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Why Bharat must tell the WTO to go to hell

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Update: So far, India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry has said what our farmers’ need him to say at the WTO ministerial meeting.

Activists protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Bali, Indonesia, on 2013 December 04. Image: AFP

Activists protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Bali, Indonesia, on 2013 December 04. Image: AFP

This is good news for our millions of cultivator households, and is also good news for cultivating families and communities in the countries of the South. This bloc must oppose without reservation and compromise of any kind the USA- and EU-led puppeteering of the WTO rules of agriculture to help their food-seed corporations.

The reaction in the corporatised media has been typical, with headlines like ‘Bleak outlook for WTO deal as rifts widen over food subsidies’. Reuters has reported that there are “deep divisions with only one day left to the end of talks” but that “India gains supporters for its stance on food subsidies” and also that “a Bali deal could benefit world economy by as much as $1 trillion”. We have no idea where these absurd numbers have appeared from concerning the alleged ‘benefits’ of the WTO, but foreign and Indian media have also reported the spiky warnings from the Trade Representative of the United States of America, Michael Froman.

He is reported to have said: “Let us not sugar-coat reality: leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations.” Froman and his government don’t (or won’t) understand that such an outcome is exactly what we want – no more WTO, for good and forever. He is also reported to have that if the WTO is finished “the unfortunate truth is that the loss will be felt most heavily by those members who can least afford it”. Froman is lying, for it is with WTO that farmers and cultivators in their millions have suffered grievously for a generation.

The Hindu reported that developing nations including India want a ‘peace clause’ (see a few paragraphs below for why we should have no such ‘peace clause’) “till a permanent solution is found on the matter for smooth implementation of the food security programme”. The Hindu report has quoted Sharma as having said that India was not isolated on the food security matter in WTO and majority of countries where over 75% people live are supporting New Delhi’s stand. “I would like to make this absolutely clear that we have not come here as petitioners to beg for a peace clause,” he was quoted as having said.

The section of foreign media that has long spoken for the USA-EU axis of agreement on WTO and its perverse agriculture rules has complained about what it calls India’s opposition. One such newspaper is the Wall Street Journal, which has reported that India “is angry over WTO rules that don’t allow it to move ahead with a massive food subsidy programme”, that negotiators have been trying to win over India by “allowing it to break those rules for four years before reducing the scope of its subsidies”. It needs to be said here (see more below) that an outside agency’s ‘rules’ are immaterial to what Bharat’s people need, and that there is no question of any agency, country, group of countries or foreign entity of any sort ‘allowing’ India to decide the manner of its service to its people.

WTO-bullock-cartEarlier: Our kisans and our farmers have no use for a WTO ‘peace clause’. Our households and families that squeeze their weekly budgets to buy their food staples have no place in their lives for definitions of ‘market distorting subsidies’. Our retailers and wholesalers and fair price shops which supply these households and pay our kisans for the food they grow are much too busy to bother with what ‘amber box’ and ‘green box’ mean, or with the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the WTO.

The question is one not of food sovereignty or the right to food alone, it is also one of our country’s sovereignty and of democratic principles to be respected. For the so-called ‘developed’ countries who are also WTO members, the government of India paying farmers a minimum support price to buy crops that can be stocked (as needed) or released into the Public Distribution System is a ‘market distortion’ and they have invoked all sorts of WTO regulations to show why it is. This is dangerous and must be firmly and finally treated as a threat to the integrity of the Republic of India and its citizens. Whether those who have been sent to the WTO Ministerial Conference (in Indonesia, 2013 December 03-06) to argue India’s case will do so in a manner that protects our kisans and our households is yet to be seen.

Food security, prices that balance the income of farmers and the needs of food-purchasing households, and the quantities involved are matters that lie between the people of Bharat and the government (central and state) that exists to serve us. It is not the business in any way, in any year and under any pretext, of any of the other 192 member countries of the United Nations or of any grouping from amongst them. It is not the business of any UN agency nor any multilateral and/or inter-governmental body or agency regardless of whether India is a member or signatory to any such group or entity. That is the meaning of the sovereignty that exists as the contract between citizens and the state, and that means between us and the government of the Republic of India.

