We usually only hear about places like Africa (which is a continent with tens of countries and thousands of ethnic groups, not a single unit) because of wars and famines. As if people in this continent were either killing each other or dying of hunger. Well, I can assure you that 90% of the time and places none of this happens. I already spoke over wars in a previous entry, and now I would like to highlight the issue of hunger/famines and what lays behind it.
Since we diversified from hunting and gathering by including agriculture into our foods, through the domestication of certain plants, people didn’t need to be nomadic no more and decided to settle. Since then this success allowed the human race to grow and reproduce and populate the planet. Harvests then became a determining factor in the growth of populations together with large epidemics. Agriculture was a hard and labour-intensive activity that required most of the population to be involved in it. Also the production was local and seasonal, since it was impossible to preserve the production, moreover the production was relatively scarce, producing just enough for the family (subsistence farming). To insure the following harvest, seeds were kept in barns.
The second great change in food production came with industrialisation, were workers were required in factories and in response the agricultural sector developed techniques such as mechanisation that reduced the number of peasants needed and plant hybrids to improve the yield of crops in the late 19th Century in Europe and North America, which was expanded to the former colonies mid-20th Century through the Green Revolution.
What was the purpose of the Green Revolution?
Was it to feed the populations of those countries or was it to insure that both Europe and North America would have cheap agricultural imports? Well both, but the first was the public reason and the second the real one.
For instance, where did this revolution start? In Mexico during the Second World War, not that the country was at the brink of starvation, but rather that the northern neighbour needed to feed its troops and population focused on the war.
Apart from feeding rich countries, why didn’t the Revolution include a manufacturing revolution? Well, setting up a factory involves a huge investment (buildings, roads, importing materials, training staff, etc) at the risk of loosing it everything with a change of government, corruption, etc.. Thus not a sound investment in unstable areas, even though several decades later manufacturing also was exported there. Agriculture however, involves much less investments and thus loosing this investment is less likely. Land is plenty, and simply occupied by small peasant communities with no real political strenght, so making large fields in the best areas, is relatively easy.
In Africa there are large extensions destined to agricultural production. Being the second largest continent after Asia, with the largest extensions of arable land, it was an obvious choice. Following the Green Revolution in the 1990s and especially after 2007, the World Bank and other international bodies promoted similar policies which will little technology were labour intensive and therefore gave jobs to many people. Lovely in theory, these policies had several consequences:
1) By hiring labour for the key moments in agricultural production, these peasant left their traditional subsistence farming, where they produced food for them and their family, and became solely dependant on their seasonal salary, from which all the family depends.
2) The productions were export-led and thus producing goods that were directly affected by world prices such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton, etc.. In other words, if Ivory Coast’s cocoa production is bad, due to natural or man-made events, then Ivorians don’t get hired thus paid, with no land to cultivate or unable to do it on time, the Ivorians are forced to pass a hard year. And in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cameroon and Ghana, where there is also cocoa production, the profits increase because they produce more of a scarce resource, but these profits are not reflected on the workers, but on the foreign companies that own the land. Furthermore no more workers are hired because the land used cannot be changed.
Therefore, the Green Revolution created a system of dependency of the local population on these multinational companies for food. The local population had no control over this and reduced the amount of land they could dedicate to producing their foods. Briefly it increased their fragility.
Too many people
Another myth, often assigned to Africa, is that there is a lot of people in Africa. That because there is no control on births, this continent is overflowing with people that cannot possibly feed themselves. With some exceptions like Nigeria or Ethiopia, Africa is surprisingly a very empty continent. With an estimated 1,017 million people (1,5 times what is in the small cramped Europe and half what we find in North America) Africa is a place where you can drive for hours and hours without seeing a soul. Moreover, having such a large amount of arable land, Africa is the continent with by far, the largest proportion of arable land per person. So we still have quite a way to go to reach this supposed overflowing stage.
Ethiopia became sadly famous in 1985 for a famine in the north of the country. Well, if you strolled around the countryside of northern Ethiopia at that time, you would see large extensions of green valleys with extensive productions. Of course, these productions were not for the local population but destined for the city and for exports. But that didn’t matter and many children and adults died.
I will not deny that natural disasters such as droughts and floods have a dire effect on productions and local farmers can do little to solve it, but that the solution is, can be and should be national. Or at least continental. But this cannot happen due to corruption and bad roads, but also because of the effects of these large companies or rich countries buying land (land grabbing).
Currently sub-Saharan Africa contains 70% of the world large-scale land buying, 720.000 square kilometres, an extension equivalent to Greece and France together or California and Nevada together, and its only increasing.