Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tu veux ou tu veux pas?

"Soaring food prices, driven in part by demand for ethanol made from corn, have helped slash the amount of food aid the government buys to its lowest level in a decade, possibly resulting in more hungry people around the world this year.

The United States, the world’s dominant donor, has purchased less than half the amount of food aid this year that it did in 2000, according to new data from the Department of Agriculture.

Some advocates for the poor say rising food prices could benefit poor farmers in developing countries, providing them with markets and decent prices for their crops. But others warn that the growing use of food crops to make fuel, especially if stoked by large subsidies in rich countries, could substantially increase food prices. That could push hundreds of millions more poor people into hunger, especially landless laborers and subsistence farmers, according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine. The authors were Benjamin Senauer and C. Ford Runge, food policy analysts and professors at the University of Minnesota.

Production of food crops to make biofuels will also tend to favor growers with plenty of capital and large land holdings, they say, rather than small-scale, impoverished farmers lacking modern grain storage facilities in poor countries. “The policies put in place are going to be crucial to whether the small producer and the people who live where hunger is concentrated can benefit,” Mr. Senauer said." (Thanks Rami K.)

So...What do we want? We constantly refer toUS food aid as a political tool used to control nations and to make them dependent; as a deliberate attempt to destroy local farming so that the corporations that run the food trade can benefit more, and now that they want to reduce food aid, we complain about it? The answer lies of course in how to move from a situation of dependency on food aid. This situation was created, some say, for political control on developing nations (I subscribe to this theory). Others say the purpose of food aid is to please the farmer's lobby and the shipping industry (I subscribe to this one too).

If farming systems in developing countries that are suffering from food deficiency have to be rebuilt, there will have to be commitment for that. This cannot be limited to the dumping of food, even if, as the Bush administration is said to be planning, to purchase more food locally. Of course, this plan is a publicity stunt that will never see the light, because the US farm lobby and the transport lobby do not want to lose the profits they make from producing extra food, selling it to the US government, and shipping it to the countries who need it, often too late.

While purchasing food locally may hold PART of the solution in cases of emergencies, we need to carefully plan and understand how this food is going to be produced. Is it going to be through a revival of smallholder agriculture that will benefit the developing nations through diversified food systems and sustaining livelihoods? Or is it going to be through the establishment of corporate farms on consolidated lands stolen from small farmers by government officials who enter in lucrative partnerships with food producing multinational? Is this going to be an opportunity for reviving an ailing sector and reclaiming food sovereignty, or for anchoring dependency further, this time on corporate capital rather than on foreign nations?

I'd love to believe it will help the revival of small holder farming and help in the rebuilding of rural livelihoods, as free independent farmers and not as wage labourers on their own lands.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Lords of the Food

Worth blogging in full (thanks Anna)

Only a Handful Are Lords of the Food Harvest
By Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Sep 25 (IPS) - The food and beverage industry is experiencing a high degree of concentration, with 10 distributing companies controlling 24 percent of the world market, according to a report being studied this week by workers’, employers’ and government representatives gathered by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The same trend that is seen in sales is found in other stages of the industry, such as manufacture and transformation of food products, said the report’s author, Andrew Bibby, in his presentation of the ILO issues paper being discussed by the 70 participants at the Tripartite Meeting to Examine the Impact of Global Food Chains on Employment.

Bibby said that the strategy of diversification of food supply sources is no longer a novelty in the industry, and is closely linked to the globalisation of economic and trade relations.

What is new is the emergence of integrated world food chains, which employ 22 million people and are therefore a concern of the ILO’s.

At the top of the list of food and beverage companies is the Swiss company Nestlé, with 260,000 employees, followed by the Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever with 179,000 employees, and the United States’ PepsiCo with 157,000 workers, Sara Lee with 137,000, and Coca Cola with 132,300 employees.

Among corporations dedicated to retail sales, the final link in the chain, the U.S.-based Wal-Mart is in the lead with 1,800,000 employees, followed by French firm Carrefour with 440,500, the U.S. company Kroger with 290,000, Britain’s Tesco with 273,000 and the U.S.-based Albertsons with 234,000 workers.

This quasi-monopoly situation arises from the mergers and acquisitions of giant companies that have been accentuated in recent years.

The ILO report says that "although the largest companies are huge in terms of their turnover, the sheer size and diversity of the global food industry leaves plenty of room for further consolidation."

In 2006, Nestlé grossed 74.7 billion dollars, Unilever’s business was worth 49.6 billion, PepsiCo grossed 32.6 billion, Sara Lee 19.7 billion, and Coca Cola 41.8 billion dollars.

Wal-Mart’s sales in 2004 amounted to 29 billion dollars, while Carrefour sold goods for 99.1 billion dollars.

But these gross revenues pale in comparison with profit distribution. A producer of snow peas (mangetout) in Zimbabwe receives only 12 cents per dollar earned on the peas sold in supermarkets in industrialised countries. Similarly, a Kenyan producer of fresh vegetables is paid just 14 cents per dollar of produce sold.

A study of bananas exported from Ecuador to the United Kingdom found that plantation owners received 10 percent of the share of income from banana sales, while only 1.5 percent reached the plantation workers.

The processes described in the ILO issues paper, which are changing the nature of the global food industry, will also have an impact on industrial relations and social dialogue in the sector.

"There is potential for better industrial relations and higher levels of compliance with core labour standards from which both companies and workers would benefit -- particularly through greater involvement and participation of lead firms at all stages of the food supply chain," the paper says.

"The social partners in the food manufacturing industry have a record of successful collective bargaining in companies all over the world," the document says.

"To take just one example among many, Nestlé Asia-Pacific has signed collective agreements in several countries covering a wide range of issues including respect for trade union rights and protection against victimisation for union activities, equality of opportunities, and non-discrimination of grounds of age, sex, race or religion," it adds.

But workers’ spokesman Klaus Schroeter of Germany’s catering trade union claimed that the collective agreements mentioned in the ILO paper do not comply with national legislation in the countries concerned.

Schroeter said the report was unsatisfactory, and that it is not for the ILO to make statements in line with the views of the corporations, he said.

The trade unionist objected to the part of the issues paper that forecasts increasing demand for food products in Asia and Latin America, and said he concludes from the document that the trend is worrying analysts, who fear that a global increase in food consumption will result in scarcity on a worldwide scale.

He said he found it cynical that the ILO should express such a view when thousands of children are dying of hunger, and that the author of the report should have been aware of this.

In the three tripartite meetings he has attended, he has never seen such a bad ILO document, Schroeter asserted.

Statistics released in 2007 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that 854 million people, or 17 percent of the world population, suffer from hunger, and that their numbers are increasing. (END/2007)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The bread basket

"The United States is considered the residual supplier of grains to the world - the country importers can turn to after rival exporters have cleared their storage bins.

Iran, which has a long-running feud with the United States over its nuclear programme, last month bought 360,000 tonnes of U.S. corn worth about US$60 million at Thursday's prices.

It was the first time Iran, which faces a U.S.-led move to broaden U.N. sanctions for its refusal to suspend nuclear activity, had bought U.S. corn in almost three years.

Traders said Tehran turned to the United States because its traditional supplier Brazil was running low on corn due to strong demand from Europe.

"The the bread basket of the world, and the U.S. is never going to deny these countries the food their people need," said grains analyst Joe Victor of Allendale Inc.

Oil-rich Venezuela has purchased 402,400 tonnes of wheat from the United States since June 1 - the start of the marketing year - including 50,700 tonnes last week.

The total value is an estimated US$100 million at Thursday's prices.

The country also bought 547,200 tonnes of corn from the United States in the marketing year ended August 31. So far this season, Venezuela has purchased 28,000 tonnes of corn.

Syria, labelled by Bush in 2002 as being part of the 'axis of evil' with North Korea and Iraq, before its occupation by U.S. troops, bought 1.46 million tonnes of corn in the marketing year ended August 31.

At Thursday's prices, the sales are valued at an estimated US$242 million.

Despite attempts by the U.S. to isolate Syria for meddling in Iraq and Lebanon, it also purchased 249,500 tonnes of soybeans in the 2006/07 marketing year that ended August 31."

Hummus revolution

"Not unlike the stereotypical movie scene where the dowdy librarian takes off her glasses, lets her hair down and becomes a glamorous babe, the humble chickpea is revealing its sexy side on fashionable menus."

Is wheat the new oil?

"In the long term, if this situation persists it will cause major economic ramifications but for now many of these countries cannot afford to leave populations hungry in addition to all the political tensions,” a senior Jordanian official involved in grains purchases said.

For the moment, though, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Algeria will not stop scaling down purchases, despite the higher import bills, analysts, millers and state buyers said.

State purchasing agencies have made massive buys in recent weeks in large tenders that have actually have tightened supply and contributed to a doubling of wheat prices since April.

They are announcing new tenders to ensure smooth deliveries in the coming months.

International traders, millers and officials say state purchasers cannot risk tampering with subsidy regimes that have dulled the impact of steep bread price rises after hikes years ago that sparked civil unrest in several countries, including Egypt and Jordan.

Analysts and industry experts say social stability outweighs the fiscal gains from subsidy reductions in a region which feeds a majority of its rising population on imports."

Global zaatar

"The Syrians are far more imaginative with za’tar – a fact which Jamil and his wife found intriguing. They did not know about the Syrian blends and, to tell the truth, neither did I. It was not until I went to Arjaoui, the best za’tar merchant in Souk el-B’zuriyeh in Damascus, that I found out there was more than one Syrian blend. Up to that point I was familiar only with the classic mixture, known as red za’tar, where fennel and anise seeds, coriander, cumin, roasted chickpeas, black sunflower seeds and sometimes roasted pistachios are added to the classic Lebanese mix of thyme, sumac and/or sesame seeds". Anissa Helou's article on Zaatar in the Financial Thyme.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Grow More Organic

"Despite what critics say, organic farming methods can produce enough food to sustain Earth’s current population.

That’s according to Catherine Badgley of the University of Michigan, who is lead author of a 2007 study comparing yields for organic versus conventional food production across the globe. Badgley told Earth & Sky that in developing countries, where farmers lack advanced agricultural technologies, modern organic methods can increase crop production by as much as 300 percent.

Badgley said that, in the developed world, organic farming does tend to yield less produce than conventional farming methods. But her study indicates that organic farming methods are adequate to provide enough food on a per capita basis to sustain Earth’s current population – plus an even larger population – without increasing the 40% of Earth’s land surface now being used for agriculture.

She said she hopes that future incentives will encourage more organic farming in the U.S. and abroad."

The art of opportunism

"From dust bowls in Australia to drought-hit regions in the U.S., Africa, Asia and the Mideast, growing areas are drying out, helping push crop prices to record highs.

Wheat prices topped $9 a bushel for the first time Wednesday, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture said strong global demand and tight supplies will push U.S. stockpiles to a 33-year low.

U.S. crop-year-ending stocks of wheat are forecast to fall to 362 million metric tons in 2007-08 vs. 456 million a year earlier.

Some blame bad farming. Others cite climate changes that reduce rainfall and raise temperatures.

The good news is that big agribusiness players such as Monsanto, (MON) DuPont (DD) and Novartis (NVS) are using genetic engineering to produce drought-resistant crops — including corn and grain — that grow on far less water than regular strains."

War ming

"The Ministry of Defence has asked climate change experts to identify regions of the world where global warming could spark conflict and security threats.

The Met Office will today announce a £12m research contract with the MoD as part of an effort to map the likely impacts of increased temperatures. The research aims to identify countries where battles could break out over increasingly scarce supplies of food and water, as well as predict the likely conditions in which British troops may have to fight in future.

Computer models suggest the Middle East will get much drier and hotter this century. By 2100, rainfall is predicted to decrease by 30% across Turkey, Lebanon, northern Syria, western Iran and Afghanistan."

The link between extreme weather events and unrest is apparent to whoever bother to look at the history of the Middle East. Here's what Mustapha Mond once sent me:

In 1754 there is a major drought, in 1755 the Maronites of North Lebanon start their revolt against their Shi'a overlords. Droughts also in the early 1800's with a mega one in 1819 according to a chronicler. Coincidentally the Maronite peasants start their 'Ammiyyat in 1820 and 1821, the bedouin tribes of the badiya start attacking agricultural settlements on the fringe of the desert, as a result people from Hauran start moving to Beirut, Europeans come to the area to sell their foodstuff, prices go up, everyone in the area starts hating the Ottomans, the environment is overstretched. Huge mess and in 1830 everyone is happy when Ibrahim pacha invades.”

Global foodism

"The gamble paid off. Ten years later, shawarma has become a craze among food connoisseurs in New Delhi, particularly those in South Delhi, and the Begs are proud that they got it right. “Whenever we ate shawarma in Saudi Arabia, I would tell my husband that it was made for Indian taste buds,” says Ishrat."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Manoucheh news

Manoucheh is the ubiquitous breakfast of the Lebanese. It is basically flat bread dough topped with a mix of Zaatar (thyme mix) and oil and baked. It can also be made with cheese or other toppings, but this is a recent variation. My own estimates are that between 250,000 and 400,000 manouchehs are sold daily in Lebanon. It is also the breakfast, lunch and the snack of the poor, especially unskilled laborers because it is cheap. Was cheap.

The price of manoucheh is increasing with the increase in the cost of living in Lebanon. The price of the manoucheh has increased by 50%, we are told in this article. The manoucheh vendors (who can be really small scale) accuse the traders of hoarding food commodities and to increase their price. apparently, the price of the manoucheh ingredients has increased as follows during the last month: 50 kg of (imported) flour: from 26,000LL to 45,000LL; gas from 35,000LL to 49,000 LL per 35 kg; dry yeast (9 kg) from 27,000LL to 37,000LL; (Soy) oil (15 kg) increased by 12,000LL; cheese (14 kg) from 52,500LL to 83,000LL.

And while we're at it, please note how the most popular, most traditional national breakfast of Lebanon does not have one single ingredient that is produced in Lebanon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Saj femmes

This is how small producers and traditional foods are kicked out of the system. I went yesterday to buy Saj bread from one of the 2 women who bake it in my little village in South Lebanon (Saj or Markouk bread is Lebanon's traditional bread, cooked not in an oven but on an inverted wok). I was told that they don't bake anymore, because it is not worth it. I asked why, they said that the price of the 50 kilos sac of wheat flour costs now LL50,000 ($33) up from 27,000LL ($16). I was surprised because these women had regular clients who came from other villages and who bought the 5 loaves for 1000LL when they could buy 9 large loaves of Arabic bread for 1,500LL. The 2 women made a significant part of their household income from these sales, and they took turn in baking.

The price of flour has risen in the world with the increase in the price of wheat, and I have blogged about this earlier (search under "wheat"). The world price increase is about 30% which translates in 100% on the Lebanese retail market. The Lebanese government is subsidizing flour because they do not want a bread revolt at this very critical time. They need to look popular, so they are paying the difference between the old price and the market price to the mill owners cartel. But they are only subsidizing the quantity of flour needed to cover the Arabic bread (pitta) needs of the country. Of course the government, the mills owners and the bakeries did not agree on the quantities, and what is being subsidized probably exceeds the local needs so the bakeries can make a clean buck too.

The bakeries cartel now receives subsidized flour and cannot increase the price of the bread, but they decrease the size of the loaf and the weight of the bread bag (see this post among others).

As to the local small scale producers, like the women in my village, they have to buy the flour from local traders. They do not benefit from the subsidies, because they are not a cartel, and they find themselves kicked out of the system, having to pay what is many folds the current market price.

This does not mean that Saj bread is disappearing: you can find it in all the large bakeries. They hire the women who made it at home and use second rate ingredients and have them make 100o's of loaves a day without a contract or social security or any of the benefits of being employed. And of course, they pay them a pittance.

As long as there is a demand for it, food culture is safe. Pity I can't say the same about the rural poor.

Saudi style

Saudi Arabia, a major agricultural force? well, they did increase their agricultural production from 264 million $ in 1970 to 10.2 billion $ in 2005. They are self sufficient in wheat, almost self sufficient in fruits and vegetables and they export eggs. They also export some vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots etc...

But at what cost? The $ cost first: 100 billion $ in 30 years. The cost of producing wheat in Saudi is 4 times the international price.

Then water: Saudi Arabia used between 1980 and 1999 300 billion cubic meters of water equivalent to the flow of the Nile for 6 years, 85% of it from non-renewable deep water aquifers. Farmers report that they had to dig 100 meters deeper every year in search of water.

These sacrifices of $ and resources may have been understandable if they were aimed at improving the lot of farmers and at building strategic resources. However there are reports to indicate that the whole Saudi agricultural adventure was a way to launder money from governmental coffers into the pockets of minor princes in the House of Saud and of tribal leaders in order to ensure their allegiance. Apparently the system works as follows: a high ranking member of the ruling elite declares his interest in farming. Land is donated to him, and facilities (long term no interest loans that no one ever pays back) are provided. Workers are hired (Asia) and made to slave on the land. State of the art equipment is imported from the US. The produce is then bought at subsidized prices by the Sate. Beats given the princes pocket money.

And one more thing: whatever Saudi exports costs more to produce than the price it fetches, not only in $ but also in water: To produce one ton of wheat requires 1000 tons of water, which should be more precious than food in Saudi Arabia.

No fool

"In April, Walkers Crisps began labelling its cheese and onion bags with a carbon footprint - how many grams of greenhouse gases were emitted in its production - and that has been rolled out to other flavours. A Walkers spokeswoman says the company's own survey shows nearly 80% of consumers are aware of the labels with 20% dismissing it as "purely a gesture". And the crisps manufacturer has promised to reduce water use per kilo by 5% year on year, and energy use by 3%."

Thursday, September 20, 2007


“We’re trying to educate young people and show them how to use that lens of ingredients as a way to change their lives,” she said. “Otherwise, it would be just another cookbook.”

I have less and less tolerance for empty foodism.


I've blogged many articles about this, but it's always good to remember. Ah yes, lets also remember that it is the industrialized countries who make up the EU commission who are the original cause of global warming.

"Moreover, the EU Commission is concerned that the effects of global warming are felt first and foremost by the poor and vulnerable in developing countries. Responsible for just a small percentage of global pollution themselves, they nonetheless feel the immediate effects of ecological degradation caused by industrialized and emerging nations.

While most affected by global warming, these countries also have the least capacity to deal with climate change.

"Developing countries will be the hardest hit by the effects of climate change and therefore need our help to mitigate climate change and to adapt to the changes already occurring," said this week's Commission statement." (Thanks D.)

In fact it looks like it may be too late to avoid global warming. Look at this article on the latest IPCC report and the expected impacts on specific regions of the world"

"Arica: Between 350 and 600 million people will suffer water shortages or increased competition for water. Yields from agriculture could fall by half by 2020 while arid areas will rise by up to 8 per cent. The number of sub-Saharan species at risk of extinction will rise by at least 10 per cent."

Thundering away

Jordan like the rest of the world is experiencing an increasingly widening divide between rich and poor, and an increase in food prices coming together with structural adjustment and the removal of subsidies. Le pays gronde, says this article. Will a storm develop?

Bush-Bin Laden: meme combat

In this article, Fawaz Traboulsi identifies strong similarities between fundamentalist Islamic movements (here Bin Laden's) and Bushism: they are both strong believers in neo-liberal economics. Is that why the Hizbullah-led Lebanese opposition has been unable to come up with a decent economic program as an alternative to the government's ultra-liberalism? A program to promote social equity?

By the way I strongly recommend Traboulsi's new book: A History of Modern Lebanon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Smokey and the bandits

"For more than 60 years, subsidies were as integral to tobacco farming as rich soil and a damp climate. In 1938, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a New Deal-era law crafted to support the thousands of small farmers of all sorts who had been financially devastated by the Depression.

The law guaranteed tobacco farmers in many states a minimum price for their crops. It allotted quotas to farms that produced tobacco at the time the law was enacted, which dictated how many acres they could plant. Tobacco buyers were penalized for buying from growers without quotas. Growers who didn't own a quota had to buy or rent one from those who did. The system propped up prices and limited production to narrow geographic areas and to plots of land rarely larger than 10 acres.

The system was junked in 2004 through a $9.6 billion buyout of tobacco growers and farmers who owned quotas, with tobacco companies funding the payments. Thousands of tobacco farmers, many reaching retirement age, collected their checks and stopped growing the crop. Some farmers planted strawberries or tried to raise catfish in their farm ponds.

In 2005, tobacco acreage dropped 27% from the year earlier, to 297,000 acres. With the government no longer supporting prices, those dropped too, to $1.64 per pound, from $1.98, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Cigarette makers worried that they wouldn't have enough supply.

But predictions from some quarters that tobacco farming was headed for extinction in the U.S. proved incorrect. Today, farmers can grow as much tobacco as they want, wherever they want. Economies of scale have kicked in." (thanks D.)

