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Archive for August 2010

Pakistan Indus flood relief: Himal Southasian

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The excellent Himal Southasian magazine is maintaining a packed page full of information about relief, ways to contribute money and services, maps and data, contact emails and phone numbers of people coordinating relief work in Pakistan, names and contact data of agencies doing relief work.

Himal Southasian magazineThe Indus Flood Relief – Fund Collection Drive is being organised by Himal Southasian, South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and NGO Federation of Nepal. This is a fund opened in Kathmandu for those all over Southasia and elsewhere seeking to support the immediate, ongoing relief efforts in Pakistan. Himal asks you to please use this facility to send money to the victims of flood along the Indus. The recipient organisation is The Institute for Social Movements-Pakistan (ISM PAK) in Hyderabad (Sindh), working with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) on emergency response and support. ISM PAK and OPP urgently need funds for rations, medicine, shelters, drinking water, infant diet support, livestock fodder and vaccination, hygiene kits, makeshift toilets and schooling camps.

The Himal page provides detail such as: “”The Sindh government has decided to move displaced people from Jacobabad to Karachi, Hyderabad and Jamshoro. The City District Government Karachi (local government) has identified four locations in Karachi where the displaced families will be brought in: Gaddap, Bin Qasim Town, Keamari, Toll Plaza. Kashmore and Dadu are the worst effected districts. In Kashmore, 50000 people are either on Bunds or in camps. Around 150000 people have been moved to Sukkur, Khairpur, Karachi, Hyderabad and Sibi (Balochistan).”

There are also daily updated lists of what’s needed where – clothing, utensils, toiletries, food, medicines – and who’s doing what – the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (Pakistan government), the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and The institute for Social Movements, Pakistan (ISM-Pak).

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Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them

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Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

This extract is taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

SECTION 2: Likely Physical and Economic Displacement due to the Project, Including the Resource Displacement of Forest Users 2.A. The Kondh: Social Identity and Livelihoods

The forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.

In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’.

They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. As Narendra Majhi, a Kutia Kondh from Similibhata village, said, “We worship Niyam Raja and Dharini Penu. That is why we don’t fall ill”. Sikoka Lodo, a Dongaria Kondh from Lakpadar village said, “As long as the mountain is alive, we will not die”. Dongaria Kondh art and craft reflect the importance of the mountains to their community— their triangular shapes recur in the designs painted on the walls of the village shrine as well as in the colourful shawls that they wear. All the Dongria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).

The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia (ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri (urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

They listed some of the items that they collect from the forest: different kinds of edible tubers (bhatkand, pitakand, mundikand); mahua flowers, siali (Bauhinia) leaves and jhunu (aromatic resin from the sal tree) for sale; and bamboo and wood (for implements and fuel) for their own use. Different parts of the PML [proposed mining lease] are identified by specific local names depending on the nature of the vegetation. The grassland edge area of the PML is locally known as Aonlabhata for the large number of amla (Emblica officinalis) trees found on the plateau which the Kondh harvest for medicinal use and for sale.

With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resource satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only four households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage.

Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating (lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.

Special mention must be made to the livestock that the Dongaria Kondh rear, especially the buffaloes that have particular cultural importance for them. Livestock is not reared for milk but for draught and meat. Buffaloes are highly valued for ritual purposes — religious and wedding-related festivities involve the sacrifice of buffaloes. Their biggest festival, Meria, is celebrated every three years in the month of Magh (January-February). During this festival, buffaloes are offered to Niyam Raja and their blood is allowed to seep into the earth. Buffalo meat is eaten fresh and dried for later use. Payments of bride-price also usually include one or two buffaloes.

The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy. When the Committee visited the grassy plateau that forms the PML area, we found a herd of fifty buffaloes grazing. Since they were unaccompanied by any person, the village they belonged to could not be ascertained. Traces of old campfires at the edge of the plateau indicated that the area is used extensively and regularly by cattle and their herders. Given that the PML has excellent grass growth, this large number of buffaloes on the site was not surprising. In discussions with villagers in the neighbouring villages of Rengopali, Bandhaguda and Kendupardi, the Committee was repeatedly informed that their cattle graze on the PML for substantial lengths of time, ranging from four months to eight months each year, as part of their customary rights.

The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom we spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor. Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.

The Dongaria Kondh we met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”

A victory for the Dongria Kondh

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Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Vedanta has been stopped. The mining conglomerate has been refused permission to work in Orissa by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. A high-level committee was commissioned by the ministry earlier this year to deliver judgment on the country’s most controversy-ridden mining proposal. Vedanta Resources plc and the Orissa Mining Corporation planned to extract bauxite from the top of part of the Niyamgiri mountain range in Orissa. On August 16th the committee, headed by N C Saxena, delivered its conclusions to the Ministry and unequivocally condemned the project.

