Monday, November 30, 2009

Development or Agro-Imperialism?

As foreign countries and private money flows into African agriculture, the question remains who benefits?

A recent New York Times article posits the question, is there such a thing as Agro-Imperialism?

Faced with an increasing world population and dwindling land resources - 90% of the world's arable land excluding forests and fragile ecosystems is already in use, claims the Times - countries are getting creative in figuring out how they will continue to feed their populations.
Increasingly, nations are eyeing land in Africa. Countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and South Korea are securing land deals in countries such as Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania.

The promise?

In exchange for the right to farm, the investors - some representing foreign governments, others foreign private investors with heavy government influence– promise to increase infrastructure, bring in new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of the land allowing them to grow enough food to feed both the local populations as well as the populations of their home countries.

On the one hand, these are all things that many countries on the African continent need. Many of these countries are struggling to feed their populations and improved infrastructure could provide benefits such as improved medical and clean water access.

On the other hand, we are not talking about small parcels of land. Land deals profiled in a recent Food and Agriculture (FAO) report on the issue include approved include a 452,500 ha biofuel project in Madagascar, a 150,000 ha livestock project in Ethiopia, and a 100,000 ha irrigation project in Mali. These are large parcels of land being taken out of the control of a nation's people and being conscripted into service to feed or meet another nation's needs. Is that in any way sustainable or equitable?

Many countries cite that their concern over food security as the impetus to their interest in agricultural investment in Africa. The recent food crises have left them uneasy, and as nations with little arable land, increasing populations, or both, they worry that the day will come that food cannot be purchased at any price. Fair enough. But in increasing their own food security, aren't they wresting from these African nations the right to do the same?

As the FAO piece points out many of the countries involved in these deals do not have in place legal or procedural mechanisms to protect local rights and take account of local interests, livelihoods and welfare.

This is cause for concern.

Not just because this so-called development may lead to many benefits for the investors and none for the invested-in, but because it may also hamper real development while also spurring on hunger. It may hamper development by taking land out of local hands, reducing the ability for local development. It can spur on hunger, because it is not uncommon for poor nations to be net exporters of food even while their own populace starves; it is doubtful that the local populations can pay what the producers could get, for example, on the international market; and it’s questionable as to what rights if any the local governments can have over the producers beyond what is explicitly stated in their agreements.
The most egregious example of how this can create a hunger situation is in the Irish potato famine of the 1800's in which 1 million Irish people died, and another million emigrated. Throughout the entire famine Ireland was a net exporter of food; the food, however, came from land under British control and was exported to England where it could command higher prices.

This is not an issue left to the 1800's, either.

During the 1973 Wollo Famine in Ethiopia, food was being shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa where it could command higher prices. In fact a 2006 paper titled Famine without Shortages by Nigar Hashimzade details how famines can happen without scarcity. In short, as a 2006 famine in Lesotho illustrated, in which 2/3rds of the population did not have access to food, despite there being no food shortage. They were simply too poor to purchase the food.

Taken together this creates a picture that is cause at the very least for pause, if not outright concern.

The investing countries should also be concerned. To quote the Times article "“The idea that one country would go to another country, and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”

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Transition Towns

What does Sustainable Development look like in the Global North?

Typically when the discourse turns to Sustainable Development we tend to think of the Global South. The Global North with its higher levels of consumption are somehow, already developed.

Transition towns however, turns that idea on its head. Originating from England, Transition towns is a model of development that involves reinventing the way in which the Global North lives, works and engages with each other. With a heavy focus on dealing with the challenges posed by peak oil and climate change, Transition Towns are focused on developing community resilience and self-reliance in food, energy and economy.

In short, transition towns are about low-carbon, local communities – they represent a transition from a carbon economy to a solar one.

When faced with the fact that the lifestyles of the Global North are unsustainable – the United States for example uses 33% of the world’s resources but holds only 6% of its population- transition towns are much needed in the discourse of sustainable development. Did you know for example, that despite the fact that the average American lives within 100 miles of an apple orchard the average apple typically travels 3000 miles from orchard to table?

Transition towns say we should put an end to this carbon consumption madness by keeping the apples close to where they were grown: sell the apples in the communities that grow them.

As someone with a keen interest in a Sustainable Development with zero interest in living abroad I find ideas such as transition towns a welcome addition to the sustainable development debate. How can countries in the Global South develop while those of us in the Global North are consuming their resources?

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Measure of Things

How do we gauge our progress towards our development destinations? Are economic indicators the best measure?

Development. Progress. These words and others like them are often bandied about in an attempt to describe a goal for a future that is somehow better than our present.

But what do we mean by “better”?

Do we mean more stuff?

The current development models, which focus on economic growth as the means by which nations and those within them can attain a better future, certainly seem to indicate that better equals more. And, for much of the world’s people who scrape by with barely enough food to eat, water to drink, and without adequate shelter, more stuff is an appealing prospect.