The old US system was similar to the current Lebanese system which just almost as old. It was devised to support small farmers during the great depression. When the US dropped their subsidies, (after a mass buy out, something the Lebanese government will not do), small farmers got out of business and large farmers became richer and larger...with tobacco.

Tobacco farming in Lebanon makes money to the State monopoly. This fact is well known. I used to think that the threat to remove subsidies was only meant to penalize the Southerners. I can see now that it is probably not the only reason: the US experience shows that there is great potential in planting tobacco, as international prices rise, but that the money is into large scale, capital intensive farming. For this, the current (false) subsidies system has to be junked, and tobacco farming liberalized. Then the large landowners can invest into hundreds of hectares of land and employ the current tobacco farmers as cheap labor.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Morocco is politically stable. Foreign investment is flowing in. Renault Nissan is building a plant in Tangier. Offshore call centers are mushrooming. Tourism is booming too, with direct flight from all over Europe.

But illiteracy rates are at 43%; unemployment 20%, and only 37% showed up at the recent elections.

A Moroccan journalist interviewed in the Guardian: "Morocco has a parliament, a government and a pretty vibrant civil society. But all power still resides with the royal palace. "

Wild flowers

Check this fantastic website: 240 wild flowers of Lebanon organized in a very intuitive way: by color and by blooming month. Produced by Prof Ahmad Houri of the Lebanese American University.

Full commitment

Hashish eradication in Lebanon. Can you think of anything less efficient? Enlarge to check the label on the cap of this Internal Security Forces man.

Read the whole article in Arabic in al-Safir.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Strong medicine

06 January 2007: Economist
"Why some people think opium production should be licensed in Afghanistan
How one country's problem could ease the world's suffering
SOPHIE-MARIE SCOUFLAIRE, the chief pharmacist for the French humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, has spent a lifetime watching people in disaster-stricken areas of the world writhing in pain and she has put in many hours frantically trying to procure enough opiates to relieve her patients' agony.
That is surprisingly hard. Part of the trouble is that most countries are allowed under a United Nations regime to import only a very small quantity of narcotics for medical use and governments are often slow to apply for an increase in their quotas. Sometimes, sincerely or otherwise, they say they doubt their own capacity to handle increased quantities of drugs. So in a real disaster MSF has to beg the local health ministry to seek an increase. And in places where no government exists, MSF doctors go straight to the UN for permission to import drugs on their own responsibility. But that process is burdensome.
Now compare the dire shortage of medical opiates that afflicts the poorest parts of the world with the deeply unwanted surplus of poppies that has just been gathered in Afghanistan. According to Antonio Maria Costa, director of UNODC, the UN drugs and crime agency, the 2006 harvest was a record; both the acreage sown and total output have risen sharply. Farmers have harvested about 6,000 tonnes, amounting to 90% of total world output.
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, pointing to the links between the resurgent Taliban and the drug business, has called the opium trade his country's "worst enemy". But farmers, flush with cash, have already been planting new crops. In response the American anti-drugs chief, John Walters, said last month that the United States planned to wipe out the crop by spraying the seedlings.
In defence of such an indiscriminate approach, it is pointed out that less drastic measures, aimed at persuading farmers to switch to legal crops, have failed. The farmers earn around three times as much from opium than from other crops; many say that they cannot support their families without the income they receive. And some complain that the Americans have already started spraying.
But a think-tank with offices in Europe and Kabul has made an alternative suggestion. Emmanuel Reinert, director of the Senlis Council, says Western governments should start pilot projects, at least, as a first step towards licensed poppy-growing to make essential medicines. He believes that it will prove impossible to eradicate opium production, and that trying to do so will play into the Taliban's hands. He also believes that by turning opium fields over to medicine production, the current shortage of opium-based medicines will be solved. The statistics cited in favour of this idea are indeed startling. UNODC figures for 2005 suggest that 80% of the world's population had hardly any access to morphine or other painkillers.
There are plenty of counter-arguments: would it ever be possible to offer farmers more money to sell their crop for medical uses than they now get from drug lords? Christopher Langton, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, thinks licensing could work if it were introduced cautiously, using a mixture of carrot and stick. As he puts it: "If a farmer is faced with the choice of eradication or production under licence, he might compromise." But allocating licences would be a contentious affair, and might add to ethnic strife if badly managed.
Supporters of licensed production cite the example of Turkey, where in 1970 the government faced American demands for complete eradication of poppy farming. Suleyman Demirel, who was then prime minister, retorted that this would be bitterly unpopular, and successfully counter-proposed that the crop should be diverted to medical use.
Perhaps part of the solution might lie in an Australian discovery: a firm in Tasmania has made a variety of poppy in which the synthesis that leads to morphine is interrupted at the last moment. That makes the poppies more useful for the production of pain-killers and less handy for making heroin. If that does not work, here is an even bolder idea: an American security writer, Walton Cook, has argued that simply paying every Afghan farmer not to grow poppies would be cheap compared with the social cost of heroin use."

Have I told you that the hashish crop eradication in Lebanon has been symbolic this year? And that people are ASKING for it to be licensed? But the current government is not even Demirel's. Any way, i'm not for licensing: look at the tobacco regie. The government would create a monopoly that would make the rich richer on the back of the poor farmer. As bad as it is today, the system probably lets more money reach the poor than the institutionalized theft that would come with organizing it under Lebanon's current economic system. You cannot fix only one part of the system.


"Meat is a different story. Whereas thousands of U.S. vegetable farmers compete among themselves and foreign rivals for space in Wal-Mart's produce section, a precious few companies control the meat trade. Just two companies -- Smithfield and Tyson -- process 43 percent of pork consumed in the U.S. Their three largest competitors, Swift, Cargill, and Hormel, have together sewn up another 27 percent of the pork market. When players this big experience higher costs, not even a giant like Wal-Mart can say no to higher prices.

Moreover, while U.S. vegetable farmers rightly fear cheap imports from foreign competitors, the opposite holds true with meat. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that U.S. producers will "dominate" the growing global pork market over the next decade. By 2016, the FAO predicts, nearly one of every three pounds of pork traded globally will originate in the U.S . The FAO also expects the nation's beef and poultry production to thrive in the global market.

In Iowa, the nation's leading pork-producing state, confined-hog operations churn out 50 million tons of excrement each year, the great bulk of which festers in massive lagoons, belching putrid fumes into surrounding communities and leaking into groundwater. In Hardin County, where I visited this summer, 18,000 residents live amid more than a million confined hogs and hundreds of manure lagoons. The county's once-teeming creeks and waterways have become dead zones, and an eye-stinging stench hangs in the air. It reminds you who benefits from the arrangement -- not the remaining residents or the hogs, but rather the confinement owners and the companies they work for under contract: Smithfield and its few meat-packing peers.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 hog-producing state, similar conditions hold sway. And there, just as in the "Third World," the poor pay dearest for highly profitable environmental banditry. According to a University of North Carolina study, "There are 18.9 times as many hog operations in the highest quintile of poverty as compared to the lowest." People of color get it worst of all: "The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage non-whites."