What business does the WTO imagine it has in this matter? Consider its chief operating statement: “The World Trade Organization deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” Arrogant and entirely mercantile, the WTO is incompetent in the matter just described – food security in Bharat. Via Campesina, the worldwide small farmers’ and peasants’ movement, has said: “”After several collapses and stalemates in the negotiations, the WTO has found a way to revive not only itself but also to deepen the free trade liberalisation agenda and expand into areas not previously covered by trade.”

An agricultural road ahead minus a WTO is what India must strive for now.

An agricultural road ahead minus a WTO is what India must strive for now.

Are India’s named representatives at the Ninth Ministerial of the WTO saying so clearly and loudly so that the entire UN system and the WTO can hear? Here is an extract from the statement made by the Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Anand Sharma, on 2013 December 02: “We cannot continue to have rhetoric of development agenda without even a reasonable attempt to address the issues which are of primary concern to developing economies. For decades, handful of farm lobbies of some countries have shaped the discourse and determined the destiny of millions of subsistence farmers of the developing countries. The massive subsidisation of the farm sector in the developed countries is not even a subject matter of discussion, leave aside serious negotiations.” This position may be useful, but we have to wait and see how it is developed between now and the end of this Ninth Ministerial.

That it may not be developed is already hinted at, for the same minister has also said: “It is therefore difficult for us to accept an interim solution as it has been currently designed. As a responsible nation, we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution. But till such time that we reach there, an interim solution which protects us from all forms of challenge must remain intact.” The ‘interim solution’ is what has popularly been called a ‘peace clause’, by which is mean that the use of measures to procure foodgrains by developing countries to promote food security would continue to be deemed illegal but WTO members would not go into the process of dispute settlement for a certain period.

Moreover, this ‘interim solution’ will be effective for only four years (that is, less than a single of our Plan periods) and Sharma’s saying that “we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution” is no indicator that our representatives to the WTO will tell the WTO that our farmers, our crops and food and our prices is none of its business. As the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has mentioned, a country might seek to use both purchases and sales of stocks to support a level of equilibrium in market prices that supports long-term development objectives.

The bloc of so-called ‘developed’ countries – the USA and some of its habitual crony countries, and the European Union, all of them having subsidised their agriculture heavily and steadily for 50 years – are holding up WTO ‘rules’ to say that if the price paid by our government is higher than the ‘external reference price’, the difference is considered a ‘trade-distorting subsidy’. And what is this reference price? The average international price of 1986-88! As anyone who has even a passing interest in food knows, true food inflation (which households experience) in most of the world has for the last six years been 10% and above. Fuel price inflation has been as much if not more. Fertiliser price inflation: ditto. It is the USA and (some) countries of the EU that have annually supported the cost of cultivation and held retail food prices low to the extent of half their agricultural GDP – which they today say is permitted under WTO rules, but that India’s crop procurement prices is a ‘market distorting subsidy’ that gets in the way of a ‘free market price’!

The concept of a ‘free market price’ is a mythical entity, Prabhat Patnaik has pointed out. “There are so many things that go into the price formation of any commodity, that to single out only a few of them as constituting ‘distortions’ and the rest as ‘non-distorting’ is totally arbitrary,” he has said. “This distinction which has been foisted upon the WTO by the advanced capitalist countries to serve their own interests, and imposed through it upon the entire world, is invidious for several reasons.”

End_WTO_BaliBut the WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, is considered to have as his priority the success of this Ninth Ministerial Conference in Indonesia (he warned WTO members in his inaugural speech this year that the “world will not wait for the WTO indefinitely” – what he thinks such a waiting world is was not clear, but our kisans want no WTO in their lives). [The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has more.]

Several farmers’ organisations, trade unions and peoples’ campaigns in India have resolved to support the Indian government’s position to not trade away national food security. The group welcomed the decision of the Indian Cabinet on 2013 November 28 November to reject any “peace clause” that does not guarantee a permanent solution. The peace clause has been widely opposed by the Chairs of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce and Agriculture, the Left parties, and mass organisations, which include Bhartiya Kisan Union, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, Focus on the Global South India, Right to Food Campaign, Shram Seva Nyas, South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Third World Network India.

Nonetheless, the danger we in Bharat have to guard against is both outside and inside. This year, India is an active and vocal member of the group of 33 countries (G-33) whose position is that the present WTO rules which constrain the ability of developing countries’ governments to purchase food from small farmers and stock them must be clarified or changed. But India is also a BRIC country whose ministers are doing all they can to allow foreign ownership of everything from banking to airports to defence to food. Hence this stance is hypocritical (as is India’s stance at the useless and totally compromised climate change COP meetings). Thus, the danger outside is how the USA (plus crony countries) and the EU employ Indian ministers to push through the WTO rules. The danger inside is that Parliament and state legislatures – which technically represent directly affected parties – are being by-passed while the interests of the corporate-financial elite (global, regional, national) are being protected.

