April 24, 2011

We export food to import food

In fact, the environmental destruction of the land has already begun in this initial phase. Around Gambella region, Karuturi, an Indian company, which owns large swaths of the region, is heavily involved in burning forests and grasslands to make way for potential farmland. It would be unfair to single out Karuturi alone. Other foreign companies who have settled in the region are no more saintly. They are also using slash and burn techniques to clear land. There is no doubt the flora and fauna will be lost forever as a result. Pastureland is fast becoming eviscerated, affecting local herders, who depend on their livestock for survival. This process of pastoral land elimination could have negative consequences for currently inflated meat prices in Ethiopia, which will undoubtedly exasperate existent levels of high malnutrition in the country.

According to the government, these lands given to foreign investors were idle lands, ready to be gobbled up into the global food system without much disturbance. However, this view depends on one’s definition of ‘idle land’. Pastureland may seem idle, but its usefulness is undeniable.

Another key consideration should be about the inevitable damage and cost to future generations. Given the fact that Ethiopia is very much a country of the future, demographically speaking, this should concern us. Intensive farming by foreign agro-business has a history of ravaging the land and turning fertile soil into depleted soil in a short period of time. Other parts of the globe where this has been practiced testifies to the inevitability of environmental destruction. In a land that is potentially the breadbasket of Ethiopia, if not the whole Horn of Africa, such degradation is a real loss for future generations and therefore presents a moral challenge for us today.

Employment offered by these farms is purported to be a benefit for local communities. Never mind that the main reason why locals seek this work is primarily because the agro-businesses have forced them to abandon their old pastoralist way of life.

Take away this option of survival and people are left with no other choice but to accept slave wages working on foreign farms. In a way the agri-business creates the labour surplus for itself and manages to keep wages extremely low. The wage paid to workers, on average about $1.50 (25 Birr) for a day’s work, is nowhere near enough to survive without additional food aid. According to a recent documentary, some farm workers in southern Ethiopia complained they were getting paid seven birr per day, instead of the 25 birr initially promised. That is about 50 cents a day in dollar terms. By these estimates the lives of these workers were considerably better before the introduction of foreign agri-business. Instead of food security, food insecurity is created, perhaps even serious malnutrition.

To add insult to injury none of the produce from these farms will be available to local markets. However, there is talk of selling some of the produce to aid agencies. The World Food Program intends to buy some of this grain in order to assist hungry people. Ironically, this group of intended food aid recipients will include those working to produce it in the first place. Ethiopia’s government is calling this sustainable development.

In an effort to rush through this controversial issue unimpeded, the government has sought to bypass all transparency. It is fully aware that an open discussion on the issue would expose the absurdities of its claim. Deals with foreign investors were approved backhandedly for this reason.

The government expects a few scattered utterances here and there by its officials to be accepted as a national discussion on the matter. The government also knows it has no chance of convincing people because further evaluation of the agreements reveals gaping holes. The people of Ethiopia are being asked to believe absurdities such as ‘we export food in order to import food’ as a viable economic option to guarantee national food security. However, the most basic comprehension of economics tells us this is nearly impossible. Given Ethiopia’s dwindling currency exchange, what sense is there in purchasing grain from the international market, while exporting domestic grain? Can exported grain used as a cash-crop generate enough capital to be able to import food affordably and sustainably? Muddying the waters and diverting the issue under the guise of food security is certainly a cruel way of hoodwinking a hungry population. It is not clear what the benefit will be to Ethiopia. In most instances the harm done is much greater than the gain.

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