08 September 2014

Falling the way you lean

Returning to our earlier conversation about violence, the GBAV suggested that food insecurity was not a significant contributor to violent conflict, positing that, “while there is an association between lethal violence and hunger (as measure by the prevalence of underweight children under five), it is not statistically robust”. But I think that might miss the boat a bit; historically, food insecurity has been the straw that broke the camel’s back in many a volatile situation. When you then layer climate change and demographic shifts over a topic that’s already intricately linked to politics and conflict, really fascinating things happen. Moreover, at some level, it’s just fun to talk about. I mean, this topic has everything: resource wars! Sugar wars! Miracle fruits! Land grabs! Anoxic dead zones! Conflict chocolate! Bread intifadas! Agflation (it’s that thing where agricultural price increases drive up core inflation rates)! And DRC is smack dab in the middle of it.

But first, let’s get a bit of context about food security generally. Globally, nearly 100 million people do not have enough to eat. This is not an evenly distributed burden; 65 per cent of world’s food insecure people live in India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and, yes, DRC (it’s always a little weird to me that several of these are troop contributors to the UN). Each year, more people die due to hunger and malnutrition than to AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.

Given how tremendously inventive people are when it comes to killing each other, it really shouldn’t be surprising that food has routinely been leveraged in war. Most immediately, we’re seeing this technique employed with devastating efficiency in Syria, though in Sudan the government has also been known to purposefully bomb rebel areas at harvest time, while for their part, the rebels tend to raid humanitarian convoys for food aid targeted at IDPs. Indeed, the use of food as a strategic weapon has a proud martial history. Texts as venerable as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Vegetius’s De Re Militari advocate denying the enemy food. What else is siege warfare by man-made famine by another name?

Now that we’ve established food insecurity as an agent of violence, let’s turn our focus to how it also engenders conflict. Equal parts unfortunate and unsurprising, we have a wealth of precedent to work with here, too. Most often, though, here it goes the other way. Food insecurity as a result of conflict tends to be imposed by a conquering force or despot. Food insecurity as a driver of conflict instead seems to spark populist outrage.

Take the so-called bread intifada of 1977. It stemmed from an attempt, begun three years earlier, by Anwar El Sadat to open Egypt’s economy to outside investment. The full set of reforms, or Infitah, called for de-nationalising a variety of sectors and ultimately cancelling roughly 30 million USD worth of subsidies, especially on food. Only a day after the roll-back on subsidies was announced, demonstrations erupted in the streets. There were factory walk-outs, clashes with police, acts of sabotage including the cutting of railway lines, looting of hotels and other institutes associated with wealth. Within just two days, rioting had broken out in most major cities across Egypt. “Shocked by the intensity and rapid spread of the protests, the government cancelled its economic decrees …after only forty-eight hours. In an attempt to contain unrest, it ordered a military crackdown and deployed army units in to the streets who responded to unrest ferociously. Fighting continued until the next morning.” Between the rioters and the viciousness of the police response, some 800 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

The bread intifada was just one instance of violence from the period, which actually saw as many as 200 riots in 40 countries, most of which were blamed on the IMF (it and donor countries demanded budget cuts to ensure continued support, and food subsidies were among the first things to go). What became known as the ‘IMF riots’ were actually a diversity of events that included demonstrations, looting, and in at least two instances (Sudan and Peru), regime change.

Craving more history (go ahead and procrastinate)? How about the French Revolution and one of the most infamous (if apocryphal) food security faux pas of all time? “Throughout most of the pre-industrial era, French peasants existed at the subsistence level.” The aristocracy, like many modern dictatorships, strictly regulated the grain market in order to ensure that it was affordable, thus ensuring a pliant peasantry. Even so, grain and bread riots were “extremely common in this period. Though often limited in size and scope, these riots sometimes spilled out across an entire region, sparking uprisings in different towns and villages.” It was a bread riot that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and fear of further rioting that forced the fledgling regime to deal harshly with those suspected of hoarding bread. Turing to a History Chanel stand-by, a desire to secure greater food resources for the home country also played a role in both the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the German incursions into Poland (1939) and the USSR (1941). Why someone would bother to invade Russia in the winter in search of food is quite beyond me, but there you have it. Reportedly, both the ancient Mayan and Anasazi peoples experienced higher levels of conflict due to food shortages.

In the majority of these examples, food insecurity was not the lone driver of conflict. Rather, it was gasoline on burning embers of resentment. I say resentment because significant violence very rarely comes from those who are truly starving – those people literally do not have the energy to fight back. Rather, populist riots more often come from perceived inequalities (relative deprivation rather than absolute). In fact, most instances of food-related instability occur after ‘agflation’, or a sudden rise in a given agricultural product independent of other economic factors, usually as a result of subsidies being dropped or tariffs imposed. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’. What is important was that people felt the leadership was out of touch. Consistently when it comes to food, perceptions trump reality. When food – or similar consumables like water or fuel – become abruptly more expensive without a comparable increase in wages, the regime is blamed (deserved or no) and bedlam follows.

If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the HDI, or energy prices,” but the price of grain (I think I already linked to that article, but it’s still a keeper). A sudden deprivation of food has a way of throwing other injustices and abuses – corruption, repression, ethnic tensions, etc. – into stark relief. To paraphrase Cervantes, it seems that without sufficient bread, all sorrows are worse. Such was the case in the recent anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand. On a grander scale, 2007 and 2008 saw a rather dramatic rise in the cost of staple food items including rice, wheat, and corn. “Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102, 115, and 204 per cent, respectively, according to the FAO.” In response, there were riots in countries ranging from Haiti to Bangladesh, from Mozambique to Italy.

Relative food insecurity has also been pegged as a precipitating factor in the Arab Spring (so, food shortages sparked a conflict that ultimately has resulted in the use of famine as a weapon of war. Life is funny like that), as the first demonstrations occurred in response to food price hikes in Algeria and Tunisia. In Egypt, of bread intifada fame, “by 2011 food and fuel subsidies accounted for a staggering 8 per cent of Egypt’s GDP. Hosni Mubarak’s government could no longer afford to feed his population into submission. Even with subsidies, grain prices jumped 30 per cent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011.” States that were able tried to head off their own instability by increase food allocations. Kuwait, for example, announced that it would celebrate the anniversary of its liberation from Iraq by granting every citizen more than 3,000USD and free food for 13 months. This is a pretty extreme, and terrifically literal, example of the bread and circuses paradigm in action and woe be to the autocratic government that can’t do the same (they could, of course, try to liberalise a bit and let the humanitarians come in and take the edge off. Call it the Myanmar principal).

If we take as a given that resource shortages – especially abrupt scarcities among essential commodities – can lead to social unrest, what does that mean for the future (stars, but I’m really into rhetorical questions of late)? For most political theorists, the answer is nothing good, especially in the face of two seemingly inescapable trends: demographic and climate changes.

Sometime in the near future, we’ll have a more in-depth discussion of global demographic patterns, especially shifting gender imbalances. For the moment, however, let us content ourselves to these three observations: (1) global population is increasing; (2) it is growing more affluent; (3) it is urbanizing. Put another way, the global middle class is expanding – it could as much as triple in the next 40 some odd years – and it is, as the middle class always has, claiming as a right what has traditionally been a luxury, like meat and dairy in every meal. In half that time, the demand for food and fuel is expected to double. This is not a criticism – having access to affordable health care, decent living conditions, sufficient food, etc., are all good things (though it is creating the very strange effect of obesity epidemics in food-insecure states. Is anyone else sensing the perfectly manicured hand of Dr. Raven Sable and his CHOWTM?). Unfortunately, the amount of arable land or water resources are not expanding in time with the size and taste profile of population (quite the opposite) and, thanks to that wildly thorough history lesson we just had, we know what happens when people are abruptly deprived of a commodity to which they feel entitled.

Water is perhaps the best illustration of this. On an annual basis, the supply of drinking water as provided by natural precipitation remains more or less constant: about 40,000 cubic kilometres or…a lot of gallons. Unfortunately, most of this precipitation lands on largely uninhabited areas – think Greenland, Antarctica, Siberia, and inner Amazonia – so the supply available to the rest of us is often surprisingly limited. Even were it accessible, the consistency of the supply of drinking water runs afoul of a population with ever-mounting demands for both personal and industrial uses, resulting in a situation of relative scarcity. The same is true of food, since that’s been the topic of the day. Corn yields in the US and rice yields in China have ‘flat-lined’ in recent years, suggesting that we might have topped out the amount of food that can be grown on the land currently in use even as the global demand for the same continues to increase. Danger, Will Robinson!

But these demographics are honestly nothing (at least to my mind) when compared to climate change. It is not an exaggeration to state that all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change. In fact, can we pause for a moment and consider just how horrifying climate change has the potential to be? A recent IPCC report on the subject (the UN: not always worthless) paints a pretty dire scene, illustrating how climate change is projected to decrease potable water (basically, even rain water will be too toxic to treat into drinkability), breathable air (as increased tree mortality and forest dieback result in anoxic dead zones posing risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity. Seriously – how traumatic is that sentence?), arable land (and other kinds, what with most of the world’s coasts soon to go the way of Atlantis), food (with toxic rain, anoxic dead zones, and sea-bead farmland, is that even surprising?), energy, and numerous, numerous other critical consumables. It’s 100+ pages of voices crying out in a wilderness that soon will no long exist (and my PMs think I’m bananas to request that we start thinking about how to ‘green’ our projects for future proposals…pft).