Business Standard reports that the Saxena panel was commissioned by the Environment Ministry which had set up a four-member team headed by Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, to probe into the alleged violations of tribal and forest laws. The Saxena report has also accused the company of illegally occupying forest land for its US$1.7 billion mining project. The allegations have been, however, strongly refuted by the Orissa state government, which claimed that the Saxena report has cast aspersions on the state over grant of mining licenses, even though the Supreme Court has already given its ruling on the matter.

“No Ministry can abdicate its responsibility of enforcing the laws passed by Parliament,” said Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment, citing the Attorney General’s opinion that he was free to decide on final clearance despite the Supreme Court ruling. “My Ministry cannot function on the basis of fait accomplis:Since August 2008, a lot of new information has come to light. It is on the basis of this incriminating new evidence that the decision has been taken.”

[Earlier posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle are here, here and here.]

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

The Saxena team discovered numerous instances of negligence – to the point of criminality – on the part of local government officials and the state government itself. It  highlighted egregious violations of existing legislation to protect Indigenous Peoples rights (specifically as Forest Peoples). Not least, it roundly condemned the manoeuvres and activities of UK-listed Vedanta – both in regard to the mine and the construction of its adjacent alumina refinery.

In its introduction, the Saxena Report on Vedanta and the mining of Nyamgiri stated:

“In the committee’s view the mining of Nyamgiri would:
* Destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups
* Destroy more than seven square kilometers of sacred, undisturbed forest land on top of the mountain that has been protected by the Dongaria Kondh for centuries as sacred to Niyam Raja and as essential to preserving the region’s fertility.
* Endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods of these Primitive Tribal Groups
* Seriously harm the livelihood of hundreds of Dalit families who isndirectly depend upon these lands through their economic relationship with these Primitive Tribe Groups,
* Build roads through the Dongaria Kondh’s territories, making the area easily accessible to poachers of wildlife and timber smugglers threatening the rich biodiversity of the hills”

The Saxena report also noted violations by Vedanta of:

The Forest Conservation Act – (1) The company is in illegal occupation of 26.123 ha of village forest lands enclosed within the factory premises. The claim by the company that they have only followed the state government orders and enclosed the forest lands within their factory premises to protect these lands and that they provide access to the tribal and other villagers to their village forest lands is completely false. This is an act of total contempt for the law on the part of the company and an apalling degree of collusion on the part of the concerned officials. (2) For the construction of a road running parallel to the conveyor corridor, the company has illegally occupied plot number 157(P) measuring 1.0 acre and plot number 133 measuring 0.11 acres of village forest lands. This act is also similar to the above although the land involved is much smaller in extent.

The Environment Protection Act (EPA) – (1) The company M/s Vedanta Alumina Limited has already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per provisions of EIA Notification, 2006 under the EPA. This amounts to a serious violation of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act. This expansion, its extensive scale and advanced nature, is in complete violation of the EPA and is an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land.

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The welcome decision has come after months of high-pressure lobbying by Vedanta and its industry supporters, which has been countered on the ground by rallies and information campaigns mounted by many activist and citizens’ groups. The struggle of the Dongria Kondh has found support around the world. Yet the upholding of the findings of the Saxena team owes a great deal to the independence of India’s processes of law, which were underscored again on 19 July 2010 when, in another mining case, the Supreme Court temed developmental policies as “blinkered”.

The Supreme Court said that the promised rights and benefits never reached marginalised citizens fuelling extreme discontent and giving birth to naxalism and militancy, which are threatening the sovereignty of the country. Referring to the large-scale displacement of tribals from forest land in the name of mining and development, the Court said non-settlement of their rights and non-provision for timely compensation of their lost land has created the worst kind of hatred among them towards development, possibly giving birth to extremism.

“To millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word that is aimed at denying them even the source of their sustenance,” a Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and B S Chauhan said. “It is cynically said that on the path of `maldevelopment’ almost every step that we take seems to give rise to insurgency and political extremism which along with terrorism are supposed to be the three gravest threats to India’s integrity and sovereignty,” it said. “Why is the state’s perception and vision of development at such great odds with the people it purports to develop? And why are their rights so dispensable? Why do India’s GDP and human development index present such vastly different pictures?”

Pakistan: map resources for flood relief planning

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Pakistan 2010 August superflood: Map from ReliefwebHydrology.nl the Dutch portal to international hydrology and water resources has provided mapping resources for the Pakistan superflood.

