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(Updated Sept. 8) Raj Patel: Food rebellion -- Mozambicans know which way the wind blows

Democracy Now! on September 8 spoke to Raj Patel about the protests in Mozambique and the floods in Pakistan. Click HERE for the full transcript.
 
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* * *STOP PRESS: Price rises reversed* * *

September 7, 2010 -- MOZAMBIQUE News reports & clippings mailing list -- Price rises which triggered the riots last week have been reversed, the government announced September 7 after an emergency cabinet meeting. Wheat will be subsidised to bring bread prices back to what they were before the demonstartion that befan on September 1. Prices had gone up by 18% to 33%. Small loaves rose from 4.5 to 5.5 meticais (12 US cents to 15¢) and rolls from 1.5 to 2 meticais (4¢ to 6¢). The government also reversed the electricity and water prices rises on “social tariffs” for small consumers. Electricity consumers who use less than 100 kilowatt-hours a month will not pay more. For those who use between 100 and 300 kilowatt-hours a month, the price increase is reduced from 13.4% to 7%. Richer consumers, who used more than 300 kilowatt-hours a month, will pay the full increase. Households that use less than five cubic metres of water a month will continue to pay 150 meticais a month. Prices for urban electricity and water connections have also been cut. The price of low grade rice will be cut by 7.5% by removing an import duty. The surtax on imported sugar will be also temporarily removed. Subsidies for urban passenger transport will be “maintained and guaranteed”. The government also announced austerity measures, including a freeze on wages and allowances of all senior state figures (who include members of the government itself) and all members of the boards of public companies and companies where the state is the major shareholder. These wages must be paid in meticais, and not in foreign currency. The government also promises to rationalise its own expenditure on air travel (particularly in business class), fuel, lubricants and communications.

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By Raj Patel

September 4, 2010 -- It has been a summer of record temperatures – Japan had its hottest summer on record.[1] Same with south Florida and New York.[2] Meanwhile, Pakistan and Niger are flooded, and the eastern US is mopping up after Hurricane Earl. None of these individual events can definitively be attributed to global warming, as any climatologist will tell you. But to see how climate change will play out in the 21st century, you needn’t look to the Met Office. Look instead to the deaths and burning tyres in Mozambique’s early September "food riots" to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust social and economic systems [see report below].

The immediate causes of the protests and in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, and Chimoio about 500 miles north, are a 30% price increase for bread, compounding a recent double-digit increase for water and energy.[3] When nearly three-quarters of the household budget is spent on food, that’s a hike few Mozambicans can afford. So far, the death toll hovers around 10, including two children. The police claim that they had to use live ammunition against protesters because "they ran out of rubber bullets".[4]

Deeper reasons for Mozambique’s price hike can be found a continent away. Wheat prices have soared on global markets over the summer in large part because Russia, the world’s third-largest exporter, has suffered catastrophic fires in its main production areas. These blazes, in turn, find their origin both in poor fire-fighting infrastructure and Russia’s worst heatwave in over a century.[5] On September 2, Vladimir Putin extended an export ban in response to a new wave of wildfires in its grain belt, sending further signals to the markets that Russian wheat wouldn’t be available outside the country.[6] With Mozambique importing more than 60% of the wheat its people needs, the country has been held hostage by international markets.[7]

This may sound familiar. In 2008, the prices of oil, wheat, corn and rice peaked on international markets – corn prices almost tripled between 2005-8.[8] In the process, dozens of food-importing countries experienced food riots, one of which claimed the political scalp of Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.[9]

Behind the 2008 protests were, first, natural events that looked like an excerpt from the meteorological section of the Book of Revelations–drought in Australia, crop disease in central Asia, floods in South East Asia. These were compounded by the social systems through which their effects were felt. Oil prices were sky high, which meant higher transport costs and fossil-fuel-based fertiliser prices. Biofuel policy, particularly in the US, shifted land and crops from food into ethanol production, diverting food from stomachs to fuel tanks. Longer term trends in population growth and meat consumption in developing countries also added to the stress. Financial speculators piled into food commodities, driving prices yet further beyond the reach of the poor. Finally, some retailers used the opportunity to raise prices still further, and while commodity prices have fallen back to pre-crisis levels, most of us have yet to see the savings at the checkout.

