Sunday, November 30, 2008

Land grab?

The Guardian Weekly's cover page this week is titled "Rich World Buys Rights to the Fields of the Poor".
"Rich governments and corporations are triggering alarm for the poor as they buy up the rights to millions of hectares of agricultural land in developing countries in an effort to secure their own long-term food supplies.

The head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, has warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a form of "neo-colonialism", with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people."

Inside there is also a good dossier on Madagascar, Malaysia and Brazil. This new trend, adequately described as "land-grab", is an issue I have posted about frequently on this blog: that of the land deals currently going on between the governments of rich countries of the developing world (Gulf states, South Korea) and and those of poor countries which happen to have a reasonable natural endowment. While the finger is always pointing at the Gulf countries (and rightly so, this is part of a food strategy that came in response to the food crisis), this time, it is South Korea which has apparently leased one million hectares for 99 years in Madagascar. The island has one of the most diverse and unique biodiversity in the world, and although I am not a palm reader I can safely bet that large scale industrial agriculture will not foster environmental preservation.

But I have a question here: why the surprise? What is -really- the difference between this and the fact that multinational corporations already control, through monopolies and monopsonies, food production in many poor countries, from Latin America to Eastern Asia? What are we worried about here? That the food produced in these large farms-colonies will be exported to South Korea or to Saudi Arabia instead of being available to the local people? But this is already happening everywhere, through export-oriented food production. In Egypt, for instance, organic food production on large scale farms managed by local investors, in partnership with foreign groups, produce food that is only destined for export. In India, the best quality fruits are shipped while the lower quality is sold on the local market.

Countries focusing on export encourage farmers to ship their "good" products (peanut oil in West Africa, for example) and, with the money they earn (a tiny little bit of money) buy imported, cheap and less healthy products (palm oil for example). The balance goes into the state coffers which communicate directly with politicians pockets. What will be so different if large scale export farming takes place on land leased by a foreign state or consortium, rather than by an international corporation? What will be different even if corporations are today looking towards buying export goods from cooperatives of small farmers? Not much, really: this is how the international trade-based food system already operates. Even in the case of the coops, the farmers are not really free because they are fully controlled by the pricing structure. What we are seeing is merely a variant.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Slingshot Hip Hop

I watched Jackie Salloum's excellent Slingshot Hip Hop about the lives of Palestinian rappers. Not to be missed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Your time has come

If you can read Arabic, enjoy this excellent piece by Khaled Saghieh!

«هيدا زمانك»

خالد صاغية
«هيدا زمانك» عنوان العمل الغنائي الجديد لخالد الهبر، وهو أيضاً عنوان أغنية مهداة إلى الحزب الشيوعي اللبناني، كان قد أدّاها الهبر في حفلاته الأخيرة. العنوان نفسه لا يصلح للحزب وحسب، بل لكلّ التيّار اليساري العريض، على امتداد العالم، الذي خفت صوته في العقود الثلاثة الأخيرة تحت وطأة شعار «لا بديل».
لم يشأ أحد أن ينتبه إلى سقوط نظرية الـ«لا بديل» حين كانت مؤشّرات عدم المساواة تطلق صفّارات الإنذار، وحين كان المستوى المعيشي للملايين حول العالم يتدنّى باستمرار، وحين كانت أنماط حياة تزول عن وجه الكرة الأرضيّة، وحين تحوّل عمّال العالم غير المتّحدين إلى فريسة لوحش مستتر «لا بديل» منه. لكن، حين بدأ هذا الوحش يأكل لحمه، استفاق الجميع على ضرورة التغيير.
لكلّ الذين رمتهم الشركات العملاقة في الطرقات، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين قذفت بهم العولمة خارج قراهم ودكاكينهم الصغيرة، ليقطعوا آلاف الأميال ويعملوا في خدمة السيّد الأبيض، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين يجرّون أطفالهم مرغمين للعمل في مشاغل العرق، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين اجتاحت الصواريخ الذكيّة بيوتهم الصغيرة، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين أُطلق اسم التخلّف على عاداتهم وتقاليدهم وأغانيهم وآلهتهم وحبّهم لأبنائهم وللخبز الذي تعجنه أيديهم، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين استُخدِموا وقوداً لتحفيز النموّ وجذب الاستثمارات وخدمة الدَّين العام، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين يخضعون للابتزاز اليوميّ ليتمكّنوا من دخول مستشفى أو مدرسة، هيدا زمانك.
لكلّ الذين يحملون أحلاماً لا تتّسع لها الأسرّة، وحبّاً يفيض عن حاجات البشر، هيدا زمانك. أكثر من أيّ زمان... هيدا زمانك.

They don't like farming.

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, every one is championing a cause and trying to get public support from it. But, Rasha Abu Zeki tells us, no one is willing to defend agriculture! Not among the loyalists and not among the opposition, whose minister of agriculture apparently never brings up agriculture in the council of minister! That's how bad it is.

Grape molasses

Rameh Hamiyyeh reports on the traditional processing of grape molasses in Qsarnaba, the Bekaa. This village is known for the cultivation of roses and the extraction of rose water. See here for more on grape molasses. There is increased interest in traditional foods in the press, that's for sure...

Vorsprunch Durch Technik

In Hasbayya, 8,500 tons of olive mills residues are disposed off in the Hasbani river every year. Mercy Corps, operating with USAID funds has tried to create a safe disposal mechanism. It din't seem to have worked. So the German aid agency moved in. This article's title is: "The Germans treat the failure of the Americans".

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The value shackles

"For more than a year, food manufacturers have been shaving package sizes and raising prices, declaring that they had little choice because of unprecedented increases in the cost of raw ingredients like corn, soybeans and wheat.

Now, with the price of grains and other commodities plunging, it may seem logical that grocery prices will follow. But while prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping, those of most packaged items and meat are holding firm or even increasing. Experts warn that consumers should not expect lower prices anytime soon on most items at the grocery store or in restaurants." (Thanks Rania)

This cannot be accurate: the prices of raw material should minimally affect the shelf prices of food. This is issue is not talked about enough, and the result is that people blame farmers and farming for high food prices. Today I attended a talk on food trade, and the figures shown by the speaker, who is himself very involved with the food industry, indicate that the cost of raw ingredient is less than 10% of the final price of manufactured food. Transformation accounts for something like 16% and retail for... nearly 50%. So even a doubling of the prices of raw commodities should be passed on only as a 10% or less increase in shelf price. I will link to the presentation by the speaker as soon as it is uploaded. But meanwhile look towards greed for an explanation. The value chain: they should rename it the value shackles.

Terra Carolina

"So, yes, I was pleased that the rhetoric and the literature at Terra Madre were outwardly political, relying heavily on concepts of “rights” to good, clean, fair food, as well as handing out “manifestos” on the future of seeds and food policy. I definitely felt momentum building for social justice at home and abroad." (Thanks D.)

UNC-Chapel Hill student reflects on her experience in Terra Madre (many more posts on Slow Food Na Terra Madre in the archives)

The global fair

"Transfair claims that it is ethically superior vis-à-vis usual trade practices. In a paper aimed at the press, Transfair affirms that ‘‘fair trade tackles the problems (of the world trading system, driven by profit maximisation for the few, regardless of labour standards, human rights and the environment) by putting people before profit’’.

Transfair also affirms that it offers its producing partners in the countries of the South ‘‘a fair price, long term cooperation, good working conditions, democratic working processes, and respect and promotion of human rights’’.

Transfair defines fair trade as ‘‘a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalised producers and workers - especially in the South’’.

But in some cases, its critics say, exactly the opposite happens.

On the one hand, Transfair established cooperation contracts in 2006 with the German discount supermarket Lidl -- which has been accused of selling dumped goods and of violating their own workers' rights. Dumped goods are goods sold at less than what it cost to produce them.