Labor conditions, too, resemble those that might hold sway under a miserable dictatorship run by blinkered elites in thrall to foreign investors. In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report on labor issues in U.S. slaughterhouses. "Meat-packing is the most dangerous factory job in America," the report declared. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies -- and the government does next to nothing." The report also documents meat-packers' heroic efforts to squash unions.

Indeed, in its anti-unionism, the meat industry takes a hint from practices used during the 1980s-era heyday of death squads in Central America. Speaking of a Smithfield plant in North Carolina, one Salvadoran worker told Human Rights Watch that, "The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us ... It's especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists." " (thanks rania)

Dream Farm

"The ideal Dream Farm 2 operates as a farm, and also serves as a demonstration, education and research centre, and incubator for new ideas, designs and technologies. The aim is to promote and support similar farms springing up all over Britain and the rest of the world not only through publicity of Dream Farm 2 itself, but also by collating and analysing data from all similar farms, by acting as resource centre and centre for information exchange".

Long article, but very interesting. The Farm at EARTH University in Costa Rica tries to do something like that, but on a much smaller scale, and without the integration (at least that's what I saw 6 years ago). But I'd really like to see a rigorous economic analysis.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Gone fishing

...till September 16. I won't be blogging during this period as the laptop could get wet.

Plus ça change…

I have recently re-read Kamal Salibi’s book on the history of Lebanon: “A House of Many Mansions” (IB Tauris, 1988). It is a rich book, which retraces how sectarian Lebanon was created. What attracted my attention this time was the issue of world trade, its influence on the breakdown of local economic systems, and the associated political meltdown (although the causality is far from being simple). Here’s the story I was able to put together from information harvested from Salibi’s book.

Western Europe started to dominate world trade at the end of the 15th century, when the Spaniards landed in America and the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope to reach India by the sea. The rapid expansion in Western maritime trade that followed reduced the importance of the Levant and its hinterlands. This resulted in economic stagnation in the Ottoman and Persian empires, which were debilitated by their endless conflict.

A booming trade created excess liquidity in Europe, especially with the appearance of American silver. Profits were reinvested into economic development and world commerce, which led to greater inflation. By the 17th century, this inflation reached Persia and the Ottoman Empire and destabilized their local economy. Their markets became dominated by European merchant companies (early day transnational corporations). This led to the impoverishment of the population and to the emergence of a local merchant class composed of urban elites, of politicians and of local rulers who were deferential to Western powers and to trading companies.

According to Salibi, “Western European traders preferred to deal with weak local Arab potentates rather than with the stronger Ottoman and Persian states. Thus, whenever they happened to have a special commercial interest, they encouraged local autonomies to develop at the expense of the Ottoman or Persian imperial authority. The road had already been paved for these autonomies by the weakening of the Persian and Ottoman states and by their continuing conflict which were exploited by ambitious local chiefs.”

The transformation of the agricultural sector in the Levant from local consumption to export-oriented can be traced to these times. Of course, there was trading earlier, but not at the expense of local food production. In the 17th century, food and other commodities were already being imported into the Levant. Raw material was exported, to be manufactured by Western industries and then sold back to the Levant. Lebanon’s (in fact Mount Lebanon and the coast) specialty in these times was silk.

Between the 16th and the 17th centuries, the production of silk increased in the mountain areas of Lebanon, especially in the Shouf and Kesrwan. The Druze Emir Fakhreddine, who is described by Salibi as “a Syrian strongman who was given leeway by the Ottomans to subdue and destroy other provincial leadership in Syria on their behalf” controlled Mount Lebanon in these times. He was interested in promoting silk production as a cash crop for export to Europe. He realized that there was a large world demand for raw silk, and opened the seaports under his control to European commerce. He established close links with the Tuscans and invited experts from Italy to help modernize local agriculture. The Tuscans fanned his ambitions for increased autonomy from the ailing Ottoman Empire, as they did with the Junbulads of Aleppo. This was to cause Fakhreddine’s and the Junbulads’ demise.

The silk trade was mostly in the hands of Christians, who traded with Egypt and Europe. Beirut became the main seaport for Damascus and the rest of Syria. Commerce flourished, and a new class of cosmopolitan Levantines emerged. European countries opened consular representations which dealt with matters of trade, but also interfered in local politics in collusion with the new merchant class. They often pitted one party against the other in order to weaken the Ottomans and further their own political and economic interests.

The invasion of Mount Lebanon and Syria by the industrial products of Europe, especially after 1840, devastated the local economy. Droughts and locusts ravaged the countryside around the same time (not mentioned by Salibi). The local food economy, which had been undermined by the mulberry monocropping for silk production, could not sustain the shocks. This led to serious social tensions in the rural areas. These tensions culminated in the war between the Maronites and the Druze in1860 and the ensuing massacres of the Maronites. Following the 1860 events, the Western powers interfered more vigorously. The Ottomans were forced to alter the way they ruled Mount Lebanon. They divided it, and it became a privileged administrative region under international guarantee.

What I can see is that things haven’t really changed in Lebanon. The trade interests of powerful nations and of multinational corporations still rule the world. The West still prefers to deal with weak local Arab potentates. In Lebanon, the farm sector is still ailing, and the token agricultural policies are geared towards increasing export and trade. The merchants are signing free trade agreements that are disadvantageous to the poor. The (special) services sector has replaced silk production (by the way, the silk spinning houses were known as karkhaneh, which is also the local name for whorehouse). Fakreddines have come and gone and so have massacres, but we’re always threatened with a new Fakhreddine and associated bloodbaths. And foreign consulates still consort with their local associates to further their own economic and political interests.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Les enragés

"In recent years, Israel has recorded incidents of rabies predominantly in the country's north and sources at the Agriculture Ministry blame the failure of Lebanon and Syria to deal with the outbreak of the disease in their territories for this phenomenon. Over the past few years there have been 15 cases of rabies, all in the North. Most are blamed on infected jackals, foxes and other animals who cross the border into Israel and infect pets, who in turn infect their owners."

Deep play

"We simply need to tell our economists coming out of the master of business administration schools how to use fiscal policy to stimulate social capital and the civil society organizations so that they become the place where there’s increasing employment. In that way we balance employment in the market, employment in the public sector for public capital, and then employment in the civil society for social capital. This is the most immune to computers, because in this sector you need humans; it’s about the metaphysics of human engagement with each other - it’s deep play."

Lebanese agriculture

Good summary on Lebanese agriculture from the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. Interesting because it also includes production and trade figures.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Rule Britannia!

"The farming lobby wants the government to ease the “shortage” next year by bringing in thousands more workers from Ukraine under a special scheme in which a temporary work visa comes tied to a particular job. That, the farmers explain, gives them “certainty” that their workers won’t bunk off half way through the harvest.

That is an odd argument: the best way of encouraging workers to stay put and work hard is to treat them properly, not to use schemes more reminiscent of the imperial days of bonded labour and coolies. Britain and other EU countries should allow Ukrainians to compete in the western labour markets—but as full-fledged participants, not as a reservoir of uncomplaining low-paid workers for a noisy, influential but actually peripheral bit of the economy."

