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LATIN AMERICA: Food Summit Declares Regional Emergency

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, May 8 2008 (IPS) - The presidential summit on "Food for Life", held in Nicaragua, has ended with 16 Latin American countries agreeing to produce more food and sell it at low prices through strategic alliances, amid criticisms of free markets and capitalism.

The summit on regional food sovereignty and security was convened by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to debate the global crisis caused by food shortages and to seek regional solutions.

Presidents Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Óscar Arias of Costa Rica, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia and René Préval of Haiti attended the summit meeting on Wednesday.

Delegations from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Belize, Panama, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Dominican Republic and Cuba also took part.

Representatives of United Nations agencies, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the European Union, international financial institutions and the business world were present as observers.

Ortega, as host, chaired the discussions, and during breaks between speakers he wasted no opportunity to condemn the "empire", meaning the United States, and "neoliberal policies imposed by the international financial institutions."

The presidents of Haiti, Bolivia, Ecuador and even Costa Rica joined Ortega in blaming the world’s most developed countries for the global food crisis.

According to statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisations (FAO), over the last year the international price of maize increased by 31 percent, rice by 74 percent, vegetable oils 60 percent, dairy products 83 percent, soybeans 87 percent, and wheat 130 percent.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) warned in late April that "the steep and persistent rise in international food prices is hitting particularly hard on the poorest in Latin America and the Caribbean."

To illustrate, Cuban Vice President Esteban Lazo said that in 2005, his government paid the equivalent of 250 dollars for a ton of imported rice in 2005, while "it now costs us 1,050 dollars – four times as much."

"The food crisis is exacerbated by the high price of oil, which is a result of the war being waged in Iraq, climate change, and neoliberal policies in the United States and Europe," Lazo added.

Ecuadorean President Correa said that "the enormous difference about world poverty in the 21st century is that it is not due to shortages, but to unequal distribution" of resources.

Like the rest of the participants, Correa stressed the urgent need to step up agricultural production in Latin America and abandon neoliberal food import policies which, he said, the international financial institutions recommended to developing countries in recent years with the backing of the United States.

Morales declared his opposition to the use of food crops for making biofuels, and berated the industrialised countries.

"Unlimited industrialisation is the drug of planet Earth, and capitalism is synonymous with death," he said.

Following the autonomy referendum held Sunday in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, which the government regards as illegal, Zelaya called on the countries present to support Morales, who received an ovation.

At Ortega’s request, Préval described the dire situation in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas.

"What is happening in my country is a catastrophe," said Préval. Food shortages led to violent disturbances in April that left at least six people dead and several people injured, while shopkeepers incurred damages as a result of looting.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was not at the meeting due to illness.

The surprise of the day came from Costa Rican President Arias, who harshly criticised the United States and European countries. According to Arias, the present state of affairs is the result of "the hypocrisy of the United States and Europe when dealing with the most important issues on the international agenda."

The United States has offered only one billion dollars in food aid to the world’s poorest countries, "the same amount they spend in half a week on the war in Iraq," Arias said.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s Doha Round of talks, aimed at freeing up trade in agriculture and other areas, "is an example of hypocrisy on the part of developed countries, that continue to subsidise farm goods," he said.

Another "great monument to hypocrisy" is the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, Arias said, "because rich countries, having polluted the planet in order to enrich themselves, are now asking us not to do so."

After a session of speeches lasting four hours, Ortega gave the floor over to Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, who made the only formal proposal received by the meeting, consisting of seven points.

Venezuela offered to set up an agricultural fund of 100 million dollars to finance concrete plans arising from the summit.

Maduro also proposed a special plan within Petrocaribe – an oil cooperation scheme between Venezuela and Caribbean nations – to finance agricultural production and make fuel available for food production at low prices.

In exchange, beneficiary countries would join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a regional integration initiative led by Chávez.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinoza said she was not in favour of including the Venezuelan initiative in the final summit declaration, as it was only a proposal, and recommended that it be discussed later on. A meeting of technical experts in Mexico in late May was proposed for that purpose.

However, the final document did include the Venezuelan agricultural fund proposal.

President Arias, who withheld his signature from the final document, said "there are some value judgements, concepts that I don’t agree with."

The final statement, signed by all the countries at the summit except El Salvador and Costa Rica, declared a regional food "emergency" and urged the 63rd U.N. General Assembly to address the world food crisis when it meets in September.

It also called on Latin American and Caribbean governments to increase investment in agriculture, and suggested that private banks in the region invest up to 10 percent of their assets in agricultural development.

The document called for a draft plan of action within 30 days to boost local food production in the region and establish a system of "fair trade within and between the countries that results in fair prices for producers and consumers," and urged the international community to "significantly" boost cooperation to ease the crisis.

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