London ~ Friday July 22 2011, page 35
Famine we could avoid
To pin the Somalia crisis on drought is wrong. This is an entirely predictable, man-made disaster
By John Vidal
An internally displaced Somali woman fleeing from the drought gripping the Horn of Africa holds her child inside their makeshift shelter in Mogadishu. (Taxta/Reuters)
A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa and the people fleeing to the camps are said to be "climate", "drought" or "environmental" refugees. The land, we are told by the international agencies rushing relief to the region, can no longer support its people.
Fifty or so years ago, the region had regular 10-year climatic cycles which were mostly followed by a major drought, and now the droughts are coming more frequently and are lasting longer. In the 1970s, say the pastoralists – the nomadic herders who move their cattle ceaselessly across the region in search of pasture – they started having droughts every seven years; in the 1980s they came about every five years and in the 1990s every two or three. Since 2000 there have been three major droughts and several dry spells, this one being not the worst, just the latest. "There is no doubt that it is hotter and drier now," said Leina Mpoke, a Maasai vet I met working on the Kenya-Ethiopia border that is now on the frontline of disaster.
There is also no doubt that climate change will make these areas of Africa harder to live in in future. But to pin this crisis on drought or climate change is wrong. This is an entirely predictable, traditional, man-made disaster, with little new about it except the numbers of people on the move and perhaps the numbers of children dying near the cameras. The 10 million people who the governments warn are at risk of famine this year are the same 10 million who have clung on in the region through the last four droughts and were mostly being kept alive by feeding programmes.
The fleeing Somalis seen on TV are the same people the UN warned about in 2008 when it said that one in six were at risk of starvation. Josette Sheeran, head of the UN's world food programme, appealed for $300m emergency aid this week – just as she did in 2008 when she told of "a silent tsunami [of hunger] gathering". And the same governments who were slow to respond to the emergency then are the ones who have been unwilling to help now.
Nor was the crisis unexpected. The rains failed early this year in Kenya and Ethiopia, and there has been next to none for two years now in Somalia. Aid agencies and governments have known for almost a year that food would run out by now. But it is only now, when the children begin to die and the cattle have been sold or died that the global humanitarian machine has moved in, with its TV shows, co-ordinated appeals and celebrities. Why did it not go earlier? Because it takes months to prepare properly for a disaster.
Just as in 2008, the war in Somalia is primarily responsible for the worst that is happening. As Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute says: "Wars don't kill many people directly but can kill millions through the way they render them totally vulnerable to the kinds of problems they should be able to cope with." In this case, he says, people have lost all their assets and can't access grazing grounds they need. But remember too, that Somalia has been made a war zone by the US-led "war on terror". It's our fault as much as anyone's.
But another, more insidious war has also been taking place across the region. This one is being waged by governments and businesses against the pastoralists. Over the years, they have been steadily marginalised and discriminated against by Ugandan, Kenyan and Ethiopian governments, and now they are further jeopardised by large-scale farming, the expansion of national parks, and game reserves and conservation.
For the politicians in Lusaka, Nairobi or Addis, the lifestyle of these people seems archaic and outmoded. They are said to be outside mainstream national development, and to be pursuing a way of life that is in crisis and decline. So the politicians think little of taking away their dry season grazing grounds or blocking their traditional routes to pasture land. However, as seen in major international studies, the pastoralists produce more and better quality meat and generate more cash per hectare than "modern" Australian and US ranches.
Instead of starving the region's people of funds and then picking up the pieces in the bad years – as governments must do now – Britain, the EU, the US and Japan must help people adapt to the hotter, drier conditions they face. With better pumps and boreholes, better vaccination of cattle, help with education, food storage and transport, people can live well again.
This emergency will cost the west around $400m. If this money was put into long-term development instead of emergency aid and feeding programmes that keep people just above starvation, this tragedy could have been avoided. Instead, the world is almost certain to be here again in one or two years' time. Next time, though, there will be no excuses.
London ~ Wednesday, 1 June 2011, page 1
Biofuels boom in Africa as British firms lead rush on land for plantations
Controversial fuel crops linked to rising food prices and hunger, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions
By Damian Carrington and Stefano Valentino
An Ivory Coast nursery for jatropha, a non-edible plant whose oil-rich seeds can be processed into biodiesel. (Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)
British firms have acquired more land in Africa for controversial biofuel plantations than companies from any other country, a Guardian investigation has revealed.
Half of the 3.2m hectares (ha) of biofuel land identified – in countries from Mozambique to Senegal – is linked to 11 British companies, more than any other country.
