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Latin American summit confronts hunger crisis

Published May 15, 2008 10:36 PM

With the theme “Sovereignty and Food Security: Food for Life,” delegations from 15 countries met in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 7 to discuss and plan strategies to confront the serious hunger crisis that is affecting the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.

This presidential summit was the result of an April 23 emergency meeting of four of the five ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America) countries held in Caracas, Venezuela. At that time, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to sign a special agreement that would develop agricultural and industrial sectors to increase the production of grains like rice and corn, oil-containing beans, meat and milk. According to Prensa Latina, “The agreement reached by the ALBA member countries also favors the setting up of a food commercialization network and includes a joint commitment to create a fund with $100-million initial capital to allow the implementation of the programs and plans with the initiative.”

However, since the essence of ALBA is the integration and well-being of all the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, a larger summit was necessary to address the current food crisis.

The May 7 summit in Managua was attended by delegations from Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua. There were also representatives of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, U.N. World Food Program, UNICEF, PARLACEN (Central American Parliament) and PARLATINO (Latin American Parliament).

Opening remarks from each country addressed concerns and proposals about the crisis, but also overwhelmingly pointed to the policies of the imperialist countries as the main culprit of the catastrophe. The television network TeleSUR covered the session.

Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, eloquently stated the need to include fishing in the agricultural and food discussions, noting that small island countries such as his do not have the space for cattle raising and depend more on small farm animals and sea products, but global warming is affecting fishing, since the fish tend to go deeper in the sea. He concluded, “I do not see the Americans helping us, or the Europeans, and in fact, many times when they bring programs for diversification, agriculture production, etc., they perpetuate a fraud among the people, they increase their expectations and there are few things they deliver.”

Vice President Lage from Cuba summed up the real basis of the current crisis: “The essence of the crisis is not in these recent phenomena, but in the unequal and unjust distribution of the wealth at global level, and in the untenable neoliberal economic model, imposed with irresponsibility and fanaticism over the last 20 years.”

President Ortega, who chaired the meeting, conveyed the hunger crisis through the facts: “Data from the international organizations tells us that every 5 seconds a child under 10 years of age dies from undernourishment, from hunger. Every minute that we are here talking, exchanging ideas about this problem, 12 children are dying. And every hour, 720 children under 10 years are dying from hunger!”

The final declaration signed by 12 countries rejected subsidies in the developed countries and the unfair trade that affects the underdeveloped countries. They also rejected the use of food for biofuel. A detailed Action Plan was proposed that would help strengthen the countries’ economies and food production in a sustainable way. A proposal from Mexico, which volunteered to host a high-level meeting on technology at the end of May, was accepted.

Other gatherings about the issue have been taking place in Latin America. The Cuban News Agency (ACN) reported that more than 100 representatives from 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries participated in a conference on child malnutrition in Santiago de Chile on May 6. On May 16-17, the Fifth European Union-Latin America and Caribbean Summit (EU-LAC) will take place in Lima, Peru. The main themes will be “Poverty, inequality and inclusion” and “Sustainable Development: the environment, climate change and energy.” At the May 7 presidential summit, it was decided that the food crisis be raised at the EU-LAC and all other international meetings in the near future.

Imperialists meet behind closed doors

Nine days before the Managua summit, on April 28, World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran and World Bank President Robert Zoellick met behind closed doors in Berne, Switzerland, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and executives from 27 U.N. agencies to discuss rising food prices and uprisings in 37 countries due to extreme hunger.

According to ACN, Ban demanded $2.5 billion in aid to help fight the world food crisis during a press conference in Berne on April 22.

What was Zoellick’s solution to the food crisis? Showing his real class interest, he called on not restricting the export of oil products.

How can the imperialists solve a crisis they created? As Via Campesina, an organization of Indigenous, small farmers and peasants throughout the world, stated in a document entitled “An Answer to the Global Food Crisis” (www.viacampesina.org), neoliberal policies have destroyed the capacity of the countries to feed themselves.