UNOSAT is the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme, implemented in co-operation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). UNOSAT has produced a new satellite-based analysis of probable flood-affected villages, towns and infrastructure resulting from the advancing flood waters based on satellite imagery. Villages, towns, infrastructure sites as well as the length of roads and railway tracks within the detected flood water extent have been identified and quantified.

SERTIT is Le Service Régional de Traitement d’Image et de Télédétection, a remote sensing and image processing service from the ENSPS, Strasbourg, a graduate Engineering School. Maps for flood-affected Pakistan are here. Sertit extracts information from data produced by Earth Observation systems and is specialized in crisis remote sensing applications. It is supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and has been contracted by the French Space Agency (CNES) to produce Earth Observation derived products.

Pakistan 2010 August superflood: Map from International Charter, provides a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disastersThe International Charter provides a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disasters. Maps for flood-affected Pakistan are here. Each member agency has committed resources to support the provisions of the Charter and thus is helping to mitigate the effects of disasters on human life and property.

ReliefWeb has posted a “How to help”, which is a guide to humanitarian giving in response to the floods in Pakistan. ReliefWeb said:

The worst floods ever to hit Pakistan have affected an estimated 15.4 million people with over 8 million in need of urgent life-saving humanitarian assistance as of 16 August. Over 1,600 people have died and at least 893,000 homes are reported to have been destroyed or severely damaged, leaving millions homeless. In addition to the rising number of deaths, injuries and displacements, there is major damage to roads, bridges, infrastructure and livelihoods.”

“Over the medium to long term, food security in the country is likely to be harmed by the significant loss of crops and agricultural land. The most urgent needs of the population are food, clean drinking water, emergency shelter, medical care and non-food items. Urgent repairs to damaged roads, bridges and telecommunications networks are required to ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered.”

Pakistan ‘superflood’ and relief work

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A crowd of people surround a truck loaded with food aid © Eduardo Diaz/UN OCHA

A crowd of people surround a truck loaded with food aid © Eduardo Diaz/UN OCHA

New reportage, contact information of UN and related relief efforts, other resources.

Shelter assistance: Daily updates on distributions to date, coverage, projected coverage and outstanding gaps in terms of shelter assistance are available on the shelter cluster website.

Logistics assistance: The Logistics Cluster is coordinating with the Pakistan Government to include relief items from the humanitarian community. Interested organisations can contact the cluster here.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian organization is running a range of relief programmes in Pakistan.

Outside Islamabad, humanitarian coordination centres (HCCs) continue to operate in Peshawar (covering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Multan (covering Punjab) and Sukkur (covering Sindh). Contact details of coordination focal points in each are below. Further information is available on the response website.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

OCHA Pakistan, Manuel Bessler, Head of Office bessler@un.org
Maurizio Giuliano, Public Information Officer, UN Pakistan giuliano@un.org +92 300 8502397
Nicki Bennett, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer bennett5@un.org +92 300 850 2289
Susan le Roux, Donor Liaison Officer leroux@un.org +92 308 520 5819
Fawad Hussain, Sindh Coordination Centre fawad.hussain@un.org +92 301 854 2495
Hussain Ullah, Punjab Coordination Centre ullah5@un.org +92 301 854 2449
Waheed Anwar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Coordination Centre anwarw@un.org +92 301 854 2449
Alexander Hasenstab, NGO Liaison Officer hasenstab@un.org +92 345 850 9011

Plan Pakistan is coordinating relief work and assistance, donations and material. Contact them here.

UN OCHA’s Pakistan Monsoon Floods Situation Report 18 August 2010 says:

A submerged street near Nowshera, Kyhber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Rising water in dams could create more havoc © Abdul Majeed Goraya/IRIN

A submerged street near Nowshera, Kyhber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Rising water in dams could create more havoc © Abdul Majeed Goraya/IRIN

Government figures on the number of people directly affected by the floods remain unchanged since the previous situation report, at 15.4 million (National and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities, 18 August). Assessments to establish the degree to which affected populations are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance continue.

The official death toll has risen to 1,475, with 2,052 people reported as injured. Almost 1 million houses are now reported as having been either damaged or destroyed. The south of the country continues to feel the impact of the second wave of floods, with a spur of the Indus River now stretching through Jacobabad district in Sindh into Jaffarabad in Balochistan.

The Meteorological Department warns of a continuing risk of inundation of low-lying areas of Khairpur, Jacobabad, Ghotki, Sukkur, Larkana, Nawabshah, Hyderabad, Naushahro Feroze and Thatta districts of Sindh in the coming days. The Meteorological Department’s Flood Forecasting Division reports that flood levels in the Indus are holding at “extremely high” levels at Guddu and Sukkur in northern Sindh, and rising further downriver at Kotri, as the flood wave continues to move through the province.