Liquid fuels made from plants – such as bioethanol – are hailed by some as environmentally-friendly replacements for fossil fuels. Because they compete for land with crop plants, biofuels have also been linked to record food prices and rising hunger. There are also fears they can increase greenhouse gas emissions.
A market has been created by British and EU laws requiring the blending of rising amounts of biofuels into petrol and diesel, but the rules were condemned as unethical and "backfiring badly" in April by a Nuffield Council on Bioethics commission. In the UK, only 31% of biofuels used meet voluntary environmental standards intended to protect water supplies, soil quality and carbon stocks in the source country.
There are no central records of land acquisitions in Africa, but research by the Guardian revealed the scale of the biofuels rush in sub-Saharan Africa – 100 projects and 50 companies in more than 20 countries.
Crest Global Green Energy has the largest recorded landholding, 900,000ha in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Tom Stuart, the chief executive, said: "It is true in some cases [that biofuels displace food], but in our projects we 'inter-crop', planting as much food as biofuel on the marginal land we have brought into agricultural use. There is a large social element to our projects, with all the local people needing to be in agreement, and that's normally written into contracts at government level."
Another UK company, Sun Biofuels, leased 8,000ha in Tanzania where it grows Jatropha curcas, a non-edible plant whose oil-rich seeds can be processed into biodiesel. "We'll start harvesting and producing in two years," said Peter Auge, office manager in Tanzania. "The main attraction for us is exporting to Europe."
Claims that J curcas use prevents biofuels competing with food because it grows easily on marginal and arid land unsuitable for other agriculture have been challenged even within the industry. "Growing jatropha in a profitable way on dry lands is a myth. It needs water, fertilisers and pesticides to provide high yields," Auge said. Jamidu Katima, at the University of Dar es Salaam, is critical of biofuels guidelines adopted by Tanzania's government in 2010. "There are no plans to build refineries, nor obligations for foreign investors to reserve part of their output for the domestic market," he said.
Another risk is that biofuel use could increase carbon emissions by increasing destruction of forests when displaced local farmers clear land. The Institute of European Environmental Policy recently said carbon released from deforestation linked to biofuels could exceed carbon savings by 35% in 2011 rising to 60% in 2018. Currently, this indirect impact is not considered in European sustainability guidelines.
James Smith, professor of African and Development Studies at Edinburgh University, said: "Private investment is running far ahead of our knowledge of the impacts of biofuels, such as land dispossession. This action is eroding the UK's position of enlightenment on development issues."
Unpublished research by the charity ActionAid, seen by the Guardian, confirms the picture of scores of projects amassing millions of hectares on the east and west coasts of Africa. "I suspect the estimates are actually quite conservative," said Smith.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat junior transport minister, said: "I consider the sustainability of biofuels to be paramount. No biofuel will count towards our targets unless it meets certain sustainability requirements. But we are pushing [Europe] to go further, to reduce the risk of knock-on effects, including deforestation in new areas."
He added: "Only a tiny proportion – less that 0.1% - of UK biofuel has come from Africa."
As oil prices rise, said Jeremy Woods, a lecturer in bioenergy at Imperial College London, biofuels could boom. "Once oil is over $70 a barrel, conventional and new generation biofuels become cost competitive. When oil and biofuels are competitive, we are into a different world."
Expansion of the biofuels industry has been fuelled by capital raised on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange. In the Guardian survey Italy is the next biggest player with seven companies, followed by Germany (six), France (six) and the US (four). Brazil and China have been acquiring land in Africa for biofuels and food but the investigation identified only a handful of established biofuels projects. The database of biofuels projects in Africa was compiled with the help of the University of California Berkeley's Africa Reporting Project.
Some projects provide local benefits through investment, employment and local use of the produce, but many do not, says Lorenzo Cotula at the International Institute for Environment and Development, who recently analysed 12 contracts from African land deals. "Some of the contracts we analysed only contain vague and unenforceable promises." Some have 100-year leases, at very low or free rent and priority access to water, he added. "Extensive commercial plantations dislocate rural communities from their land", said Cotula. "Instead, self-managed biofuels production can offer cheaper energy and complementary sources of income".
The chief executive of Sun Biofuels, Richard Morgans said: "Our company produces sustainable and ethical biofuels – categorically yes. We would welcome higher sustainability standards, but you do have to balance this with economic development. If you are a local [in Tanzania or Mozambique] and need a job, you probably aren't worried about whether the orangutans sleep at night. It's also insulting to say African governments can't run their own affairs."
A community-based approach is embraced by a few investors. "Our farmers in Mozambique are given seedlings to grow jatropha on their own land with the option to sell the seeds back to us," says Chris Hunter, of UK-based Viridesco. "We help smaller plantations that cater to the developing world markets, as opposed to big monocultures that service the developed world's energy needs".
