Mozambique's Food Riots – the True Face of Global Warming

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Mozambique's Food Riots – the True Face of Global Warming

The violence in Maputo is just the latest manifestation of the crippling shortcomings of the global economy

by
Raj Patel

A boy carries home loaves of bread in Bulawayo, about 400 km (249 miles) outside Harare, April 11,2007. 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". (File: REUTERS/Emmanuel Chitate)

It has been a summer of record temperatures – Japan had its hottest summer on record, as did South Florida and New York.
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. 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 "food riots" to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust economic systems.

The
immediate causes of the protests 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. When nearly three-quarters of the household budget is spent on food, that's a hike few Mozambicans can afford.

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 firefighting infrastructure and Russia's worst heatwave in over a century.
On Thursday, 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. With Mozambique importing over 60% of the wheat its people needs, the country has been held hostage by international markets.

This
may sound familiar. In 2008, the prices of oil, wheat, corn and rice
peaked on international markets – corn prices almost tripled between 2005-2008. In the process, dozens of food-importing countries experienced food riots.

Behind
the 2008 protests were, first, natural events that looked like an
excerpt from the meteorological section of the Book of Revelation –
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.

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
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 on track for the third-highest wheat crop ever,
according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
While all this is true, it misses the point: for most hungry people,
2008 isn't over. The events of 2007-2008 tipped more than 100 million
into hunger and the global recession has meant that they have stayed
there. In 2006, the number of  undernourished people was 854 million. In
2009, it was 1.02 billion
– the highest level since records began. The hardest hit by these
price rises, in the US and around the world, were female-headed
households.

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. There
have been frequent public protests about the price of wheat in Egypt
this year, and 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 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 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."
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 colour television set."

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. 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 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.

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 agency, Alice Mabota of the
Mozambican League of Human Rights didn't use the term "food riots". 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
act of rebellion. Half of Mozambique's poor already suffer from acute
malnutrition, according to the FAO. 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.

Yesterday,
I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the co-ordinator of Mozambique's União
Nacional de Camponeses (National Peasants Union of Mozambique). "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.

Share This Article

More in: