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World heritage and the agrarian trilogy

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WHR_agri_landscapes_3Agricultural landscapes have been honoured in the quarterly journal published by Unesco, ‘World Heritage’, which has dwelt (issue number 69) on the agro-pastoral landscapes created by human activity and serves to explain the major sites of this type now inscribed on the World Heritage List. The number has said: “The most impressive of these sites are perhaps the terraced fields found around the world, in the Far East, Africa, the Andes and all around the Mediterranean basin, with rice paddies and various wine-growing areas, some of which are also listed as World Heritage cultural landscapes.”

Stari Grad plain - ancient Greek farming in the Adriatic. The farming land is divided into regular sized parcels known as chora (Greek for landscape or countryside), bounded by drystone walls. All this, together with the cisterns and the little beehive-shaped toolsheds was first measured and marked out some 2,400 years ago and they have remained unaltered in their layout and in continuous use since the ancient Greeks created them. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Mark Gillespie

Stari Grad plain – ancient Greek farming in the Adriatic. The farming land is divided into regular sized parcels known as chora (Greek for landscape or countryside), bounded by drystone walls. All this, together with the cisterns and the little beehive-shaped toolsheds was first measured and marked out some 2,400 years ago and they have remained unaltered in their layout and in continuous use since the ancient Greeks created them. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Mark Gillespie

The introductory note has said that human civilisation, throughout its history, “has applied certain principles of adaptation to the environment that are sufficiently resilient to drive nature’s inherent and inexhaustible dynamism by adding a cultural dimension that endows it with uniqueness”. Culture and cultivation has become a reality in the agricultural landscapes, for their age and their continuous evolutionary aspect.

In these sites, the territories are structured by agro-pastoral practices known as the ‘agrarian trilogy’: the cultivation of fields – agriculture (from the Latin ager, fields); the cultivation of forests – silviculture (silva, forest); and husbandry – with the use of so-called uncultivated lands
such as sustenance pastures together with their pastoral routes, all of which, taken together, was termed saltus in Roman times.

The journal has found that most impressive of all these landscapes are those devoted to a single operation, “because the structure they impose upon the territory in terms of a single variable results in large expanses of land that are spectacularly homogenous”. This is seen in the various rice fields, in the impressive landscapes of Tequila (Mexico) where the blue agave is cultivated, and uniquely apparent in such vineyard landscapes as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (Germany), Wachau (Austria), Saint Emilion (France), Tokaj (Hungary), Pico Island and Alto Douro (Portugal), and Lavaux (Switzerland).

The journal number also includes an interview with Parviz Koohafkan, the coordinator of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In response to a question about the global evolution of this heritage category and recognition of the intrinsic interaction between people and nature, Koohafkhan replied that this category of World Heritage is gaining ground because of the importance of the landscape approach and the nature-culture relationship.

The area of the Konso, in Ethiopia, is characterised by extensive drystone agricultural terraces contouring the hills and giving the landscape its unique characteristics. After harvesting in September, the parallel lines of the terraces and their engineering and artistic workmanship can best be appreciated. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Vicki Brown (Solimar International)

The area of the Konso, in Ethiopia, is characterised by extensive drystone agricultural terraces contouring the hills and giving the landscape its unique characteristics. After harvesting in September, the parallel lines of the terraces and their engineering and artistic workmanship can best be appreciated. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Vicki Brown (Solimar International)

“In addition, landscapes are evolving rapidly due to agricultural transformation and unless we plan and work with communities for the sustainability of their livelihoods, we will be unable to conserve this agriculture and landscape heritage. FAO, UNESCO and their partner organisations should set up further collaborative programmes to address issues of food and nutrition security within the context of the post-Rio sustainable development agenda and to recognise the important role of small-scale family farms and indigenous communities in providing multiple goods and services,” Koohafkhan has said.

The immense diversity of agricultural systems can be seen in the vegetable, animal and even mineral produce that they include, is a valuable point made in a short article from the International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes (IFLA-ICOMOS). Discussing agricultural landscapes in a heritage context, the ingredients of the trilogy are well supplied: basic foods provided by cereals (wheat, rice, maize, etc.) or tubers (potatoes, manioc, taro, etc.), each of which forms the foundation of a major area of civilisation that subsequently spread around the world.