Despite the continuing efforts of the Government and the humanitarian community to assist affected populations across the country, large numbers of people are yet to be reached with the assistance they need, particularly in Sindh and Punjab. While funding levels are now improving in key sectors, the continuing threat of flooding in many areas and the manner in which populations are spread across a vast area persist as major operational challenges.

An IRIN news report has said that the chaotic evacuation of towns and villages in flood affected areas means vulnerable people have become separated from male family members, putting them at a disadvantage: The elderly, women and children are often unable to reach the bags or parcels being distributed, especially when mobs besiege the aid trucks. “It’s these vulnerable groups that we need to pay attention to,” said Shahnawaz Khan, disaster risk reduction coordinator for the NGO Plan Pakistan.

Aid organizations have already expressed concern over incidents in which convoys attempting to hand out food have been attacked. A 16 August report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said looting of aid supplies has been alleged in Muzaffargarh in the southwestern part of Punjab Province, one of the worst-hit of the province’s 36 districts. A Muzaffargarh District administration official who asked not to be named said: “We have hordes of starving people. Things are desperate. There is insufficient aid and people who are weak and vulnerable, including women, are naturally worst affected.”

IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta said millions of Pakistanis have been affected by the most destructive disaster in the country’s history. “Survivors have experienced tragedy three times over,” said Geleta, who took part in a distribution of tents and other relief items by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in Charsadda and Tenghi, north of Peshawar. “Many have lost loved ones, household goods and animals. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is now planning a fivefold increase in its response to Pakistan’s monsoon “superflood”, and is appealing to international donors to support a recovery programme likely to extend to 2012. In the medium term, at least 6 million people will need emergency humanitarian assistance, in the form of safe water, tents and shelter materials, and medical help.

Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.

Low-tech cellphones spread climate and jobs news

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I’ve been quoted on DailyClimate.org’s weekly feature about new and noteworthy developments on climate change. Editor Douglas Fischer wrote this in his 9 August despatch:

FM radio and cellular phones are fostering a rising awareness of climate impacts and mitigation in some of the globe’s remotest and most undeveloped regions. In Nepal, community radio has long been used to spread news about social issues. But lately the focus has shifted to climate change, said Pitambar Sigdel, a senior reporter for Annapurna Post, the national daily newspaper.

“They are playing some interesting roles,” she said via e-mail. “Local people are so much (more) conscious about the importance of forestry and natural resources” and are sharing information about reforestation and planting as a result. It also serves as an early warning system of sorts about landslides and other natural disasters, she said.

In rural Uganda, farmers use mobile telephones to pass along information about the impacts and control of climate change. In Malawi, Mudziwathu Community Radio finds listeners rely on text messages and laptops connected via Zain modems to communicate climate and environmental questions.

Of course, these informal networks are not just spreading environmental news. In India, particularly in urban settlements, the phone can be seen as an indicator of the uncertainty and fluidity of the modern job market. Rahul Goswami, who works with India’s National Agriculture Innovation Programme, said the spread of cheap mobile service has facilitated the creation of a cheap alert system for “tens of thousands of informal workers in towns and cities” that points those seeking work to spots where the next 50 or 100 rupees can be earned. “For South Asia, mobile phone usage shows how the informal worker tries to do her best to adapt to increasing uncertainty about both work and wage,” he said.

Low-tech approach spreads climate news in rural countries

Written by makanaka

August 17, 2010 at 19:55

Sound and fury over the ‘New Delhi superbug’

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The Government of India has decided on a matter of medical research to protest what it sees as an attack on India’s pride and reputation. In the process it is ignoring entirely the public health implications of the findings concerning the ‘New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM-1) positive Enterobacteriaceae‘ which a typically hair-trigger and chronically underinformed media have promptly labelled the ‘New Delhi superbug‘.

The Lancet study on 'New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1'National politicians are notoriously quick to point out and rubbish any perceived stain on Mother India’s honour – never mind that 53 million children under five are malnourished and 456 million live in poverty. And so it is with the Lancet Infectious Diseases paper whose findings ought to be treated with the seriousness they deserve, rather than be rubbished out of hand as being an attempt to scuttle India’s ambitious medical tourism industry. The problem is seen as commercial, not health, which becomes clear given the non-partisan nature of the defenders.