UK companies were the first into Africa in 2005, but this has not been without problems. D1 Oils froze its export plans and started supplying locally in Malawi and Zambia, following the failure in 2009 of its joint-venture with BP, which doubted jatropha's market potential. Last year GEM Biofuels, operating in Madagascar, suspended its LSE quotation for four months.
The revelation of the central role of UK companies in biofuels coincides with a report from Oxfam forecasting that the price of staple foods will more than double in the next 20 years. The report identifies biofuels as a factor and demands that western governments end biofuel policies that divert food to fuel for cars. "We are sleepwalking towards an age of avoidable crisis," said Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking. "One in seven people on the planet go hungry every day despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone. The food system must be overhauled."
Biofuels grown in African countries
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN / NUMBER OF COMPANIES / COUNTRIES WITH LAND CONCESSIONS
UK COMPANY / LAND CONCESSION / COUNTRIES WITH LAND CONCESSIONS
Source: data research, not including unverified projects Read full details HERE
Remark: concessions include all negotiated land, whether it is only agreed, formally leased or already used
London ~ Wednesday, 1 June 2011, page 30
Food: A hungry world
An Oxfam report published yesterday forecasts that a billion people will go undernourished this year
Charities and development economists necessarily focus so much attention on hungry people that you might be forgiven for thinking this was a problem only and always getting bigger. Not so. The number of hungry people worldwide actually fell between 1969 and 1997; and it dropped sharply after the great food-price spike of 2008. Those are headline statistics, of course, but they show one thing: this is not an intractable problem.
It is, however, a resurgent one. An Oxfam report published yesterday forecasts that a billion people will go undernourished this year. It is not the only one to sound the alarm: last week the UN warned that spiralling food prices could well lead to riots, as happened in 30 countries three years ago. Then there is Christian Aid, which recently put out its own report on hunger, and the World Bank, which has talked more and more of late about food poverty. However alarming Oxfam's predictions this week about the future of food might be – that the average price of staples will more than double in the next couple of decades, hitting the world's poorest hardest – few of the other NGOs working in this field would sharply disagree with them. Nor would Oxfam's description of the food-supply system as "bust" be too controversial. Any system that produces enough food for the entire world and yet fails to feed one in seven people, which is subject to rampant speculation and land-grabbing, and where crops and land that could be used to feed people are instead turned into fuel for Hummers, is patently not working.
The question is what to do about it. Typically, the solutions divide into three. The first is to leave the market to sort it out: financiers and an open trading system will supposedly shunt more cash into agriculture. This may be the case over the long term, but this logic completely failed in 2008 and the resulting disaster cost human lives. Free-traders sometimes point to the export bans instituted by Egypt, Malawi and so many others as being the prime culprit of the price spiral, but they were really a response.
The second is at the opposite extreme, and consists of wailing about population growth. Yet it is not African villagers who are eating more than their fair share. The British eat 85kg of meat a year; in newly rich but often vegetarian India, that figure falls to 3kg. The problem is not population numbers but consumption, and here the west punches well above its weight.
Finally, there is an answer that lies in treating food security as a priority, rather than as a soft commodity to be traded like any other. Its production and trading should be much more heavily regulated, and protected.
Dublin ~ Saturday, July 23, 2011
Somalia is global shame
AN objective analysis of the stock reflex response to crisis in the Third World by the "international community" would simply suggest too many look the other way.
Apart from the honourable -- but wholly inadequate -- efforts of aid agencies, the missionary sector and a handful of governments, the tendency globally has been to offer a sum big enough to placate a few uneasy consciences, but too little to make any significant impact on the scale of suffering.
Once more we are seeing the result of this indifference.
This time the country is Somalia. The images of starving emaciated children and their shell-shocked mothers say it all.
The expressions of sympathy and support are worth so much, but behind them there is a searing question that much be answered: why was this allowed to happen again? The terrible aspect of this tragedy is that the 10 million people now at risk are the same 10 million who struggled to survive in the region through the last four droughts.
The UN has been pleading for help for the Somalis since 2008. This was when Josette Sheeran -- then head of its food programme -- warned: "a silent tsunami [of hunger] is gathering."
In the short-term, $400m must be found so that lives that can be saved will be.
We have a UN declaration of Human Rights, which suggests that all are entitled to a fair chance to life's necessities.
Yet, according to UNICEF, 22,000 children die every single day due to poverty. The poor and vulnerable cannot be abandoned to their plight in a world of plenty if we are to call ourselves an "international community".