It is this danger that has been referenced in the representation by 15 of the major farmer unions of India, including the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS). The representation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Forth-seven years after the green revolution was launched, India is being directed at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to dismantle its food procurement system built so assiduously over the past four decades. This ill-advised move is aimed not only at destroying the country’s hard-earned food security but also the livelihood security of over 600 million farmers, 80% of them being small and marginal.”

And that is why it is time for us to give our government the ultimatum – the world is not about trade but about people and the planet. Ours is not an agriculture in the service of the WTO’s murderous rules and our kisans will not abide being beggared. The crops grown to feed our households rural and urban and the prices set in the mandis and found in the kirana shops are a matter for Bharat. That is why it is time for us to face down the sly brokers in the WTO – and their masters – once and for all.

The common good of India and the Planning Commission of today

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Montek_Singh_questionThe Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Government of India, has in an interview starkly emphasised the priorities for the current government, priorities which accord no importance whatsoever to the principles governing the work of the Planning Commission itself, principles that were clearly enunciated 63 years ago.

In the interview, titled ‘We can’t get on a 9% growth path if we underprice energy’, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, has been asked a series of questions by reporters of one of India’s English-language business and financial dailies.

Q 1. Of late, there have been moves to correct the under-pricing of energy. Is the government moving the way the 12th five-year Plan document wanted it to? [In this question the reporters provide as a given the idea of ‘under pricing’ of energy in India.]

A 1. If prices do not reflect the real cost of energy, why will anyone invest in energy-saving equipment? Also, if prices don’t reflect the marginal cost of supply, which is imports, why will people invest to produce energy? Our problem is that energy is generally under-priced. Diesel, cooking gas and kerosene are under-priced.
We need a complete rethink on energy prices and align close to world prices. We cannot close the gap at one go but phased adjustment is necessary. Nobody likes to pay a higher price but we must recognise that we cannot expect to get on a nine per cent growth path if we don’t align its energy prices with global prices.

Ahluwalia wants nine per cent annual growth of the Indian economy at all costs. That these costs are social, ecological and ruinous are of no concern to him. He is only interested in the ‘marginal cost of supply’ of energy, of investment to produce more energy. He has ignored the data from the Government of India (in fact the Central Electricity Authority) which shows that the transmission and distribution losses between power generation and consumption are still 24% averaged for the last five years. Ahluwalia is either ignorant of or unmindful of the steep rise in the ‘fuel and light’ sub-index of the All-India Consumer Price Index. Over a single month, from November to December 2012, the fuel and light index for agricultural labourers rose from 760 to 769 and for rural labourers it rose from 758 to 766. What will this index reach for these two groups if Ahluwalia (and his supporters) has his way? What fearful cost will be exacted from India’s agricultural and rural labourers when our prices are ‘aligned’ with global prices? For whose benefit is this alignment being promoted by Ahluwalia?

Q 2. What should be the direction in coal?

A 2. We need some difficult decisions there. In the Plan, we have clearly said the nationalisation of coal needs to be reconsidered. There is no economic logic in keeping the private sector out of coal if it is allowed in petroleum and natural gas. Why do we allow the private sector in these areas? Because we want to bring in as much investment as possible into energy production and we want new technology.

Ahluwalia is (a) contemptuous about the Planning Commission’s own ‘Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth’ direction paper, in which the adoption of renewable energy sources and the steady reduction of coal and oil as primary fuels is advocated, and (b) conceals the truth that in India there are 455 new coal-powered generation plants under construction or have been approved (who needs clearances from the castrated Ministry of Environment and Forests? who needs environment impact assessments, pesky things that hinder our gallop towards GDP growth rates? who needs public consultation when the Prime Minister’s Office itself rams through projects?) or being planned. These 455 coal burners are to generate some 519,396 megawatts. For whom? For those agricultural and rural labourers struggling to buy kerosene for a stove on which to cook their evening meals? No, for the urban middle classes  who are being gathered together by India’s unspoken social engineering project that herds the income-privileged into towns and cities.

