Daniel Martin Varisco – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 12 Sep 2022 02:34:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.9 Food Sovereignty vs. Food Aid: Why Small-Scale Farming Suffers https://www.juancole.com/2022/09/sovereignty-farming-suffers.html Mon, 12 Sep 2022 04:04:18 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=206920 ( Tabsir.net ) – The early major civilizations in the Middle East and Asia with their head start several millennia ago had one thing in common: an agricultural base that fed not only people but led to development of states and their services. Major river systems like the Nile and Tigris/ Euphrates, the Ganges of India and the Yellow of China were important centers for mass production, but at the same time small-scale farmers utilized a variety of water sources or practiced dry farming in a variety of ecozones across continents. Although there were periodic famines due to climate variability or political violence, until the start of the last century many countries were able to grow most of the food needed for their citizens and several were major exporters. In 1798 Parson Thomas Malthus, an economist in his day, suggested that humanity faced a major food crisis. At that time the world population was around one billion; today it is closing in on eight billion. Malthus argued that population growth, if unchecked, grew at a geometric rate over time, but food production increased only arithmetically; thus it was inevitable that there would be food shortages, especially for the poor.

Traditional farming in al-Ahjur, Central Highlands (photography by Daniel Martin Varisco.

At the time Malthus was unaware of later advances in agricultural technology, but his warning still serves a purpose. There needs to be a way to ensure that any form of food production is sustainable. The so-called “Green Revolution” that prophesied major dams and irrigation schemes as the wave of the future, has indeed been a wave, but far more destructive to the environment and local agricultural traditions than anticipated. If we are to recalibrate the model of Malthus today, it is less a mathematical issue than a bureaucratic one fueled by monopolistic profit making. In the United States about half of all family-owned farms are considered small-scale, but they generate only 21% of production. There has been a general decline in the number of farms in the U.S. from a high of 6.8 million in 1935 to about 2 million in 2021. The problem is even grimmer outside the industrialized West, where overall crop diversity has declined by 75% in a century, in large part due to the domination of commercial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Not surprisingly the need for food aid has grown in recent years. The case of Yemen has become a poster child for food aid since the humanitarian crisis began in a war that started in 2015. As noted by the World Food Program

The current level of hunger in Yemen is unprecedented and is causing severe hardship for millions of people. Despite ongoing humanitarian assistance, 17.4 million Yemenis are food insecure. The number of food insecure people is projected to go up to 19 million by December 2022.
The rate of child malnutrition is one of the highest in the world and the nutrition situation continues to deteriorate. A recent survey showed that almost one third of families have gaps in their diets, and hardly ever consume foods like pulses, vegetables, fruit, dairy products or meat. Malnutrition rates among women and children in Yemen remain among the highest in the world, with 1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under 5 requiring treatment for acute malnutrition.

Historically, the rich and fertile land of Yemen, stemming back three millennia to the ancient kingdom of Sheba (Saba), was the bread basket of Arabia. During the 13th century, for example, Yemen boasted diverse crop production from the hot and dry Red Sea Coast to cultivated mountain terraces at the highest point on the Arabian Peninsula. One of the ruling sultans, al-Malik al-Ashraf Umar, interviewed local farmers and wrote a major treatise of the agriculture practiced in Yemen in his time. There were, of course, periodic famines, but overall Yemeni farmers were able to feed themselves and export grain north to Mecca. After the civil war in the 1960s toppled the long-lasting Zaydi imamate, the resulting republic in Yemen’s north received major development aid for improvement of agriculture, but most of this had limited impact at the local level. As the population grew, from less than seven million in 1976 to now reaching 30 million, and unregulated drilling of tubewells drew down aquifers drastically, food production has declined precipitously. There is still fertile land and Yemen’s limited water resources can be used in a sustainable manner, but the ongoing war has ground the economy to a virtual halt. Farmers are still growing food, but it is not clear how much. The fact remains that without imported food aid, there would be a massive famine.

While there is little choice not to send massive amounts of food aid to Yemen to meet the emergency, there is also an urgent need to revitalize the rich agricultural production systems of Yemen, many of which rely on dry farming techniques developed over centuries. Current violent conflict makes such an emphasis difficult, but there are opportunities to work with local Yemeni communities and NGOs. The need is not for foreign technical know-how, an approach that has been ineffective and a waste of funding, but to assist Yemenis in rebuilding terrace walls and using their own seeds, especially for food crops like sorghum which grow well at most elevations. Without contributing to Yemen’s food sovereignty, the ability of Yemeni farmers to grow their own food in harmony with the environmental constraints and not overly dependent on foreign inputs, food aid is a bandage on a gaping wound.

One of the main contributors to the decline in traditional varieties of seeds and crops around the world is the corporate monstrosity previously known as Monsanto. Fortunately, Monsanto with its GMO push never made inroads in Yemen, but the results have been negative elsewhere. The destruction from its pesticides and control of seeds has been known for over two decades. The negative impact has been especially hard in India, which the film Bitter Seeds explores. By pushing GMO seeds, especially cotton, that turned out to be problematic and an economic burden, farmers were locked into dependence on imported seeds and this led to a decline in the local seed varieties, many of which were well suited to local environments after centuries of use. The fact that major aid donors such as the World Bank have pushed GMO seeds despite the enormous economic and bureaucratic burdens these impose on developing nations, has reduced rather than aided food production, especially given the focus on cotton. Regardless of the negative health impact of GMO foods, the overriding issue is saddling local small-scale farmers worldwide with expensive, imported production needs and has devastated locally adapted crop varieties.

Anthropologist Joeva Sean Rock has just published an ethnographic study entitled We are not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana. He shows that despite the promise of improved cotton varieties, the results were far less promising and actually disrupted local food production, which has been predominantly small-holder. In addition, by talking to Ghanian farmers and activists, he realized that the food aid providers started with the assumption that local farmers did not know how best to farm and they needed foreign assistance or they would starve. Instead of working with farmers to build on their knowledge honed over centuries through all kinds of climate change, they simply presented an unsustainable package deal with strings attached from the outside.

The lesson for the future of Yemen’s agriculture is obvious. Yemeni farmers have been successful in small-scale food production for centuries. While no one is proposing going back to reliance on simple scratch plows and animal labor as a permanent solution, the old systems can be built on and updated with appropriate changes. A major proponent of responsible change is the Yemeni NGO YASAD, the Yemeni Association for Sustainable Agricultural Development, the activities of which have been curtailed as the Yemen war wages on. Food aid must continue to avert famine, but aid to revitalize Yemeni farmers’ food production is just as urgent a need. Major donors like the World Bank, UNDP and FAO, USAID and all other interested agencies should find ways to help Yemeni farmers and local communities directly, not by imposing outside methods but allowing Yemenis to expand on their own successes.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Tabsir.net

Ukraine Crisis: Yemen urgently needs Seeds to Avoid Famine given Global Wheat Shortages https://www.juancole.com/2022/04/ukraine-urgently-shortages.html Mon, 25 Apr 2022 04:08:25 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204278 (Special to Informed Comment) – On top of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis created by a seven year war, Yemen is facing a new threat to feeding its people due to the impact of the Ukraine crisis. The FAO points out that almost half of the population is “undernourished” with famine conditions in some areas. About half of the children in Yemen under the age of five face chronic malnutrition. For basic cereals, especially wheat, Yemen is 97% dependent on imports.

It is estimated that 42% of the imported wheat has been coming from Russia and Ukraine. Food aid from the World Food Program does not reach even half of the population. The ongoing blockade of Yemen’s seaports and airports under control of the Houthi government makes it almost impossible for most Yemeni businesses to import needed food. The urgent need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen is obvious. But having sufficient food to survive cannot wait for politics.

Yemen does not need foreign experts to tell them how to plant; rural Yemenis, the majority of the population, need seeds and they need them now. Younger Yemenis, whose dreams of higher education and jobs in urban areas have been dashed, can revive Yemen’s long and vibrant agricultural system for household needs. Older generations still have the knowledge to teach the current generation how to farm in each region. Yemeni women have traditionally played a major role in local production and their farm work is needed again.

Until the conflict is resolved and development projects are resumed, the people of Yemen can grow their way out of the worst case scenario of famine. Food aid will still be needed, but families will not go hungry and many children will not be malnourished. The message needs to go out not just to foreign donors but in a media campaign throughout all parts of Yemen. Give Yemen what it needs to grow more food and encourage Yemenis to find ways to better feed themselves.

Yemen’s agricultural heritage stems back to the dams and field systems built in ancient Sheba more than two thousand years ago. During the Islamic era Yemen was self-sufficient in food and exported basic foods to Mecca. Yemeni agricultural texts from the 13th and 14th centuries describe a wide-ranging list of crops grown, especially sorghum, millet, wheat and barley. Over the past three decades the extensive highland terrace system, based on sustainable dry farming methods, has been abandoned in many areas, but this heritage can and must be restored to avoid famine.

Given the timing of Yemen’s major rain periods in spring and late summer, the best time historically in Yemen for planting wheat and barley in the mountains is from May until the middle of July. Now is the time to supply Yemen with the needed seed to revive the agriculture. Now is the time to encourage Yemen’s younger generations to revitalize the terraces built up by their ancestors.

Until recently the most important cereal crop was sorghum, which can be grown at all elevations, and has a nutritious value higher than wheat. Coastal varieties of sorghum and millet can be sown at various times, especially after May, and highland sorghum can be sown as late as May. It is not too late to avoid famine. With Yemen’s food aid expected to decline, growing more crops will save more lives.

Biden is Right to end US involvement in Bloody Yemen Conflict, but he Needs to end the War itself https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/involvement-bloody-itself.html Mon, 08 Feb 2021 05:04:33 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195998 Glen Cove, N.Y. (Special to Informed Comment) – President Biden’s about face on Saudi support for the war in Yemen, including setting aside the disastrous idea of designating the Huthis as a unique set of “terrorists”, is a hopeful step, but the road to peace is a steep climb. As noted by a recent report of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, “All parties continue to commit egregious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances and torture.”

When Saudi Arabia spearheaded a bombing campaign in March, 2015 to counter the Huthi takeover of Yemen’s interim government, it no doubt seemed an easy call. But almost six years later it is obvious that this war has no winner. Every side in the ongoing conflict is a loser, but the worst loss is that of Yemen’s people. Overall the United Nations announced last December that the number of casualties from the war and its impact is at least 233,000. Given the lack of reliable statistical data in a war-torn country, the real number is likely far more. Nor does it account for those wounded, lacking access to needed health care or facing famine.

There continue to be many ways to die in Yemen. The Yemen Data Project (https://yemendataproject.org/) records 22,485 Saudi coalition air raids since the start of the war. Egregious bombings of school children, funerals and fishing boats may make the world news, but no account is made of the people buried in ruins or blown into so many pieces of flesh that they are not recognizable.

Then there is the direct fighting between rival groups with countless deaths of soldiers, many of them untrained and far too young, and civilians caught in the crossfire, artillery shelling and mines. War paves the way for disease, with about a million and half known cholera cases, in addition to outbreaks of diphtheria, dengue fever and rabies. Some 100,000 Yemeni children are facing death from malnutrition as 20 million of a population estimated at 29 million are food insecure. All of these ills continue after the arrival of COVID with no reliable figures on the pandemic’s toll.

Yemen’s designation by the UN as the worst human-made humanitarian crisis in the world has not resulted in a political settlement to end the war that caused it. The spiral to Yemen’s failure as a state accelerated during the Arab Spring with the removal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 after 33 years of his dictatorial rule. Yemen’s wealthy neighbours muscled in and brokered a self-serving deal that put in power a political hack, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, for what was supposed to be a temporary transition.

A National Dialogue Conference drew on a wide variety of Yemeni parties and offered a blueprint for Yemen’s future. However, Hadi’s tinkering with the set-up of the proposed federal system led to a Faustian bargain in which the former military of Saleh joined with the Huthi tribal alliance to stage a relatively bloodless coup in September, 2014. The UN Security Council made matters worse by resolving that the Saudi war was justified in reinstalling Hadi, who had fled into exile.