Then there are fruit-bearing plants (vines, olive and apple trees, citrus fruit, date and banana trees, etc.), the juice of which could be fermented (wine, cider, etc.); oleaginous plants (olives, sunflower, soya, colza, oil palms, coconut and argan trees, etc.), sugar-bearing plants (cane and beet); stimulant plants (coffee, tea, cocoa and tobacco, etc.), which produce alkaloids and undergo elaborate transformation (drying of leaves, roasting of grains, etc.); textile plants (flax, hemp, cotton, jute, etc.); ruminants, which provide milk, meat, wool and leather but are also used as beasts of burden in numerous agro-pastoral systems; equidae, camelids, pigs, poultry and so on.

An inequality chasm is fracturing Europe, warns the OECD

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April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

Deepening inequalities in income between the richer and poorer families, greater relative income poverty in recent years compared with earlier, a greater burden borne by children and young people than before because of their being relatively poor – these are some of the stark conclusions contained in the OECD briefing, ‘New Results from the OECD Income Distribution Database’.

This is the picture of Europe today (and of the non-European members of the OECD). “Looking at the 17 OECD countries for which data are available over a long time period, market income inequality increased by more over the last three years than what was observed in the previous 12 years,” observed the new briefing, which is sub-titled ‘Crisis squeezes income and puts pressure on inequality and poverty’.

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

The figures and data show that many of the countries recording the most dramatic increases in inequality are European countries which have been subjected to punitive austerity measures by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The OECD report singles out Spain and Italy, where the income of “the poorest 10 percent was much lower in 2010 than in 2007”.

Five percent falls in income (per year) amongst the poorest 10 percent were also recorded in Greece, Ireland, Estonia, and Iceland. The only non-European nation with a comparable level of income decline was Mexico. The report also stated that over the same period, poor families in the United States, Italy, France, Austria and Sweden all recorded income losses in excess of the OECD average.

Indeed the ‘New Results’ briefing has showed that across OECD countries, real household disposable income stagnated. Likewise, the average income of the top 10% in 2010 was similar to that in 2007. Meanwhile, the income of the bottom 10% in 2010 was lower than that in 2007 by 2% per year. Out of the 33 countries where data are available, the top 10% has done better than the poorest 10% in 21 countries.

This is the OECD picture till 2010. Since then, recession has been the companion of inequality. With an average growth of -0.2 per cent in the first quarter (against -0.1 per cent in the EU as a whole) and hardly better prospects for the whole rest of the year (-0.7 per cent), according to Eurostat, the dreaded “double dip” has become a reality. The press attributes the result largely to the austerity policies.

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

“Eurozone sets bleak record of longest term in recession,” reported the Financial Times. The daily noted that “this latest dismal record came after unemployment hit 12.1 per cent in the bloc, its highest level,” and that this data “is likely to add to pressure on the European Central Bank to take further action after cutting interest rates this month, and to revise down its economic forecast predicting a recovery later in the year.”

Moreover, relative income poverty – the share of people having less income than half the national median income – affects around 11% of the population on average across OECD countries. Poverty rates range between 6% of the population in Denmark and the Czech Republic to between 18% and 21% in Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Israel. Over the two decades up to 2007, relative income poverty increased in most OECD countries, particularly in countries that had low levels of income poverty in the mid-1990s.

In Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the income poverty rate increased by 2 percentage points or more. In Sweden, the poverty rate in 2010 (9%) was more than twice what it was in 1995 (4%). Relative poverty also increased in some countries, such as Australia, Japan, Turkey and Israel, with middle and high levels of poverty.

The OECD briefing has stated bluntly: “Households with children were hit hard during the crisis. Since 2007, child poverty increased in 16 OECD countries, with increases exceeding 2 points in Turkey, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia and Hungary.” The ‘New Results’ briefing added: “Since 2007, youth poverty increased considerably in 19 OECD countries. In Estonia, Spain and Turkey, an additional 5% of young adults fell into poverty between 2007 and 2010. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the increase was 4%, and in the Netherlands 3%.”

