Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Archive for December 2010

On the road, the ‘dhangars’ of Maharashtra

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Jyotiba dhangars from Kolhapur, travelling to Wai, in Maharashtra's Satara district.

Jyotiba dhangars from Kolhapur, travelling to Wai, in Maharashtra's Satara district.

The rapid loss of tree cover in western Maharashtra, together with overgrazing, has reduced the carrying capacity of the land for the animal herds of the pastorals. Many pastoral groups can  no longer sustain themselves on their traditional animal husbandry. The goat, the animal most adapted to degraded vegetation, has become an important herd animal – dhangars in earlier times maintained buffalo and cattle too. The dhangars have also become semi-sedentary, which has hampered their following of a rotational circuit of grazing. The only new resource which has become available is the increased demand of smallholder farmers for manure. Dhangar weavers used to enjoy a good market for their woollen and cotton blankets but mechanisation has all but ruined this occupation, and what market may survive for woven blankets is threatened by the steady impoverishment of the rural population. (Adapted from ‘The Ecological Basis of the Geographical Distribution of the Dhangars: A Pastoral Caste-Cluster of Maharashtra’, by Kailash C Malhotra and Madhav Gadgil, in South Asian Anthropologist, 1981.)

Written by makanaka

December 8, 2010 at 16:12

Calling it agri reconstruction, they pushed suspect seeds into flooded Pakistan

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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

In the third week of September 2010, Huma Beg, a journalist who works in Pakistan, sent out this alarm by email: “Dear friends. I raise alarms from Pakistan and solicit your help. Floods and its consequences are bringing many potential issues and challenges at a speed which is not allowing us to debate and make right decisions.”

“A major issue that has come to light is the question of seeds as sowing season in flood and agricultural areas is between 15 Oct to 15 Nov. Monsanto and others have focused on the devastation as an immense opportunity to freely distribute their seeds. Our governments are involved as well.”

“Please raise alarm and assist if you can advice us. We are starting a campaign on “Local seed for local farmer…” using floods as an opportunity to focus on issues of genetically modified seeds. We can later tie up other potential ideas like multi cropping techniques and high value crops…dos and don’ts etc.”

“But for now seeds and non-GMO seeds are on the table. We have no time as ‘others’ are planning to flood the flood with seeds. Please help fast. Kind regards, Huma.”

Now, a release from Grain, Roots for Equity and PANAP (Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific) has confirmed Huma’s worst fears.

A man uses a large cooking pan as a boat near the Reikhbaghwala village in Rajanpur district in Punjab. Photo: IRIN News / Jaspreet Kindra

A man uses a large cooking pan as a boat near the Reikhbaghwala village in Rajanpur district in Punjab. Photo: IRIN News / Jaspreet Kindra

“In October, a consignment of 2,000 bags of wheat seeds was dispatched to flood-hit farmers by the Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman Foundation (MKRF) and the Imran Khan Flood Relief Fund (IKRF),” says the release. A scheme was launched to provide wheat seeds to farmers owning 25 acres of land in every flood-hit province without discrimination. Under the scheme, certified and good quality seeds were provided to farmers covering 150,000 acres of land. Also since early November, the United States government has provided about US$ 62 million to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to expand an agriculture recovery program to the Province of Balochistan. The program includes provision of seed and fertilizer to flood-affected farmers, to help salvage the winter planting seasons and restore livelihoods for farmers in flood-affected areas.”

“Sindh Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, has said last month that the government’s attention is focused on the rehabilitation of more than seven million flood-affected people and efforts are being made to give Rs100,000 (US$ 1,165) as well as seeds and fertilisers to each survivor family free of cost. There are reports, however, that not all of this is free, as the seeds are being tied to micro-finance packages where fertilisers and services are only provided to small farmers through loans.”

As part of its rehabilitation program, Pakistan’s agriculture ministry entered a deal with Monsanto for a large-scale importation of its Bt Cotton seeds, despite strong opposition from local seed producers and farmers groups. The Seed Association of Pakistan (SAP) has warned the Punjab government to refrain from signing an agreement with Monsanto, believing this will “annihilate national seed companies, besides causing huge financial burden on the national treasury.” The group also believes that the importation of Bt cotton seed by the Pakistani government will cost the country millions of dollars in compensatory and royalty payments.