Although they mention biofuel and global warming that affects harvests as causes for the food crisis, they see the lack of sovereignty in food as the most prominent cause: “This crisis is also the result of many years of destructive policies that have undermined domestic food production. ... Farmers have been forced to produce cash crops for transnational corporations (TNCs) and buy their food on the world market.”

The article shows the example of Mexico, which, after NAFTA, went from being a corn-exporting country to one dependent for 30 percent of its corn on imports from the U.S. However, now that U.S. corn production is increasingly used for fuel, there is less available for Mexico. It also mentions the case of Indonesia, which in 1992 produced enough soy to satisfy domestic consumption of the staples tofu and tempeh. After opening its doors to neoliberal policies, cheap soy from the U.S. inundated its market, bringing domestic production down. Sixty percent now is imported from the U.S. and prices have doubled.

Therefore, without the ability to produce their own food due to neoliberal prescriptions, combined with severe climate changes, poor countries are victims to the speculation of the food market and the diversion of food production to biofuel. While food consumption accounts for probably 10 to 20 percent of a person’s income in most developed countries, in the Third World it is 60 to 80 percent. And the products most affected by the current crisis are staples of poor people’s tables, like rice and corn.

No wonder masses have been rising up in Mexico, Indonesia, Yemen, the Philippines, Cambodia, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Guinea, Mauritania, Egypt, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Peru, Bolivia and Haiti.

Haiti merits special attention, since it is one of the poorest nations on Earth where the genocidal greed of the transnational corporations is obscenely and patently clear. Eighty percent of the population lives under the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty. According to Servicio Paz y Justicia en América Latina, “Twenty years ago Haiti produced 95 percent of the rice that its people consumed; today it imports from the U.S. 80 percent of that product.” (www.serpajamericalatina.org).

The extreme hunger in Haiti has forced people to feed their children with “Pica” crackers made of mud, a poisonous remedy against hunger. In Cité-Soleil, the crackers are made with yellow mud from the country’s central plateau, mixed with salt and oil. It costs $5 to make 100 crackers, but even at that price, many Haitians cannot afford a cracker made of dirt! It might fill a child’s belly, but the mud also carries parasites and potentially deadly substances.

Cuba and Venezuela have stepped up to help the Haitian people. Among other actions, Venezuela sent 600 tons of food on April 13 and 50 farm trucks. Cuba has been providing medical care to the most poor, who did not have access to doctors. For five years, 400 Cuban doctors have been working in Haiti; and 600 Haitian students study medicine in Cuba. According to Haitian President René Préval, for the Haitian people “after God, there are the Cuban doctors.”

People starve while food corporations thrive

In an April 14 press release, U.S. food giant Cargill reported “net earnings of $1.03 billion in the 2008 third quarter ended Feb. 29, up 86 percent from $553 million in the same period a year ago. Earnings in the first nine months totaled $2.9 billion, a 69 percent increase from $1.71 billion a year ago.” (www.cargill.com)

The release continues: “‘Cargill posted a third consecutive strong quarter in a year in which the dimensions of change in global agriculture are striking,’ said Greg Page, Cargill chairman and chief executive officer. ‘Demand for food in developing economies and for energy worldwide is boosting demand for agricultural goods, at the same time that investment monies have streamed into commodity markets. Relative to demand, world grain stocks today are at their lowest levels in 35 years. Prices are setting new highs and markets are extraordinarily volatile.’”

Monsanto, another U.S. company, also reported huge profits. In a newswire on May 6, the company stated: “As a technology company in agriculture, we have a unique opportunity because our technology creates value for our farmer customers regardless of which crop they grow, where they ultimately sell their grain, or at what price that grain is sold on the commodity markets. ... Monsanto’s strong earnings growth continues to be reflected in dividend payouts. Monsanto has increased its dividend six times—an increase of 200 percent—since 2001.” (www.monsanto.com)

Monsanto is the main culprit behind the genetically engineered seeds that have inundated and destroyed agriculture in Third World countries, making them dependent on Monsanto’s seeds and products.