On the other hand, Transfair is also cooperating with international corporations such as Nestlé which has faced charges of exploiting water sources around the world without paying attention to the rights of local populations or the environment." (Thanks Marcy)

From IPSnews. I will say more about social responsibility and trade in my post about the agribusiness conference I am attending in Cairo.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Universal right to food

"We hold that humanity should consider food a natural right of all human beings. This implies that agricultural products should not be treated as a market whose ultimate purpose is the generation of business profits, and that small farmers should be encouraged and strengthened because this is the only policy that can sustain the populations in rural areas. And with the goal of producing food that is both healthy and safe, we oppose the use of agro-toxins. Until now, governments have not listened to our demands. However, unless they make radical changes, social problems and contradictions will intensify and sooner or later they will explode. " (Thanks Rania)

Going further-but not all the way

"The $15 billion spent by the United States on aid would go further if there was a single agency held accountable for the efforts, said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a coalition of U.S. Christian aid groups.

"When the government is debating what to do about trade or diplomacy, we need somebody at the table in the highest councils of the U.S. government to speak for poor people," Beckmann said in an interview." (Thanks D.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Food Sovereignty Free Trade Conference

I'm speaking in this conference on Saturday December 6

Green Line Association and the International NGO/CSO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) are organizing a regional workshop titled:

Food Sovereignty vs. Free Trade - "Towards an alternative multilateral Agricultural Governance Framework"

In the wake of the global food and financial crises and the collapse of the Doha Round of the WTO negotiations, the main objectives of the workshop are to emphasize the importance of bringing the issues of food sovereignty and security into the forefront of the political discussion and planning for the region and to discuss the existing potentials for socially and environmentally responsible agricultural trade regimes arising from the failure of the free market as acknowledge by its protagonists. The workshop aims additionally at proposing the main requirements for an alternative international governance system for agriculture and food.

The workshop will include the launching of the Arabic version of the "Slow Trade - Sound Farming: A Multilateral Framework for Sustainable Markets in Agriculture. A publication developed by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and MISEREOR.

The workshop will be held in Lebanon from December 5-7, 2008 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Beirut.

You attendance is highly appreciated and most welcome of course.


"Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed in Hadramaut Governorate, southeastern Yemen, by the late October floods, raising the spectre of long-term food insecurity, according to Agriculture Ministry officials.

"The devastation was huge. Hadramaut is now a food insecure governorate. Food security has been badly affected by the floods. Farmers depended on the produce from their land but now they will have to buy food items," Ahmed al-Ashlah, deputy minister of agriculture and irrigation, told IRIN in Seyoun."

I worked and lived in Yemen many years ago. I was last in Seyoun in June 2006. Pictures on my Facebook (for those who are my friends on Facebook)
Fair trade olives from Palestine.

The even hate our potatoes

"Israeli forces rolled into southeast Gaza Strip on Tuesday and bulldozers started to flatten farmlands, witnesses and security sources said.

The residents of al-Fukhari neighborhood, to the east of Khan Younis town, said nine tanks and two bulldozers suddenly entered the area and destroyed greenhouses and potato fields.

They added that the tanks used their machine guns to cover the bulldozers, forcing farmers and the residents to flee westward." (Thanks Marcy)

Sunny exile

Am in Cairo. Again. But this time I feel exiled, in the hotel near the airport where my conference is taking place. There is nowhere to walk to except the airport highway. But they have 2 great pools. So I worked on my butterfly and my suntan (more suntan than butterfly). Temperature: 29 Celcius.

International Conference for Sharing Innovative Agribusiness Solutions-From Farms to Markets: Providing Know How and Finance and is organized by UNIDO. Here's the conference website, and here's my contribution: I will give a presentation on the 27th.

I will blog about the conference as soon as I see more of it, but it promises to be interesting: the corporatization of rural development. Look at the panel and see who's there: Keynotes by the DG of UNIDO, the founder of SEKEM, a (very) large scale organic farm for export in Egypt, the Ambassador of Italy and the Minister of Agriculture. We will have a panel discussion advertized as "Davos format". Not joking.

Monday, November 24, 2008


"European agriculture ministers kept holding marathon farm subsidy reform talks Thursday after failing to reach a deal overnight.

The most contentious point in the bid to reform the bloc's controversial Common Agricultural Policy is the gradual lifting of milk quotas in coming years, with the quotas set to disappear entirely by 2015.

Germany has been insisting on special funding to support milk producers in difficult regions such as mountainous areas, where the producers are less able to handle the lifting of the quota system.

Germany, along with Austria and others, fears that a resultant drop in prices as the quota caps are lifted would jeopardize the future of farmers in mountainous regions.

Their operations are less competitive and less flexible than their counterparts on Europe's grassy plains."

Meanwhile, the same people insist that no country of the Developing World should protect its producers and prevent the collapse of their livelihoods. And they invite them to drop their puny protectionist measures and join the WTO.

Have you had your quota of double standards today?

Mysterious assailants

"Unfortunately all bees are already under serious Industrialised farming with its monocultures and pesticides has destroyed biodiversity and robbed the majority of bees of their habitat and food. While across the globe, the western honeybee – bred for its gentle nature and prolific honey making and pollination – is plagued by parasites and viruses, and also jeopardised by modern agricultural practices. More than a third of honeybees were wiped out in the US this year by Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease which is thought to be a combination of these assailants." (Thanks Marcy)

Besieged and hungry

"Bakeries in the besieged Gaza Strip have begun grounding second-rate wheat, usually fed to farm animals and birds, to replace depleted reserves as the ongoing Israeli blockade reached its 18th day on Saturday."

Palestine Site

Great site: everything you've always wanted to know about Palestine, includes news and brief of the boycott campaigns, facts about Palestine and much more. Kudos to Mona baker.

Madagascar Daewoo

"South Korea has just leased half of all the arable land in Madagascar according to the Financial Times. This has stirred quite a debate in the Malagasy blogosphere about land sovereignty and economic development. It is still unclear whether the land deal has actually been signed by both parties. Meanwhile, bloggers are arguing whether this sort of deal should be considered "neo-colonialism”." (Thanks D.)

Read a detailed account here.
To complement note to self: on wheat production and subsidies in Lebanon as planned for next year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Note to self

I write this as a note to myself for further analysis.

Case 1. Burghul.

International wheat prices were at around $300 per ton last summer. This is when the Lebanese small farmers harvested and threshed their local "baladi" wheat (my cousin Ali is one of them, he told me this story). They sold it between $500 and $800 per ton. They were not displeased, but not very happy: One hectare of land cost $200 to prepare, $200 to harvest and $200 to fertilize. Because of the low rainfall, one hectare gave on average a bit more than a ton: their profit was marginal, especially if they counted land rent and their own labor. They made a bit of money on selling the hay. So basically, wheat planting in the rainfed hilly lands Lebanon is a marginal business, even when international wheat prices are at their highest. Today the international wheat prices are closer to $130 per ton. And Lebanese farmers are still looking to sell it at $800 per ton. Two reasons for that: one, the price of fertilizers and agrochemicals has not declined, and two, there is demand on local wheat. It is used in small percentage with foreign wheat flour to make Arabic bread (requested by the state) and, more importantly, it is used to make burghul (parboiled crushed wheat).

Burghul is an important part of the local diet. It is used to make tabbouleh and kibbeh, 2 mainstays of the Lebanese diet. It is also cooked alone, boiled as rice and eaten next to other foods. This is a good rice substitute. Many references indicates it is healthier than most white rices because it is richer in protein and the carbs are more complex. It is also very tasty, and it is locally produced and it is part of local culture and traditions. It contributes to the local economy: the best burghul is made exclusively from local baladi wheat, and imported wheat makes a bad burghul. So most if not all of the Lebanese burghul is made from locally grown wheat. But it is usually more expensive than rice. It is also less available, due to the limited production of wheat in Lebanon.

This year, however, prices of burghul were expected to be very high, reflecting the high prices of local wheat. So the semi-industrial burghul mills started to produce it from imported wheat. They sold it to restaurants and to the supermarkets in the city. Purists and rural people who make their own burghul continued to use the real stuff, but most people in the city consumed the industrial type. I dont think anyone could tell the difference.