Generally, when one discusses climate change and violence, it has to do with the more structural aspects. What are often referred to in development work as the ‘most vulnerable’, that is, the impoverished, refugees and IDPs, the disabled and infirm, the elderly, often women and children, etc., are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Per the UN report, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaption and mitigation responses. They will not have the resources or capacities to absorb the shocks of climate change, like the loss of agricultural livelihoods, reduced access to potable water, or increase of certain, climate-sensitive illnesses (cholera and malaria come right to mind).

But there are some outcomes of this issue – basically, that there isn’t enough food/water/oil to go around – that are a lot more immediate in terms of conflict. I think it’s easy to get hyperbolic about these things sometimes, but as a particularly vivid writer at The Nation warns us:

          Two nightmare scenarios – a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate                      change – are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal                wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict…experts warn of ‘water wars’ over contested                river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate            refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of              states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the                underdeveloped South, but in time, all regions of the planet will be affected.

I keep waiting for there to be a Chicken Little joke in this article, but no, it was presented in earnest. Even so, it does point out that scarcity in one area can lead to conflict in another. A timely example can been found by taking a peak at the fraught world of land grabs.

Land grabs, for those not in the know, are instances of land acquisition that, to some extent, cause displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement, or pass purchase of agricultural land by external entities. Put another way, land grabs occur when an entity that does not live on/work a given parcel of land – say the national government – sells that land to another external actor – like another country or a transnational corporation – without consulting the local population or reimbursing them for their losses or resettlement. For clarity’s sake, let me make explicit that, in these cases, there is NO BENEFIT to the local population, who are almost uniformly impoverished (their lack of political power makes their rights less important to the state and thus more easily violated – what ho, structural violence!) and women (I think I already said something about lacking political power and structural violence?).

The perpetrators of land grabs are varied but, as you might expect, include comparatively wealthy, food-importing countries (Saudia Arabia and China) and transnational corporations from even more affluent states (Europe and the US, mostly). The former tends to purchase land so that they might more cheaply meet demand back home, while the latter tends to use the parcels to source biofuels. This might have a wiff of neo-colonialism about it, and with good reason. It’s frequently lumped in with other forms of ‘commercial colonialism’ and can have extensive negative consequences beyond creating food insecurity and economic IDPs, allowing external actors to co-opt the entire supply-chain. Water security is compromised for locals, in competition as they suddenly are with massive agricultural needs. Further, farming on this scale often creates pollution and chemical run-off which can contaminate additional water sources. In order to clear large tracts of land for industrial farming, hundreds of square miles of forests might be burnt or swamps drained, all of which reduces biodiversity. It has occurred predominately, though not exclusively (Chinese firms previously purchased a plot of land the size of Luxembourg in Argentina, as well as about giver per cent of the total territory in Ukraine. Russia should take some lessons in acquisitions), in Africa, where over 40 million hectares of land have been purchased in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.

To bring into stark(er) relief just how problematic land grabs are, let’s look at those latter cases a bit closer. In 2010 Ethiopia was home to 2.8 million people in need of emergency food aid, yet this country had concurrently sold more than 600,000 hectares of agricultural land to transnational companies that export the majority of their produce. A separate deal inked with Saudi Arabia and worth 100 million USD offered centennial leases to grow and export rice, wheat, and barley. Meanwhile, the WFP has spent 116 million over 5 years in emergency food aid. Apparently, no one in the Ethiopian government has taken an economics course. Like, ever. Upwards of 30 countries and companies have leased land within Ethiopia. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the EU firm Addax Bioenergy promised that, in exchange for 40,000 hectares on which to grow crops for use as biofuels, they would employ 2,000 persons they had displaced and promised that the swamps included in their purchase would be protected. Instead, the swamps were drained and only 50 jobs created.

For our purposes, though, the most interesting attempt at a land grab can be found in Madagascar. There, in 2009, Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean agriculture firm, leased half the island’s arable land. The details of the agreement were astounding – the land would be rent-free, all of the food grown would be exported, and the displaced farmers were not to be compensated. The people rioted, ultimately resulting in a coup.

Even the US intelligence community is starting to take notice. In March of last year, the Director of National Intelligence identified ‘competition and scarcity involving natural resources’ (his specific use of the term ‘resource shocks’ had definite notes of agflation) as potential national security threats on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. For what it’s worth, though, it will most likely be some time before the US feels the pinch of food scarcity (with the exception of foodie staples like limes and avocados). One in that slew of articles linked to referred to it as the Saudi Arabia of grain (Iowa alone grows more grain than all of Canada!), which is both nicely evocative and suggests a future in which we focus on feeding ourselves and leave the rest of the world to burn.