The Warped Focus of Human Rights in the Global Poverty Agenda
You Point Them Out and We’ll Exploit Them
It is indeed encouraging to see that mainstream discourses have begun to shine a greater light on the critical role that local communities play in moving forward and tackling global poverty. But, in what ways are those in need being empowered? A fine line separates interference and assistance and a spiral of greater dependency is easily perpetuated if the situation is not correctly gauged. With the branching out of further goals and rights to be protected, perhaps it is a justified critique that the source of worldwide ailments is being overlooked in the face of ever appearing symptoms. After all, despite the incessant conferences, the capability of tangible change remains volatile. All the while certain issues, such as hunger and poverty, are being entrenched rather than alleviated. Whilst the battlefront may seem away in a far distant land and remain in the corners of the collective conscious; how the ownership of the world’s land is being engulfed is an issue concerning how all of us will maintain true independence whilst having enough food to eat.
Take a step back for a moment. The dusk of 2014 is upon us. It is October and the international community is observing ‘World Food Day’. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) declares that 805 million people still remain chronically undernourished. The themes of the conference deal with embracing principles of responsible investment in agriculture and food systems. A poignant yet, ultimately, a hollow statement in the grander scheme of actually enforcing implementation; valuing it above profit in the global economy. Jose Graziano da Silva, the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), takes to the podium in his address to participants. He goes one step further in outlining that whilst progress is continuing; “it is a society - not a government - that decides to eradicate hunger and achieve food security.”
The dust hasn’t yet had time to settle on one global civil society conference and another is taking place. The ‘International Day for the Eradication of Poverty’ echoes similar sentiments. Contentious statistics regarding extreme poverty demonstrate progress in its reduction; however, the bottom line is that 1 in 9 people currently face extreme hunger. Again, the theme recognises the critical need for partnership with those directly experiencing poverty. There is a focus in discussing the challenge of identifying and securing this participation to overcome some of the biggest obstacles facing our generation.
Meanwhile, with the ivory towers of global decision making far in the distance, we bring Ethiopia into focus once again; a nation where at least 30% of the population live below the food poverty line and, according to MSF, 6 million children require treatment for malnourishment. This is despite consistently being one of the largest recipients of foreign aid and support from the World Food Program. Here we find that food crops are actually being exported abroad—primarily to India, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. This is a direct effect from what has become known as land grabbing. Since 2000, communities mainly in the poorest nations of the world have seen over 37 million hectares of land being acquired by foreign investors without their ‘Free, Prior, and Informed Consent’ (FPIC). Instead of feeding local communities, more than 60% of crops grown on land acquired by foreign investors in developing countries are for export. According to a recent report in conjunction with the University of Virginia and Polytechnic University of Milan, two-thirds of these deals are in countries with grievous hunger problems and up to a third of the global malnourished population could be fed from the global share of land grabs. It seems that the people are being targeted rather than supported.
Local communities rarely see the benefit of this commodification of land. They depend on imports at the whim of fluctuating global food prices and subsequently on foreign aid. In Ethiopia, multinational corporations have leased the land from the government and bring in workers to farm it. This deprives locals of feeding themselves as well as from the opportunity to gain employment to support themselves; increasing food insecurity rather than easing it. In a previous article of mine for Restless Beings, we highlighted the reality of how large-scale development projects were pushing subsistent people from their land despite constitutional arrangements of democratic participation of the indigenous communities, through a variant of FPIC in Ethiopia. Through the same culture of negligence and exploitation, the constitution is not being upheld; to the detriment of forgotten rural communities. According to recently collected evidence, Italian photojournalist Alfredo Bini proclaims that “The government says the lands are empty and not being harvested but from what I saw and documented in my reporting this is entirely not the case.”
Ethiopia has seen its self-determination and independence gradually be relinquished from top to bottom. In 2010 the CFS proclaimed that: “Over the next 40 years the world’s population will increase by 34%. To feed everybody a 70% increase in agricultural production will be necessary”. The logical action was for the poor food producing countries to decelerate exports and ensure that food stocks were available for its own people. In reality, a panic for global food supply chains has ensued further destabilising food prices and food security after the 2008 world food price crisis, with those in poverty-stricken countries the most vulnerable. And so, instead of a new impetus for a progressive global food strategy, land grabbing re-emerges stronger than ever as the easy short-term option for more developed nations to take advantage of. In an interview with the minister of trade and industry of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Fawaz Al-Alamy, he openly lays out the strategy to establish large food reserves in the face of food insecurity and how transnational corporations offer food supplies for large periods of time without an inkling of where they will come from. In this case, it is at the expense of Ethiopia. Even if aid increases global hunger can only reach a breaking point.
(Burning forest in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, to allow access to bulldozers preparing the ground for oil palm and sugar cane plantations – courtesy of Alfredo Bini)
A concerted effort is required to formulise a more sustainable method of increasing productivity, but this must be done in conjunction with those closest to the land. In fact, a recent report from GRAIN outlines how returning land to small scale farmers would drastically increase food production. Instead, what is actually being cultivated is a corporate recolonisation through a new model of profit-oriented agriculture using patented seeds. Esayas Kebede of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture echoes the sentiment that the displacement of local communities and the disregard of the environment mean that any investments cannot be sustainable; an issue that is mirrored across Africa in general. It is necessary to shed the antiquated notion that the face of poverty is a whole nation, or a whole continent for that matter. A formal identification process to understand the different roles that citizens simultaneously fill within a community, a state, an infrastructure and an ecosystem are essential for appropriate strategies to be formed for true efficiency.
It is from here that ‘partnerships’ could flourish to firstly understand the immediate plight of those in need and secondly to provide assistance in aiding them reaching their short term goals. Furthermore, the realisation of long term goals of which will run parallel to the ongoing striving towards a sustainable self-reliance and self-determination; without the dependence on the whims of paternal superpowers and finance schemes. However, we must question the fact that it may not be in the interest of those providing ‘assistance’ if those who are dependent upon them actually become truly independent. In large parts, whether intentionally or not, these mechanisms of identification, often carried out in conjunction with the leaders of the developing state, are leading to a greater efficiency in exploitation rather than a mutual participation. Whilst one side will call it land theft the other will call it land development. And so, the battle lines have somewhat been demarcated. Firstly, the local and indigenous right to land must be solidified to turn the tide back towards the partnerships that are spoken of; if they are to truly be equal.