So the use of imported wheat to make burghul kept the prices relatively low and affordable to most. Yet, the profit margin for those who made it from imported wheat were close to 400%, while it was barely 20% for those who made it from local baladi wheat. But if it wasn't for the burghul made from imported wheat, then only the rich would have been able to afford it. And we are talking here about the most rustic peasant food. What irony: imagine a situation where only the rich can afford the food of the poor.

Case 2. Freekeh

Freekeh or freek is smoked wheat. It is delicious, cooked and eaten like rice, either whole grain or coarsely crushed. Freek is made by harvesting the wheat when still green but after it has filled, and burning it very rapidly. Only a few villages still make it in Lebanon, and a lot of the freekeh in supermarkets in the city is imported from Syria. Apparently, Syrian freekeh available on the Lebanese market is of very poor quality. The price of Lebanese freekeh this year was $8000 a ton. Yes you have read well: eight thousand US dollars. This is when the price of local wheat was $600 per ton and of imported wheat $300 per ton. So harvesting the wheat earlier and burning it and then threshing it increases its price by 1200%! The price of the Syrian freekeh is $250 per ton.

But even at $8000 per ton, all the freekeh disappeared from the market. Apparently (and I am partly to blame for that) the rich Beirutis rediscovered this peasant food and are now cooking it to replace rice. So in South Lebanon, you cannot find one grain of freekeh anymore, and the demand is very high. It is slowly dropping out of the peasant's table onto the richer people's tables. In my village they now buy the cheaper Syrian freekeh.

But the buyers are starting to complain: the prices are too high they say. The farmers answer: this is the free market, the law of supply and demand. As long as there is demand, and supply is limited, we will keep increasing the prices. If you are not happy, why not buy low quality Syrian freekeh?

So at the end of the day, here too, demand by the rich caused another class irony: the rural poor have to make do with an imported lower quality version of their traditional food, because the local producers would rather sell it to those with a higher purchasing power.

I had a long argument with one of the freekeh makers today. I was trying to convince him to keep the prices reasonably low, so that he could make a decent profit and keep the product affordable. He was adamant on selling at the maximum price he could get, $8 per kilo. One of his main clients, a restaurant owner, was present. He told the producer: "I am going to Syria to the villages to get traditionally made freekeh. I will import it and sell it 3 times cheaper than your product. If the price of local wheat is $800 per ton (5 times the international market price) then the price of freekeh should be at most $1,600 per ton, not $8,000!" I will get it from Syria for $1,000 a ton and flood the market and kick you out of it"!

And this may very well happen.

These 2 real cases raise important questions (at least they are important to me):

1. Should we work for the well-being of small rural producers or for that of the poor and middle class who are also net food buyers (they can be urban or rural but usually urban)? Of course the answer should be: for both. But are their interests reconcilable? The net food buyers need cheap, nutritious food and the small (and big) rural producers want high food prices. Cheap imports provide the needs of the poor and middle classes, while they destroy the rural farming systems. Moreover, there are serious questions raised around the nutritional value of imported food and the diets that are imposed de-facto by food imports, and which have shown to be detrimental to the health of people (the whole food sovereignty issue). But remember: the net food buyers outnumber the food producers by at least 12:1. Do we not owe them to implement solutions that are more appropriate to them?

2. Is it acceptable to have farmers produce food that no one in their community can afford, and which is sold to the urban rich? Is it acceptable that the small producers can only survive if they use their endowment (cultural and natural and social) to manufacture luxury items that are sold to a very small class of rich people while they themselves have to purchase lower quality food?

3. If the small producers adopt greed and free market and supply and demand as there credo, should they complain if someone else uses this same credo on them? But can we reasonably expect them to auto-regulate when the whole country lives on laissez-faire?

Use your illusions

" Even Bill Clinton has acknowledged that ‘we all blew it, including me,’ by treating food crops as commodities instead of a vital right of the world's poor. Clinton was very clear in blaming not individual states or governments, but the long-term Western policy imposed by the US and European Union and enacted by the World Bank, the IMF and other international institutions. African and Asian countries were pressured into dropping government subsidies for farmers, opening up the way for the best land to be used for more lucrative export crops. The result of such ‘structural adjustments’ was the integration of local agriculture into the global economy: crops were exported, farmers were thrown off their land and pushed into sweat-shops, and poorer countries had to rely more and more on imported food. In this way, they are kept in postcolonial dependence, vulnerable to market fluctuations – soaring grain prices (caused in part by the use of crops for biofuels) have meant starvation in countries from Haiti to Ethiopia.

Clinton is right to say that ‘food is not a commodity like others. We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.’ There are at least two things to add here. First, developed Western countries have taken great care to maintain their own food self-sufficiency through financial support for their farmers (farm subsidies account for almost half of the entire EU budget). Second, the list of things which are not ‘commodities like others’ is much longer: apart from food (and defence, as all patriots are aware), there are water, energy, the environment, culture, education, health – who will make decisions about these, if they cannot be left to the market? It is here that the question of Communism has to be raised again." (Thanks Marcy)

Slavoj Žižek's "Use your illusions" on Obama's election and other pressing world matters like the Congo war, Mitterand's involvement in the Rwandan genocide and the crisis of global capitalism. Essential

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friends of the water

"Accumulated knowledge and capacity can create the potential for sustainable management of both resources and supply services in Palestine. However, with continued occupation, oppression, control of resources, and destruction of infrastructure, investment opportunities and sustainable management cannot be expected. Economic deterioration will continue, poverty will increase as will social unrest, all of which will render any services provided unsustainable. Hence, no matter what programmes are introduced, they will never provide the level of development that enables people to move from being consumers to being producers. Development will merely be a reaction to humanitarian issues and no more. Accordingly, we urge our friends and solidarity movements to increase the pressure to end the Israeli Occupation. This will enable the Palestinians to run their lives with dignity and freedom. And to be able to claim their civic, political, legal and other rights as do other nations around the world."

Friends of the Earth Palestine on water and occupation.

Essential water

"Contrary to officialdom, there are some groups thinking very hard indeed about water and water-shortages: among them the corporations and the military. Because the rest of this contribution will be devoted to[1] the corporate attempt to gain control over water and [2] likely future strategic conflicts; let me repeat that, given water’s unique economic characteristics, its skewed distribution, its mistreatment by humanity and the demonstrated negligence of governments; the only way to manage it fairly is to consider it a universal public good and to promote democratic control over water supply, treatment and allocation.

Another group taking water issues seriously is the community of Non-Governmental Organisations and social-movement experts and activists. Some of them speak of water as a “human right”. I prefer “universal public good” because this concept encompasses the economic aspects whereas the word “right” tends to convey, at least to some, the notion of an unlimited free resource. I share, however, the same basic view as these colleagues: Everyone needs water for survival; therefore defending life means defending water. Although these social forces may not have the same weight as the companies and the military, the reader must not become discouraged as we proceed! We shall also be hearing some remarkably hopeful news about victorious popular struggles for control over water, of exactly the kind recommended here. The more public awareness of the problem and of these success stories, the more they are likely to spread."

The always excellent Susan George in a long article on water. Essential reading.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Beyond aid and fair trade

"A genuine change in principles and a renewed sense of commitment is urgently needed to tackle extreme poverty and inequality. A global undertaking of this scale would not come without further challenges and complexities, but it would lead to rapid and progressive change as low-income countries lift themselves out of poverty without permanently relying on financial hand-outs. Campaigning for the redistribution of essential resources, rather than just more aid or fairer trade, is the first vital step to securing the basic needs of the world community." (Thanks Marcy)

From Dissident Voice.

Farming life

"Now, with the suddenness of a hailstorm flattening a field, hard times are back on the American farmstead. The price paid for crops is dropping much faster than the cost of growing them.
“People have great prosperity and everyone gets spoiled,” he said. “Then there are times of great hardship and everyone learns patience.”"


Al Akhbar was rich today. It reported on the Bedouin women health workshop that took place at AREC, AUB's Bekaa campus. The participants quickly raise an issue of great importance to them: citizenship. But the Akhbar reporter misread this and decided that they were not interested in health, only in citizenship.