So, is this 2008 all over again? The weather has gone wild, meat prices have hit a 20-year high, groceries are being looted, and heads of state are urging calm. The general view from commodities desks, however, is that we’re not in quite as dire straits as two years ago. Fuel is relatively cheap and grain stores well stocked. We’re still on track for the third-highest wheat crop ever, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),[10] so even without Russian wheat, there’s no need to panic.

Hunger

While all this is true, it misses the point: for most hungry people 2008 isn’t over. The events of 2007-8 tipped more than 100 million people into hunger, and the global recession has meant that they have stayed there. In 2006, the number of undernourished people was 854 million.[11] In 2009, it was 1.02 billion – the highest levels since records began. The hungry aren’t simply in Africa. According to one survey, over Christmas 2009 in the United States, 57 million people weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from.[12] Among those hardest hit by these price rises, in the US and around the world, were female-headed households.[13] The relations and structures of power that produce gender aren’t exempt from the weather, after all.[14] That’s why 60% of those going hungry are women or girls.[15]

Not only are the hungry still around, but food riots have continued. In India, double-digit food price inflation was met by violent street protests at the end of 2009. The price rises were, again, the result of both extreme and unpredictable monsoons in 2009, and an increasingly faulty social safety net to prevent hunger.[16] There have been frequent public protests about the price of wheat in Egypt this year, and both Serbia and Pakistan have seen protests too.

Although commodity prices fell after 2008, the food system’s architecture has remained largely the same over the past two decades. Bill Clinton has recently offered several mea culpas for the international trade and development policies that spawned the food crisis. Earlier this year, he blamed himself for Haiti’s vulnerability to international price fluctuations. “I did that”, he said in testimony to the US Senate. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”[17] More generally, Clinton suggested in 2008 that “food is not a commodity like others… it is crazy for us to think we can develop a lot of these countries [by] treating food like it was a color television set.”[18]

Yet global commodity speculators continue to treat food as if it were the same as television sets, with little end in sight to what the World Development Movement has called “gambling on hunger in financial markets”. The recent US Wall Street Reform Act contained some measures that might curb these speculative activities, but their full scope has yet to be clarified. Europe doesn’t have a mechanism to regulate these kinds of speculative trades at all.[19] Agriculture in the global South is still subject to the "Washington Consensus" model, driven by markets and with governments taking a back seat to the private sector. And the only reason biofuels aren’t more prominent is that the oil they’re designed to replace is currently cheap.

Clearly, neither grain speculation, nor forcing countries to rely on international markets for food, nor encouraging the use of agricultural resources for fuel instead of nourishment are natural phenomena. These are eminently political decisions, taken and enforced not only by Bill Clinton, but legions of largely unaccountable international development professionals. The consequences of these decisions are ones with which people in the global South live everyday. Which brings us back to Mozambique.

Mozambique

Recall that Mozambique’s street protests coincided not only with a rise in the price of bread, but with electricity and water price hikes too. In an interview with Portugal’s Lusa News, Alice Mabota of the Mozambican League of Human Rights didn’t use the term "food riots". The protests are far more subtle and politically nuanced. In her words, “The government … can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand that this is a protest against the higher cost of living.” The action on the streets isn’t simply a protest about food, but a wider and more political act of rebellion. Half of Mozambique’s poor already suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the FAO.[20] The extreme weather behind the grain fires in Russia transformed a political context in which citizens were increasingly angry and frustrated with their own governments. Although it’s hard to read it outside the country, that’s a story well known within countries experiencing these food rebellions.

Yesterday, I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the coordinator of the União Nacional de Camponeses Moçambique – the Mozambican National Peasants Union. “These protests are going to end”, he told me. “But they will always come back. This is the gift that the development model we are following has to offer.” Like many Mozambicans, he knows full well which way the wind blows.

[This article first appeared at Raj Patel's website. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with his permission. A version of this article also appeared in the Observer, September 5, 2010. Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for the British Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Mail on Sunday and the Observer. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller. ]

Notes

[1] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jejeLCKDLGD9Ael1Wdi-AIQQf4sw

[2] http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/its-official-hottest-summer-ever/

[3] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gJ6PTteGMk_JCbJrgfRnFeBLHtWA AFP puts it at 17% – the Guardian at 30%, as do most other news sources.