No one, I think is arguing that those who have the least should envision a future with still less.
However, the question remains how much stuff?

Do we envision a future with a Tata in every driveway, a steak on every plate, and an ipod in every hand?

Putting aside the effects that such a model of development would have on the environment, what is the effect that a stuff centered economy has on us?

My economics 101 professor in undergrad stated that if we viewed the economy as a giant pizza with those on the bottom getting the smallest slice of the pie, a bigger economy means everyone gets more even if their percentage remains the same.

But what if you’re lactose intolerant? Put another way what if the economy is offering up items that one neither needs nor desires.

In the past two years I have moved five times: from New York to Vermont, Vermont to DC, DC to Montreal, Montreal back to New York. The one thing I have not had a hard time doing is accumulating stuff. In a system predicated on producing ever increasing amounts of stuff attaining more stuff becomes a passive endeavor. In the past three months alone I have acquired two t-shirts, an apron, a jar of gourmet mustard, a magazine, and a hooded sweatshirt, all for free, all stuff I didn’t really want but didn’t feel that I could refuse. I’ve also refused several shirts, an ‘eco-friendly’ reusable fork/spoon combination designed to replace disposable ones, and way too many of those stress balls. What I found much more difficult to develop was a sense of community, interpersonal connections - the relationships that make life worth living.

Everyone, you see, was too busy working to get money to accumulate the right kinds of stuff, while at the same time bemoaning their lack of time to devote to relationships, hobbies… life. The societies with the most stuff - the US, Japan - it seems are often those with the most overworked and overly stressed individuals and the ones where interpersonal connections are heavily predicated on economic markers.

The exception, interestingly enough, was in Vermont, a solidly middle class state (it has the 22nd best economy in the country) based heavily on agriculture. Farm work, my dairy farming roommate pointed out to me, doesn't work on a clock schedule. Past a certain hour, or season, the work simply can't be done anymore.

My point isn’t that stuff is inherently evil, but rather that using the economy as the dominant indicator of what makes a healthy, well functioning society that serves the needs of its people is flawed. Community, friendships, hobbies, and families are all wonderfully contributing things that make life worth living and should be factored into development models which seek to create a ‘better’ future.

These are ideas are admittedly harder to calculate, but perhaps that is a sign of their relative importance. The things that often have the highest value are those for which it is near impossible to affix a price; friendships, after all, are not fungible.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What is Sustainable Development?

For a field that’s getting a lot of attention these days, it’s often hard to describe just what Sustainable Development is. Kendra gives it a try, however.

Have you ever tried to explain to someone what Sustainable Development is on a practical level?

In the past two years since I started formally studying Sustainable Development, I've found myself struggling with how to accurately articulate what exactly is Sustainable Development. Since I've graduated and have had to explain my degree to potential networking contacts and employers my struggle has only gotten worse.

First, because people hear the word ‘Development’ and instantly think that my goal is to head off to Tanzania, Cambodia or some other so-called developing nation to help them to become more like the US. They become puzzled when I say no, my intention is to stay in the US, because at just 6% of the population we consume a whopping 33% o f the world's resources. Developing nations can't develop, I point out, until we stop taking their share of the pie. We are not, as we like to think, done developing.

They then immediately begin to think that Sustainable Development is about the environment, and just the environment. A mindset that is somewhat reinforced on the few occasions I've trotted out the Brutland Commission’s definition of Sustainable Development

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I hate that definition.

First, it manages to be sufficiently vague (what is a need after all?) as to be both pleasing to the ear and meaningless. Second, it does nothing to explain what someone versed in the field of Sustainable Development does on the ground in a practical sort of way. How does Sustainable Development translate into actual work?

In a society that is extremely specialized Sustainable Development is a generalist’s field.
Because Sustainable Development is about, well, everything.

It’s about how we feed ourselves, how we transport ourselves, how we build houses, how we clothe ourselves, how we entertain ourselves and how we relate to people and to ecosystems. An economist can tell you about economic systems, an agriculturalist can tell you about farm systems, an ecologist can tell you about ecological systems. A Sustainable Development person can tell you that our economic system prioritizes commodity goods and a funny sort of accounting which in turn has caused us to develop agricultural systems which are heavy on artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This agricultural system not only sickens ecosystems and in parts of the country depletes ground water reserves, but it also sickens us. In an economic system dependent on perpetual economic growth we produce more calories per day than should be consumed per person, typically of cheap commodity foods such as corn, which do little to help counteract our ever expanding waistbands and the health risks that accompany them. If we seek to improve public health and reduce the negative effect of agriculture on our ecosystems we can begin by ending the subsidies we place on commodity foods.

In other words Sustainable Development is about recognizing the links between seemingly disparate fields and creating actionable policies, businesses, and regulations to help improve human, social, and environmental welfare. Instead of merely putting a thumb in the dike of our problems, it seeks to assess why we built the dam in the first place and figure out if there is another, better way, of reaching the same goal.

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