There was also a report on the terrible state of the main slaughterhouse in South Lebanon. Fainthearted better abstain.

But the most interesting piece came from Egypt: the arrest of "the cancer ambassador", a high ranking offical at the ministry of agriculture who has been allowing illegal import of banned pesticides. Apparently, he was very close to the current minister, who is considered to be part of the "old guard" and who is not one of the favorites of the young Mubarak, the heir apparent. Justice moves in mysterious ways.


In Al Akhbar's Badael page, I wrote today on Lebanon's move to join the WTO, a move condoned by the ex-opposition (opposition to what?). Rana Hayek wrote about diets and calories counting, Mohammad Muhsin about tannour bread and Rajana Hamiyyieh about makhlouta, a peasant soup made with 7 different grain legumes.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Relief aid or development?

“Meeting emergency needs often means taking money, time and staff away from long-term sustainable development programmes.

“Yet such programmes, related to agriculture, economic development, civil society, gender empowerment, healthcare and other areas have the potential for lifting communities out of poverty,” she told IRIN. “These are the very programmes that could help avoid the vicious cycle of dependence.” (Thanks Marcy)


"Scott Tong: Today, the Food and Drug Administration opened its first office overseas -- in China. It's an obvious choice, considering the list of tainted food products coming out of China. I'm joined by our correspondent in Shanghai, Scott Tong. Scott, what's the FDA hoping to accomplish with this?

Scott Tong: The point is for U.S. checkers of food to move past the borders, where traditionally United States officials check food from China and other places. It's to go closer to where the point of origin is." (Thanks D.)

Am I the only one who thinks this is...weird (to avoid using terms ending in ...ism)?

From Gaza to Oxford

Gaza: no bread, no fuel, no electricity
Oxford: Shimon Peres honored as man of peace. In his inaugural speech, he blames the victims (don't they ever get tired of towing that line?)

Kudos to the Oxford students who protested Peres's speach in the Sheldonian. In the mid-eighties I was a member of the Oxford Palestine Society and of the Oxford Arab Committee and of the Labour Party Campaign for Palestine and one of the founders of the Oxford Palestine Support Group, and I dont think we would have organized it as well as the current students did. I salute them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From sand dunes to rubbish heaps

I really need to blog in full this short article from IRIN. But note the section in bold and compare it with my previous post on Lebanese Bedouins, especially the section where my co-researcher says:

In the past, the Bedouins used to be considered as a "well off" class, because they were self sufficient. In the second world war, when food became scarce and people went hungry in Lebanon, the Lebanese villagers sought their help. But after modernity and urbanization and rampant drought took hold of the country, they became impoverished. They turned from a self sufficient people who had its own livelihood, customs and Bedouin traditions into a different community. The Bedouins today are torn between the past and the present. In the past, they see their glorious history, as it was them who made the Great Arab Revolt and fought the colonialist over centuries, and provided the revolutionaries with weapons wherever they were present. In the present, they only see marginalization and dependency..

SHARM AL-SHEIKH, 19 November 2008 (IRIN) - Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt's glitzy coastal tourist resort, may seem an unlikely home for Bedouin squatters, but they too live off tourism, or rather the waste left in its wake.

A 20-minute drive from the main highway takes you to a Bedouin squatter area on the city’s outskirts from where Nawal, a young woman, sets out early each day with her younger sister for the main refuse tip, to sift through rubbish.

"We used to have a good life. We had a lot of animals, we used to make milk and butter and cheese," said Nawal, reminiscing about her past. "It was a sweet life. Everything was available. Now it's awful."

The estimated 30,000 Bedouins in the Sinai peninsula have had to contend with severe drought over the past few years, and this has forced them to change their lifestyles: No longer are they able to derive an income from their animals.

"When the pastureland disappeared, we had to leave... We have had to come to Sharm al-Sheikh and settle down next to the rubbish dump," said Otayeq Sallam.

One of the draws for the Bedouins is that the Sharm al-Sheikh tourist industry churns out rubbish all year round.

Recycling project

In the tourist resort of Nuweibaa, some 150km north of Sharm al-Sheikh on the Gulf of Aqaba, an NGO called Himaya (protection) is helping needy Bedouins.

It collects and sorts rubbish, selling some of the solid waste to cover costs and making the organic waste available free of charge to Bedouins it deems need help, allowing them to sell it on.

"We separate the solids from the organic waste, which is distributed free to needy Bedouins. The solid waste is compressed and sold by the tonne to factories in Cairo," said Walid al-Sayyid, who works on the project.

Proceeds from the sale of the solid waste also help the NGO fund regional development projects. One such project is the renovation of classrooms in primary schools in South Sinai. Another is the creation of green spaces in urban areas, he added.

However, not all local Bedouins are satisfied: "The NGO has made deals with local hotels to get their garbage. Bedouins can no longer get it for free, which is unfair," said Ibrahim Sweillam, a Bedouin who does not receive waste collected by the NGO because he is not classified as being in need. For him, Bedouins are better off organising their own affairs." (Thanks Marcy)

Far from any romanticism, I cannot help feeling that rubbish recyclers is not really what Bedouins do best, and that there should be a better trade where they can use their skills in extensive animal production to make best out of the dry environments. But this needs to be thought much better than that. And why should Bedouins and NGOs fund schools and green spaces? Where is the government? Too busy serving the plutocracy?

Bedouins in Lebanon have completely diversified their livelihoods in the past 20 years. Our research shows that only about 30% still keep sheep. Today I was at a workshop for Bedouin maternal and child health organized by a group of researchers from AUB. They all came to AUB's Bekaa campus, AREC. There were about 30 women, and the local sheikhs were also invited. The women came in a bus, but the sheikhs came in very fancy cars. I counted: one Hummer (big size), one BMW X5, and five or six US 4x4 such as Envoys and Trail Blazers, all recent models. Being a sheikh must pay well.

A new trade system

"The 2008 meeting should "should lay the ground for a new system of agricultural trade that offers farmers, in developed and developing countries alike, the means of earning a decent living," Diouf said.

The summit would also aim to set up an "emergency intervention fund" to help farmers in vulnerable countries rapidly increase output when commodity market spikes hit food import bills. Rising prices early this year plunged millions of people into hunger and sparked food riots around the world." (Thanks D.)

FAO finally wakes up

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


"Our project uses architecture to articulate the spatial dimension of a process of decolonization. Recognizing that Israeli colonies and military bases are amongst the most excruciating instruments of domination, the project assumes that a viable approach to the issue of their appropriation is to be found not only in the professional language of architecture and planning but rather in inaugurating an “arena of speculation” that incorporates varied cultural and political perspectives through the participation of a multiplicity of individuals and organizations."

An absolutely fabulous site! So many little time


"FAST wants to contribute to a world where national territory is not being scattered into ethnic and socio-economical enclaves, where architects and planners are not abusing their professional knowledge in order to commit violations of human rights and where governments are not abusing architecture and planning tools in order to promote agendas of segregation." (Thanks Marcy)

Arab Society for Geographical Indications

Arab Society for Geographical Indications (ASGI)

"Launched at consumer forum held in Saudi Arabia last week, the ASGI will be under the umbrella of the Arab League. In cooperation with ASIP, ASGI aims at promoting geographical indications as a tool for increasing local investment and protecting local products from false use by unauthorised parties.

Arab countries have many cases related to geographical indications; some of the best examples are Doan honey from Yemen (Doan is a famous valley in the Hadramout area), Mocha coffee from Yemen, Oman’s Halva, Masafi from the United Arab Emirates, olive oil soap from Nablus in Palestine, water from al Feejah spring in Syria, Lebanese tabbouleh and argan oil from morocco. However, geographical indications are not fully protected there."

Monday, November 17, 2008


Shaikh Daher of the Khaldeh Bedouins honors Samir al Kuntar in a very incongruous banquet: The Bedouins of Khaldeh are fully aligned with Hariri, and there has been several incidents with the Opposition supporters in the past couple of years. This occasion is really one of the "reconciliation" events, bringing together the Opposition (and especially HA) with the Bedouins. Sharp politics.

