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AFGHANISTAN: Global Emergency Triggers Food Riots

Anand Gopal

KABUL, Apr 25 2008 (IPS) - In the teeming, dense flour bazaars of Kabul, it&#39s hard not to miss the anger.

One of Kabul&#39s many bazaars in the old quarter Credit: Ann Ninan

One of Kabul's many bazaars in the old quarter Credit: Ann Ninan

"Something has to change… my life is horrible," Zahir, an Afghan trash collector says. Zahir is buying flour for his family of 11, a simple act that has become increasingly difficult for Afghan residents in recent months. "We cannot eat more because the cost has become so high."

"My small son cries everyday for some bread," he continues. "Look at the people around me," he says, waving his arm around a group of disheveled labourers. "They can&#39t afford to eat every day now."

Afghans across the country are expressing frustration at the sharp rise in food prices, mirroring trends elsewhere around the globe. Observers worry that the continuing food insecurity will force millions to go hungry and spark widespread instability.

The price of flour has jumped almost 100 percent in the first months of this year. Rice prices have increased 38 percent in the last year and other staples have seen similar cost increases, according to local news reports.

The price hikes have sparked rioting and looting in various Afghan cities. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, protesters this week blocked a main highway connecting the city to the capital Kabul and demanded government price-controls of foodstuffs. In the markets of the northern town of Kunduz and in the outskirts of Kabul, merchants complain that locals have resorted to stealing bags of flour.


Many here blame politicians for the surge in prices. "Members of parliament receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors but they never bothered to sort out this problem," Zahir says. As he shouts, an angry crowd gathers around him. They each began denouncing the government and complaining that food prices are crippling their lives.

"Look at my legs," one onlooker says, pointing towards a pair of diseased stumps. "I can&#39t afford medicine because I have to spend everything on bread."

While government officials must do more to address the problem, the issue of food insecurity has many causes beyond Afghan government policies, experts contend. There are both local and global factors behind food insecurity, says Haroun Mir, policy researcher at the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

Afghanistan does not have a diversity of sources of food, Mir says. Despite efforts to resuscitate its local agriculture, most food is imported from neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran. This makes the food market very susceptible to fluctuations in food supply. For example, "Iran purchased the regional surpluses of food to stock its own strategic food reserves, prompting a regional price hike," Mir says.

When Pakistan decided to curb exports recently to protect its own market, prices soared even further and fuelled widespread Afghan resentment of their neighbour. In this week&#39s Jalalabad protests, demonstrators chanted "down with Pakistan," along with anti-government slogans.

War and narcotics also diminish domestic food supply and contribute to the price surge, experts say. The country&#39s most fertile land is often set aside for opium – a far more lucrative crop than wheat – and minefields render other otherwise fertile areas off-limits for food cultivation. Years of war have also caused forced migration from fertile areas.

But analysts point to global factors as the most significant source of the current troubles. According to a new report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), that involved over 400 scientists, food insecurity results not from a global decrease in supply but rather by unequal distribution.

"Modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production. But the benefits have been spread unevenly and have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers… and the environment," the report reads.

The report criticises richer countries "who are deeply opposed to any change in trade regimes or subsidy systems. Without reforms here many poorer countries will have a very hard time." Afghanistan is one of the world&#39s poorest countries, consistently ranking near the bottom of most development indices and with more than half of its population living below the poverty line.

The U.N.&#39s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that Afghanistan needs over 500,000 tonnes of wheat to be imported to meet the needs of the current crisis. However, the U.N. World Food Programme’s country director for Afghanistan Rick Corsino is pessimistic that the situation will alleviate soon. "Very few people, I think, would believe that the factors that pushed the price of wheat up to record highs in the early part of this year are going to disappear," he told reporters recently. "No one believes, for example, that we&#39re going to go back to price levels that we saw 12 months or 18 months ago."

The Afghan government announced this week that it will allocate 50 million dollars to purchase food from neighboring countries. But for many Afghans the news falls well short of their main demand – price controls – something that older locals remember from the Soviet days.

"The government taxes shopkeepers but don&#39t give any relief to us when we are starving," Zahir says. The crowd gathered here in the flour market – an area known as Baghe Qazi, or Garden of Justice – around him nods in encouragement. "If the government doesn&#39t sort this out we are going to die."

 
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