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Between 2007 and 2010, average relative income poverty in the OECD countries rose from 12.8 to 13.4% among children and from 12.2 to 13.8% among youth. Meanwhile, relative income poverty fell from 15.1 to 12.5% among the elderly. This pattern confirms the trends described in previous OECD studies, with youth and children replacing the elderly as the group at greater risk of income poverty across the OECD countries.

These results only tell the beginning of the story about the consequences of austerity, growing unemployment, the burden on children and youth, and burden on immigrant wage labour. The OECD data describes the evolution of income inequality and relative poverty up to 2010. But “the economic recovery has been anaemic in a number of OECD countries and some have recently moved back into recession”, said the briefing.

Worse, since 2010, many people exhausted their rights to unemployment benefits. In such a situation, the briefing has warned, “the ability of the tax-benefit system to alleviate the high (and potentially increasing) levels of inequality and poverty of income from work and capital might be challenged”. These are unusually blunt words from the OECD and their use reflects the depth and persistence of the crisis of modern, reckless, destructive capitalism in Europe.

Austerity and debt, the proletariat and protest – 1

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Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece. Photo: ekathimerini

A round-up of reports on austerity and debt:

‘Head of Greek Church questions austerity, troika’ – Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, has taken the rare step of writing to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos to express serious concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s fiscal policy and the effect it is having on Greek people. In his letter, Ieronymos also raises doubts about the role of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – or troika – in the country and whether Greece should agree to further austerity measures to receive its next bailout, suggesting that they are “larger doses of a medicine that is proving deadly.”

“Greeks’ unprecedented patience is running out, fear is giving way to rage and the danger of a social explosion cannot be ignored any more, neither by those who give orders nor by those who execute their deadly recipes,” he wrote. “It seems clear now that our homeland’s drama will not finish here but may take on new, uncontrollable, dimensions,” he wrote. “There are, at the moment, demands for even tougher, more painful and even more unfair measures along the same ineffective and unsuccessful lines as in our recent past. There are demands for even bigger doses of a medicine which is proving deadly. There are demands for commitments that do not solve the problem but only put off temporarily the foretold death of our economy. Meanwhile, the put our national sovereignty up for collateral.”

‘Greek debt audit campaign calls new agreements impoverishing’ – The new International Treaty and Memorandum, which accompany the ‘haircut’ of Greek public debt, push the Greek people further into impoverishment. They mean a dramatic drop in both living standards and working conditions, and enslave us to the state’s creditors. The reductions in pensions and wages, the abolition of collective bargaining legislation (contrary to Article 22 of our Constitution), and the 150 000 public sector redundancies lead to mass hunger and wages of 300 or 400 euros a month.

‘Tanzanian govt rejects IMF plan on minerals royalties’ – The government has rejected a proposal by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to introduce a new system to calculate mining royalties because doing so would adversely affect tax collections. Had the government agreed to introduce the single royalty payment, the amount of tax the government collects from the mining firms would have dropped significantly.

‘Portugal unions slam IMF, EU’s “poverty agenda” ‘ – Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Lisbon to voice their opposition to government austerity policies. Unions organised the march in protest at spending cuts agreed in return for a seventy eight billion euro bailout. Armenio Carlos, the leader of the Confederation fo Portuguese Workers, said: “We are here to protest against exploitation, inequality and poverty. “That’s the agenda of the troika: the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank.”

‘Hundreds of thousands rally in Portugal against austerity’ – Hundreds of thousands protested in Portugal Saturday against austerity measures ahead of next week’s talks with international creditors, with unions vowing to keep up the pressure. Officials from the so-called Troika — the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — will next week evaluate progress on the country’s bailout programme. Demonstrators arrived in Lisbon from across the country in the rally described as one of the country’s biggest in three decades. Many were brandishing banners such as “The struggle continues” and “No to exploitation, no to inequality, no to impoverishment.”

‘Greece to pledge 20% cut in minimum wage, draft accord shows’ – Greece will pledge permanent spending cuts, including lower pension payments and a 20 percent reduction in the minimum wage, as the economy contracts this year at a faster pace than originally estimated, according to the draft of a new financing deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. “To restore competitiveness and growth, we will accelerate implementation of deep structural reforms in the labor, product and service markets,” according to the letter of intent addressed to IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in a document obtained by Bloomberg News.