International Mountain Day

International Mountain Day 2008

News Release

TLB Destinations joins UN in International Mountain Day 2008 Focus – Food Security in Mountains

Lebanon; November 2008: CYCLMEN, a division of Lebanese tour operator TLB Destinations is organizing a mountain trek in the Akkar region of Lebanon on the first weekend in December 2008, to celebrate ‘International Mountain Day’.

The UN General Assembly designated 11 December, from 2003 onwards, as 'International Mountain Day', as an opportunity to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development and to build partnerships that will bring positive change to the world’s mountains.

In 2008, the theme focuses on ‘Food Security in Mountains’ and to commemorate this day CYCLAMENis encouraging everyone in Lebanon to go out, enjoy the mountains, and get to know a bit more about the rural communities. This event initiated in Lebanon by TLB Destinations, a Lebanese tour operator dedicated to responsible tourism and Middle East member of TOI (Tour Operators Initiative for Sustainable Development), aims at helping the rural communities to enjoy the benefits of tourism, of which they should be a key part. Our aim is to raise awareness on issues related to tourism such as environment, culture, heritage and support to local communities.

For the 6th consecutive year we will organize an event in Lebanon as an act of awareness to Lebanon’s mountains, and a tangible tool to boost Lebanon’s image as an eco tourism destination abroad. Join the efforts between professionals in the tourism sector to reinforce the position of Lebanon on the tourism map, to raise awareness on the importance of mountains to the Lebanese people, and to support local communities as guardians of the national heritage.

We need partners to support us in our commitment to sustainable development through tourism activities that preserve nature and respect local heritage. Your support can let this event become a reality and stimulate other initiatives within Lebanon’s sustainable development. “Lebanon is famous for its unequivocal beauty and unique countryside and mountains. This is an opportunity for us to create awareness on a local level and global level the important implications that food price increases are having on humankind. We wish to bring awareness this situation can have on those of us who actively participate in outdoor pursuits but to also bring awareness in terms of our heritage, our tourism industry and the preservation of what makes our country so unique and beautiful. We believe that hiking in rural regions offers solutions to the need for sustainable tourism,” says Nassim Yaccoub, program manager, CYCLAMEN.

Cyclamen is a division of Lebanese tour operator TLB Destinations and member of CIFA (Centre pour l'Insertion par la Formation et l'Activité ) a non-profit organization which focuses on the linkages between responsible tourism and sustainable development. To find out how you can participate in International Mountain Day contact us at


"Lebanese officials are confident the country will be granted admission to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by the end of next year, though there is still much to do before Lebanon meets all of the requirements for membership.
As the government has amended a number of agricultural laws and regulations that the WTO viewed as contradictory to its charter, and has cancelled a programme from the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon to assist financing Lebanese farm exports, primary producers feel threatened by the WTO bid.

Antoine Howayek, president of the Association of Lebanese Farmers, cited the country's 2006 association agreement with the EU in arguing that Lebanon's agriculture sector would not benefit from open markets such as WTO membership.

"This is clearly reflected by the association agreement on trade signed between the EU and Lebanon, which was supposed to provide the latter with the opportunity to benefit from the potential EU market for its exports, but did not," Howayek told the local media on November 7.

Since the agreement with the EU came into force in April 2006, Lebanon's agricultural exports to the EU have dropped, with the European bloc accounting for just 12% of sales last year, well down on the 20.6% in the year before the trade deal. Supporters of the WTO bid say this decline has more to do with Lebanese farm goods not meeting stringent EU standards than a weakening of competitive power caused by the association agreement. "

Let it be known: no one should have faith in the Opposition's social and economic agendas in Lebanon. At least the Loyalists are consistent with themselves: they serve Kapital. But what, or who does the Opposition serve? Kapital too?! I am in full support of the Resistance, but resistance cannot be limited to combat preparation by a few heros defending the rest of the nation. Resistance to poverty and inequality and occupation and oppression starts with the implementation of unequivocal social and economic agendas.

Food triad

"Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said here Monday that cooperation between Pakistan and China in Agriculture sector can help tap the huge Middle East Market.

Talking to the Chinese Vice-Minister for Agriculture Niu Dun, Shahbaz Sharif said that Punjab is the Green Basket in agriculture product and added that with the cooperation of China, we can export our finished agriculture products to the Middle East and beyond.

He pointed out that Middle East was importing agricultural products all the way from America, Europe and Far East."

Isn't that scary? I mean: China, with its long experience in ecosystem destruction and state capitalism and food insecurity helping one of the most food insecure countries of the world to intensively produce food FOR EXPORT?

Organically grown

"The region’s only organic and natural products trade expo, Middle East Natural and Organic Products Expo will open tomorrow with over 175 companies from over 35 countries. The show organised by the Dubai-based Global Links and supported by the UAE Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environment and Water.

The show comes in the backdrop of the growth in the organic and natural food products sector in the range of 20-25 per cent annually with the Middle East emerging as the fastest growing market."


"Some Iraqi refugees said they had stopped receiving their once every two months ration of 25kg of rice, the bulk of the food aid they receive, and the main staple of their diet. “Iraqi people, we love rice,” Shada, a refugee from Baghdad, told IRIN at the UN-run distribution centre in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.

The government and WFP are currently in negotiations over the status of the rice. WFP is planning to buy some rice on the local market as an interim measure.

Several thousand tonnes of Indian rice imported by WFP have been sitting at the docks for the past two months. An official told Reuters this rice was “unfit for human consumption”. WFP told IRIN the rice had passed laboratory tests and met international standards, though the agency remains sensitive to Syrian concerns." (Thanks Marcy)

Where do the old, unwanted tv sets go?

"Without a law banning export of toxic electronic waste in the United States, there has been no way to know if old cell phones, computers or televisions originating there didn't end up in some poor village in the developing world, where desperate people pull them apart by hand to recover some of the valuable metals inside.

A small group of people have now allied with a few responsible recyclers to ensure e-waste can be treated responsibly by creating an e-Stewards certification programme. Announced this week, e-Stewards are electronics waste recyclers that are fully accredited and certified by an independent third party."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The weakest link

Saudi Arabia to grow 100,000 ha of rice and grains in the Philippines. This new approach to food security by Gulf states is going to be interesting to watch. The dynamics of the relationship between farmers-businesses-Philippine state -Saudi intermediary- Saudi state are potentially highly abusive...of the weakest link: the farm worker.

Water and people

A good and short review of water and demography in the Arab World (in Arabic)

Bedouin revolt in Sinai

The Bedouin mini-revolt that is unfolding in Sinai is getting wider coverage: In Al-Akhbar yesterday, where there is a "Egypt" weekly page, this article described the marginalization of the Bedouins and their neglect by the state and how the touristic developments in Sharm el Sheikh and elsewhere just bypassed them (scroll to the middle of the page). In Al Hayat today, a similar, but more systematic and better organized op-ed by Muhammad Salah also covered the same issue.

The Bedouins of Sinai are truly underserved in Egypt and in serious need of development programs targeting them: I gave a talk about the Bedouins of Jordan and Lebanon last week in a WFP meeting in Cairo and the people of the WFP (UN World Food Program) told me the Sinai Bedouins regularly receive food aid from the UN program.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


"Israel infuriated by U.K. plan to label West Bank produce". Need I say more?


"Wonky cucumbers and comedy carrots are staging a comeback thanks to a European Union decision to scrap stringent rules which stipulate that only the most perfect-looking produce adorns supermarket shelves."

To serve the rich

Why I love Al Akhbar? Read their front page today. The main title was: "The whole of Lebanon is at the service of 500 families". The article on how the taxes of the poor serve to make the rich richer is worth reading. (Arabic)

Friday, November 14, 2008

US Hunger

"One American household in nine was “food insecure” (the government avoids the word “hungry”) for part of 2006, and more than a third of these households “had very low food security — meaning that the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food,” according to a recent department report.