Understanding Cancún

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The ETC group – the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – describes itself and its work as being dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. Amongst the financiers, diplomats, agents, fixers, saboteurs, rogues, destructive multi-lateral banks, geoengineers, evil biotech corporations and assorted carpetbaggers, there are some NGOs who are taking the sensible route. The ETC Group is one of these.

They are at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. There, they have released two hard-hitting new reports and a third, just as blunt, which was used at the Convention on Biodiversity meeting in Japan. These are:

‘The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods’, a groundbreaking report that lifts the lid on the emerging global grab on plants, lands, ecosystems, and traditional cultures. The New Biomassters is a critique of what OECD countries are calling ‘the new bioeconomy.’ Concerted attempts are already under way to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more. Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (ie fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) economy, this emerging bioeconomy is in fact a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South, where most of that biomass is located.

In how many languages does the Cancún talkfest need to hear the word 'danger'?

‘Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering’ examines the high stakes involved in the rapidly advancing field of geoengineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere. More than a set of climate altering technologies, geoengineering is a political strategy aimed at letting the industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt. This report will help civil society organizations navigate the coming global debates over the science and politics of climate-change techno-fixes.

In ‘Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on ‘Climate-Ready’ Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters’, the ETC Group says that under the guise of developing “climate-ready” crops, the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are filing hundreds of sweeping, multi-genome patents in a bid to control the world’s plant biomass. ETC Group identifies over 262 patent families, subsuming 1663 patent documents published worldwide (both applications and issued patents) that make specific claims on environmental stress tolerance in plants (such as drought, heat, flood, cold, salt tolerance). DuPont, Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and their biotech partners account for three-quarters (77%) of the patent families identified. Just three companies – DuPont, BASF, Monsanto – account for over two-thirds of the total. Public sector researchers hold only 10%.

The Group’s strength is in the research and analysis of technological information (particularly but notes exclusively plant genetic resources, biotechnologies, and [in general] biological diversity), and in the development of strategic options related to the socioeconomic ramifications of new technologies.

Another NGO-advocacy taking the sensible route is the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, which is also at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. ICTSD says that the fourth assessment report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, the Bali Action Plan and multiple authoritative studies have all highlighted the critical role that economic instruments, markets, and regulatory tools will play in efforts to address climate change.

Who says 2°C more is 'safe' for us?

“Addressing climate change requires no less than a fundamental transformation in the way in which energy is sourced and used today – a redefinition of what we produce, trade and consume. In a globalized, interdependent world, such an enterprise requires bold and innovative policies and the enabling regulatory frameworks to support them.”

“Indeed, the concern for both climate and trade policy, is how to steer a global and local transition of such magnitude, without compromising development and growth prospects; and in the way, how to manage impacts on competitiveness in an equitable manner. This would require a range of deliberate policies and conducive international institutions to ensure that social primary goods are generated and that natural resource use is conducted in ways that don’t compromise their renewal and ensure the integrity of natural energy and biological functions.”

Laudable and good. The trouble is that the idea of a responsible economy – the current trade-finance-exploitation economy – is as daft as the ideas of “green growth” and “clean coal”. Such labels would be comical if they weren’t being bandied about by all those entities I described in the first paragraph. Lobbying groups, industry associations and banks are turning these – and others such as “fast-track climate financing” – into full-time consulting industries with their own revenue sources. Far away from the victims and the dishoused and the jobless, these groups are driven by the same profit motive that led to the 18th century colonial race for new territories and resources. A bicentennium later, the stage has changed and the threat of climate change has become living fact, but greed and exploitation are ever at the forefront.

Only 16 points under the 2008 peak, FAO’s food price index

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International prices of most agricultural commodities have increased in recent months, some sharply. The FAO Food Price index has gained 34 points since the previous Food Outlook report in June, averaging 197 points in October, only 16 points short from its peak in June 2008. The upward movements of prices were connected with several factors, the most important of which were a worsening of the outlook for crops in key producing countries, which is likely to require large draw downs of stocks and result in tighter global supply and demand balances in 2010-11.

Another leading factor has been the weakening of the United States Dollar (US Dollar) from mid-September, which continues to sustain the prices of nearly all agricultural and non-agricultural traded commodities. The increase in international prices of food commodities, all of which accruing in the second half of 2010, is boosting the overall food import bill in 2010 closer to the peak reached in 2008.