[With thanks to the Bretton Woods Project for its compilation of these reports.]

A two-speed Europe, chronic unemployment and the Euro experiment

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Illustration: Presseurop / Chinese illustrator and cartoonist Luo Jie (William Luo) works for the Beijing English newspaper, China Daily.

There is worry in Europe about the euro, its ten-year-old currency, and about unemployment, which has stayed persistently high throughout 2011. The Euro press has reflected the worries and concerns of the salaried and the informal workers of Europe, and is now talking about whether there is already a ‘two-speed’ Europe. Presseurop has provided some insight:

In ‘Eurozone crisis – Will the EU end up like Yugoslavia?’ Serbian daily Politika remarks on the similarities with the years preceding the break-up of the federation founded by Tito. The Politika opinion said: “Seen from Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo, the economic and institutional crisis that has struck the European Union has a certain air of déjà-vu. Relatively speaking, the European Union (EU) is beginning in many ways to resemble Tito’s Yugoslavia. As At a time when the EU is attempting to reinforce centralised control of its periphery, its foundations are being threatened by excessive nationalism and accumulated incompatibilities between member states.”

The “democratic deficit” suggests yet another parallel, according to the Serbian paper: in the one-party system in Yugoslavia, leaders were not elected by universal suffrage, just like the highly placed civil servants that manage today’s EU – in spite of the fact that all of the members of the Union have multi-party systems. In both cases, the fear that the more populous states would have too much influence has prevented the introduction of the principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’.

The 'La Tribune' front page on a 'two-speed' Europe

Presseurop also invokes the ‘two-speed Europe’ meme in ‘Employment – A two-speed Europe’. Mentioning the front-page headline ‘Europe split in two by unemployment’ of La Tribune, Presseurop has quoted the paper’s reporting on the growing gap between Southern and Northern Europe: “The rate in Germany has declined to a level not seen since 1991 while soaring to new high in Spain, where it is now almost 23%.”

The Paris business daily continued: “This European dichotomy is first and foremost a reflection of the state of the continent’s economies. While some countries have sunk into recession (Greece, Portugal, Spain), others have succeeded in maintaining growth, albeit modest.” Citing reforms undertaken before the crisis as one of the reasons for the healthier economies in the North, The Financial Times remarked that changes to labour legislation in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany “have helped make the workers of these countries internationally competitive – a factor which is sorely lacking in the eurozone periphery”. Typically arrogant and dismissive opinionating from the British paper, which is notorious for kowtowing shamelessly before industry and American foreign policy dictates.

The Berlin leftish newspaper Tageszeitung (Taz) takes issue with this argument, and notes that the reforms undertaken by Berlin have not created new jobs, but simply redistributed them to a larger number of workers – a process that has resulted in the creation of a new low-pay sector. Reporting that 8.4 million Germans are ‘under-employed’, the Taz recalls that economic inequality in Germany has grown more rapidly than in other industrialised countries. Finally, the Berlin newspaper notes that to ‘celebrate’ the record of 41 million wage earners, the German government has spent 330,000 euros on a poster campaign ‘Danke Deutschland – Wirtschaft. Wachstum. Wohlstand.’ [“Thank you Germany – Economy. Growth. Prosperity”].

Taz is close to the truth, quite the opposite of what the feckless Financial Times, a speechwriter for predatory capitalism, would have us believe. Almost one in four people in the European Union was threatened with poverty or social deprivation in 2010. This is the conclusion of an official report by the European Commission presented in December. According to the report, 115 million people, or 23 percent of the EU population, were designated as poor or socially deprived. The main causes are unemployment, old age and low wages, with more than 8 percent of all employees in Europe now belonging to the “working poor”.

Single parents, immigrants and young people are worst affected. Among young people, unemployment is more than twice as high as among adults. Some 21.4 percent of all young people in the EU had no work in September 2011. Spain leads all other EU countries with a youth unemployment rate of 48 percent. In Greece, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia youth unemployment is between 25 percent and 45 percent.

In countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, youth unemployment rates are lower only because training takes longer and many unemployed young people are ‘parked’ in all sorts of schemes that exclude them from the official statistics – so much for the crafty and misleading ‘Danke Deutschland’ campaign. But even in these countries the chance of getting a decent-paying job is diminishing. Some 50 percent of all new employment contracts in the EU are temporary work contracts. For workers aged 20 to 24, the proportion is 60 percent.

Written by makanaka

January 8, 2012 at 14:47

Of German wurst, French fries and an IMF bullet

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A closed chips stall called 'La Reine des Fritures' ('The Queen of French Fries') in French Flanders. Photo: Stephan Vanfleteren / Panos Pictures

Le Monde Diplomatique, that fearless critic of globalisation and the tyranny of the multilateral lending institutions, has said in its 2011 December issue that in November, the Franco-German directorate of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fundthe ‘troika’ — were furious when the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, announced plans to hold a referendum.

Absolute oligarchs dislike referendums because the idea has a great deal to do with consultation – not a favourite subject for the IMF in the 67 years it has claimed to shape the global economy. That is why, summoned to Cannes for an interview during a summit that his country was too small to attend, kept waiting, and publicly upbraided by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (who were responsible for exacerbating the crisis), Papandreou was forced to abandon the plan for a referendum and resign. His successor, a former vice-president of the ECB, promptly decided to include in the Athens government a far-right organisation banned since the Greek colonels lost power in 1974.

In ‘Europe in crisis, rule by troika’, Serge Halimi has written in LMD that the European project was supposed to secure prosperity, strengthen democracy in states formerly ruled by juntas (Greece, Spain, Portugal), and defuse “nationalism as a source of war”. But it is having the opposite effect, with drastic cuts, puppet governments at the call of the brokers, and renewed strife between nations. Everything, in short, that the IMF and the World Bank have pursued since 1944 mostly successfully in Asia, Africa and South America.

Former bankers Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti have taken over in Athens and Rome, exploiting the threat of bankruptcy and the fear of chaos. They are not apolitical technicians but men of the right, members of the Trilateral Commission that blamed western societies for being too democratic. “Having crushed Greece and Italy, the EU and the IMF have now set their sights on Hungary and Spain,” Halimi has written, and it is a grim warning.

A ferris wheel runs in the centre of Brussels next to an old building advertising Martini and Zanussi. Photo: Stephan Vanfleteren / Panos Pictures

Red Pepper has more on the ways and means of the IMF.

“It’s stripped millions of people of their livelihoods, but the global economic crisis has brought one institution back from the dead: the International Monetary Fund. Two years ago, the IMF looked to be on its last legs. It had got to the stage where nobody wanted to borrow its money. Many developing countries started accumulating reserves to avoid ever having to go to the IMF loan shark. Developed countries in trouble would go just about anywhere – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – to avoid the IMF.”

Then came the meltdown. “The IMF failed to see it coming – pretty damning for a body supposed to oversee global financial stability – but bankrupt countries suddenly had no choice but to come begging.” Exactly the point – the IMF did see it coming because this is what its prescriptions for the previous decade were aimed at in the first place. In April last year, the G20 pumped the organisation with £330 billion of new funds. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called the decision ‘black humour’, saying it would ‘rub salt in the wound’ of countries hit by a crisis they did not create. The IMF is now re-armed and doubly dangerous, with large new areas in what was formerly the Eurozone to subjugate.

Not quietly by any means. After all, the Greeks are Greeks first and then, perhaps, Europeans. Ditto with the Italians, Portuguese, Hungarians, Spaniards and Latvians. It is looking rather like the Germans and the French (elite, mind you, not the labour, the unemployed, the migrants and the armies of informal workers struggling on 25 euros a day) are the last Europeans left.

But this is why major protests have been convulsing Greece throughout the autumn with strikes, and occupations of the main squares in many towns. Civil servants blockaded their ministries, preventing ministers from accessing their departments in September and October. The early November surprise announcement of a popular referendum in Greece on the EU-IMF loan terms and conditions would have marked the first time an IMF lending package was subjected to a test of popular ownership. In the end the political pressure heaped on the Greek prime minister by other European countries, the Greek political opposition and factions from within his own government forced him to back down and resign as prime minister.

After the collapse of the Greek government, Elena Papadopoulou of the Athens-based Nicos Poulantzas Institute said: “Despite the proclaimed enthusiasm, there is no realistic reason to believe that the new coalition government – with the participation of the extreme right – will follow anything other than the socially destructive policies applied according to IMF recipes with the agreement of the European elites.”

The EU crisis pocket guide

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The Transnational Institute has produced a terrific pocket guide on the financial crisis in the European Union, called, not surprisingly, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’. It’s a very handy alternative to reading about 257,000 words of confusing and jargon-heavy tripe authoritative commentary written by hopelessly compromised economist-blokes commentators and observers of the financial scene.

‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ tells you, as straight as a punch to the chin, how a crisis made in Wall Street was made worse by EU policies, how it has enriched the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It doesn’t stop at that – quite unlike the boring and largely clueless economist blokes who take great delight in pointing out a problem but have little to say about how to solve it, keeping the 99% in mind.

In keeping with the civilised socialist tendency therefore, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ outlines some possible solutions that prioritise people and the environment above corporate profits.

You are well encouraged to download the booklet from these links:
Pocket guide: 12 page (PDF, 403KB) or Pocket guide: 8 page (PDF, 399KB)

What ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ contains: How a private debt crisis was turned into a public debt crisis and an excuse for austerity; The way the rich and bankers benefited while the vast majority lost out; The devastating social consequences of austerity; The European Union’s response to the crisis: more austerity, more privatisation, less democracy; Ten alternatives put forward by civil society groups to put people and the environment before corporate greed; Resources for further information.

I am much obliged to the peerless Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for calling our attention to this absolute gem of a guidebook. Links, if you didn’t already know, promotes the exchange of information, experience of struggle, theoretical analysis and views of political strategy and tactics within the international left. You are well advised to read it regularly.

Here are some of the eye-openers from this Pocket Guide, things we suspected but which the dibbly-dobbly economist blokes and their corporate sponsors never admitted:

Much of the so-called debt crisis was caused not by states spending too much, but because they bailed out the banks and speculators. European Union government debt had actually fallen from 72% of GDP in 1999 to 67% in 2007. It rose rapidly after they bailed out the banks in 2008. Ireland’s bank bailout cost them 30% of their national output (GDP) and pushed debts to record levels.

As austerity cuts swept Europe, the numbers of the wealthy in Europe with more than $1 million in cash actually rose in 2010 by 7.2% to 3.1 million people. Together they are worth US$10.2 trillion. The five biggest banks in Europe made profits of €28 billion in 2010. There are 15,000 professional lobbyists in Brussels, the vast majority of them representing big business.

European Union’s answers to the problem? More austerity. In the UK, 490,000 public sector jobs are being cut; in Ireland, wages for low paid workers have been reduced; in Lithuania the government plans to cut public spending by 30%. The EU is planning to impose requirements by 2013 that means that no European member state countries can have a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP or a public debt of more than 60% of GDP which will mean even more austerity.

Alternatives from the 99% – Clearly, there is a strong need to break with the dangerous free market fundamentalism that has created and worsened a social crisis of vast proportions. Here are some proposals for alternatives – put forward by many civil society groups – that could create a fairer and more just world.

Europe’s workers say ‘no’ to top-down ‘austerity’

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Strikes in EU, September 2010. Photo: Socialist WorldAfter ordering drastic ‘austerity’ programmes in Hungary, Romania, Greece, Spain and Portugal, pressure is now being increased on other countries to significantly reduce the living standards of broad social layers. This is what ‘austerity’ in the EU, and particularly western Europe, actually means. It does not mean the ruling parties and their agencies do with smaller salaries. It means that the massive deficits in public finances resulting from the economic crisis and bank bailouts be countered by slashing wages and social spending.

The German government, acting on behalf of the German export industry, is calling the tune for western EU. This spells continuing trouble for Europe’s working classes for it has been clear for several years that the ruling coalition in Berlin is acting in concert with the most powerful European financial and business circles, in particular the German export industry which claims to have led Germany into a new phase of ‘growth’.