Many of these new coal burners are private sector already. I mention coal burning power plants currently under construction in three states only to overturn Ahluwalia’s economy with the truth. In Andhra Pradesh who are VSF Projects, Thermal Powertech Corporation, Indu Projects Limited and Dr. RKP Power? In Bihar who are AES India, Mirach Power Pvt. Ltd, Triton Energy Ltd and Buxar Bijlee Company? In Maharashtra who are Indiabulls Power, Ideal Energy Projects, Mantri Power and Lenexis Energy? Who are they if not private?

The World Resources Institute’s Global Coal Risk Assessment explained: “International public financial institutions are important and long-time contributors to the coal industry. Since 1994, multilateral development banks (MDBs) and industrialised countries’ export credit agencies (ECAs) have helped finance 88 new and expanded coal plants in developing countries, as well as projects in Europe. Together, MDBs and ECAs have provided more than US$37 billion in direct and indirect financial support for new coal-fired power plants worldwide. The World Bank has actually increased lending for fossil fuel projects and coal plants in recent years. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund concludes that the lending strategies of MDBs and ECAs in the energy sector do not sufficiently consider the environmental harm wrought by fossil fuel projects.”

Q 3. There is a talk of a food security law and there is a five-year map for the fiscal deficit. Can both go hand in hand?

A 3. Yes. If food security is a critical programme, we can give it top priority and cut something else. We have talked about reducing subsidies from 2.4 per cent of GDP to 1.5 per cent. We have not said there should be no subsidy. There is enough room in the limit indicated to accommodate a sensible food security bill but it does mean other subsidies will have to be cut more.

Why is Ahluwalia using an ‘if’ to misqualify the need for the Republic of India to provide affordable food to its citizens? What is meant by “cut something else”? Who is to decide what essential programmes need support if not the citizens of India through their representatives and through public participation and consultation? Ahluwalia’s are the statements of a ruling regime that has abandoned every last shadow of democratic practice.

To turn to the Planning Commission itself. In its description of its functions the Planning Commission has provided this information:

“The 1950 resolution setting up the Planning Commission outlined its functions as to: (a) Make an assessment of the material, capital and human resources of the country, including technical personnel, and investigate the possibilities of augmenting such of these resources as are found to be deficient in relation to the nation’s requirement; (b) Formulate a Plan for the most effective and balanced utilisation of country’s resources; (c) On a determination of priorities, define the stages in which the Plan should be carried out and propose the allocation of resources for the due completion of each stage;” [There are four other functions mentioned.]

Worryingly, what has been omitted is far more significant. What do these functions relate to? The answer can be found in the introduction to the First Five Year Plan:

“The Planning Commission was set up in March, 1950 by a Resolution of the Government of India which defined the scope of its work in the following terms:

‘The Constitution of India has guaranteed certain Fundamental Rights to the citizens of India and enunciated certain Directive Principles of State Policy, in particular, that the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life, and shall direct its policy towards securing, among other things—

that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;
that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good; and
that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.’ “

Citizens, welfare, people, social and economic and political justice, control by the people of the material resources of India, the common good, no concentration of wealth, no means of production to the common detriment. These have now been hidden by the Planning Commission of today, shamefully. And it is from that base act of concealment that Montek Singh Ahluwalia speaks.

The man who (almost) sold his mother for fertiliser

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Five recent news features from the IPS (Inter Press Service) network describe problems of agriculture and livelihood in Africa and South America. The report from Malawi is shocking – of how a young man attempted to sell his mother so as to buy fertiliser!

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Climate Change Means New Crop Health ConcernsIn Brazil, the Climapest project has brought together 134 researchers from 37 institutions to evaluate the potential effects of climate change on crop health, and to guide policies and provide options so that this South American and global agricultural leader can adapt. The changes in climate “will not necessarily aggravate the crop diseases” in all cases, because warmer temperatures or increased carbon gases could impede the proliferation of certain microorganisms, but it is important to be ready for future scenarios because “generating solutions takes time,” explained Raquel Ghini, project leader.

Funguses, viruses and other agents that are harmful to agriculture are among the organisms that react fastest to changes in the climate, because of their short life cycles and their ability to reproduce quickly. Climapest began in January 2009 and has a four-year mandate to study 85 problems of plant health affecting 16 crops, including major exports like coffee, soybeans and fruit (banana, apple and grape), as well as African palm and castor oils, both of which are gaining ground as raw material for biodiesel.