The federal study estimated that 35.5 million people — nearly as many as live in California — sometimes lack enough to eat and that 10.1 million adults and children, roughly the population of Michigan, often go hungry in America." (Thanks Leila)

Israel regulate fishing in Gaza

"I don't understand why the naval soldiers fired at me and Ahmad. All we wanted to do was fish to put food on our families' table, given the hard financial conditions we live in. We had a GPS device and knew we were in an area in which fishing is permitted. We didn't endanger the soldiers and didn't have anything in the boat other than hook-lines and bait.

We fish regularly in this area, and this is the first time we had any problems. My great fear is that they'll have to amputate my leg, leaving me disabled for the rest of my life." (Thanks Marcy)

Eating is a political act

"One of the powerful things about the food issue is that people feel empowered by it. There are so many areas of our life where we feel powerless to change things, but your eating issues are really primal. You decide every day what you're going to put in your body -- and what you refuse to put in your body. That's politics at its most basic." (Thanks Tima)

Michael Pollan on Eating

Zionist environmentalism

"In addition to the 6,000 that have already been uprooted, hundreds of other trees are slated for uprooting.The new path does not allow for access gates, meaning farmers will be completely cut off from their lands. The settlement of Zufim is slated to swallow much of the annexed land.The construction of infrastructure for the new part of the settlement called "North Zufim" has already begun. Construction of an electricity network has started and the creation of housing units is imminent.

As a result of this land grab, the 85% of the people of Jayyous who made their living as farmers have largely been made unemployed, and most of those who were still able to maintain their livelihoods will now join the jobless ranks." (Thanks Marcy)

Still eating sushi and sashimi?

I've given up on sushi and sashimi except when I hunt the fish myself. Tuna fishing for sashimi has caused the near extinction of the blue fin, and salmon farms are killing the water. All this because Japanese style raw fish is soooo sexy.

"There is little debate that salmon aquaculture is both unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Three or more kilogrammes of wild fish is needed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The ocean bottoms under and around the open-ocean net pens are usually devoid of any life, buried under the excrement of up to a million salmon overhead. "


‘‘It's time we say stop giving us your aid, we no longer want it. African countries are net exporters of capital. These donors should be seen for what they – thugs. Because 95 percent of capital from Africa goes to the West as debt repayments.’’

Developing inefficiency

"Muiti also stresses that international NGOs do not build things to last: they come, implement a project, and leave. Accountable to no one, “capacity building” is the latest catch phrase most organizations use to sell proposals and win grants.

Local NGOs have problems too, he assures. Either they lack the finances or are unable to manage them. Many projects and organizations are developed after the cheque arrives and little happens except the opening, and draining, of a bank account." (Thanks Marcy)

A must-read on the failures of international development in Congo. Beware: it will make you weep.


I wrote 2 articles in the Badael page of Al Akhbar today. My editorial was about the "green" meetings organized by international development organizations to address climate change, and which you have to burn tons of fuel in order to travel to. In the ABC of food, I wrote about hunger. And Mohammad Muhsin covered Hizbullah's Terra Madre: the "Ardi" exhibition.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Up and down: the food crisis never ends, it just changes direction

I was told by a trader last week that wheat prices had crushed and that this was going to cause major distress in the markets. Apparently everyone and their cousins planted wheat in eastern Europe last year and there is now a major glut. Here's the news from the US

"Wheat prices continue to slide in the US Agriculture Department's latest monthly forecast of commodity prices, based largely on a slowing global economy and strong overseas production.

World Ag Outlook board chair Gerald Bange says USDA's season average wheat price forecast is now down to $252 a ton, from $257 last month.

"We've got a world wheat production now, which is up more than 70 million tons from last year, we still have strong world coarse grains production, we still have strong world oilseeds production, we're seeing these prices wind their way down." "

Russian wheat "The wheat averages 3,400 ruble a ton now" That's about 123USD!

More news on other grains:

"The yield from fall harvest has been strong for area farmers. Unfortunately, like the stock market, prices paid for grain have crashed.

In July, the price of corn was $7.10 a bushel. Today, it's half that — $3.47.

And soybean prices are worse. Four months ago, soybeans were selling at $16 a bushel. Today, the price is $8.58. And when the fall crops were planted, the cost of fertilizer and fuel were at all-time highs.

It's tough on the farm."

Risotto al olio

"Thailand on Monday said it planned to barter rice for oil with Iran in the clearest example to date of how the triple financial, fuel and food crisis is reshaping global trade as countries struggle with high commodity prices and a lack of credit.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation said such government-to-government bartering – a system of trade not used for decades – was likely to become more common as the private sector was finding it hard to access credit for food imports.

The price of Thai medium-quality white rice soared to an all-time high of above $1,000 (€798, £641) a tonne in May but has since dropped to $660 a tonne on the back of a large global crop. Prices are still well above their pre-crisis average of $250 a tonne. Chaiya Sasomsab, Thailand’s commerce minister, said Thai officials planned to travel to Iran by the middle of November to “discuss the specifications of oil and rice that would be exchanged”." (Thanks Leila)

Black cloud days

"October and November are wonderful months in Cairo. Air conditioners are switched off, windows are thrown open, and warm sunny afternoons give way to cool evening breezes. It's a pleasure to be outdoors — except when the black cloud appears. Then the coughing starts, eyes water and asthma sufferers and others flee indoors." (Thanks D.)

I saw the black cloud from the airplane asit was preparing to land. Frightening.

Harvest time

"Experts at the International Water Association congress in September called for investment in water infrastructure to at least double from the current level of $80bn (£49bn) a year to avoid widespread flooding, drought and disease.

Unep has calculated that enough rain falls on Africa to theoretically supply the needs of 13 billion people, and has called for a continent-wide rainwater harvesting programme."

Just a reminder

"Faced with the long conflict there and in Iraq, the US military has realised that sheer firepower is not enough. The Pentagon has discovered the "human terrain" or what General David Petraeus calls the "cultural terrain" and has been recruiting anthropologists and social scientists to map it and advise commanders on local social networks.
Objections to the HTS programme range from the inherent secrecy of mission-oriented research to, as eminent anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observes, "manipulating local culture, imposing [our government's objectives] on them, transforming anthropologists into spies, and putting people you work with [in the locale] at risk". Last November, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) formally discouraged its members from taking part in HTS programmes."

I've blogged about this before but a reminder can't hurt.


"Tension is high between the Egyptian government and Bedouin of the Sinai, who complain they are discriminated against and not given job opportunities in the mountainous desert peninsula that is home to some of Egypt's top beach resorts."

3 Bedouins were killed in clashes with the police. Tension is surely high.

Food Law? Not for us!

According to this article, 15% of the milk samples tested in Lebanon were found to be contaminated. 10% of the meat samples were contaminated. 49% of the water samples were also contaminated. Salmonella was the most prevalent microbial contaminant in food with 52% incidence, and 36% for hepatitis and 12% for brucellosis.

But all these findings fail to bring us one inch closer to passing a global Food Law in the country, as Rasha Abu Zeki explains in Al Akhbar. Why? Too many interests...

Souk every day

All the souks of south Lebanon, with the days on which they are held in this article. Street markets go a long way back in this region.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From `Akkar to `Amel review

"Part guidebook, part development report and part textbook, From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel does not indulge in the meandering banality that mars some travel writing. Pastoral charm is not described; it is measured - in rainfall, elevation and percentage of arable land. Likewise, the recipes are detailed and sourced with a meticulousness that lends the text a sense of purpose bordering on urgency. Food has always been strongly linked to national identity, so it is natural that its preservation has become a form of resistance. In light of the debate currently raging between Lebanon and Israel over the right to hummus, establishing a paper trail for zaatar seems more critical than it once did."

Meris Lutz reviews "From `Akkar to `Amel"...


"This isn't love. Nor is this, strictly speaking, a honeymoon period. Instead, we are in limerence. Limerence, a term coined some years ago, defines a state often mistaken for love. Those overtaken by limerence experience obsessive longing for another person. They subject the other person to often irrationally positive evaluations. They develop a degree of emotional dependency on the object of their obsession. And they interpret even the slightest sign of affection in the other as a declaration of reciprocal love. But the love is imaginary. Obama promised to bring a puppy dog to the White House. We are that puppy dog." From Foreign Policy in Focus

That's one neat word!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Amman

I first visited Amman in 1981. I came with a Jordanian friend who had lived all his life in Beirut and who had been forced back to Jordan to do his military service. Amman was a very simple town back then. Dwellings were concentrated on the 7 hills (jabal) surrounding the city. Jabal Amman was the poshest "jabal", and it was very simply organized along 5 roundabouts or "circles". Suburbia started at the fourth circle and the fifth circle was wilderness. There were talks of a sixth and perhaps a seventh circle, but half the people found the idea silly. They thought back then that this would be like having traffic lights on a farm. Anything beyond the fourth circle was wheat and barley field with the occasional cabbage patch. The area continued to be heavily farmed till the late 90’s and today malls grow side by side with cereal fields. But the bucolic atmosphere of Amman’s suburb is gone. The once quiet neighborhood of Swefieh and Abdoun have become as busy as downtown.
Amman was born as a trading town to cater for the Bedouin tribes of the great Syro-Iraqi-Jordania-Saudi steppe. Amman was the souk city, where they could buy market goods ranging from camel saddles to second hand US surplus clothes. It still has these shops, alongside small dark cafes and seedy movie houses showing a continuous program of kungfu flicks and bollywood bom-bom.

Amman probably became a real city in 1948, after the first influx of refugees from Palestine. Throughout modern history, Amman grew in spurts closely shadowing refugee influx from Palestine in 1948 and 1967, and from Lebanon in 1975 and 1982. But its biggest growth spurt came with the Gulf war of 1991, in which hundred of thousands of middle class Palestinian families were shown the door in Kuwait. The US invasion of Iraq brought a large number of rich Iraqis, along with their carpets and their art pieces, which they traded on the private market on Amman. Many poor Iraqis arrived too, and created their own community.

Amman is today thriving. At least the rich parts of Amman are. It has certainly undergone dramatic change in the past 25 years, and is adorned with towers, bridges and tunnels all constructed in what us Lebanese find to be "record time". There are mega-development projects everywhere in the rich city, many tailored after Beirut's Central District. But this growth has come at the price of deepening inequalities. The rich, who are always the first to believe in the economic trickle down theory, have accumulated more wealth, while the livelihoods of the poor has been degrading. The spacial structure of the city helps in hiding poverty: many of those living in Jabal Amman have never been to any of the poor "jabals" or to East Amman.

But Amman's expansion is slowly bridging the geographic gap, between classes. In Abdoun, one of the richest neighborhoods, villas and large stone houses are slowly crawling into the valley separating it from the Eastern zones. And, on the other side, tenements are also fast approaching the houses of the rich. The next few years will be interesting to watch for urban planners, as the demand for land increases both for rich and poor. As to the Bedouins who still keep their flocks in the hidden valleys around the city, they have lost the battle a long time ago. Amman was built on their traditional grazing territories, but customary laws have no place in modern Arab cities, especially when they clash with the ambitions of the rich.

Monday, November 10, 2008

High hopes

"The second priority, which he has already committed to, is active diplomatic engagement with other states. That shouldn't entail pandering to dictatorships but does commit to realistic and hardnosed negotiations, predominantly with the Middle East. AIPAC and the Likudniks overwhelmingly supported McCain, while 77% of American Jews voted for Obama. He owes nothing to the settlers and Netanyahu, and he could assist Israelis who want peace by setting firm conditions for progress. U.S. guarantees of agreed frontiers, based on UN Resolution 242, and reduction of money spent on settlement activity would be a start."

Ian Williams on Obama's top 3 foreign policy priorities. Foreign Policy in focus article, includes the opinions of other analysts.

But what is Israeli cuisine?

""But what is Israeli cuisine?" asks food writer Judy Nathan. "A cuisine is usually defined as cooking which derives from a particular culture. Since the Jewish population has essentially been dispersed throughout the world, Jewish food, and by extension that of Israel, while centered in the Jewish dietary laws, subsumes the cuisines of countries throughout most of the globe. Unlike in France and Italy, for example, where cooking has been grounded in the same soil for thousands of years, in Israel the 'new food' is a hybrid, inspired by every corner of the world, but with an increasing emphasis on native ingredients." []

Jodi Kantor traces the influences on the early Zionists in her New York Times article, A History of the Mideast In the Humble Chickpea: "The newly arrived Jews needed a cuisine to suit their new identities and surroundings. 'Their native food was inappropriate for the weather and the produce,' [food writer Claudia] Roden said. Not surprisingly, they were enchanted by the smoky eggplant dips, rustic breads and aromatic spice mixtures of Palestinian cuisine. As Najwa al-Qattan, a Palestinian-American and a professor of Middle Eastern history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, put it, 'If you were given the choice between falafel and gefilte fish, which would you choose?'" [] Ouch."

Mark Mietkiewicz in search of Israeli cuisine in the Jewish Ledger.

Of meat and men

"Still, read about the “diverse” work force in Postville before the bankruptcy and you’d think you were reading a Steinbeck novel.

You’d think the robed Somalis and Hasidic Jews, “beetle nut spitting” Palauans and Guatemalans in post-arrest ankle bracelets as the Des Moines Register describes them were gathered for an international film festival instead of to disembowel animals for $6 an hour." (Thanks Marcy)

In the newspaper

In one of the main Jordanian newspapers today (Al Ra'i, Arabic) there were 8 articles about the king (including the whole front page) and 7 articles about Obama.

There were also 11 articles (!) about agriculture, environment, food safety, development and poverty alleviation. Most of the articles were small news items about projects and funds allocation for microcredit. The most interesting one was a news item about farmers and exporters refusing to abide by a new regulation enforcing quality control on exported goods. The producers say this will make them uncompetitive and is not required in the countries they traditionally export to. The government says: this is a regulation and you should apply it. I say: this is probably the outcome of one of the projects to enhance export to the EU or the US, which requires strict quality control on exports. This is causing problems in Jordan as in Lebanon as the traditional markets in the Arab world do not require all the paperwork imposed by Europe and the US and other countries. Export to these countries is still minimal and there are no justifications for enhancing it: cost of transport is too high, both financially and environmentally, and competition is too stiff. The Arab market is huge, and this is where the primary markets should be. In any case, I question the validity of water intensive horticultural production is a country starved of water.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Am in Jordan for a couple of days so blogging is likely to be erratic...

Weevil overcome

"“Everyone is panicking here. We totally depend on palm farming to earn our living,” Tulaib, a father of three who has 700 palm trees in Wadi al-Jadid, told IRIN by telephone. “The weevil is very dangerous… it is the talk of the governorate today. You can hear everybody talking about it in every house and every street.”

Red palm weevils are pests to palm plantations because their larvae make holes up to a metre long in the trunks of palm trees, often killing their hosts."

Bad bugs1 Check this previous post for more on the red weevil.

AgriBush III?

"Barack Obama told voters that electing John McCain would be akin to giving President Bush a third term. But when it comes to agriculture, many farmers will be counting on the Obama administration to be Bush III.

In some ways it could.

Obama is every bit as big a fan as Bush of biofuels, a key underpinning of the farm economy.

There's no need for Obama to change course on farm policy either. Congress enacted a new farm bill that the Illinois senator supported, and all that's left for his administration is to implement whatever programs Bush's Agriculture Department doesn't get to.
Then there's trade. While running for the Democratic nomination, Obama pledged to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but agribusiness interests are betting that was campaign rhetoric. The agreement has been a boon for a range of farm commodities, including grain and beef."

From the Des Moines Register, November 9, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Land and People in the New York Times

Under "Arab Bloggers size up Obama". (Thanks Marcy and Murli)

Arab Hunger

"The problem is that there is little room to absorb more stress in most family budgets. The Arab world is highly vulnerable to food price increases, for both structural and policy-related reasons. Our region imports 50 percent of its food needs and is thus highly vulnerable to price and supply difficulties. Agricultural patterns tend to favor wealthy commercial food importers and traders, rather than farmers who produce food."