There is no lack of voices saying these policies are short-sighted. On Monday, four leading European economists warned in the Financial Times that such harsh measures were “necessary but risky”. They threaten to trigger a depression affecting the whole eurozone. The resulting economic, financial and social stresses could destroy the eurozone. They suggested, therefore, a European solution: the European Financial Stability Facility established in the spring should become a permanent instrument that can be used to support highly indebted countries.

But this week Europeans marched on the streets in protest against the impacts of ‘austerity’. Up to 100,000 took part in a march on Wednesday on the European Union buildings in Brussels, Belgium, organised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), reported the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). The march in the Belgian capital was the official centre-piece of Europe-wide demonstrations against austerity and cuts, though a general strike in Spain was by far the most significant expression of workers rising anger at the attack on their livelihoods.

Nearly 70% of Spanish workers — 10 million — took part in Wednesday’s general strike. In some sectors, such as mining, metal, auto manufacture, electronic, fishing and other industries, participation was nearly total. The movement also encompassed many self-employed workers and small businesses. Although the government tried to downplay the effects of the strike, the national grid operator Red Electrica Corp. said that electricity consumption was down by 20%.

The strike dealt a blow to business leaders, politicians and the media who claimed it would not be well supported. But without the minimum service levels agreed by the unions, which allowed the government and local authorities to determine how many airplanes, trains and buses had to be provided, the country would have ground to a complete halt.

[There’s more in Deutsch on the strikes from Die Tageszeitung of Berlin, which reported on the strikes in France, the protest against the pension ‘reform’ and the social impacts of ‘austerity’. The Liberation of France reported on the massive Spanish strikes, and Socialist World has reportage of the Brussels strike.]

Greece’s main union federations, representing about 2.5 million workers, did not strike on Wednesday and only organised a march to parliament in the evening. Only a few of the smaller unions called strike action, with hospital doctors stopping work for 24 hours. There was strike action by bus and trolley drivers for several hours and the Athens’ metro system and trams were shut down for a period at noon.

A demonstrator reacts after being hit by anti-riot police in central Barcelona during the general strike held in Spain. (Guardian) Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

In Ireland, there were rallies hundreds strong in Belfast and Derry. A man drove a cement mixer covered with anti-bank slogans into the gates of the Irish parliament in Dublin to protest the bailout of the banks. In Portugal, there were protests in Lisbon and Porto. According to trade unions sources some 20,000 people took part in the evening demonstration in Lisbon.

Most of the other protests were in eastern Europe. In Poland, thousands marched in Warsaw against government plans to freeze wages and raise some taxes. They demanded the government guarantee job security and scrap plans to raise taxes. In Lithuania, some 400 protesters held an illegal demonstration in Vilnius. In Slovenia, around half of all public service workers continued a third day of an indefinite strike to protest at the government’s plan to freeze salaries for two years.

The Guardian reported that in Portugal, unions said 50,000 protesters joined a march in Lisbon and 20,000 in Porto. “It’s a crucial day for Europe,” said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation, which orchestrated the events. “This is the start of the fight, not the end. That our voice be heard is our major demand today – against austerity and for jobs and growth. There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets. You’ve really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession.”

In Brussels marchers from across Europe waved union flags and carried banners saying “No to austerity” and “Priority to jobs and growth”, bringing parts of the city to a halt. The protest was led by a group dressed in black suits and masks and carrying umbrellas and briefcases to represent financial speculators, acting as the head of a funeral cortege mourning the death of Europe.

Wheat sends food prices up, US agriculture exports to be $107.5 bn

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Surging wheat prices drove international food prices up 5% last month in the biggest month-on-month increase since November 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced. The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 176 points in August, up nearly nine points from July, FAO said in its latest update on the global cereals supply and demand situation. The 5% increase brought the Index up to its highest level since September 2008, but still 38% down from its peak in June 2008.

FAO Food Price Index

FAO Food Price Index, 2010 September

The FFPI surge mainly reflected the sudden sharp rise in international wheat prices following drought in the Russian Federation and the country’s subsequent restrictions on wheat sales. But other drivers included higher sugar and oilseed prices. FAO’s update said that the forecast for world cereal production in 2010 has been lowered by 41 million tonnes to 2,238 million tonnes from 2,279 million tonnes reported in June.

