People before Profits: Peasants, rural workers wait in the wings

Discontent of the rural poor in the global south and the hunger of almost a billion humans fill the tinder box of revolution. Great corporations control both land and agricultural production. Dispossession and desperation follow; so do profits.

With their concentrated power over land and agricultural production, great corporations are at war with the dispossessed and desperate.

A UN-convened “High Level Meeting on Food Security for All” in Madrid Jan. 26-27 solved few problems. On hand, according to Inter Press Service, were representatives of 100 countries, plus donor agencies, civil society and “private groups.” Spain’s prime minister and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave closing speeches.

Private and public donations to aid agencies were high on the agenda. Progress was reviewed since a similar meeting last year in Rome. For the sake of “fair” agricultural trade, delegates called for the elimination of subsidies.

Doctors without Borders protested the role of corporations in fighting hunger. Via Campesina’s representative pointed out that their aim is to sell seeds, fertilizers and farm machinery. A weak proposal emerged for a corporation “code of conduct.”

On foodsovereignty.org, activists protested their relegation to the sidelines in Madrid, and blindness there to “structural causes.” They diagnosed the G8 scheme of “an ethereal Global Partnership for Agricultural and Food Security” as a “move to give big corporations and their foundations a formal place at the table.” Calls to make land accessible for local producers went unheard.

Corporate dominance was evident elsewhere. The Feb. 7 East African Business Week reports “the 600-mile [Tanzanian] coastline … has been taken either directly by foreign companies or by local well-to-do Tanzanians” acting as agents. Earlier in the week Saudi Arabia informed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that a high-level Saudi mission would be in the Philippines in April, scouting out “investment opportunities in the Philippine agriculture sector.”

Analyst Ignacio Ramonet, writing for rebelion.org, reports that oil and cash rich nations, often land and water poor, send out buyers. For speculators, food is a future “black gold.” They project a doubling of food production by 2050. Land hoarding is sweeping the world, mostly in poor countries.

South Korea (leading the pack), China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Japan have recently swallowed up 20 million acres. China, burdened by urbanization, desertification and infertile land, has holdings in Australia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mexico, Brazil, Surinam and above all, in Africa.

Foreign investors own 10 percent of Argentina’s land, notably the U.S. mogul Douglas Tomkins, who owns half a million acres, and financier George Soros. Morgan Stanley bank and the British corporation Landkom, with 250,000 acres, are ensconced in the Ukraine.

In “The New Geopolitics of Hunger,” published late last year, Joao Pedro Stedile provides crucial background (ipsnews.net). Co-founder of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, where 10 percent of landowners hold 85 percent of the land, Stedile is a leader of Via Campesina, an umbrella organization of small farmers worldwide.

As transnational corporations extended throughout the world from the 1960s on, agriculture adopted “the intensive use of industrial inputs” to build monoculture empires growing soy, wheat, palm oil, sugar cane, corn and cotton. According to Stedile, hungry people grew from 80 million in 1960 to 800 million and then “in the last two years, from 800 to 925 million.” He castigates the manufacture of bio-fuels.

Agricultural prices are now tied to speculation and control of world food markets. “Humanity is at the mercy of a handful of transnationals and giant speculators,” he asserts. Meanwhile, millions of small farmers are losing land and emigrating or moving to the barren outskirts of cities.

Via Campesina “proposes a radical transformation in the production and trade of foodstuffs. We defend the principle of food sovereignty.” For Stedile, that means nations guaranteeing access to food and production sufficient for people’s needs. Small farmers are crucial to this project.

Food, Stedile says, is “a natural right of all human beings.” Laying down the gauntlet, he warns that unless governments “make radical changes, social problems and contradictions will intensify and, sooner or later, they will explode.”

Ramonet similarly charges that foreign landowners, having expropriated small producers, signify a “return to odious colonial practices and serve as a time bomb.” He adds that 'agrarian neocolonialism” promises increasing poverty, rising social tensions and violence. “Land involves people's identity. [It] has always provoked passions.”