Farm aid

"Across most of New York City, the family farm might well be a potted plant struggling on a windowsill. But that hasn’t stopped Farm Aid from bringing its annual concert here. It’s the city’s first Farm Aid concert in the 22 years since Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp first put on a benefit for family farmers.

“Farmers are never going to survive if they don’t have as allies the people who want this good food,” Ms. Mugar said. “New York has a huge density of eaters and a density of people who are doing excellent things. There are restaurants, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture programs, even people who are growing food in the city and teaching people how to grow it.”" (thanks Anna)

If it goes the way live aid went, say bye to your farms.

Food riots in Mexico

"This “tortilla tax” becomes a public relations challenge: How is it more socially and environmentally responsible to starve the poor to run your S.U.V? No doubt the corn industry will come up with some clever new and diverting way to spin this. They always do.

Meanwhile, copycats in the soybean industry are already plotting ways to get in on this cash-green bonanza in alternative fuels. This year, soybean prices are expected to hit their second highest mark ever, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, thanks to diversion of soybean oil to use as a biodiesel fuel. Two years ago, only two percent of the soybean crop went into bio-fuels; it is estimated that that figure could climb to as high as 12 percent this year." (thanks D.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Democratic delusion

Foreign Affairs 501

Take Home Exam

Any individual working for an aid organization is required to pass this exam and a B+ or higher must be achieved to attain “left wing” status.

Please write 500 words answering each of three of the following questions.

1) Do people really feel better when their elected government is destroyed by democracy promotion rather than subversion?

2) Should it be called “aid” or “aiding and abetting” when you give a country weapons of mass destruction?

3) Why is it called a non-governmental organization (NGO) when it gets most of its funding from governments?

4) Why do progressive people, who think privatized medical and social welfare services are a right wing plot in their own wealthy countries, donate money to organizations that replace government-run services in poor countries?

5) Are some major Western non-governmental organizations really just an arm of imperialism?

Bonus marks will be awarded if you answer all five.

If you're interested in this, check also a very long post, the first on this blog: Disillusionment in development.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Price elasticity

The latest rebondissements of the wheat-flour-bread crisis in Lebanon: expect an increase in bread prices soon. The reasons: speculation and greed, as usual.

Side deals

"But farm groups here -- whose support will be critical in getting any agreement through Congress -- make it clear they will balk at any deal that does not do enough for U.S. exports.

"It's unfair to expect that the United States would just unilaterally offer to reduce subsidies" without reciprocal reductions in tariffs, said David Coia, a spokesman for the USA Rice Federation, one of the many industry groups saying their support for the round hinges on, in Coia's words, "market access, market access, market access."" (thanks Leila)

In a nutshell, the World is asking the US to reduce its farming subsidies in order to come closer to a "free market". The US is balking and is trying to say that subsidies are not the problem, it is market access, i.e. how good you are at finding and opening new markets. The US and the EU and the West in general open those markets through political bullying to impose side deals such as bilateral Free Trade Agreements like the ones it is signing with Lebanon, Jordan, etc (look through the blog for many, many references to FTAs). Of course this whole discussion is between the big players, and none of it takes into consideration the farm sectors in Africa or other poor countries.

Incidentally, there is nothing new with the imposition of lopsided Free Trade Agreements on weaker countries: In 1838, the Ottomans, who were in free fall, signed the Balta-Liman treaty with the British government. The treaty limited custom duties on British goods to a maximum of 3%. It also requested the Ottoman Empire to free internal and external trade, and imposed special fiscal facilities for British nationals.

More about that in a forthcoming post...

Land of the hungry

"THE SHARP increase in food prices is especially bad news for the estimated 12 percent of Americans who live in "food-insecure" households--some 36 million poor and working class people, half of them children, who already may go without food on any particular day.

In November, the annual report from the USDA (which no longer uses the term "hungry" in an effort, say critics, to diminish the scope of the hunger problem in America) found that the number of people in its "very low food security" category--households in which "the food intake of some household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted"--rose in 2005 to 10.8 million.

In fact, across the globe, there is an overabundance of food. According to World Hunger Notes, world agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with a diet of at least 2,720 per person per day (some estimates put the number even higher, at 3,500 calories).

Instead, prices are fixed--and grain, dairy and other foods are left to rot or are purposely destroyed--to keep profits high.

But not everyone sees rising food prices as a bad thing. For some, it's an opportunity.

Last year, for example, Deutsche Bank started the $1.6 billion "DWS Global Agribusiness Fund" specifically to make money off "agflation." Bill Barbour, an investment manager for the fund, crowed to Australia's The Age that DWS has raised $14 million from local investors in less than a year, and that units in the fund have risen four times faster than other investments. "Higher food prices are inevitable all over the world; we're in a sweet spot," he said.

As the investment Web site commented, "While [rising prices] may be bad news for shoppers, it could signal a profitable harvest for investors." (thanks Rania)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Need, greed and ignorance

"To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced worldwide over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, the experts said.

"You can sum it up as need, greed and ignorance," said Andrew Campbell, an Australian environmental consultant. "Some pressures on soil resources come from simple human needs, where people don't have any option but to grow crops or farm animals. But in other instances world markets demand produce, so farmers try to meet those markets. And sometimes, there will be land that's cleared that should not have been, or grazed when it shouldn't have been. All these place great pressures on soil resources." (Thanks Rania)


"Supermarket pledges to drive down the price of staple goods and help cash-strapped shoppers looked increasingly vulnerable last night after Britain's biggest food manufacturer insisted even the largest superstore groups would have to stomach higher prices from suppliers that are struggling with steep rises in ingredient costs.

Last night Tesco issued an uncharacteristically conciliatory statement. "Where there are genuine cost price pressures in the supply chain we are always open to discussion with suppliers. We will continue to do all we can to keep prices as low as possible for shoppers but when wholesale costs go up some prices in store may follow to reflect that."

The carefully worded comment comes after the Competition Commission, which is coming to the end of an investigation into the dominance of supermarkets, last month ordered Asda and Tesco to hand over millions of emails exchanged with their suppliers. Some suppliers have privately accused supermarkets of bullying them on price." (Thanks Rania)

Farming out

"A sense of crisis prevails among American farmers who rely on immigrant laborers, more so since legislation in the United States Senate failed in June and authorities announced a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants. An increasing number of farmers have been testing the alternative of raising crops across the border where many of the workers are, according to growers and lawmakers in the United States and Mexico. economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, compared unemployed Americans with illegal immigrant workers in the labor market. “The bottom line,” he concluded, “is that most unemployed workers are not available to replace fired unauthorized immigrant workers,” in part because very few of the unemployed are in farm work." (Thanks D.)

Many Lebanese agribusinesses especially in the poultry field are already installed in Syria and run joint ventures. I'm sure an expansion is on the agenda of many among them. Plenty are already installed in Egypt where the absence of labor rights and the ease of the business regulations attract capital investment. Problem is, what will the Lebanese who are involved in farming and in agribusinesses do? Are we ready for another 10% unemployment on top of what we already have? Especially if those come from Akkar, Hermel, Baalback and the South?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Green by force

"The IUCN-World Conservation Union recently named Israel the nation with the highest percentage of preserved land in the Mediterranean region. According to the IUCN, Israel has set aside 16 percent of its land to protect nature. In contrast, Spain preserves 7.7 percent of its natural territory, France protects 11.7 percent and Lebanon - 0.5 percent.