Seedlings waiting to be transplanted in village of Gbarnga-ta, 15km from Gbarnga in Bong county, where CRS and Caritas NGOs support farmers to diversify their crops as part of their nutrition push. Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

Seedlings waiting to be transplanted in village of Gbarnga-ta, 15km from Gbarnga in Bong county, where CRS and Caritas NGOs support farmers to diversify their crops as part of their nutrition push. Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

The pressure on prices to rise was first felt in the cereal market, most notably for wheat and barley, in August. This prompted FAO to call for an extraordinary meeting on 24 September 2010 to discuss the underlying causes and possible remedies. The meeting clearly identified the importance of reliable and upto-date information on crop supply and demand to cope with unexpected developments in world markets. More transparency and a better understanding of the role of commodity futures markets and government responses were also viewed as necessary to address price volatility.

Amid fears of a repeat of the price surge experienced in 2008, FAO expects supplies of major food crops in 2010-11 to be more adequate than two years ago, mainly because of much larger reserves. The fact that supplies of rice, wheat and white maize, the most important staple food crops in many vulnerable countries, are also more ample lessens the risk of a repeat of the 2007-08 crisis in the current season. Nonetheless, following a series of unexpected downward revisions to crop forecasts in several major producing countries, world prices have risen alarmingly and at a much faster pace than in 2007-08.

Attention is now turning to plantings for the next (2011-12) marketing season. Given the expectation of falling global inventories, the size of next year’s crops will be critical in setting the tone for stability in international markets. For major cereals, production must expand substantially to meet utilization and to reconstitute world reserves and farmers are likely to respond to the prevailing strong prices by expanding plantings. Cereals, however, may not be the only crops farmers will be trying to produce more of, as rising prices have also made other commodities attractive to grow, from soybeans to sugar and cotton.

This could limit individual crop production responses to levels that would be insufficient to alleviate market tightness. Against this backdrop, consumers may have little choice but to pay higher prices for their food. With the pressure on world prices of most commodities not abating, the international community must remain vigilant against further supply shocks in 2011 and be prepared.

Why the surprise over biomass vs biodiversity?

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COP10/COP-MOP5 LogoIf you’re a member of a poor rural household, used to gathering forest debris for burning and creating mulch, how much attention do you pay to the idea of biodiversity anyway? The answer is unsurprising to most people who have worked on questions of rural development – biomass means fuel for cooking stoves, whereas biodiversity is a concept usually found in communities that have a history of preserving indigenous cereals, legumes, leafy greens and fruit.

Yet surprise has been expressed over the finding, as reported by, that “preserving biodiversity may be the goal of conservationists and environmental activists, but preserving biomass is a more important priority for the poor”. SciDev has reported that researchers said the finding “was unexpected”.

I can’t imagine the reason for their surprise. Agriculture extension workers have long known that the idea of food security, which finds its way into the speeches and strategy documents of government bureaucrats, has no place amongst poor cultivators or subsistence farmers. A rural cooperative bank official had once told me: “The farmer wants to know what he can grow which will earn him enough for his family. For him, what you call ‘food security’ has no meaning. He is looking for income.”

In the report, Craig Leisher and Neil Larsen of the US-based Nature Conservancy, have said much the same thing. “People just don’t care about biodiversity,” Leisher told SciDev.Net, and then gave the example of a poor fisherman, for whom the route out of poverty is to catch more fish — not more kinds of fish.

The findings were presented on the same day as a study was published in Science magazine, showing that the world has failed in its bid to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2010. “If you restore degraded lands, you will increase biomass and restore nature,” Leisher said, adding that the result was a direct impact on poverty reduction. [Use this link, via, to download the paper.]

Jayant Sarnaik — deputy director of the Applied Environmental Research Foundation, India, said that a problem dogging studies of biodiversity and poverty is that the former is defined in various ways. “The biggest financial institutes like the World Bank … say that biodiversity is non-renewable biomass. So how can we expect that communities will not [use up resources]? They need biomass for a number of reasons.”

“We are always trying to understand things from our perspective, we are not trying to look at how [local communities] perceive biodiversity,” said Sarnaik, and he is spot on. An academic understanding of biodiversity and the need to nurture it – however necessary and laudable, however uncontentious – can be and usually is quite different from the poor household’s view of a biome’s net primary production.

I have written about the woodfuel economy here. There’s another account of rural fuel needs here.

Written by makanaka

December 2, 2010 at 13:20