India’s Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad directed the ministry he heads to issue a statement which said: “While such organisms may be circulating more commonly in the world due to international travel but to link this with the safety of surgery hospitals in India and citing isolated examples to show that due to presence of such organism in Indian environment, India is not a safe place to visit is wrong.” The Indian health authorities also complained to the Indian media that several authors of the Lancet study had pharmaceutical ties. “After seeing the research paper I strongly refute that hospitals in India are the source of the strain and strongly condemn naming the bacteria after New Delhi,” said Director General of Health Services RK Srivastav.

Malnourished children under 5, MDGs map, World Bank

Malnourished children under 5, MDGs map, World Bank

Politician S S Ahluwalia, who is deputy leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha (upper house), called the study a “sinister design” of foreign multinational companies to undermine India’s burgeoning medical tourism industry. He said in the Rajya Sabha that “the timing of the article was suspicious” as it came when “India is emerging as a global power in medical tourism”. However, being in the opposition, he also asked the government to “come out with a registry that will record infections when they are detected in hospitals, and also antibiotics for their treatment”. This demand was probably prompted by a report citing an official of the Indian Council of Medical Research as having said that India currently does not have any rules or registry to record hospital-acquired infections.

In all the expressions of outrage, what is clear is that the immediate concern of the Union Health Ministry and the assortment of politicians and health officials protesting is the impact of the Lancet study on India’s medical tourism industry, which is no doubt booming, of which a substantial portion is composed of medical visitors from Britain, and which is estimated by the healthcare industry to reach USD 2.3 billion in value by 2012. Perhaps the only rational response was from the Minister of State for Science and Technology and Parliamentary Affairs, Prithviraj Chavan, who told Parliament he would provide an answer “after consulting with the health ministry and department of biotechnology”.

What actually set off the outrage in India? As Nature Blogs explains, the ‘New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM-1) positive Enterobacteriaceae’ comprise a new breed of multidrug-resistant bacterium. Germs carrying the NDM-1 gene fend off almost every known antibiotic, including the carbapenem family of drugs reserved as a last resort. One such bug claimed its first known fatality in June, when a Belgian man infected while hospitalised in Pakistan died in Brussels. The Lancet paper found the NDM-1 gene in isolates of Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae taken from sites in the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan. Of the 29 UK patients found with NDM-1 germs, 17 had recently traveled to India or Pakistan, and several had been hospitalised while undergoing elective surgery.

The Lancet study on 'New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1'What does the Lancet study actually say? Entitled ‘Emergence of a new antibiotic resistance mechanism in India, Pakistan, and the UK: a molecular, biological, and epidemiological study’, the 31 collaborating authors say that “Gram-negative Enterobacteriaceae with resistance to carbapenem conferred by New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM-1) are potentially a major global health problem“. They say this because they investigated the prevalence of NDM-1, in multidrug-resistant Enterobacteriaceae in India, Pakistan, and the UK. Enterobacteriaceae isolates were studied from two major centres in India – Chennai (south India), Haryana (north India) – and those referred to the UK’s national reference laboratory.

Here is the short statement of findings: “We identified 44 isolates with NDM-1 in Chennai, 26 in Haryana, 37 in the UK, and 73 in other sites in India and Pakistan. NDM-1 was mostly found among Escherichia coli (36) and Klebsiella pneumoniae (111), which were highly resistant to all antibiotics except to tigecycline and colistin. K pneumoniae isolates from Haryana were clonal but NDM-1 producers from the UK and Chennai were clonally diverse. Most isolates carried the NDM-1 gene on plasmids: those from UK and Chennai were readily transferable whereas those from Haryana were not conjugative. Many of the UK NDM-1 positive patients had travelled to India or Pakistan within the past year, or had links with these countries.”

And this is the no-nonsense assessment: “The potential of NDM-1 to be a worldwide public health problem is great, and co-ordinated international surveillance is needed.” Who funded the research? The European Union, Wellcome Trust, and Wyeth. Does this pose conflicts of interest? According to the Indian government it does, for the Union Health Ministry has pointed out that one author “has received a travel grant from Wyeth” and another “has received
conference support from numerous pharmaceutical companies, and also holds shares in AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Dechra, and GlaxoSmithKline, and, as Enduring Attorney, manages further holdings in GlaxoSmithKline and Eco Animal Health”. However what was not mentioned is the statement that “all other authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest” which covers 29 out of 31.

The Lancet paper makes several observations which have implications for public health in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Asia and these are:

Population living in poverty, MDGs map, World Bank

Population living in poverty, MDGs map, World Bank

“NDM-1-positive bacteria from Mumbai (32 isolates), Varanasi (13), and Guwahati (three) in India, and 25 isolates from eight cities in Pakistan (Charsadda, Faisalabad, Gujrat, Hafizabad, Karachi, Lahore, Rahim Yar Khan, and Sheikhupura) were also analysed in exactly the same manner but in laboratories in India and Pakistan. These isolates were from a range of infections including bacteraemia, ventilator-associated pneumonia, and community-acquired urinary tract infections.”