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/02/mozambique-bread-riots-looters-dead

[5] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/47086656-9d75-11df-a37c-00144feab49a.html and http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f61cbbd8-a225-11df-a056-00144feabdc0.html

[6] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5f6f94ac-b6bc-11df-b3dd-00144feabdc0.html

[7] My calculations using FAOSTAT for 2007 suggests Mozambique imports 64.4%, but the Independent has the figure at 70%, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/now-meat-price-surge-raises-fear-of-food-inflation-2069227.html

[8] http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/gdsmdpg2420093_en.pdf

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1228245020080412

[10] http://www.bakeryandsnacks.com/Financial/Wheat-volatility-leads-to-surge-in-global-food-prices-finds-FAO

[11] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/

[12] http://www.frac.org/pdf/food_hardship_report_2010.pdf

[13] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/

[14] http://www.unifem.org/partnerships/climate_change/facts_figures.php

[15] http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats?gclid=CLazjMb47aMCFSFugwod5A8H1A

[16] http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/business/18-india-faces-food-price-discontent-violent-protests-am-06

[17] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/clinton_rice

[18] http://www.fao.org/news/story/0/item/8106/icode/en/

[19] http://www.wdm.org.uk/sites/default/files/hunger%20lottery%20report_6.10.pdf

[20] http://typo3.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/ess/documents/Media_and_Communication/MZB_20100823_OPais_scan.pdf

13 dead, 300 injured, 224 arrested

By Joe Hanlon

September 7, 2010 -- MOZAMBIQUE News reports & clippings mailing list -- Thirteen dead, at least 300 injured, and 224 arrested is the toll of three days of demonstrations against prices rises and the high cost of living. The main protests were in Maputo and the adjoining city of Matola, with both cities paralysed on September 1 and 2 and only slightly functioning on September 3. Activity returned to normal on September 4 .

In Maputo and Matola young people coordinated by mobile telephone text message (SMS) blocked all main roads with burning tyres and other barriers on September 1. There was also some looting of shops and market stalls, and cars and buses were attacked.

There were also disturbances in the Beira corridor (Beira, Chimoio, Gondola and Vila Manica). In Chimoio the main road was blocked and part of a market looted and burned; demonstrations continued through September 3.

Soldiers and police were still on the streets on September 6. Offices were open but Noticias reported that public transport was still limited, with many private minibuses (chapas) not running. The free newspaper @Verdade on its website (verdade.co.mz) and Carlos Serra on his blog report that it was impossible to send text messages with either mobile telephone company.

Health minister Ivo Garrido announced the 13 deaths in Maputo and Matola. Noticias reported more than 290 injuries and 150 arrests in Maputo and Matola, and six injuries and 68 arrests in Chimoio and Manica. MediaFax and WampulaFax reported the six people were arrested in Nampula for trying to organise demonstrations.

Police spokesperson Pedro Cossa said repeatedly that the police were only using rubber bullets and not live ammunition, but this has been widely contradicted by the media and observers. The government newspaper Noticias quoted Natércia Duarte, clinical director of Hospital Geral José Macamo in Maputo, saying that 43 of those admitted had been shot by firearms. Garrido in an interview with O Pais published September 3 said some of those in the Maputo Central Hospital had been shot. Noticias reported that two of the injured in Chimoio were children shot by police in the Francisco Manyanga neighbourhood.

@Verdade on September 3 carried a photograph of the body of Helio, an 11-year old schoolboy, who it said was shot in the head by police September 1 on Avenida Acordos de Lusaka in Maputo as he returned from school.

A video has been posted on YouTube which appears to show someone shooting from the first floor of a Frelimo building on Av de Angola in Maputo. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw7XLeuu72U

Detailed coverage of the demonstrations, in Portuguese, is available on the O Pais website (www.opais.co.mz) with pictures, and on the blog Diário de um sociólogo by Carlos Serra (http://www.oficinadesociologia.blogspot.com). There are also photos on http://fotos.sapo.mz/ultimos.html.

Accessing the YouTube video also gives links to other videos of the demonstrations http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw7XLeuu72U.

In a statement on September 1, President Armando Guebuza stressed that “the government is implementing an action plan to increase food production and in a general way taking actions to struggle against poverty in urban and rural areas, and has already registered progress in implementing this plan for food production as well as the supply of water and sanitation, and improving transport, communications, health and education.”

[From MOZAMBIQUE News reports & clippings mailing list, edited by Joe hanlon. Subscribe at http://tinyurl.com/mz-en-sub.]

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