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DEVELOPMENT: About Farmers, Without Farmers

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Jun 3 2008 (IPS) - Record high food prices and their impact on poor countries will dominate the three-day UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summit of world leaders that opened Tuesday in Rome. But the solutions to the food crisis cannot be left to governments only, according to several small farmers groups running a parallel civil society food forum.

Ndougou Fall at the FAO meet. Credit: Sabina Zaccaro

Ndougou Fall at the FAO meet. Credit: Sabina Zaccaro

More than 100 delegates from international social movements, farmers organisations, indigenous groups from the South and NGOs are holding a five-day forum on food sovereignty.

The civil society forum Terra Preta (black soil, in Portuguese) has been organised by the International Planning Committee (IPC), a global network of NGOs and civil society groups concerned with agricultural issues.

IPC includes social organisations representing small farmers, fisher folk, indigenous peoples and agricultural workers' trade unions. It works as a facilitation mechanism for dialogue between social movements and the UN agencies dealing with food and agriculture.

"We are here to remind governments that they cannot take any effective decision to solve the food crisis without consulting those who feed the planet," Antonio Onorati from IPC told IPS.

"While 80 percent of the world food comes from their work, farmers are not represented enough at the official meeting," he said. "Normally those desks are occupied by the interests of the big agro-alimentary transnational companies and financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that asks for a further liberalisation of the agricultural market, which would foster uncontrolled food price rise."

Across from the FAO headquarters in Rome, farmers have set up a table with empty plates on it to represent world hunger. Demonstrations continue outside the building.

"Food emergency is a symptom of larger systemic failures, like the promotion of large-scale agrofuel production and the corporate control of the food system," says Ndougou Fall, president of the West African farmers organisation Roppa.

"We want to be sure that this meeting will not reiterate the same errors of the past," Fall told IPS. "Liberal policies are the origin of the difficulties we are facing in Africa, and have affected particularly the small family farmers, who are no more in a condition to sell what they produce. Many of them have abandoned their lands and moved to cities in search of a job, that they not find."

According to the Roppa president, liberal policies should be re-examined. "The African, and particularly West African agriculture needs to be protected, in order to develop itself."

This includes the biofuels issue as well, he said. "Even if to a certain extent they can offer some opportunities to us, we have some priorities – feeding people before feeding vehicles."

Roppa is among about 800 organisations supporting the IPC call for 'No More Failures as Usual'. It is calling for building on the capacities of small-scale farmers to feed themselves and the populations of their countries.

But many governments do not seem headed in the direction of protecting their farmers. Some governments will use the FAO summit to call for further liberalisation of the global agriculture sector, Onorati said.

"We have been informed that the European Commission is going to confirm its standard position of pushing towards further liberalisation, using the current food crisis as an argument to convince developing countries to sign the economic agreements set up by the World Trade Organisation as quickly as possible."

The civil society forum conclusions will be presented at the FAO summit on Thursday.

Participants at the FAO conference will discuss short-term solutions and new longer-term strategies to tackle the effects of global warming, growing demand for biofuels, and the collapsing agriculture sector in many developing countries.

The FAO summit, originally called to discuss the effects of climate change and biofuels on food supply, will now focus on price rise primarily.

The cost of major food commodities has doubled over the last two years, with the price of rice, corn and wheat reaching unprecedented levels. Some prices are at their maximum in 30 years.

Over the next ten years the price of agricultural commodities will remain higher than in the past decade, though coming down from current record prices, according to the new agriculture outlook of the FAO and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 wealthy nations).

This could worsen the situation of 850 million people already suffering from chronic hunger, the FAO warned.

Although the meeting is not a donors' conference, world leaders are due to agree a statement on tackling food shortages. Some 40 heads of state or government are attending the meeting.

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