Protecting Rural Food Producers is Key to Food Security | #RuralVoicesMatter Asia

This article is based on the opening speech made by food and justice activist Sarojeni Rengam on the webinar ‘”Asian Food Producers in Peril” on May 29, 2020. Sarojeni is the Executive Director of the PAN-Asia Pacific (PANAP) network, member of the PCFS Asia Steering Council, and an ICC member of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles.

This [COVID-19] pandemic is basically intensifying the existing social injustices and inequalities, the loss of lives and livelihoods, and unjust [models of] development.”

— Sarojeni Rengam

Around 1.6 billion people, mostly informal workers, will lose their lives and livelihood as COVID-19 pandemic reaches its peak. Making up half the world’s workforce, they stand in the immediate danger of losing their livelihood and ability to feed their families.

Even in countries like the US, the White House seeks to reduce pay for farm workers in a move to help big farms and agribusinesses recuperate from falling demand in goods. The same can be seen in India where some states are suspending and diluting labor laws, exposing the mostly migrant workers to more unjust conditions. In a bid to save big businesses and stimulate foreign investments, President Modi and some Indian states have allowed sweeping exemptions to labor protection laws. This left hundreds of millions of Indians and migrant workers unemployed and hungry in its wake.

This is the reality in which we live in today: more workers are unable to feed themselves and their families, leading to widespread hunger and famines.

Despite having no global shortage of food, a billion people around the world go to sleep hungry. Roughly 130 million more will join the ranks of the 135 million already facing crisis-levels of hunger around the world, according to the World Food Programme. Global hunger is likely to result in famines of “biblical proportion.”

Decades of Imperialism and its Neoliberal Agenda

Ironically, agricultural countries such as in Asia are reeling the most from supply chain disruptions as decades of neoliberal policies made them market dependent. Border closures, quarantines, and border supply chain and trade disruptions are hindering people’s access to sufficient, diverse, and nutritious sources of food.

Net-food importing countries in Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are facing food availability issues despite high levels of food loss in their respective agricultural sectors. In an island in Malaysia, farmers were forced to discard their harvests because of lockdowns and inaccessible markets at the beginning of the lockdown.

Poor communities are finding it difficult to survive and it is not surprising that rural peoples are among the most vulnerable to increased levels of hunger. The small farmers, fisherfolk, migrant workers, and pastoralists are hit by a flurry of impacts – loss in income, continuing displacement, and lack of social protection.

With limited purchasing power and social protection, food producers themselves are at the brink of starvation and it exposes how unsustainable and unjust the current food system is. Small fishing communities, in particular, are in a bind as policy-prescribed dependence on tourism collapsed and their livelihoods are unable to weather the pandemic due to decades of neglect. How can you practice physical distancing in small boats?

“[The] COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the impacts of imperialism and its neoliberal agenda — an agenda of privatization, reduced spending on people’s services, and [international] trade deals that favor big businesses.”

— Sarojeni Rengam

Curtailed Dissent, Militarist Response

What is worse is the fact that governments are using the pandemic to enable more policing and military interventions in both urban and rural areas. In some countries, state forces are being used to safeguard big businesses and continue unfair working conditions. In the Philippines, landgrabbing corporations are enabled by the military to evict farmers and limit their resistance.

“Human rights violations are becoming the norm and the pandemic is being used to justify the violations, and that’s a real problem.”

— Sarojeni Rengam

In some cases, farmers and food producers face jail time when breaking quarantine protocols, hampering their capacity to produce food, to tend to their lands, and to care for their livestock. Peasant killings continue despite farmers being labelled as “essential workers” in most Asian countries.

But more disquieting still is the abrupt closure in avenues of dissent. While human rights violations skyrocket in rural areas, most people are confined to their homes and criticisms are mostly online – where poor communities have less access to.

This intensifying culture of impunity poses a huge challenge in pushing pro-people reforms and clamoring for justice in cases of rights violations, especially for the most vulnerable rural communities.

Food Security and Social Protection

As lockdowns continue and the economic debris come to the fore, governments must prioritize national food security and increase social protection for the most vulnerable communities. States must have programs that guarantee food access for all amid this crisis and a framework for reforms to ensure domestic food production.

Instead of militarist responses, governments must make sure domestic food supply chains are alive and well-functioning. One key guarantee to this is to expand social protection and support to rural food producers. National food security must be worked towards creating a more just, resilient, and sustainable food system that gives precedence to increased food access of vulnerable communities.

Agroecology can help in this regard, as it decreases reliance on external markets by promoting peasant-led seed saving, reduced fertilizer use, and scientific plant breeding. Implementing agroecology can decrease agricultural nation’s risk to market shocks by promoting self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable agricultural models. ###

Written by JC Mercado, PCFS Global Secretariat staff.

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  1. […] through cash aid and production support. Social safety nets must be put in place to shield the blue frontliners against the impacts of the COVID 19 prevention […]

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