“In addition to the collections of isolates from Chennai and Haryana detailed above, we have confirmed by PCR alone the presence of genes encoding NDM-1 in carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae isolated from Guwahati, Mumbai, Varanasi, Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Port Blair, and Delhi in India, eight cities (Charsadda, Faisalabad, Gujrat, Hafizabad, Karachi, Lahore, Rahim Yar Khan, and Sheikhupura) in Pakistan, and Dhaka in Bangladesh suggesting widespread dissemination.”

The concern is that there is widespread nonprescription use of antibiotics in India, leading to huge selection pressure, which led the study authors to predict that the NDM-1 problem is likely to get substantially worse in the foreseeable future. “This scenario is of great concern because there are few new anti-Gram-negative antibiotics in the pharmaceutical pipeline and none that are active against NDM-1 producers.” Even more disturbing, the authors have said, is that most of the Indian isolates from Chennai and Haryana were from community-acquired infections, suggesting that NDM-1 is widespread in the environment.

New Delhi and other India metropolises and cities have witnessed repeated surges in the incidents of dengue and, especially in monsoon months, malaria, which the city authorities of Mumbai (Bombay) are currently battling in a haphazard and quite ineffectual manner. The conclusions of the Lancet study on NDM-1 naturally also raise question about the ability of a worn out public health system to identify and respond to new threats, and it is this aspect which ought to be exercising the Union Health Ministry rather than the perceived slur on five-star medical tourism facilities. Moreover, as the affiliations of the study authors show, this is a South Asian effort concerning what ought to be viewed as a South Asian health issue, and the Indian Government’s nationalistic response ignores the regional dimension entirely (and typically).

“The introduction of NDM-1 into the UK is also very worrying and has prompted the release of a National Resistance Alert 3 notice by the Department of Health on the advice of the Health Protection Agency,” the study has said in conclusion. “Given the historical links between India and the UK, that the UK is the first western country to register the widespread presence of NDM-1-positive bacteria is unsurprising. However, it is not the only country affected. In addition to the first isolate from Sweden, a NDM-1-positive K pneumoniae isolate was recovered from a patient who was an Australian resident of Indian origin and had visited Punjab in late 2009. The isolate was highly resistant and carried NDM-1 on an incompatibility A/C type plasmid similar to those in India and the UK.”

Several of the UK source patients had undergone elective, including cosmetic, surgery while visiting India or Pakistan. India also provides cosmetic surgery for other Europeans and Americans, and NDM-1 will likely spread worldwide. It is disturbing, in context, to read calls in the popular press for UK patients to opt for corrective surgery in India with the aim of saving the NHS money. As our data show, such a proposal might ultimately cost the NHS substantially more than the short-term saving and we would strongly advise against such proposals. The potential for wider international spread of producers and for NDM-1-encoding plasmids to become endemic worldwide, are clear and frightening.”

The authors of the Lancet study and their institutional affiliations are: Department of Microbiology, Dr ALM PG IBMS, University of Madras, Chennai, India (K K Kumarasamy MPhil, P Krishnan PhD); Department of Infection, Immunity and Biochemistry, School of Medicine, Cardiff University, Cardiff , UK (M A Toleman PhD, Prof T R Walsh PhD, the lead author); Health Protection Agency Centre for Infections, London, UK (J Bagaria MD, R Balakrishnan MD, M Doumith PhD, S Maharjan MD, S Mushtaq MD, T Noorie MD, A Pearson PhD, C Perry PhD, R Pike PhD, B Rao MD, E Sheridan PhD, J Turton PhD, M Warner PhD, W Welfare PhD, D M Livermore PhD, N Woodford PhD); Department of Microbiology, Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, Lahore, Pakistan (F Butt MD); Department of Microbiology, Pandit B D Sharma PG Institute of Medical Sciences, Haryana, India (U Chaudhary MD, M Sharma MD); Department of Clinical Microbiology, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden (C G Giske MD); Department of Pathology and Microbiology, The Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan (S Irfan MD); Department of Microbiology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kerala, India (A V Kumar MD); University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, University of Brisbane, Herston, QLD, Australia (D L Paterson MD); Department of Microbiology, Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Kolkata, India (U Ray MD); Department of Medical Microbiology, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Tyne and Wear, UK (J B Sarma MD); Department of Microbiology, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, India (M A Thirunarayan MD); and Department of Microbiology, Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India (S Upadhyay PhD).