Preserved land is defined as land in which there is no construction and is used as nature preserves, national parks, agricultural areas and forests. Israel's position as a front-runner on this list attests to its success in allocating significant portions of land to protect nature and the landscape.

The IUCN failed to mention, however, that a major portion of the Israeli open space which was included in the organization's survey is also used in military training exercises. Many nature preserves, and particularly those in the Negev, like the Holot Agur dunes, Tze'elim, Har Hanegev and the Eilat Mountains, are also used as Israel Defense Forces training areas. Military activity in these areas impacts nature, but most of the damage is minimal due to a unique agreement between the IDF and the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA)."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Rise, Lebanon

Lebanese Daily Al-Akhbar indicated in an article today that milk and grain prices had increased by 30% in Lebanon.

Milk is the new oil

"But the biggest force driving up milk prices is the same one that has driven up prices for conventional commodities like iron ore and copper: a roaring global economy. Rising incomes, from China and India to Latin America and the Middle East, are lifting millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.

It turns out that, along with zippy cars and flat-panel TVs, milk is the mark of new money, a significant source of protein that factors into much of any affluent person's diet. Milk goes into infant formulas, chocolates, ice cream and cheese. Most baked goods contain butter, and coffee chains like Starbucks sell more milk than coffee." (thanks D.)

Resource nationalism

"Clearly, this is a matter of concern to businesspeople. Resource-rich countries, especially the oil exporters, attract more foreign direct investment than resource-poor or agricultural economies. But low levels of political freedom in mineral- and oil-rich economies (Botswana and Namibia are exceptions) implies greater political instability, with potentially adverse repercussions for foreign investors.

It seems too that the resurgence of “resource nationalism” around the world, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, but also in African states like Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Congo and Chad, is positively correlated with political repression. The more determined the government to control a country’s natural resources, the greater the probability that political freedoms will be suppressed.

None of this is particularly surprising. Returns are greater in high-risk Nigeria, Angola, Sudan or the DRC than in South Africa, Kenya or Ghana. In other words, the correlation is not between political freedom and economic performance, but between political suppression and risk. The fewer the political freedoms, the greater the risk—and the higher the returns. For companies and potential investors, the challenges are those of risk evaluation and risk management. There is a temptation for oil companies to conclude that because Equatorial Guinea has a strong military ruler the risks of political instability are low, while the returns are way above average. That however, is the wrong conclusion. The higher the return, the greater the risks (economic, business and political) of a sudden, unexpected change in fortunes. Risk management is about predicting and anticipating change—as in Zimbabwe in 2007—not about believing that the status quo will last indefinitely."

Stormy weather

"A "perfect storm" of ecological and social factors appears to be gathering force, threatening vast numbers of people with food shortages and price rises. Even as the world's big farmers are pulling out of producing food for people and animals, the global population is rising by 87 million people a year; developing countries such as China and India are switching to meat-based diets that need more land; and climate change is starting to hit food producers hard. Recent reports in the journals Science and Nature suggest that one-third of ocean fisheries are in collapse, two-thirds will be in collapse by 2025, and all major ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048. "Global grain supplies will drop to their lowest levels on record this year. Outside of wartime, they have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer," says the US Department of Agriculture."

Syria phasing out

"Syria will phase out massive fuel subsidies over five years to combat smuggling and prevent the budget deficit from sinking further into the red, a senior official said on Tuesday.

The smuggling is estimated to cost the government $800 million a year, according to economists. Dardari said smuggling to Lebanon alone cost Syria $300 million. "Tightening border security will not solve the problem. We have to adopt a fundamental solution. Economic growth will become unsustainable if we continue with this subsidies regime," Dardari said."

This is Zionism-2

"Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank draw water from two main sources -- the Kinneret which is fed by the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers that run from Syria and, to a lesser extent from Lebanon; and the Mountain Aquifer, most of which is in the intended Palestinian state. Israel is often accused of using an undue amount of what is available and of stealing water from the rightful owners, the Palestinians. Yes and no, says Shuval.

He explains that rainwater flows naturally underground from the Palestinian mountains towards the areas of Israel along the coast and "some 80% of it has been pumped up and utilised historically by Jewish farmers within the current internationally recognised borders of Israel for at least 80 years.""

Suddenly Israel is 80 years old...

Arabs happy to become Americans

"But helping is not always easy. One thing I have learned while meeting with business people in Jordan is that entrepreneurship as we know it in America is more of a challenge here. Generally speaking, as a people, we Americans have individual action and initiative ingrained into our national psyche. But over here, being part of a community, a tribe, is more valued. As one local successful businessman explained to me, "Arabs are traders more than entrepreneurs."

But they are learning. As a small snapshot, interest in my e-commerce programs has been high, and the entrepreneurs I meet are both passionate and savvy. In a place where there is far too much war and destruction, it is heartening to meet people committed to creating something positive. Yes, they create businesses, and jobs, and wealth, but for my money, what I most admire, is that they create hope.

Mabrouk! (Congratulations!)"

Why does it sound familiar?

"Owing to the increased demand for powder from countries in the Middle East and Asia, farmers can now earn 30 pence per litre by selling into that market (up from 17p at the start of the year), compared with 22p per litre in the liquid milk market and 21p in the cheese market.

Richard Clothier, managing director of Wyke Farms, the independent cheese and butter producer, said: “The returns for making these world commodity type products are far in excess of making liquid milk and cheese for the home market.”

Mark Hill, food and agriculture partner at Deloitte, said: “While the consumer is paying more for his milk, the farmer is getting less.”"

Saturday, September 1, 2007


"The Jordanian authorities repressed last Thursday 30 August a demonstration by more than 1000 livestock farmers who were protesting the government’s decision to lift subsidies on feed. The demonstrators blocked the airport road with burning tires. The police used tear gas and sticks and the demonstrators, most of whom are Bedouins and tribesmen, threw stones at the mayor of Amman and at a high official in the Ministry of Trade. The demonstrators appealed to King Abdullah of Jordan to cancel the government’s decision, which would increase the price of feed from $126 per ton to $360 per ton. They also threatened to slaughter their flocks in front of the prime minister’s house.”

I seize this opportunity to post about the Bedouins of Jordan (Baduw al Urdunn) because: 1) it is impossible to fully comprehend the significance of this news item without knowing the changes in Bedouin society over the past 150 years. 2) my friend Mustapha Mond has asked me earlier to write about the pastoralists and tarch (animals that are herded). Here’s to you MM.

Before starting, one must realize the following:

1) There is a global increase in the prices of food and feed due to: a-the removal of some subsidies in the EU, b-droughts attributed to global climate change, c-the biofuel industry which is displacing food and feed production, and d-increased demand by China and India on limited world food and feed supplies.

