David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Rural Women Speak Out at the World Food Summit
by David Bacon

ROME, ITALY (11/21/96) - Palm-lined beaches, a warm ambience, exotic food - for first-world tourists, the Caribbean is a place with everything required for a great vacation. And since nobody wants to vacation in the midst of hunger and poverty, hunger gets well-hidden. What little is visible becomes invisible, for those behind the Ray-Bans and the Bain du Soliel, out for a little R-and-R.

"But actually living in a poor country is hell. And it's not the country which is the problem, it's the poverty." Cheryl Johnson, saying this, is definitely not a tourist shill for her home in the Windward Islands, although they're some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Johnson is a farmer. She organizes other farmers. And being a farmer in the Windward Islands, as in most of the poor countries on the globe, is no joke. It doesn't make you a tourist attraction. It makes you one of a dying species.

The irony is unavoidable. There are more hungry people in the world than ever before. You would think that would make farmers honored and valued world citizens. But it doesn't. More likely, if you are a small farmer, you are one of the hungry yourself, unable to feed your family or sell what you grow. And more than likely, you're thinking of leaving your farm and tight-knit community behind, joining the great anonymous migrant stream into the nearest big city, or even abroad, to another, wealthier, country.

The global countryside is losing population and getting poorer. The world's cities are becoming megalopolises. And the number of the hungry is rising.

With these ironies and questions firmly in mind, the members of the Windward Islands Farmers Association scraped together the money for a long planeflight to Italy, and sent Johnson to the World Food Summit. Johnson was searching for answers particularly relevant to women, given that they make up 70% of the world's 1.3 billion poor. Answers she could take back to Kingstown in St. Vincent, that would make sense to the those trying to scrape a living from the island's rocky soil.

Johnson's condemnation of rural poverty was the common thread woven through the concerns of other women as well. In dashikis and saris, jeans and workclothes, they poured into an abandoned train station and air terminal on the outskirts of Rome, coming from non-governmental organizations all over the third world.

While these farmers and women talked to each other, the formal discussion among government delegations droned on at the headquarters of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, a mile away. Each country made its formal statement. Each had its seven minutes in front of the kleig lights, the cameras and the world audience.

Looked at from above, in this official discussion, the dimensions of hunger were outlined with statistics and economic data. It appeared as a logistical problem - how to get food to starving people in refugee camps. And certainly the problem of hunger is all of those things - a statistical, economic and logistical nightmare.

But the NGOs, the farmers and the wormen talked about hunger and poverty from below. From their vantage point, hunger is even more complicated. It has more dimensions. It is a problem of the producer, as well as of the refugee, or of the starving child in the slums. Who can actually live on the land is as important as how much food the land can produce. And in the end, those driven off the land become those in the slums and refugee camps, big-eyed, big-bellied, with limbs as thin as twigs.

Since the world conference on women in Beijing in 1995, the inclusion of gender sensitive language has become de rigeur in declarations of international agencies and conferences. So it was in Rome, where representatives of the FAO boasted that the summit's final declaration mentioned women 35 separate times.

But the formal mention of women in a document adopted by high-level government delegations did not help it reflect needs felt sharply by many rural women.

For Theresa Masinde from Kenya, the spread of AIDS in farming communities is a crisis which has changed every aspect of rural life. "It's just finishing off whole communities," she recounted. "Many farms are run now by 14 and 15-year olds, both of whose parents are dead." Despite the burden and hardship faced by these children, she counted them among the more fortunate ones. Others are taken away and put in homes, deprived of connection to the rest of their families and communities which could support them.

"We need a special kind of help for the victims of AIDS and their families," Masinde pleaded, "which allows relatives to take responsibility for the land and the children of people who have died, so that these communities can supply some continuity in their lives."

Women account for an estimated 80 percent of the workforce in local food production in Africa. Masinde organizes associations of widows to help them cope with the loss of their husbands. But in the last year, she lost 20 out of 35 women participating in just one of the groups.

An Indian farmer activist, Juli Coriappa, talked at length about the role of women in the villages around her farm, who have historically taken care of the seeds used to plant each year's crops. This function helps define their status in their families and their larger communities.

India, along with many developing countries, has been flooded with new varieties of genetically-improved seeds for traditional crops. "But instead of making our communities better off by increasing production, which was the promise, we have become poorer as a result. Women especially have become marginalized," she explained.

New seed varieties are generally bred to be used in monoculture, or agriculture in which large fields are planted to just one crop, instead of the traditionally more diverse, small-plot farming. These new varieties are bred to produce large yields, but have little resistance to pests and require large inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, Coriappa said. Poor small-scale farmers in India can't afford to buy the inputs to go with the seeds, and crop yields often go down as a result.

Plants grown with these seeds don't produce the required amount of seed for the following year's planting. New seeds for each new crop must be bought as well, often from the same corporations which market the chemical inputs necessary to grow them. Women no longer are the caretakers of seed from one year to the next, and their social status has suffered.

A Dutch dairy farmer, Johanna Schuurman, criticized the authors of agriculture policy in Holland, who see the elimination of 40,000 out of 100,000 farmers as necessary to improve the country's agricultural competitiveness in Europe's new free market. She called the government direction anti-family and anti-women.

"When my husband and I were young, and took over our farm from his parents," she remembered, "we followed the prevailing policy of the time, which was that we should get bigger. We went from 50 cows to 100 cows, and increased our land use as well. Then those same policy makers brought Holland into the European Community, and all of a sudden we had a quota which cut what we could produce. So we went back to having 40 cows, with milking machines, and a computerized feed system.

"Now they tell us again that only bigger farms should survive. The coops give the big farms better prices. The banks give them better terms on loans. And in the meantime, the price of milk has gone down to 6.5 cents, which is less than it costs us to produce it."

Schuuman's son is married, with two young children. He and his wife still farm, but she doubts that they'll be able to survive on the land.

"If every country is cutting costs for the same reason, we're all just being pitted against each other to see how far down we can go," she declared angrily. "We're human beings, not surplus." Despite her bitter experience, however, she still thinks that policies, which she says make a fetish of competitiveness, can be changed. "I feel like a fly fighting with an elephant," she said. "But even an elephant will give up if it faces a swarm."

In 1974, the first World Food Conference declared "the inalienable right to be free from hunger." Meeting at the Rome World Food Summit 22 years later, governments and international institutionss could hardly avoid the obvious. The number of the hungry hasn't declined at all. Despite the sentiments and commitments of two decades ago, 809 million people go hungry today, including 200 million children under five. In 1974, the estimate was 840 million.

Of course, there are more people now. The population of the world is growing. But in contrast to 1974, the Rome conference didn't even propose eliminating hunger in the forseeable future, only cutting the number by half in the next 20 years. Few believe it can even meet that goal.

An indignant Fidel Castro asked delegates: "What kind of cosmetic solutions are we going to provide that in 20 years from now there would be 400 millions instead of 800 million starving people? The very modesty of these goals is shameful."

The basic problem is that international conferences on hunger don't set the rules for global food production and distribution. Nor do most governments. The real power lies elsewhere.

The basic decisions about the world's food production are increasingly made by transnational corporations and banks, and the institutions which protect them, under the free-trade rules of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the World Trade Organization, and trading blocks like NAFTA and the European Community. While some of the countries which suffer under those rules criticized them in Rome, they don't have the power to change them. And those countries which have that power have no intention of doing so.

The last 22 years have seen the growth of free-trade, structural-adjustment programs to open up the economies of poor countries. More food is produced than ever before, but as a profit-making commodity, not for the sake of feeding the hungry.

At the World Food Summit, the governments of the south - the poor and developing countries - attacked the unequal distribution of the world's wealth, funneled from the poor to the rich. The increasingly-conservative governments of industrially-developed countries, led by the United States, called for ending the old systems for distributing aid to poor countries. Instead, they touted the free operation of market forces, claiming that open economies, free trade and austerity programs will lead to greater production.

One of the most eloquent denunciations of the world economic order came from Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan of Guyana. Jagan, a leftwing socialist, was the target of successful CIA destabiliations efforts in the 1960s, when he tried to implement wide-ranging land reform and nationalization of foreign enterprises. After years out of power, he was reelected in the early 1990s, and found the strings of debt on Guyana wound so tightly that he couldn't reintroduce the kinds of reforms he initiated years before, without devastating reprisals from the world financial community.

"A stop must be put to an unjust global economic order," Jagan declared bitterly, "which robs the south of about $500 billion annually in unjust, non-equivalent trade; an order where the south finances the rich north with south-to-north capital outflow of $418 billion in the 1982-90 period as debt payments - a sum equal to six Marshall Plans...[which] did not even include outflows from royalties, dividends, repatriated profits and underpaid raw material."

Guyana itself paid $308 million in debt service from 1992-95. Those funds would otherwise have gone to poverty relief, rural development, agriculture, health and education, all of which would have reduced hunger and helped Guyanans eat more adequately. Jagan called the idea that privatization, free markets and foreign investment would lead to development "a myth."

But that was the position taken by the United States, in the negotiations around the Rome Declaration which preceded the conference. As a result of U.S. insistence, point four of the declaration's plan of action is dedicated to the pursuit of "a fair and market-oriented world trade system." In the declaration's own words, market orientation may cause "short term negative effects" on the world's poorest countries. Translation: more hunger, not less.

Market-orientation means the pursuit of markets by some of the world's largest corporations, like the Cargill and Continental grain companies. They would like to see trade barriers eliminated, which poor countries use to protect small farmers from floods of cheap imported foodstuffs.

The U.S. essentially sees food production as a business, while most other countries, especially the poor ones, see farming as the means of subsistence for a large percentage of their population. In Rome, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman boasted to the assembled nations that the U.S. "is the leading supplier of food to the world," whose farmers "plant for world demand instead of for government programs." For the U.S., "the private sector is the great untapped frontier in the world war on hunger."

Under President Clinton, the Agriculture Department has become a shill for U.S. exports, giving it such close ties to that private sector that they cost Glickman's predecessor his job. Ex-Secretary Mike Espy was linked to the huge chicken producer, Tyson Foods, almost as soon as the administration took office in 1992, and his brother was named as a recipient of bribes paid by California's huge Sun-Diamond growers marketing cooperative.

Sounding as though he was plugging the recently-enacted welfare reform bill and talking about welfare moms, Glickman called on the leaders of poor countries to "enact the reforms necessary to pull their countries out of poverty and dependence."

Just to drive the point home, on the last day of the summit, the he filed a clarification of the U.S. position on the final declaration. "The United States believes," his letter said, "that the attainment of any 'right to adequate food' or 'fundamental right to be free from hunger' is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not give rise to any international obligations nor diminish the responsibilities of national governments toward their citizens." Translation: if you don't have money to buy our food, we're not obligated to give you a thing.

Some environmental organizations, led by Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, warned that the world's productive capacity is limited. The population is growing in developing countries, particularly China, he asserted. Plus, people are eating more meat as their incomes rise, requiring increasing consumption of grain. He predicted an unbearable strain on food resources as a consequence. Brown's opposition in Rome came from an unusual alliance of the Vatican and underdeveloped countries, who said the problem isn't how many people live in the world, but the fact that some have the money to buy food and others don't.

While saying that demographic growth could not be limitless, the Pope declared during his address on the conference's opening day that there was no reason to think that the stabilization of population growth, or even its reduction, would eliminate hunger. Instead, he called hunger a consequence of economic inequality between rich and poor, of refugees fleeing their homelands, and the "sometimes insupportable burden of the foreign debt."

The pope also listed economic embargoes as a cause of hunger, and during the summit he met with leaders of two states, Cuba and Iraq, which are subject to them. Over U.S. objections, a section of the Rome declaration declares that food must not be used as an instrument of economic or political pressure.

Among women at the NGO conference, the feeling of exclusion from the formal discussions at the World Food Summit was a strong undercurrent. The summit's structure only allowed for participation from the formal government delegations. Missing from the debate were the voices of those people who produce the food themselves.

"We are the point of view closest to production," challenged Isabel Cruz, coordinator of Via Campesina, a coalition of farmers organizations and unions of rural workers from 60 countries. "Communities of farmers and small producers see the globalization of food production from below. And from our point of view, this globalization of production is also producing a globalization of hunger."

Via Campesina, together with the other NGOs, felt that the decisions affecting food production are made, not by producers, but by international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. In Mexico, Cruz said, "policies relating to food production aren't made in the Agriculture Secretariat, but by the Finance Ministry."

Cruz directs the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions, an effort to organize credit unions for Mexican campesinos. She and many other rural activists in Mexico have criticized the austerity policies of the Mexican government, which has cut rural credit as part of an overall restructuring of the country's economy to produce a move favorable climate for foreign investment, and to pay its foreign debt.

As in many other third world countries, Mexican rural communities are shrinking as people find it more and more difficult to make a living on the land, and head for the cities looking for work, or leave for the U.S.

Mexican corn, the traditional staple crop grown by farming families, is no longer bought at a state-subsidized and guaranteed price. Since NAFTA dropped barriers at the border, it now competes against corn imported from the United States. Dropping the barrier against corn imports, following the implementation of NAFTA, led to the Zapatista rising of small indigenous corn farmers in Chiapas.

High-tech farms run by huge agro-industrial companies in states like Iowa and California have lowered the cost of production to a level where small producers in Mexico can't compete. "They're driving people off the land as a result," Cruz explains. "That's why one of the basic demands of Via Campesina is the right to produce. It makes no sense to talk about feeding the world through highly mechanized production, if its effect is to displace millions of rural families."

On the surface, Cruz had little disagreement with the general goals of ending hunger and preserving rural communities, which were supported in Rome by the official Mexican government delegation along with those of most other countries. "The problem," she said, "is the basic contradiction between having those goals on one level, and pursuing overall economic policies on another which make it impossible to achieve them."

Expressing frustration at being marginalized in this discussion, Juli Coriappa, her husband Vivek and their two-year old Azad, tried to lead a march from the Colisseum to the FAO headquarters, late in the afternoon on the second day of the Rome summit. It was not a large group - about 200 mostly-young activists. Many tied black handkerchiefs around their mouths, to protest the summit's agenda, which only allowed 4 minutes for non-governmental participation in five days of talks.

The Italian authorities and the FAO, so nervous about security they even shut down the subway station at the summit building, stopped the march before it even started.

"It's kind of ironic, don't you think?" Coriappa asked. "Here they talk about how they want to end hunger. They brag that they've mentioned women 35 times in their declaration. But when a bunch of women, farmers and young people want to march to the summit to talk to them, they don't know what to do about us."

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