Speech on Food Price Volatility Roundtable by Ibrahim Coulibaly

Last week I posted the French version of this speech. Here is the translation into English (thanks to Paolo Tedeschini Lalli for working on this).

About forty years ago, when I was a small child, nobody talked about volatility. I still remember that our government gave our parents plows, oxes and manure on credit. At that time there was a public service, the Mali Office of Agricultural Products, which would purchase food products from peasant families at fixed prices.

About thirty years ago I was in school and we were told that it was better to produce for external markets, and we started hearing in our politicians’ speeches the concept of “deterioration of the terms of trade”, a strong problem  at the time, which nonetheless failed to elicit any response. What was it all about? Agricultural prices were collapsing on international markets. The governments of that time had surely made the fatal error of pushing peasants to produce more export products, however when things went bad, peasants were the only ones to pay the piper.

The collapse of our economies and the public debt in the 1980s resulted in the WB and the IMF putting our countries under structural adjustment.

We were then told that the state was inefficient and that more space had to be given to the private sector. At the same time, our states were forced to go even more into debt in order to reestablish macroeconomic equilibrium. We were told that any support to peasant agriculture –deemed to be non-performing— had to be cut: since then, a real campaign of demolition against this kind of agriculture has been undertaken by the World Bank and its allies.

We were told to produce even more export products, such as cotton, coffee, peanuts, at very low prices that were fixed by international markets. With this currency we were told to purchase rice from Asia or flour and powdered milk from Europe; commodities that have become so volatile nowadays. The descent to hell had started for peasant families and for our over-indebted states that were not able to pay back their debts.

Then we were told to become competitive according to the criteria of international financial institutions, and that our states were not allowed to protect us any longer. All custom tariffs have been dismantled and our markets have been liberalized, food products produced elsewhere have started dumping into our markets at low prices, making us even more vulnerable to price volatility. Food habits have changed in towns; peasant families were not able to sell the food they produced. This phenomenon has been made worse in Western Africa due to the advent of the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) and it’s Common External Tariff, known to be the weakest custom tariff in the world.

However, none of these “solutions” that have been imposed on us moved us out of poverty. Worse, we became even more vulnerable. It is within this context that peasant agriculture is being asked to perform.

Today we are suffering from new difficulties that are falling on us from the sky: Climate change, financial speculation, unpredictable international markets, new policies by industrialized countries that are grabbing our lands to produce fuel.

But with respect to all this, we are not informed. This is at the heart of the price volatility about which we are now talking.

Instead of responding to the causes of our poverty and of price volatility, we have seen whole catalogs of projects and programmes financed in the name of the agricultural sector, billions of dollars are mobilized every year, but the truth is that more than half of the peasant families in the majority of our countries do not have access to money buy a plow, a couple of oxen, a cart, or a donkey (FAO study on agricultural mechanization in Mali).

The High Level Panel of Experts should have the mandate to carry out a study on the effectiveness of the resources that are mobilized in the name of the poor. When several hundred million dollars are mobilized, how much of that actually makes it to the field, to the poor, to the women who are so often talked about? You would be surprised of the results of such a study. Or maybe not at all, because given the number of years all those millions have been mobilized in our name, we should all be rich already.

Despite all this, without any kind of help, without any protection and with all the world’s most powerful actors against it, peasant agriculture has not disappeared.

Unfortunately it proved necessary to reach the current state of world crisis for our governments to become conscious of the need of food security based on food production at the national level. And yet, we are still waiting for sustainable solutions.

To solve this problem of price volatility we the peasants, with the support of other civil society actors, think that it is necessary to do the following:

← Priority must be given to our local markets and to regional integration, rather than letting our prices to be decided  far and unpredictable international markets. This is the only solution to ensure that us peasants are able to nourish ourselves as well as our communities and cities.

← Any form of competition among farmers and among modes of production divided by huge productivity gaps – the hoe against the tractor plus subsidy is not a fair competition — must be stopped. Nobody has the right to tell us that we will eat when we will be competitive.

← Policies destabilizing our peasant agricultures must be stopped. When there is overproduction we suffer the impacts of dumping, when there is underproduction we suffer export restrictions for the agricultural products that we were told to produce.

← Our governments must have the ambition of implementing policies that will move us out of poverty and misery, that will protect our peasant agricultures from volatile markets and that will support us so that we can invest in feeding our populations.

← We know how to do this. Instruments do exist to stabilize prices: adequate custom tariffs, strategic stocks at different levels, management of supply and demand, regulations against speculators. Where does the WTO get the right to prohibit us to do so?

← Peasants, women and other vulnerable groups in rural settings must be granted real access to the resources that are mobilized in their name to buy agricultural materials, fertilizers, seeds, to allow them create value in their products in a way that will allow them to live from their work with dignity.

To conclude, when we will sit facing our dishes of food at lunch time, I would like to encourage everybody among us to think that there are humans who are dying at this very moment due to hunger and malnutrition, because costly meetings are being organized around their fate where actions that could save them are not taken. We cannot wait any longer.

THANK YOU

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