (NZ):
CORSO, Box 9716, Wellington. Australia: Action for World Development, 183 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Vic 3085; Community Aid Abroad, 75 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Vic 3085; Freedom from Hunger, 43/107 Northbourne Avenue. Canberra. Canada: Ten Days for World Development, 85 St Clair Avenue, East Room 315, Toronto, Ont M4T 1 M8. UK: Hungry for Change, Oxfam House, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford 0X2 7Di US: World Hunger Year, 350 Broadway, New York. NY 10013.

Article featuring one of the medal winners on the Right to Food

Black land, white land

Honouring the right of the poor to food usually means giving them land on
which they can grow it themselves. In Zimbabwe the commitment is there but
people have learned to be patient. Debbie Taylor drives through a divided country.

'Comrade Mugabe can't have children. The whites beat him and kicked him, and put electrodes on his testicles, and now our leader is sterile. We love him more because of that, because of what he suffered for our freedom.'

Maria Takawira, ex-combatant. Conscripted by ZANU as a skinny 17-year-old and smuggled into Mozambique: to learn how to shoot a gun, to lie motionless on her stomach in the bush, to repel rapists with a narrowing of her slanting brown eyes, to squat singing freedom songs in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Now she guides me.

Driving in Zimbabwe is easy. There are smooth tarred roads built for white farmers' trucks to take coffee and tobacco to the ports; roads like blood vessels bringing life to the white farmers' land, while huge tracts of black land still die. Less than ten years ago other trucks roared down these roads: heavy camouflaged convoys, bearing blond-haired soldiers with soot-blackened faces and death in their baby-blue eyes. And Maria - hiding, prickling with sweat and fear, with rough canvas rubbing against 17-year-old skin - would watch as her enemies passed by.

'We were fighting for land, for the chance to grow food for our children, for the freedom to sell what we grew. You know, before Independence we were not allowed to take even one bag of maize to market, even if we could find a truck to take it there. Now, look -'

I accelerate past a truck, straining up a slight incline, piled high with sacks labelled 'Grain Marketing Board'. In the rear-view mirror I see it turn off and, crashing gears, begin lurching down a rough red-rutted side-road. Maria - who once held a gun in her hands, and trained it on white faces like mine - Maria turns and grins at me proudly.

'We have the trucks now. But we do not yet have the roads.'

'And the land, Maria? Do you yet have the land?'

'One thing at a time.' Driving through Zimbabwe, you cross frontiers. But there are no border guards to stop you breaching the boundaries between black land and white. Instead the car suddenly shudders over a cattle-grid and you notice six-strand fences on either side of the road. Here dappled heifers muse in the shade of the trees or wander, munching, thigh-high in the grass.

Six thousand white farmers live in Zimbabwe and own half of all Zimbabwe's land. It's good land: you can see that from the map, on which sweeping lines mark where rain falls on the country. And as on the map, so on the land, where the fences divide drought from plenty. Here, the white land: between 650 and 1,000 millimetres of life-giving rain every year. And there, the black land: less than 650 millimetres and 'susceptible to seasonal droughts'.

In the rainy season white farmers sit comfortably on shady verandas and watch the clouds drop their hissing grey blessings on the In the rainy season black farmers stand anxiously staring into the distance; squint their eyes against the dust of the advancing storm; smell the peppery tang of rain on the wind; offer a brief pleading prayer to the ancestors. But the clouds are spent sponges when they arrive: bobbing high, free of their loads of sweet water.

Nine hundred thousand black farmers live in Zimbabwe and own half of all Zimbabwe's land.

We visit a white farm and sit on the veranda with our hosts, drinking tea from sprigged china. Maria, whose gun once took aim at the sons of these soft-bodied people, shrinks in shy silence from our conversation and gazes out over the swimming pool and flower beds, to where black servants are laying irrigation pipes in the lawn.

'You have a beautiful garden,' she says quietly.

Later we visit the compound where the farm's 800 black workers are housed. One standpipe, two pit latrines (one full and unusable), a beer hall which doubles as schoolroom. And 100 homes: made from wood, mud and thatch, from tin and plastic sheeting. Each is spotlessly swept, crammed with children and blankets, the walls painted in red and yellow ochre clay.

'What's going on?' I ask Maria.

A crowd of women are arguing fiercely by the standpipe. They fall silent as we approach and eye us suspiciously. Maria steps forward to make introductions; clapping her hands politely in the traditional Shona way. Hostile stares melt into smiles so quick to melt are these people, who have so much reason to hate a white face) and, gradually, the hubbub resumes as each vies to tell us the story. Maria's brown eyes narrow and harden as she listens, then translates:

'Last night seven women were caught stealing maize from one of the outlying fields. Just the small cobs they took, the ones for the cattle's winter fodder. You see the work in the tobacco sheds is over and there will be no more wages for the women 'til the spring. But the little ones don't stop eating in the winter.' She shrugs and gestures around at the children, gazing up at us gravely with huge eyes. 'The police are coming to take the women away in the morning.'

