ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46
Financial Times  

Sri Lankan argues on behalf of small farmers

With food prices skyrocketing, increasing by 40 percent in one year on average, BBC World recently held a debate in Italy, headquarters to the three biggest United Nations food agencies, the Food and Agricultural Organization, The World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, bringing together experts to consider the big new pressures on agriculture and food production. Hosted by Nik Gowing, one of the panelists was Sri Lanka's Sarath Fernando representing the Movement for National Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR). The programme sought to find answers on why consumers around the world are struggling with such high prices and what has accounted for this big shift.

Fernando, representing small farmers said about half of Sri Lanka's population have been living in a situation where prices have been beyond their reach. "As a person living and farming one eighth of one acre, I can't survive with that kind of land. But there are communities, religious, large regions of hundreds, thousands of people who have welcome one small plot of land. Now together, there are ways where they could survive much better than the way they're told to survive by big powers, the big companies, the big multi-nations, the World Banks and others."

When asked if small farmers in Sri Lanka benefit from rising prices in the markets, Fernando said no. "Not at all. If the world market prices go up, if the prices that can be got from exports go up, farmers don't benefit. Even now last month or two months ago, food prices in Sri Lanka increased more than twice, upto 40 percent." Fernando said practically nothing has gone into the pockets of farmers. "Now we are harvesting and now the big traders in Sri Lanka and globally have seen to it that they're buying the produce of the farmer at very low prices, therefore, there's a sudden drop for a short period of time."

Offering concrete advice, Fernando said Unilever has almost a complete monopoly over a number of daily used items such as toothpaste, soap and margarine. He said the income levels of people in Sri Lanka are approximately US$15 per month. "The prices of Unilever items where they have a very large monopoly is decided at a level where these items become completely beyond the reach of those people."

Fernando said that in Sri Lanka as in India and many other countries in which people were able to push their governments to issue some kind of social security and some reasonable prices for the producers and affordable prices for the consumer, institutions such as the World Bank and other big advisors told the governments to move out and allow the markets to work, leading to the current situation.

"The World Bank has made so many mistakes and saying that they have recognized some of their mistakes, what they're proposing now is equally bad or even worse. The solutions we try to find for some problems should not contradict with solutions to other problems," Fernando argued. "The solutions that we try to find for hunger, malnutrition, poverty should also agree with the solution that we try to find for climate change and high prices and all the problems in the market. It should be consistent. Now if the World Bank and other similar institutions or big companies don't interfere, there is a solution that the small poor farmers and rural people are already finding and are already building. So don't disrupt it."

According to Fernando, for people who don't have capital and for people who don't have other forms of inputs coming from outside, they have to be non dependent on capital. "I said two thirds of the world's population is in that category, maybe half. Now if these people are allowed to find a solution, they will find solutions in nature. They should be given space, otherwise the world will not survive. I'm saying it because the small farmers with no resources, no capital, no agricultural input, no machinery have a much more efficient way of their own recovery and recovery at the rest of the world."


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