When one plunges into a file such as food sovereignty one finds there an absorbing fact and a thousand and one questions to analyse. The fact is that hunger in the world remains one of the most serious problems facing humanity, with the latest figure rising to 815 million undernourished, Africa having the highest prevalence . The proportion on the African continent is as high as 27.4 percent of its population, almost four times higher than elsewhere. The UN is sending out a strong and clear warning signal in its latest report, indicating that it will be difficult to meet the goal of liberating the world from hunger and malnutrition by 2030 without agreeing on renewed efforts and new ways of working.
But, what new ways of working? Where do one find the strength to renew efforts?
This latest FAO report focuses on the obvious links between conflict and food insecurity. In the many conflict-affected countries, subsistence agriculture plays a vital role in the food security of most of the population. And the consequences of these conflicts often hit peasants and their way of life. Fear of going out to work in the fields stops them from carrying out the necessary tasks while the life cycle of the foodstuffs does not stop. In addition, displacement of populations still happens too much, leading to their land being abandoned and households and communities being deprived of food.
But, on the other hand, fierce competition over natural resources can trigger conflicts. These natural resources can be precious metals but also primary needs in Africa such as water or land. As the report points out, since 2000 half of all civil conflicts have occurred in Africa in contexts where land access is essential to livelihoods and where land issues have played an important role (27 conflicts out of 30).
This is the vicious circle of conflict and food insecurity. Armed conflict leads to a dramatic drop in food security because of a range of undesirable effects that can occur, in the worst-case scenario, if food aid is used by one of the factions to the detriment of another. It makes us think of the traditional and recurring struggles between competing tribes of stockbreeders and crop farmers. For some time now, though, it has been the transformation of agrifood systems at a global level that has created new situations of rivalry and tension.
Big companies are applying ever greater pressure to acquire fertile land at prices unimaginable to the developed countries and then to supplant the usual commodities that have been, albeit in a precarious fashion, the best guarantee of food for people who live there. We have witnessed in recent years a race to capture vast expanses of fertile land that is supposed to be untapped, because, in the eyes of modern man, subsistence farming is no longer an economic activity. It seems that economic logic compels us to slash everything that is unproductive, to exclude from the use of land people who have no other livelihood and who barely manage to survive. It is more efficient to extract a greater benefit for others who can enjoy it more. This atrocious thought, strongly contested by the social doctrine of the Church, sometimes influences decisions about land.
As a result, land grabbing has become an obvious danger for peasants in Africa. This is another way of exerting violence on the most vulnerable people, sometimes direct violence with armed forces and always indirect violence that leads to manipulating the will of the population. A whole range of tactics are used for this purpose by investors and their intermediaries: promises of social investments such as health centres or water wells, the assurance of jobs on the new farm. These are sold under the guise of development and progress and are ridiculous but attractive compensation for heads of households who are accustomed to struggling for subsistence. And promises often remain unfulfilled when consent is granted. Unfortunately, there have also been other more expeditious methods that do not even try to obtain the consent of the people who remain completely ignored.
It is in every case an attack against the dignity of the family farmers who have shown, however, great resilience until now but who are shamefully deprived of their most precious property, namely, land. Popular wisdom says that there is no one more helpless than a landless peasant. Everyone knows when purchase offers or displacement orders arrive. Some face it with at times heroic resistance. Others consent but are heartbroken as the land does not simply provide a livelihood but also contains their roots; it is not just an agriculture but a culture.
Nevertheless, the agricultural development policies implemented in Africa tend to ignore this reality in favour of adhering to agribusiness trends and they focus on large export-oriented commodity projects and try to exploit the land for greater productivity – despite the needs of the rural population. The European Network for Central Africa has just released a policy brief aimed at analysing these policies in Rwanda and identifying how the EU could be much more coherent in achieving its objectives of combating poverty and environmental sustainability. However, the Rwandan government, with financial support from the EU, is committed to transforming the agricultural sector into international markets despite the needs of family farming and local markets. The dossier also reveals the short-sightedness of the seemingly excellent results of agricultural intensification in the country, as the indices for food insecurity of rural populations, and especially for child malnutrition, remain at very worrying levels.
If we want to align ourselves with the objectives of sustainable development and prioritize the end of malnutrition and extreme poverty, we should rather invest in an agricultural model that gives priority to the interests and needs of the most vulnerable farmers and supports them with agricultural technical staff who value its inputs and know how to make more profit for rural households. It would be the best way to increase community empowerment while retaining control over land and know-how and at the same time improving resilience to external factors. It would also be, perhaps, the new way of working that the FAO report quoted above is appealing for and of allowing rural populations to stay put. An option, this time, that prioritizes the fight against poverty and malnutrition and, at the same time, is really more effective and more sustainable; an option that builds resilience to promote food security – but also peace; an option that gives way to hope in a way that strengthens renewed efforts for a future without armed conflict and without hunger.