USDA August world grain bulletin

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The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has just released its August bulletin on world grain. It has made an effort to quell fears of a worldwide grain shortage by headlining the main report “No global shortage of food grains”, but the numbers provided indicate the reality at work. I have excerpted the important paras of the Grains report and the World Agricultural Production report. Also look at the table for wheat totals.

“Expectations that prices in the next few months will hit the record levels of 2007/08 levels are not substantiated by the reality of the global supply situation. Black Sea (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan) wheat exports are expected to plummet 60 percent (21 MMT) on drought-reduced crops. However, traditional exporters, particularly the United States, are holding large supplies that are more than sufficient to compensate for the Black Sea shortfall. In fact, U.S. ending stocks at 26 million tons are three times larger than just a few years ago.”

Russia Wheat: Drought Has Reduced Yield by 40 Percent in Key Production Regions – “The USDA forecasts Russia wheat production for 2010/11 at 45.0 million tons, down 8.0 million or 15 percent from last month and down 16.7 million or 27 percent from last year. Area is estimated at 26.7 million hectares, down 0.1 million from last month due to a slight reduction in estimated winter wheat area. Winter wheat accounts for slightly less than half of the total wheat area but almost two-thirds of production due to higher yields. Yield is estimated at 1.69 tons per hectare, down 15 percent from last month, and down 19 percent from the five-year average. Severe and persistent drought has sharply reduced yield prospects in Russia’s Central, Volga, and Ural Districts. The Central District produces mostly winter wheat, and the Volga and Ural Districts produce mostly spring wheat.”

“Ministry of Agriculture harvest data from August 4 indicates that wheat yield is down 39 percent from last year in the Volga District, with harvest about 40 percent complete, and down 37 percent in the Central District, with harvest about 80 percent complete. The drought has extended into the western regions of Siberia, but conditions in Altai Krai, Siberia’s top wheat-producing territory, are reasonably good. Wheat harvest has not yet begun in the Ural or Siberian Districts. Wheat in the Southern and North Caucasus Districts largely escaped significant drought-related damage. These two districts are located in southern European Russia and typically produce about half of Russia’s winter wheat. Harvest reports show yields up 6 percent in the Southern District and up 8 percent in the North Caucasus District with harvest about 80 to 90 percent complete.”

EU Wheat Production Lower by 4.3 Million Tons Due to Rain, Dryness – “USDA estimates the 2010/11 European Union (EU) wheat crop at 137.5 million tons from 25.6 million hectares. The August production estimate is reduced 4.3 million tons or 3 percent from July. With area unchanged, yield dropped from 5.53 to 5.36 tons per hectare. Compared to last year, production is down 0.7 million tons or 0.5 percent while area is down 0.1 million hectares or 0.4 percent. The wheat crop suffered from a dry spring and early summer in the western EU countries and from excessive precipitation in the eastern countries. France, the EU’s largest wheat producer is now estimated to have harvested 37.5 million tons, 0.5 million less than last month and 0.8 million less than last year, even though area is up 5.5 percent from last year. Dryness has reduced France’s 2010/11 yield estimate to 6.91 tons per hectare versus 7.45 tons last year.”

“Germany’s crop is still being harvested, and is estimated at 24.0 million tons, down 1.5 million or 6 percent from last month and 5 percent from last year. Unfavorable dryness was followed by excessive precipitation. The impact of the dryness was exacerbated in areas with light soils and contributed to the estimated German yield reduction to 7.23 tons per hectare, compared to 7.81 tons reached in 2009/10. Near-record amounts of rainfall fell during the wheat harvest in southeastern Europe, lowering yields and quality. Hungary’s wheat crop estimate is reduced by 0.8 million tons from last month to 4.0 million tons, which is down 9 percent from last year. Romania’s crop is reduced 0.65 million tons to 6.2 million tons, 17 percent below last year, and Bulgaria’s crop is reduced 0.4 million from last month to 3.6 million tons, down 10 percent from last year.”

