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The Gray Zone Part Two Malawi

  • Teaser: Malawi is but one example of an African country struggling to feed itself and to develop its economic and political structures. It is one of the poorer countries in Africa.

Part Two: Malawi: One Example in Africa. 2012

Malawi is but one example of an African country struggling to feed itself and to develop its economic and political structures. It is one of the poorer countries in Africa. It is situated on Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa which supplies ample fish – although supplies are diminishing – and also a source of water for those living nearby. However, until now, there have not been any serious attempts to create irrigation projects so that more land can be cultivated. There is little industry in the country, very few exports and as such many can’t afford a bicycle, a local bus ticket to travel thirty kilometers or a cell phone and their user fees. One phone call costs around 30 U.S. cents a minute, and is more expensive than in Europe or America. Two phone companies dominate the market and are busy exploiting it while they can.

Generally, people don’t have access to electricity, and work on the land is for basic-bare-minimum-survival.

Most people live marginal lives in a country where there is abundant fertile and fairly cheap land, at least in the northern part of the country. The south has greater issues with overpopulation for current land use and even suffered a famine about ten years ago. The possibilities are there for people to own land, but the lack of governmental land reform, and the absence of leadership, keeps most people on the edge of subsistence. Still, it is not the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or South Sudan, or parts of Ethiopia and Niger that are teetering on the edge of complete social breakdown or with imminent famine due to a lack of rain. But survival is all it can be said to be for many people and in this condition people are often forced to simply fend for themselves, even at the expense of others. It can be argued that it is not evolving and changing but simply standing still, surviving.

In the book Africa, by Richard Dowden, he describes how one man and his family is hounded out of town (in Zambia) simply for being too successful and living too well; standing out beyond the parapet of poverty. Envy is a common and powerful emotion in Africa, one that leads to destructive behavior. A friend in Northern Malawi told me that one of his workers grows coffee and vegetables; this man’s neighbors undermine his efforts by stealing from him, throwing his coffee beans away. In this example, it becomes apparent how those who attempt to improve their standing in life can be dragged down by envy. In the West it is more often jealousy that is seen, people wanting what others have, whereas in Africa, envy wants to take things away.

In describing Africa, the usual litany that’s often been written about is the lack of work ethic, corruption, and graft; a ‘living in the moment’ philosophy. Disheartening in a continent with so much potential, yet where minimal headway is made toward improvement. In fact, the opposite is true in some countries, where devolution is happening. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one example of the deterioration, mimicking how things were fifty years ago at the time of independence, but ironically people from the DRC are renowned for their hard work. No doubt the political problems of these countries have a lot to do with this. Malawi, for example, only became democratic in 1994, after thirty years of the Hastings Banda dictatorship, the first president after independence in 1964. While not as violently authoritarian as many other leaders, Banda ruled the country absolutely, and in many ways was a product of colonial Britain. Newly independent socialist leaders in Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania surrounded him, yet he remained resolutely anti-socialist. A traditionalist in both his political and social values that even linger today, the ban against women wearing trousers is still apparent in places. Banda maintained social cohesion in the country, but never allowed a mature democracy to develop. His successor was not much better, always appearing in villages before elections, and dolling out money to ensure the local chief’s support. The country was thrown into a constitutional crisis when President Bingu, another very authoritarian figure, suddenly died in April 2012, but fortunately a constitutional crisis was avoided when his party accepted the Vice President as his successor, even though she had been evicted from Bingu’s own party. Foreign donors had pulled their money out during Bingu’s tenure because of his increasing authoritarianism, thrusting the country into economic crisis. In a country with no real exports, and a large dependence on foreign donors, the challenge to stabilize the economy, while creating effective policies to ensure growth, have been enormous.

This is most clearly seen in the agricultural sector where there’s been no long-term vision and implemented policy to ensure adequate food for all. Bingu had a short-term policy that subsidized fertilizer for maize production (having inherited this from his predecessor), and though it afforded some positive results, the government didn’t have money to continue subsidizing the people. The IMF and World Bank encouraged President Bingu, despite the obvious long-term unsustainability of this policy. The underdeveloped political structure, plus dependence on foreign donors who then impose political policy (e.g. IMF), and the on-going impoverished conditions, makes it difficult for Malawi to step out of the culture of subsistence life.

As with other African countries foreign interests inhibit real change. Malawi has one of the most inequitable distributions of land in the world, second in Africa to Namibia. For several years a land reform law has been in the works, but has yet to be ratified, and this is mainly due to political conflicts of interest. Wealthy individuals and large corporations buy up vast tracts of land leaving the poor people to work on the land with no legal rights whatsoever.

Monsanto, the American agribusiness biotechnology firm, has infiltrated many African countries, working quietly behind the scenes to get its products used. To further their interests, Monsanto’s been giving money to the Malawian government, to farmer’s unions, NGO’s, and distributing hybrid maize seeds to farmers. Farmers normally reuse their seeds, and hybrid seeds cannot be reused which the government forgets to tell people. What happens when the subsidy program stops? Another point to consider is the amount of fertilizer hybrid seeds require, and the fact that laborers rely on government subsidies for this. Before, when people used local varieties of seeds, they did not necessarily need fertilizer, this being beyond financial means of most people anyway. As the soil quality varies, the amount of fertilizer needed also varies. A small French NGO is working to develop sustainable agriculture practices and disease prevention in rural parts of the country, encouraging the use of open pollination variety (OPV) seeds. Of course the temptation for local people is the immediate benefit of free hybrid seeds and fertilizers that (initially) produce a greater yield; more grain to use and to sell. Certainly this short-term strategy will not last, and in the meantime encourages continued dependency on government subsidies.

Another factor compounding agricultural endeavors is distribution. Local chiefs are in charge of the distribution of subsidized fertilizer, so depending on the honesty and integrity of the chiefs, people may, or may not, get fertilizer. A lack of fertilizer compounded by a lack of rain can see yields decline up to 70%.

Also, the government tries to ensure supply while it facilitates speculative grain prices. The government initially fixes grain prices at a certain rate, large amounts of grain are then bought at this fixed price, but then the government will change the fixed price, and as a result those who have purchased grain make a lot of money. So, if the poor farmers, who sold their grain at the previously price, need to buy extra grain, they will have to purchase it at a higher price, and they’ve already spent their money. Having bought the grain at a lower price, those with money get richer, and the poor suffer. Similarly, on a world wide scale there is legal speculation with regard to a variety of food commodities, grains included, and with devastating effects on the local economies of many countries. Widespread speculation of foodstuffs continues with banks like Barclays and Goldman Sachs both very involved in this type of international food speculation. This has been widely criticized as destabilizing food supplies and directly contributing to hunger and inadequate food distribution, but it is part of the global banking system.

The current drought conditions in the United States, seriously affecting grain production, will also lessen availability of grain to many developing countries, and likely spike the price of grain. The threat to basic food staples creates an even greater need for people everywhere to strive for self-sufficiency. Although some forms of larger scale farming in Malawi and elsewhere may be necessary to increase mass production, the fair practice of working with local farmers and guaranteeing prices, plus purchasing excess production of grain, is also needed to be implemented by the government. Ultimately, educating farmers about how to maximize their yields through natural organic methods must be planned and implemented at governmental policy level.

Apparently, Monsanto has been attempting to influence NGO’s that purport to be encouraging sustainable farming practices, to include the use of their herbicide “Roundup”, as part of sustainable practices. Curbing weeds is the least of people’s problems. There is generally ample labor to clear and work the land, but working on the land day in and day out can be grueling, and farmers may use a recommended herbicide like Roundup to make life a little easier. However, this will only happen if the government subsidizes the purchase of Roundup as farmers have no money. Financially, for a country like Malawi, this makes no sense.

Malawi has one of the largest and most beautiful lakes on the continent. The land is generally fertile, and with a sustainable agricultural policy that would include increasing irrigation of the land and more diversity of crops and general land use, people’s lives could be much improved. There is a need to move away from growing the two staple crops, cassava and maize. Cassava in particular is an amazing crop, but it is protein and vitamin deficient, and many of the poorest people are living on cassava alone. Organic methods of farming like permaculture could be easily learned and practiced by local farmers. Structuring a water catchment system to preserve and contain the water supply and limit the leeching of land, tree planting to help stabilize the soil, crop rotation with diversification and natural pest control, utilizing natural fertilizers, and many other innovations could be applied on a local level by farmers. The small French NGO in Malawi is trying to reintroduce the use of sorghum as a food supply, affording less reliance on maize and cassava. Maize has only taken over in the last 40 years or so, sorghum and millet were used as staples in the past. Both of these have a much higher protein level than cassava, or maize. Unfortunately sorghum is seen a “poor man’s food”, and stigmatized as such. Most people are desperately poor and rely on cassava for their survival.

As long as the food supply remains limited, dependency on one crop (cassava) will continue. Changing the attitude of poor people, to believe that something different is possible, is a real challenge. The struggle to simply survive through inefficient subsistence methods that only perpetuate the current situation is what people find themselves doing. In the two great civilizations of Mesopotamia, and Egypt in the Nile Delta, when food became more plentiful, and production reliable, cultures could reasonably evolve. In Africa, the focus on survival doesn’t allow the freedom of time to explore and enjoy the rich diversity cultural development offers. So much of Africa is stuck in the mental and physical predicament that breeds insecurity and fear. Without the intervention of enlightened government policies, and supported by NGO’s who may have the technology and vision to help, things are not likely to change. Furthermore, as long as governments succumb to the dubious practices of companies like Monsanto, policies of the IMF and World Bank, and the neo-liberal agenda, the people will suffer, and disintegration will prevail. Africa must move away from a subsistence mentality, where the “gray zone” blankets the continent, obscuring possibilities, and holding Africa in a state of socio-economic fragmentation.

But given the huge changes happening in the world, including Africa with massive investment from China and a large, growing population, the need for an agricultural policy that can guarantee access to sufficient food, along with the basics of clean water and other hygiene measures, is essential. This will only happen through enlightened policies of both governments and private corporations. Advanced countries, including China now, have to ensure that they do not simply exploit the resources of the continent, but enact policies to help create sustainability on all levels. The most important first step is clean water, disease control and a guaranteed access to good food for the vast majority of the people. If this can be achieved, many other social, economic and political advances will naturally take place as there will be greater confidence that there is “enough” to go around, as opposed to the “gray zone” of poverty. Then Africa will really come into its own.