The World as One Big Food Fight

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 4/09/2008 12:16:00 AM
The world is awash in trouble over rising food prices. Blame biofuels. Blame rising fuel costs. Blame surging food demand from China and India. Blame it on the rain [heh]. Whatever the cause, serious disturbances are occurring all around the world over food. NY Times columnist Paul Krugman calls it "grains gone wild." In the meantime, Asia is wracked with turmoil. Agence France-Presse offers the not-so-Pacific vision of the food apocalypse throughout the region. Particularly intriguing will be the responses of authoritarian regimes in Burma, China, and Vietnam as protests become more widespread. The potential magnitude of these disturbances is not to be discounted; if you will recall, Suharto was ousted at the height of the Asian financial crisis as the IMF told Indonesia to get rid of price controls. As food prices spiralled upwards, well, you remember what came...

Asia's governments face strikes, protests and hoarding in response to the spiralling cost of food and other essentials that threatens to damage them at the polls, observers say. Asia's political leaders are on guard, wary of the potential for social unrest as people across the region struggle to cope with steeper prices for staple goods -- particularly rice.

"There will be unrest and the poorer countries will experience that much more than rich countries like Malaysia and Singapore," said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Poverty-stricken Bangladesh and the Philippines have been particularly hard hit by higher food prices. "Soaring food prices have become a serious threat for the survival of the present caretaker government," said Bangladeshi political scientist Ataur Rahman. There could now be serious discontent, violence and food riots due to the soaring food price spikes," said Rahman.

Bangladeshis and poor Indonesians are estimated to spend close to 70 percent or more of their income on food. In the Philippines, one of the world's biggest importers of rice, the government deployed troops last week to deliver grain to poor areas of the capital Manila amid worries about shortages. It also ordered police to arrest rice hoarders as part of efforts to pre-empt the "impact on peace and order" of rises in basic commodity prices, the police said.

Analysts have said economic misery in crushingly-poor Myanmar was a force behind protests which drew up to 100,000 people into the streets of the military-ruled country last year. The unrest became the biggest challenge to the regime in almost 20 years, until the junta in late September unleashed deadly force to end it. Demonstrations initially began on a small scale in August after a sharp fuel price hike. The junta said 15 people died in the crackdown but rights groups have given a far higher toll.

Experts say soaring global crude oil prices are among the factors to blame for Asia's food inflation. Higher fuel prices directly translate into an added burden for the region's poor through, for example, higher fares on public buses which are often people's only mode of transport. In Indonesia, higher fuel costs mean a rise in the price of kerosene which is widely used by the poor for cooking.

Indonesia's late dictator Suharto was forced to step down a decade ago during massive civil unrest after he raised fuel prices during a crippling economic crisis. Facing an election next year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has sworn off further cuts to fuel subsidies but analysts say most Indonesians are being squeezed anyway by escalating costs of essentials.

The government has responded by distributing subsidised cooking oil and promising rice handouts but the rice distribution would not reach enough needy people, said Hendri Saparini, an economist with the Tim Indonesia Bangkit think-tank. "If in three months there is no action from the government, I really worry there is going to be social unrest," she said.

In China, inflation is of particular concern because it threatens to lead to social unrest and fuel anger at the government, as it did ahead of 1989 democracy protests that the military crushed. The price of China's staple meat, pork, has risen by more than 60 percent year-on-year. "There is a lot of resentment (because of) the rise of prices," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University.

That resentment could become "a possible source of tension in the future," he said, adding however that the risk of unrest from inflation is less now than in the 1980s, partly because the country's much larger middle class has a stake in the stability of the system.

But for China's low-paid working class the situation is different. "I think there clearly is potential for worker unrest resulting from inflation," said Geoffrey Crothall, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for the non-governmental China Labour Bulletin, an organisation promoting labour rights in China.

In communist Vietnam, where consumer prices rose more than 16 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2008, strikes are becoming more frequent. Last week more than 15,000 workers at a Vietnamese shoe factory went on a two-day strike "because of the increase in prices which has hit people hard recently," said union official Nguyen Thi Dung.

Even in Singapore, one of Asia's wealthiest countries which maintains tight restrictions on public assembly, people have raised their voices. Ten people were detained by police last month after they held a rally, without a permit, to protest rising living costs, witnesses said.

The World Bank warned last week of possible "heightening political tensions" in Asia if rising inflation stalls poverty reduction measures. Rising prices have already emerged as a key issue in Asian elections.Malaysia's ruling coalition in elections last month ceded five states and a third of parliamentary seats to the opposition, which campaigned heavily on high inflation. Rising costs had triggered rare public protests and, after his stunning electoral blow, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi backed down on looming fuel price hikes.