However, even at this lower level, world cereal output in 2010 would be the third highest on record and above the five-year average. Among the major cereals, wheat accounted for most of the cut, reflecting mainly smaller crops in the leading producers in the CIS due to adverse weather. Under the present forecast world cereal utilization would slightly exceed production in 2010-11. This would trigger a 2% contraction in world ending stocks from their 8-year-high opening levels and to a small decline in world cereal stocks-to-use ratio. At 23%, however, the ratio would still remain well above the 19.5% low witnessed in the 2007-08 food crisis period.

A further cut in the forecast for 2010 world wheat production since FAO’s last update on 4 August puts this year’s wheat crop at 646 million tonnes, down 5% from 2009 but still the third highest ever. The latest revision reflects a further cut in the estimate of this year’s harvest in the Russian Federation to 43 million tonnes (from 48 million tonnes in August) more than offsetting higher forecasts for crops in a number of other countries including the United States and China.

FAO Food Commodity Price Index, 2010 September

FAO Food Commodity Price Index, 2010 September

The forecast for world wheat ending stocks in 2011 was also lowered, to 181 million tonnes, down 9% from their 8-year high opening level. The stock-to-use ratio for wheat in 20010-11 was projected at 27%, down 3% from the previous season but still 5% higher than the 30-year low in 2007-08.

World production of coarse grains was forecast to reach 1 125 million tonnes, down 6 million tonnes from the previous forecast in June but up marginally from 2009 and the second highest on record. Maize production was heading towards an all-time high of 845 million tonnes, with expectation of record crops in China and in the United States. But world barley production was forecast to fall by 22% to a 30-year low of only 129 million tonnes in 2010, driven mostly by a sharp cut in production in the CIS and in the EU as a result of poor weather.

The forecast for global rice production in 2010 was also revised downward and now stands at 467 million tonnes, 5 million tonnes lower than the June 2010 forecast but still 3% more than in 2009 and a  historical record. Much of the revision was the consequence of Pakistan’s floods but it also stemmed from lower expectations in China, Egypt, India, Laos and the Philippines. The recent disturbances in  world cereal markets will be examined by delegates meeting at a special one-day session of FAO’s Intergovernmental Group on Grains and Intergovernmental Group on Rice convened for 24 September at FAO headquarters in Rome.

World Food Day 2010

16 October is World Food Day 2010

Industrial agriculture news sources such as Agweb are reporting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) agriculture products exports for financial year 2010, which have just been released. Increased exports of grain and feed at higher values along with increased livestock, poultry, and dairy product exports all helped to push up the forecast for US ag exports in fiscal year (FY) 2010. USDA has said the value of US ag exports for FY 2010 will be US$107.5 billion, up US$3 billion from their May forecast. And their first look at FY 2011 has the value of those shipments projected at US$113 billion, up US$5.5 billion from FY 2010 forecast.

On the import side, USDA now puts FY 2010 imports at a value of US$77 billion, up US$500 million from their May forecast. For FY 2011, USDA sees the value of US ag imports rising to US$81.5 billion. USDA now expects a slightly larger trade surplus for US agriculture for FY 2010 – US$30.5 billion, up US$2.5 billion from May, and for FY 2011 they expect the trade surplus will be US$31.5 billion. Analysts for USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) also included this caution:

“The three major threats to world growth in 2011 are the EU economy tanking due to their debt situation, the U.S. economy going into a recession, and a continuing widening of the Chinese trade surplus. A major near-term risk to the world recovery is a potential spillover of the crisis brought on by high government debt in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland.

“The consensus forecast for 2010 and 2011 is of continuing recovery in both the developed and developing economies, with a few regional rough patches. The case for moderate world growth for the rest of 2010 and solid growth for 2011 is based on low interest rates, increasing trade flows, and the willingness of central banks to keep financial assets on current balance sheets, encouraging easier private credit and strong growth in corporate profits. At this time, that scenario is much more likely than any or all of the downside scenarios.”