All Grain Summary Comparison – mt
Wheat Rice Milled Corn
08-09 09-10 10-11 08-09 09-10 10-11 08-09 09-10 10-11
Production
United States (Jun-May) 68 60.3 61.6 6.4 6.9 7.7 307.1 333 339.5
Other 615.2 620 584.1 441.6 435.7 451.5 490.7 475.4 492.1
World Total 683.3 680.3 645.7 448 442.6 459.2 797.8 808.4 831.6
Domestic Consumption
United States (Jun-May) 34.3 30.9 32.3 4 4 4 259.3 289.3 290.6
Other 601.8 619.6 629.9 431.9 431.8 450 520.4 523 539.6
World Total 636.1 650.5 662.2 435.9 435.8 454 779.7 812.3 830.2
Ending Stocks
United States (Jun-May) 17.9 26.5 25.9 1 1.1 1.8 42.5 36.2 33.3
Other 147.6 167.5 148.8 89.9 93.9 95.7 105 102.8 105.9
World Total 165.5 194 174.8 90.9 95 97.5 147.5 139 139.2
TY Imports
United States (Jun-May) 3.5 3.3 2.7 0.7 0.7 0.7 0.3 0.2 0.3
Other 136.7 126.4 119.2 26.1 27.6 28.1 82.1 85.4 88.9
World Total 140.2 129.6 121.9 26.8 28.3 28.8 82.5 85.6 89.2
TY Exports
United States (Jun-May) 27.3 24.2 33 3 3.5 3.5 47.8 50 52
Other 115.8 108.5 91.5 26.3 26.6 27.9 36.2 37.8 39.4
World Total 143.1 132.6 124.5 29.3 30.1 31.3 84 87.8 91.4
All Grain Summary Comparison – mt
Wheat Rice Milled Corn
2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11
Production
United States (Jun-May) 68 60.3 61.6 6.4 6.9 7.7 307.1 333 339.5
Other 615.2 620 584.1 441.6 435.7 451.5 490.7 475.4 492.1
World Total 683.3 680.3 645.7 448 442.6 459.2 797.8 808.4 831.6
Domestic Consumption
United States (Jun-May) 34.3 30.9 32.3 4 4 4 259.3 289.3 290.6
Other 601.8 619.6 629.9 431.9 431.8 450 520.4 523 539.6
World Total 636.1 650.5 662.2 435.9 435.8 454 779.7 812.3 830.2
Ending Stocks
United States (Jun-May) 17.9 26.5 25.9 1 1.1 1.8 42.5 36.2 33.3
Other 147.6 167.5 148.8 89.9 93.9 95.7 105 102.8 105.9
World Total 165.5 194 174.8 90.9 95 97.5 147.5 139 139.2
TY Imports
United States (Jun-May) 3.5 3.3 2.7 0.7 0.7 0.7 0.3 0.2 0.3
Other 136.7 126.4 119.2 26.1 27.6 28.1 82.1 85.4 88.9
World Total 140.2 129.6 121.9 26.8 28.3 28.8 82.5 85.6 89.2
TY Exports
United States (Jun-May) 27.3 24.2 33 3 3.5 3.5 47.8 50 52
Other 115.8 108.5 91.5 26.3 26.6 27.9 36.2 37.8 39.4
World Total 143.1 132.6 124.5 29.3 30.1 31.3 84 87.8 91.4

The food-agritech-aid stakes, a return to the 1950s

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Undernourished population (image: Nature)At the end of July 2010, the United States government together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made an announcement that has far and wide implications for the agriculture and development sectors. The announcement was the launch of the ‘Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP)’. The US Under Secretary for International Affairs (Lael Brainard) and the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Sylvia Mathews Burwell) met ambassadors and embassy officials from more than a dozen African countries to discuss how they could use the new fund.

Described as “a new fund to tackle global hunger and poverty”, the GAFSP was created following the meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh, USA, in 2009. Launched in April 2010 with US$880 million in commitments from the United States of America, Canada, South Korea, Spain, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GAFSP “represents a global effort to aid vulnerable populations afflicted by hunger and poverty”.

Calorie availability (image: Nature)Moreover, it is being positioned as a key element of the Obama Administration’s initiative to, in its own words, enhance food security in poor countries, raise rural incomes and reduce poverty. Laudable aims, but food and food aid and agricultural technology has for most of the 20th century been a tool of foreign policy. South Asia knows that well with the role of the American philanthropic foundations and their role in ushering in the Green Revolution.

The fund’s first round of grants (total US$224 million) were awarded in June 2010 to Bangladesh, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Togo. In October 2010, approximately US$120 million will be available for allocation to countries “eligible” for the GAFSP. More than 25 countries are expected to apply for assistance, but there are conditions. Funding “will be prioritised” for those countries that demonstrate the highest levels of need, the strongest policy environments and the greatest level of country readiness. What does readiness mean? The country will need to draft and frame an agricultural development strategy and country investment plan.

Agriculture research (image: Nature)Rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little.

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished — their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements — not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. At least 30% of food goes to waste. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa — correlated with poverty — most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

Global undernourishment (image: Nature)2. The percentage of hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for decades even though the number of hungry worldwide barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these decades of gains.

3. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and should plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water, will be difficult.

4. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares — mostly from Latin America and Africa — without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.