Pakistan went to the polls in February overshadowed by suicide bombings but also by a shortage of wheat for the country's staple flat bread, the price of which had doubled. Voters dealt a severe defeat to parliamentary allies of President Pervez Musharraf.

India's ruling coalition is under pressure to curb rising prices ahead of elections in nearly a dozen states this year and general elections due by May next year. Both the communists, who prop up the minority government in parliament, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party have threatened national anti-inflation protests.

Ooi, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the political danger from rising prices depends on several factors including the extent of income disparities in a country. "I think what is decisive is whether or not the population feels that the government is competent and uncorrupted," Ooi said.

Let us now turn our attention to another part of the world where the same price controls, export taxes, and what else have you have also failed to control soaring food prices: Latin America. In particular, violent episodes are erupting in Haiti as they are in the rest of the world according to Reuters:

A man was killed by gunfire as demonstrators took to the streets in the southern Haitian city of Les Cayes on Monday, raising the death toll to five in protests against rising food prices, officials and radio reports said. Rock-throwing student protesters also clashed with police outside the state-run national university in Port-au-Prince, capital of the impoverished Caribbean nation of nearly 9 million people, expressing anger at the higher cost of food. Four people were killed and 20 others were hurt in a riot in Les Cayes last week. U.N. vehicles were burned, peacekeepers were attacked and a food warehouse was looted by angry mobs on Thursday and Friday. In response to the unrest, Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis announced a multimillion-dollar investment program aimed at lowering the cost of living.

Prices of rice and other essentials have doubled and in some cases tripled, sparking protests since Wednesday in Gonaives, Petit-Goave and other cities against the government of President Rene Preval, whose 2006 election brought relative calm after decades of violence and political upheaval.

The head of the United Nations World Food Program warned on Monday that a global surge in food prices could lead to further tensions. Unrest related to food and fuel costs has recently hit Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal, it said. "A new face of hunger is emerging; even where food is available on the shelves, there are now more and more people who simply cannot afford it," WFP director Josette Sheeran said in a statement.

Tensions remained high in Les Cayes, one of Haiti's largest cities. Gunfire erupted on Monday when protesters stormed the home of a senator, Gabriel Fortune, and two men were wounded, according to a city official. He said one of the men died later at a hospital. A student also suffered a gunshot wound during Monday's clashes near the university in Port-au-Prince, where demonstrators gathered outside the National Palace as well, local radio reports and witnesses said.

"The government is solely responsible for what is happening today because it has failed to properly address the problems," Les Cayes resident Maxon Benoit said on Sunday. "Why don't they eliminate taxes on food products and give the population a break?"

Les Cayes Mayor Pierre Yvon Chery was attacked on Sunday by angry protesters when he went to the seaside neighborhood of La Savane to explain measures enacted by the government to help calm the unrest. Residents said the violence was the worst Les Cayes had seen in years. "This is a shame for us, inhabitants of this city known for its calm, its hospitality and its civility," said 45-year-old Marie Jeanne Occeant. "It is true the situation is unbearable. I have not seen such hardships my whole life, but the violence can only make it worse…"

Consequently, NGO Friends of the Earth is petitioning the Inter-America Development Bank to stop funding projects based on biofuels. The suggestion here, of course, is that diversion of agricultural production away from food supplies and into energy supplies is responsible for rising food prices in the region. From Reuters again:

Environmental groups urged the Inter-American Development Bank on Saturday to stop lending money to big companies piling into the booming ethanol business that some critics say is partly to blame for soaring food prices.

As riots over the cost of living broke out in impoverished Haiti, the IADB prepared to announce increased funding of ports, sugarcane mills and other biofuel ventures throughout Latin America, citing plant-based fuels as a crucial counterweight to climate change and rising energy prices.

"The bank's aggressive promotion of biofuels may be good for corporations, but it's a bad deal for farmers, indigenous people and the environment in Latin America," Kate Horner of Friends of the Earth-U.S., said at the bank's annual meeting in Miami.

World food prices have jumped due to what the U.N.'s World Food Program says is a mixture of high energy prices, which are boosting transportation costs, increased demand for food by developing countries, erratic weather and competition between biofuels and food for land and investment…

IADB President Luis Alberto Moreno said he believes Latin America has a bright future in "green energy," or biofuels. The bank has around $3 billion in private-sector loan projects under consideration. Critics say the vast majority do not promote rural development in Latin America but are aimed at supporting large exporters satisfying U.S. demands for energy.

In Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, organizations like the IADB are eager to promote projects that cultivate jatropha, a plant capable of surviving in the country's denuded wastelands and also of producing an oil in its nuts that can be used as fuel. The projects would involve some irrigation. "Why don't they use it to produce more food?" said Aldrin Calixte of the activist group Haiti Survie.