2) The Jordanian State is described as politically surrogate to the US, and economically surrogate to the World Bank-IMF. The regime is said to be kept in place by a combination of repressive policies and of incentives. The Bedouins are the protectors of the kingdom, its praetorian guard. They play a significant role in Jordan’s internal power politics.

Paradoxically, the Bedouin are also socially and financially less favored than other classes in Jordan. Individuals Bedouins may benefit from state services. However the state does not assist the Bedouins as a social group. Moreover, the nature of these services (formal employment, enrollment in the armed forces) contributes to the atomization of Bedouin society.

Jordanian Bedouin tribes were fully nomadic and camel-dependent during the Ottoman Empire. Camels were the symbol of their strength and gave them the ability to live in the desert where they could retreat to avoid governments, their taxes and their armies. The largest Jordanian tribe is probably the Bani Sakhr. Tribes had very diversified livelihoods: they sold camels and camel meat; they took money from the Ottomans to protect the caravans, which they attacked when they were not paid. They also extorted protection money (“khuwwa”) from towns, villages and from smaller tribes. They regarded themselves as a race of aristocrats to whom manual labor would be humiliation (John Glubb).

The modern transformation of Bedouin society started in 1867 when a Turkish expedition defeated the Bani Sakhr and abolished the practice of “khuwwa”. Concurrently, demand on wheat and on some other crop products increased in Europe, and cultivated areas expanded onto pasture lands. Tribal chiefs and rich urban merchants appropriated vast land areas, brought in poor farmers (fellahin) from Palestine to farm them, while the tribesmen guarded the land and the crop, thus establishing individual tenure on what used to be collective lands.

However, the Bedouins continued to keep camels. Their transhumance route took them to Wadi Sirhan (in today’s Saudi Arabia) in winter and to Transjordan in summer.

Several events took place concurrently in the late 1920s-early 1930s, when Jordan was under the control of the British mandate. These events contributed to a major change in Bedouin society in Jordan.

1)The camel market shrank as the consumption of camel meat in Egypt declined,

2) Motorized trucks replaced camels for transportation

3)The Ikhwan rebellion led by Ibn Saoud was particularly murderous. The raids of the Ikhwan (a conglomeration of warrior tribes held together by the Wahhabi doctrine) were particularly murderous as they sanctioned the physical eradication of their enemies, not just the appropriation of their belongings. Ibn Saoud annexed Wadi Sirhan to Saudi Arabia and imposed a tax on the grazing tribes.

4)The tribes also had to pay a tax to the mandatory authorities for their summer grazing in Transjordan.

5)A major drought and a concurrent locust invasion took place in two successive years.

The Jordanian tribes experienced famine as a result of these combined factors.

The British mandatory authorities interfered and provided help to the tribes. Besides the obvious humanitarian reasons, this emergency relief also aimed at preventing the tribes from revolting and joining the ranks of the Ikhwan and of Ibn Saoud. Taxes on livestock were reduced, subsidies were given to the sheikhs and tribesmen were employed in the Desert Force Patrol. The process of sedentarization was initiated in order to calm the ardor of the nomadic tribesmen by changing their society and cultural values.

These actions prevented the famine from taking hold and decimating the tribes. But they also increased the power of the British and the Government over the tribes. One of the immediate outcomes of this new power structure was the end of camel herding.

Most of the camels of the Jordanian tribes had died during the drought, and herds needed to be rebuilt. However, female camels are slow breeders, and herds are difficult to rebuild naturally, through offspring. Traditionally, tribes who had experienced hardship such as droughts reconstituted their herds by raiding other tribes to whom nature had shown more clemency. But raids (gazou) had been prohibited by the government, and enforcing this ban was the responsibility of the Desert Forces Patrol. This led most tribes to abandon camel herding. This was the end of the traditional camel-dependent nomads of Jordan.

The aid measures introduced by the Government under the direction of John Glubb (Glubb Pasha) saved the Bedouins from famine, but created dependency on the state support system. The policy of sedentarization meant that communal lands were distributed to the sheikhs as well as to the tribesmen as private property. Seeds were offered in order to encourage land cultivation. More employment opportunities were created, especially in the armed forces. Glubb gained tremendous influence over the Bedouins. By a combination of carrot and stick policies (small carrot and big stick), he brought in the tribesmen and their sheikhs. The tribes were turned into a collaborating elite. The sheikhs became large landowners and joined the “palace clique”, a role they continue to play to this day.

In spite of the land “reform”, Bedouins did not become fully sedentary: they just reduced their area of transhumance by becoming sheep herders. Sheep produce milk, meat, wool and lambs. With these products, the Bedouins entered a broader market economy. With the income from the sheep products, they bought luxury items, like tea and sugar.

It is, once again, droughts that caused the decline of the Bedouin herds. The droughts of 1959 and 1960s decimated the sheep flocks of Jordan, in spite of the support offered by the Jordanian government. It is in the aftermath of this catastrophe that motorization became an integral part of nomadic sheep farming. Motor vehicles can bring water and feed to the flocks, and move flocks to more welcoming environments. They reduce the vulnerability caused by climatic uncertainty.

In spite of motorization, the sheep farming system remains dependent on the vagaries of the climate. This is compounded by the squeezing of flocks into tighter grazing areas which makes them more vulnerable to droughts. Land is increasingly moving into urban, military or industrial use, to the detriment of sheep herders. As a result, traditional Jordanian Bedouin society has all but disappeared.

The Bedouin tribes of Jordan have silently watched the unfolding of these extreme changes in their culture. For a long time, they never contested state policies. Because they are fractioned, and because their leadership was co-opted by the regime, united political action was late to emerge. But in 1983, the Bani Hassan collectively stood up to the state to defend tribal land rights east of Amman, where land prices had increased exponentially. The state repressed their uprising and imposed a ruling according to state law rather than to tribal law.

In 1989, the implementation of the IMF reform package caused a price increase in basic commodities, such as bread. Riots erupted in the town of Maan and spread throughout the tribal areas, which were traditionally considered to be loyal to the King. King Hussein reacted by blaming the government, dissolving it and canceling most of the reforms. This increased the King’s popularity among the Bedouins who saw him as their protector, a role he was always keen to play.

The events of August 30, 2007 are very reminiscent of the Maan 1989 riots. They were also triggered by economic policy reforms of the type that is promoted by the IMF. Jordan recently joined the WTO, and it is very probable that the meat exporting countries are pressuring the Kingdom into canceling subsidies to local sheep producers, the Bedouins. The information I have presented indicates that the combination of political pressures (policies blind to the needs of a whole social group), natural events (droughts) as well as market pressures have always been detrimental to the fragile Bedouin society. The events currently taking place may well deal it a final deadly blow.

In writing this post I have used 2 main sources:

Tell, Tareq. 1993. Paysans, nomades et etat en Jordanie Orientale : Les politiques de developpement rural (1920-1989). In : Steppes d’Arabie. Bocco, Jaubert, Metral eds. Presses Universitaires de France.

Lewis, Norman. 1987. Nomads and Setters in Syria and Jordan, 1800-1980. Cambridge University Press.