Rami Khouri on Arab Hunger

Hunger and food

"Feeding the world will involve three politically challenging steps. First, contrary to the romantics, the world needs more commercial agriculture, not less. The Brazilian model of high-productivity large farms could readily be extended to areas where land is underused. Second, and again contrary to the romantics, the world needs more science: the European ban and the consequential African ban on genetically modified (GM) crops are slowing the pace of agricultural productivity growth in the face of accelerating growth in demand. Ending such restrictions could be part of a deal, a mutual de-escalation of folly, that would achieve the third step: in return for Europe's lifting its self-damaging ban on GM products, the United States should lift its self-damaging subsidies supporting domestic biofuel."

I think this is an important paper to read for all those who are accused of having a romantic vision of farming. It is important because it is (a little bit) challenging. It is also important because the basis it rests on are very populist while decrying populism. But all the arguments are easily refutable, starting with the one that states that peasant agriculture is intrinsically "non modern". And the human rights implications of the solutions preached by the author is dismal... But I agree that farming needs to get modernized, and that we need more science, not less, and that biofuels in the US is a bad joke.

Friday, November 7, 2008


"For the last 10 years, his plot in southern Ethiopia had kept his family of four alive by supplying enough food to eat and even surplus to sell, in a region often ravaged by drought and food shortages.

But since swapping from a subsistence to a biofuel crop several months ago, his once treasured source of income has dried up and, worse still, he and his family are now dependent on relief from aid agencies." (Thanks Marcy)

Please read if you still believe that biofuel are a good option. Here they thought that biofuel crops like Jatropha (in this case castor bean) will remain limited to marginal lands. They were warned that people will plant them on good lands at the expense of food crops. Did they care? Noooo.
We will starve to death if we lose our animals,” said Joma Khan, a herder in Faryab Province, northern Afghanistan.

Terminate the terminator

Act to ban terminator seeds


In Al Akhbar today: My editorial on Obama's election, Rana Hayek on the emergence of farming and Assaf Abou Rahhal on the mills of Wadi al Taym: this is the season for olives and grape molasses.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


What can one say about Cairo without falling into the orientalist clichés or sounding common place? So much has already been written, drawn or imaged that I find there is very little left to add.

I’ve never liked Cairo. It is dirty, smoggy, noisy and crowded and I hate khan al khalili. But then again I’ve never properly visited Cairo. I have been there 5 or 6 times on conferences or assignments, but I never had time to walk the city, as I do in all other places I visit. I also have never been in a home. I don’t count my wife’s cousin’s house. She lives in a very posh neighborhood and she and her husband works for international organizations and are therefore no reference.

This time, I walked twice for several hours through the city. It killed my lungs and damaged my hearing, but I saw Cairo differently.

A Yemeni who was born and raised in the US once told me that the first time he visited Sanaa, the first thing that came to his mind was: “it is broken, the walls are broken, the streets are broken the windows are broken the street lights are broken.” This is the impression Cairo gave me. I also realized that this was a city (and I mean the central part: Tahreer, Zamalek, Dokki, Muhandeseen, Sphinx) where I was unable to detect clear geographic boundaries between classes: one moment you are walking in a bourgeois street with Italian coffee shops and art galleries, and then suddenly you are under a derelict building, then again a couple of rich houses, then you cross the street and you are in the middle of poorly lit alleys or a popular (shaabi) neighborhood, with streets full of people and drainage water filling the holes in the asphalt. Then you walk out of these onto enormous highways with an unceasing stream of people.

To complete my cliché visit, I had cliché conversations with taxi drivers. I asked the taxi from the airport about the types and provenance of the food he eats at home. He was 60something, and lives in a shaabi neighborhood not too far from Tahreer. He insisted that everything he buys originates from Egypt, even the cooking oil and the sugar. I knew there is a heavily subsidized sugar industry, but I wasn’t aware of the cooking oil. But what a food system it must be to feed that can feed this huge city, disorganized and crowded as it is! I must find out more about it: this must be a huge industry.

He also told me that he eats meat or chicken or Nile fish almost everyday, but the poor, according to him, only eat meat twice a week. He only works and plans one day at a time: he stops when he makes 120 Egyptian pounds or thereabouts: nearly 20$. He pays half of it to the taxi owner, and takes the rest home, gives it to the wife and tells her to prepare food. God will provide for the rest.

The other taxi driver I talked to -on my way to the airport this time- gave me a reasonably good economic analysis of loans and debts and told me that all the cars you see in the streets (and there are hundreds of thousands of them) were bought on credit. The banks encourage credit, he said because they cannot lose: the police, which works against the people and for the rich, will make sure that either people pay or the cars are taken back and sold again. Anyway the state would bale the banks out. He was in his mid-30s and wore Ray Bans. He had to make fake papers to show that he is a company employee to get a loan to buy his car, which he uses as an unlicensed taxi. He said that he lives reasonably well, and eats everyday while many people he knows are only able to afford one meal a day. He has 3 daughters and the fourth is on the way. And it is God’s will that he does not have boys, and it is God’s will that the rich are sucking the country dry, and it is God’s will that the rich can get good health care and education and that he cannot. And he fears God and does his duties as a good citizen because then God will protect his daughters.

I told him this was a really odd God who keeps him on his toes all the time when He appears to be really lenient with those who steal and rob and exploit people’s misery. He told me I was right, but that it does no do any one any good to think this way, because the rich are powerful and violent and they can break him and thousands like him, and that he is the only earner in his family, and should he disappear like many others, then who will protect his daughters? So, I said, you fear the State and the Rich and do your duties to them so that your daughters are protected. And you fear God and do your duties to him so He protects your daughters. He said yes. So I said: following this logic, the State and the Rich must be God.

Then my phone rang and I had to answer and I think he was pleased that the conversation ended there.


"WASHINGTON - Despite reports in US media that Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel has accepted US president-elect Barack Obama's offer to serve as White House chief of staff, a source close to Emanuel told Ynet he has not yet accepted and was still considering the offer due to personal and family reasons.

Emanuel is the son of American Jew and Israeli immigrant Dr. Benjamin Emanuel. The source told Ynet on Wednesday, "Emanuel is pro-Israeli, and would not be willing to consider accepting the job unless he was convinced that President-elect Obama is pro-Israel."" (Thanks Marcy)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Liberal Kapital

"Unfortunately, Emanuel is a militant advocate for free-trade policies; he was a point man in the White House in the fight to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar deals that have been passionately opposed by the very labor, environmental and farm groups that were essential players in electing Obama. When he ran for Congress in 2002, major unions supported his Democratic primary opponent, former Illinois State Representative Nancy Kaszak." (Thanks Toufic)

For a balanced Middle East policy

"Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Israeli immigrant and an American Jew, has accepted US President-elect Barack Obama's offer to serve as White House chief of staff, Fox News reported Wednesday. Chicago-born Emanuel, 49, served in the Israel Defense Forces and even speaks a little Hebrew."

Yes he can!

Liberals all over the world are celebrating the election of Barak Obama. I will not add to all that has been said or published, but my take on this is that he is the President of the United States, and not Barak Obama. That said, I would really like to hope for change. After all, Obama showed that change was possible: he himself changed from a supporter of Palestinian rights into a man who believes that Jerusalem is the historic capital of Israel. He also changed during his campaign from: “no Iraq war for me please, I’m trying to quit” into: “all right I’ll have some, but a tiny piece please”.

People in the Middle East are expecting to see Obama act differently from previous US president because he is darker skinned. Time will show again that the color of the skin has little to do with politics, democracy and equity. Just look at the Arab World with its home grown dictatorships.

But the question that really interests me is about the relationship between Obama and the true center of world power, Kapital. There was an awful lot of money in Obama’s campaign, nearly 1.6 billion $. A great chunk must have come from carefully planned investments by CEOs and multinationals. Will Obama be able to confront the mega corporations? Does he want to? The poor and the colored population of the world, including that of the US is the one that suffers most from malnutrition and hunger and food insecurity. We know now that mega-corporations, pushing for more profit at any cost, are responsible for most of the damage. Will Obama do something about that? Does he want to? Can he?