Small Scale Farmers Face Uphill Battle – “Small farmers need substantial infrastructure to be competitive. If not, we can’t deliver according to our clients’ needs,” said Alan Simons, an emerging small-scale farmer in South Africa. “Big farmers kill you, they flood the market,” he added.

“Bigger farmers have an advantage over smaller farmers because smaller farmers face bigger obstacles to getting into the market,” said Chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Nick Vink. “Geographically they are mostly further away from the market, infrastructure is often geared to working with large quantities of produce, the transaction costs of working with small amounts of product are higher, and last but not least they get no support from the state.”

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. The fruits shown here are unripe, and would normally be collected only after they turn yellow. But because of the food shortage, people are often unable to wait that long. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

So how do small farmers cope? “Marketing holds the key to making profits”, said Jeptha. “You need to have contracts and a proper market. Your produce should be sold before you plant them. You must know where you are going to deliver it before you plant that seed,” he said. Farming short cycle crops is also key. Simons farms green beans, baby marrows and gem squash – crops that can be harvested within eight weeks. Small farmers don’t venture into fruit farming. It can take up to three years for fruit trees to bear fruit, a major risk for the emerging small farmer who has little start up cash.

Desperation Over Subsidies – Many needy farmers are being left out of a government fertiliser and seed subsidy programme in Malawi, and are employing desperate measures in order to access these commodities. A 21-year-old man, Jolam Ganizani, from Malawi’s central district of Ntchisi, is in police custody after he attempted to sell his own mother to use the money to buy fertiliser and seed.

Police prosecutor Sub Inspector Peter Njiragoma told local journalists last month that Ganizani had confessed to the police that he was so poverty- stricken that he felt that selling his mother would be the solution to his problems. “He had wanted to use the money obtained from selling his mother to buy farm inputs which would assist him to grow a lot of crops and harvest more,” explained Njiragoma.

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

According to the police, Ganizani was working with a herbalist in Mozambique who advised him that his mother could be used as a slave by businesspeople. Malawi is highly susceptible to human trafficking because of high levels of poverty, low literacy levels and HIV/AIDS, according to a local NGO, the Malawi Network Against Child Trafficking, MNACT.

New Vegetables in Kenya’s Food Markets – Kale is also popularly known as “sakuma wiki”, a name that loosely translated means that it can sustain people throughout the week due to its extreme affordability, particularly for those who earn a dollar and below a day. It is thus the single most popular and available vegetable. “In spite of its popularity, varieties of kale available to farmers are generally of poor quality, yield easily to diseases and their production is also low,” explains Catherine Kuria.

Vegetables are grown by an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan households, with Kale accounting for the highest production. In a bid to improve food security and consequently alleviate hunger, new varieties of kale have been developed that are more productive and can cope better with the unpredictable climatic changes across the country. These new varieties are expeted to aid a government programme called ‘Njaa Marufuku Kenya’ which basically means eliminating hunger in Kenya. This programme supports agricultural development initiatives targeting the poor in rural areas, where an estimated 60% live below a dollar a day.

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Rain May Disappear from South American Breadbasket – South America still has vast extensions of land available for growing crops to help meet the global demand for food and biofuels. But the areas of greatest potential agricultural production – central-southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Paraguay – could be left without the necessary rains. Every deforested hectare in the Amazon – a jungle biome extending across the northern half of South America – weakens the system that has been protecting the region. “We don’t know where the point of no return is,” when forest degradation will become irreversible, and lands that benefited from the rains generated in the Amazon turn to desert, said the scientist Antonio Nobre, of the Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.

The Amazon forest and the barrier created by the Andes Mountains, which run north-to-south through South America, channel the humid winds, now known as “flying rivers.” Those winds ensure rainfall for a region that is the continental leader in meat, grain and fruit exports, and a world leader in sugar, soybeans and orange juice. The flying-river phenomenon, as established by climate researchers, led Nobre and other scientists around the globe to a new theory, the “biotic pump,” which explains climate phenomena, equilibrium and disequilibrium in the Earth’s natural systems and in which forest biomes play an essential role. A large tree in the Amazon can evaporate up to 300 litres of water in a day. One measure suggests that the Amazon generates 20 billion tonnes of water vapour daily. The Amazon River, in comparison, churns out 17 billion tonnes of water into the ocean.

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.