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Critics say Gates Foundation’s agriculture program won’t help poor farmers

Woman and child tilling the field in Rwanda.

By Rebecca Randall, special to Humanosphere

Almost everyone in the international development community says they want to help the mostly poor, smallholder farmers of Africa. Most poor people are, in fact, farmers and many of them African women.

Ethiopian food sovereignty activist Million Belay speaks at Seattle forum.

Ethiopian food sovereignty activist Million Belay speaks at Seattle forum.

But Million Belay, a food sovereignty activist in Ethiopia, said that’s about where the consensus ends. (For the uninitiated, we’ll get to what ‘food sovereignty’ means shortly.)

The argument, Belay says, is over how best to help Africa’s poor farmers. Some international donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Western aid agencies like USAID, he said, believe the best way is to help poor country farmers be more like American farmers – increasing yields and profits by adopting more sophisticated approaches that depend on new technologies and chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Others favor an approach that might be dubbed agroecology, a way of farming that emphasizes local knowledge and prioritizes social justice, putting decision-making, land rights and food sovereignty in farmers’ hands rather than corporations.

Food sovereignty is not so much a concern focused on the methods as on their results. Who ends up in control? Is it the farmer or some big agri-firm like Monsanto.

Belay, who heads MELCA-Ethiopia and also works with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, participated in the Global Food Struggle for Food Sovereignty at Town Hall in Seattle on Sunday night. One of eight African leaders who came to Seattle to discuss strategy and organize against the Gates Foundation, Belay talked about how the conflict’s roots come from outside of Africa but are aided by African elites.

Million said part of the problem is that Africans are enamored by the western way of life.

“We (the elites)  are very much closer to the western community than our community,” he said. “The source of that? Western education. We are taught to cherish western ways of life, to look up to the west for solutions in Africa. So we never go to our community to listen. We have an agriculture college in our countries, and we do they teach? Do they teach graduates to go to their communities and learn the form of agriculture? No, they teach western agriculture.”

The first international push to spread this type of agriculture around the world took place between the 1940s and 1960s with the Green Revolution, which proponents say has helped boost productivity in Latin America and Asia. In 2006, the Gates Foundation, along with others decided to try to launch a new Green Revolution for Africa (now organized as the nonprofit Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).

The moderator for the event, Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First, argued that the given rationale for AGRA may have been to address hunger, but that it was actually to sell products, specifically fertilizers, pesticides, hybrids, and GMO seeds.

The first Green Revolution has, in fact, lifted millions out of poverty, he acknowledged. But many participants at the Seattle forum added that the approach, while helping some, also displaced many poor farmers who could not adapt to large-scale, plantation-style (i.e., industrialized) farming method.

Africa, in fact, was largely ignored during the first Green Revolution. But the continent still felt the impact as many farmers were pushed deeper into poverty because they were unable  to compete with others around the world using Green Revolution techniques to produce and export staple crops like rice – which was frequently imported from other countries at prices that smallholder farmers could not match.

Saulo Araujo, an agronomist trained in Brazil, participated in the summit as a representative from one of 16 U.S.-based organizations meeting with the African leaders to strategize. Now the global movements program director for New York-based WhyHunger, Araujo has had to unlearn what he was taught in school, he explained.

“I learned from the farmers that things that people taught in agronomy school was not best for them,” he said. “Only through the interactions… did I learn how agroecology could support them.”

Agroecology is three things, Araujo said: A set of local practices; science; and a movement itself.

At dispute globally is that some people want to use sustainable practices as “tools” and market them just like they do genetically modified seeds in industrial agriculture, said Araujo.

Recently, the FAO held an international symposium on agroecology in September. That same month, many of those seen as competitive with agroecology met at the New York Climate Summit to form the Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture. Climate-smart agriculture sometimes includes agroecological practices as tools, said Araujo. But taken as a whole movement, he said, CSA misses the mark when it comes to standing for social justice, its inclusion of women in land access and in decision-making roles.

Araujo said that the two systems cannot exist together. “Industrial agriculture is a concentration of land ownership in a few people… it’s all about expansion,” he said.

Belay offered an example of a successful agroecological method: System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI was started in Madagascar and also has over 50,000 farmers in Ethiopia practicing this method with teff. (Editor’s note: The Gates Foundation says it supports this strategy through Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency.)

“Instead of broadcasting your seed, you plant in a row,” he said. “Simply by planting in a row, the productivity has increased by threefolds, fourfolds.”

SRI is unique because it is a set principles upon which practices are based. SRI has been developed with farmer input in Madagascar and has spread with the research of Cornell University. It has been tried with many different crops. Farmers have adapted the practices based on their own experiences, but have still experienced increases in yield.

As Araujo explained, agroecology isn’t rejecting technology, it’s combining sciences in a way – learning what farmers are doing first and then trying to help without imposing.

Ultimately, the Africans at the forum tried to communicate a strong desire for sovereignty of peasants.

The group initially had planned to meet with someone at the Gates Foundation, which Mariam Mayet of African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa dubbed the “kingpin” player in the scheme to push industrialized agriculture in Africa. The food sovereignty activists ultimately declined when they decided the meeting was mostly for appearances sake and they were not going to meet with anyone at a high-enough level to make for a meaningful discussion.

Elizabeth Mpofu

Elizabeth Mpofu

“We really want to control our land, to control our seeds, to produce the food we want,” said Elizabeth Mpofu, current general coordinator of the international peasant movementLa Via Campesinaand the Zimbabwe Small Organic Farmers’ Forum. “No one should come to tell us to produce food. We are big enough. We are human enough. We know what we want.”


Rebecca RandallRebecca Randall is a journalist, wife, mother, hobby baker, and dreamer. She’s a graduate of the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies and is especially interested in agricultural development issues. Check out her blog Humanity in the Mirror and follow her on Twitter @beccawrites


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