hiding the message: "why people starve"
schaffer at optonline.net
Fri Jul 11 18:21:41 MDT 2003
when i was a kid, i was raised on a steady diet of the Sunday New York
Times. along with white fish and chopped liver and tongue and sharp
table-side political talk at grandma's house on Sundays, the Times was
a staple of a young mind eager to know what adults toiled at.
but times change, and so does the Times. an article in this Sunday's
paper is a case in point:
in a 9 page piece entitled "why people starve", the author Barry
Bearak purports to tell us __why__ people starve by looking at the
case of Malawi.:
To track the origins of the crisis, my plan was this: to find a
family that had lost someone to last year's hunger and then work my
way back through the hows and whys.
and we are promised some heady material:
It [the article's plan] extends toward wealthier nations and their
shared institutions -- the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund. It travels the uncertain ups and downs of global
commodity prices and currency valuations -- and of course passes
into the limited access roads of humanity's conscience.
And in typical NYTimes style, we are treated to pictures of individual
starving people, life stories of Malawi inhabitants, and a breezy
travelogue-style narration of "one man's journey to solve the mystery
of famine" (my caricature):
The first, Bomba Kamchewere, is a tall, bony man with a missing
Malawi has stunning skies, with a blue so bright and clouds so
shapely that they seem to be the work of a cartoonist.
alas, i search the 7780 word article with a gnawing feeling of hunger
for signs of the promised "why". in fact, i find only two sentences
that have any kind of explanatory power to them:
Tobacco is Malawi's only major cash crop, and the doctor amassed a
fortune by granting himself valuable licenses to grow it.
The West applauded his steadfast anti-Communism; South Africa
admired his tolerance of apartheid.
but nothing really to sink one's teeth into. And in the end, Bearak
spends two paragraphs on the case of some farmer (Daniel) in Malawi
who is doing better than most, wondering why the guy doesn't pitch in
and help his neighbors more. Bearak then continues:
For me, Daniel came to represent the ''haves'' of the world.
For me, the whole article came to represent by its emptiness a line
from a popular TV commercial from the 70's (80's???): WHERE'S THE
Interestingly enough, the Times online today also has an article
entitled "Universities to Share Patented Work on Crops", and on a
hunch i entered the words "Malawi food patents" into google's hungry
search engine. And up pops enough information to fill an entire
lifetime's subscription to the Sunday Times.
In case Bearak reads the Web, i've included a slim selection of
google's bountiful harvest below.
Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell
maize to earn dollars for debt servicing
Patents deny farmers the right to save seed as they have been doing
for hundreds of years and instead forces them to buy it from a
multinational company. That's why it is important that international
patenting laws should be stopped.
As most of the food aid arriving Malawi is of US origin, and
therefore without guarantee of being without genetically modified
(GM) grains, it needs to be milled before it is distributed. This
will cost the poverty-ridden country an extra US$ 20 million, the
The immediate trigger for the food crisis was localised flooding
in February and March 2002 but the underlying reasons were mainly
political and economic.
Rigid and prescriptive IMF and donor-led economic policies and
practices compounded government planning, policy and
There was limited investment in the rural economy, 70 per cent of
Malawians live in rural areas.
Little thought was given by major donors to the impact of economic
liberalisation on the lives of poor rural families.
The Malawian government pushed through the commercialisation of
the agricultural sector with inadequate support being given to the
A series of damaging miscalculations by the Malawian government and
donors aggravated long-term policy failures. These were:
The strategic grain reserve, Malawi's buffer against famine, was
sold off in its entirety.
Private traders were effectively allowed to profiteer from the
sale of the grain reserve, buying maize cheaply and hoarding it
until prices rose before reselling it for exorbitant profits.
Rationing was imposed without any form of identification system
being put in place and was therefore open to abuse. The other key
component of the famine was the strain on relations between donors
and the Malawian government because of allegations of economic
mismanagement and governance failures. This fatally delayed
donors' response to the food crisis just as food shortages were
beginning to bite.
Example 1: Malawi is an African country with limited arable land and
a big population. While the majority of the population is engaged in
farming, there is a serious inequality in the distribution of
land. In southern Malawi, land has become barren due to the overuse
of fertilisers. As the price of fertilisers rises, many farmers
cannot afford them. To these farmers, a low-cost and
environment-friendly way of farming is urgently needed. An
organisation formed with farmers in Malawi, the Lipangwe organic
manure demonstration farm (LOMADEF), offers exactly that. The farm
aims to reduce the dependence of small-scale subsistence farmers on
high-cost farm inputs and to improve long-term soil fertility by
teaching sustainable agricultural practices. It provides training to
farmers on organic fertilisation for small plots of land. The
farmers go on to form organisations in their own villages to promote
organic agriculture. The plan has helped many farmers raise food
production and reduce their dependency on fertilisers.
In May the IMF said it would withhold US $47 million earmarked for
Malawi under its Poverty Reduction Growth Facility, due to
government overspending. If the government stuck to its economic
targets, a decision would be made to release the funds in
December. Britain said it would also consider releasing funds it was
holding after studying the IMF report.
Of particular concern to some African governments is how the
introduction of GM corn could affect small-scale farmers, who make
up the majority of Africa's population. Food security for these
farmers depends on their ability to save seeds. Most of the farmers
use seeds saved from their harvests, but patents on many GM
varieties require that farmers purchase seeds every year from
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