One quarter of black people in Zimbabwe live and work on the white farmers' farms: forbidden to catch fish in the rivers; forbidden to gather firewood from the forest; forbidden to touch the fruits of their labours; herded like cattle into corrals. But the cattle, placidly chewing through acres of uncropped pasture, the cattle fare better than these people.

'But this is the best land in Zimbabwe. Maria. why do you not yet have this land?'

'One thing at a time,' she repeats grimly. 'A revolution can't happen overnight. We have had to learn to be patient. Come, I'll show you something we can be proud of.'

So we leave these rich fertile regions, with their fences and tractors and tree-bestrewn pastures; with their irrigation pipes, endlessly spinning, spitting water over greedy green seedlings; where 65 per cent of black children are stunted; where 6,000 white farmers own 15 million hectares and grow crops on just four per cent of their land.

'We signed a treaty with the white farmers at Independence, promising not to drive them out of our new Zimbabwe, promising them one-fifth of the seats in our Parliament (though they are only one-thirtieth of our people), promising to buy back the land that they stole from us, but only if they wished to sell. Look, here - ' gesturing at a sign by the road - 'I'll take you to a resettlement area.'

The car skids sideways like a toboggan through drifts of soft pink sand. This road is no more than a scar through the parched landscape, flanked here and there by anthills like raw red sentinels, and acacia trees squatting in the sun. Soon we are driving through thick billows of dust that coat the car and our clothes like red talc.

'Another truck,' Maria informs me unnecessarily, as its roars tear through the still afternoon, sending goats trotting off nervously into the bush. 'They're bringing seed and fertilizer to the people.'

Sure enough the truck turns off ahead of us and; as the dust settles, I see people hurrying over to welcome it. Two men swing down from the cab and stand with clipboards supervising the unloading of the sacks. 'People borrow seeds and fertilizer from the Government and the cost is deducted when the trucks come back to collect their maize after the harvest,' Maria explains, then breaks off as another argument begins.

A woman - middle-aged, ample; her hair in a headscarf, her hands on her hips - stands in front of the small crowd of people facing up to the men with their clipboards. They listen to her, reason with her, shrug wearily, gesture angrily, then stride furiously away. I turn to Maria, enquiring. She is laughing and shaking her head.

'Oh, women of Zimbabwe!' she exclaims admiringly. 'A revolution doesn't happen overnight. But once it's started it's impossible to stop. That woman was demanding to have her loan registered in her own name, so that she can keep the money from the sale of the maize. You see the wife does most of the work on the land, but the money usually goes into the husband's pocket - because it is his name on the register. She is saying that she risked her life in the war, that she deserves a share of the rights they have won. Come - let's introduce ourselves.'

So we smile, clap and bow; accept tea, thick with condensed milk and sugar, from enormous chipped enamel mugs; and sit cross-legged on the black-polished mud floor as the sun slants in through the doorway. Maria, eyes sparkling, asks questions unprompted.

'This land once belonged to a white farmer who used it for grazing his cattle. Now 400 families live here, growing six times as much maize as they could on their old farms. They are happy - ' she announces, toasting me triumphantly with her tea. 'They have land, seeds and fertilizer, and a guaranteed price for their harvest. What more could anyone ask?'

We are taken for a tour of the new village: just pasture five years ago, now a neat scattering of circular thatched houses, circled in turn by their newly claimed land. Few fences are needed to mark these boundaries: every anthill and tree, every sun-baked grey rock, is as known to these grateful new tenants as a scar on a beloved's cheek.

'They have had to leave the graves of their ancestors to come here. And there are some who are sorry. But a revolution doesn't happen overnight in time there will be new graves and new ancestors.'

'This land, Maria - how much of this new white land do you have?' I ask, knowing that in seven years only four per cent of white land has been turned over to the blades of black ploughs.

Maria's eyes flash with anger for a moment 'Did you expect we were capable of miracles? Isn't what I've shown you miracle enough? Where are we to find the money to buy back all the land that they stole? Where are we to find the money to replace the exports grown on white farms?'

'You want miracles? I'll show you some miracles: over there, on our black land, where the roads never reached and the rains seldom fell - on our overcrowded land nine hundred thousand black farmers have wrought nine hundred thousand small miracles and quadrupled their maize harvest since Independence. Come, I'll show you what real miracles look like.'

So we drive into the heart of black Zimbabwe; over bleak scorched scrubland; past stark rows of tin-roofed shops marooned in the rock-littered landscape; over dry stream-beds snaking round the bare roots of thorn trees. And there are trucks here too; and groups of women singing together as they sit threshing their harvest of maize; and collection points where sacks of maize wait to be loaded onto the trucks; and queues at the post office of people waiting for their cheques from the Government; and queues at the new clinics as women wait for their children to be weighed or immunized, or learn how to mix a solution of sugar and salt that can save a baby's life - and, yes, graves of those children that could not be saved, marked with white stones against the blood-red of the earth; graves that are a constant reminder that a revolution can't happen overnight.

Debbie Taylor is a co-editor of the NI.

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