Listening to an African woman at Terra Madre in October, 2004 helped me to better appreciate some of the problems afflicting policies for development. ‘The UN officials,’ explained this lady of around 40 who had just arrived in Turin from Swaziland, ‘come to Africa and in their reports they describe the poverty. But that isn’t what our small farmers need.’ It was a simple remark but it eloquently expressed the limitations of the international organizations responsible for managing growth and development issues. What’s more, she was referring to one of the better institutions.
Faced with the manifest shortcomings of ‘official’ agencies, and rallying to the call ‘another world is possible’, efforts are being made to improve things. I am thinking in particular of the annual meeting of the World Social Forum, the event which has made the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre — venue for the first editions— famous around the world. This year’s meeting has been spread between Bamako (Mali), Caracas (Venezuela) and Karachi (Pakistan), hence three different continents. It provided an opportunity for dialog and focused the world’s attention on social issues, which are systematically ignored in interstate ministerial meetings. This alone is a very worthwhile achievement.
I think it is important to stress the fundamental role played by small farmers’ organizations from every continent in creating this awareness of social concerns. Their activity should be no surprise— against their will, rural populations are the first that have to deal with the problems that the rapid onset of modern globalization has wrought. In the agreements concluded by the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the bodies which have had most impact on the process, there have been few qualms about accepting the notion that any concerns about social issues can be overridden when balanced against economic considerations. In this context, food production has assumed particular importance for various reasons.
First of all, very invasive agricultural technologies have been introduced. They have been disastrous for the environment and for humans. Poisons and chemical fertilizers are abused, genetic engineering techniques are used in order to grow cereals and soy where rain forest used to flourish, and traditional methods of cultivation are replaced by methods that are very modern but absolutely non-economic for the small farmers using them.
Curbing these processes in order to safeguard ecosystems and traditional cultures is impossible because, in the name of productivity and free trade, they are all legitimate. As a result scientists indicate that food production is now the main cause of a possible environmental collapse.
There is a second thing which should be considered and against which the rural world has shown its opposition: the commoditization of natural resources. The application of genetic engineering to agriculture has made people think that anything can be bought and sold, even life. After all, a patent is enough.
A topical example is the revolt of Bolivians against the privatization of water, one of the most sacrosanct and essential substances for life. Imposed by the World Bank, the privatization has created a monopoly situation, an intolerable increase in the cost of water resources and a dignified, fully justified popular protest. The World Social Forum was an opportunity to reflect on these types of abuses committed at the expense of human beings and the environment they live in.
The use and enjoyment of certain goods, drinking and eating (as well as possible) are, and must remain, a fundamental right of everybody, without distinction. The problems of the world are not solved either by describing poverty or by putting everything up for sale.
During the World Social Forum, small farmers, who have always maintained a deferential respect for nature, once again raised their voices. We can only hope that those responsible for taking certain decisions listened with a little humility.
Adapted by Ronnie Richards
First printed in La Stampa on January 16, 2005