The Huthi coup was an internal affair, no different in theory than Sisi’s arrest of the democratically elected president of Egypt. As ardent opponents of both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood Islah party, it would be hard to label the original Huthi power grab as a terrorist act. It is not possible to know what the Huthi alliance would have negotiated with other groups in Yemen if the country had been left alone to deal with its political future. Yemen had overcome a major civil war in the 1960s to establish a republic in the north and united peacefully (at least at first) with the former socialist state in the south in 1990. For sure, Iran would have far less influence than it does today in Yemen.

To understand the problem that Yemen faces, it is important to note that it has been the only “democratic” state in the Arabian Peninsula since the downfall in 1962 of the Zaydi imamate and the departure of the British from Aden in 1967. All of the other states, most bolstered by recent oil wealth, are run by family-based monarchs and emirs. The Saudi Kingdom, in particular, has long tried to control Yemen. Ibn Sa’ud invaded the Zaydi state in 1934 but was beaten back. In the 1980s the ultraconservative Wahhabi/ Salafi doctrines of the Saudis spread to Yemen, disrupting what had been a peaceful coexistence of Zaydi Shi’a, Sunni Shafi’ and a pocket of Ismailis. Poverty-stricken Yemen had no choice but to accept the financial largesse of its neighbours, but the result has been an increase in sectarianism and the proliferation of militias and religious zealots often funded by outside sources.

Yemen has long had its own share of internal conflict, but it has been inflamed beyond quick repair by foreign involvement. In this war the Saudis took control of the oil-rich area of Ma’rib and are directly involved in Mahra on the border with Oman. The Emiratis engaged Yemeni mercenaries in Yemen’s south and have made huge investments in the Yemeni island of Socotra. They may be coalition partners, but they both have specific areas they want to control. The bottom line is that this war never would have happened without the bottomless supply of military hardware and technical assistance of the United States and other European arms dealers. Cutting off that supply will not stop the war overnight, but it is a start. As for the question of whether more deaths are yet to come in Yemen, you can count on it.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Reuters: “U.S. to drop Houthi terrorist designation due to Yemen crisis”

Kashoggi, Yemen and the War on Journalism https://www.juancole.com/2018/10/kashoggi-yemen-journalism.html Thu, 18 Oct 2018 04:23:28 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=179448 (MENA Tidningen) – For the past week, the news cycle on the Middle East has been focused, for obvious reasons, on the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Turkish authorities claim that they have hard evidence for the murder, which the Saudis are finding it increasingly hard to deny. The hired propaganda media of the Saudis are spinning a post-denial alibi of “rogue elements” to salvage the reputation of MBS as a great reformer. In this they are aided by President Trump, who would rather sell billions of dollars worth of weapons than reflect on the multiple human rights abuses of the kingdom. The Arab states who feast on Saudi money are, understandably in the Hobbesian sense, defending their royal oil daddies.

It is heart warming to see media coverage of such a brazen and brutal act. At the very least it draws attention to the “fake news” that Saudi Arabia is undergoing reform. The litany of abuses since the premature crowning of MBS shows how Saudi Arabia is run by a deformed, not a reformed, regime. Think about it. The much touted royal decree that now allows women, at least some women, to drive obscures the fact that the government has imprisoned the very women who protested for this right. MBS rounded up a bevy of Saudi billionaires who were not his cronies, imprisoned them in the Inter Continental and extorted them on the trumped up charge of corruption. This is from a prince who buys million-dollar yachts and French castles on a lark. President Hariri of Lebanon was summoned to the Saudi court and pressured to resign. Then there is the absurd boycott of neighboring Qatar, including the comedy of building a canal to make Qatar an island. And the list goes on.

The premeditated killing of Kashoggi deserves all the media attention it can get. But for the sake of the values that Kashoggi died defending, as a journalist critical of abuse in his own country, a similar spotlight needs to be placed on the ongoing Saudi/Emirati war in Yemen, which has created a desperate humanitarian crisis in which Yemenis are killed everyday. In an opinion piece for Haaretz, David Rosenberg reminds us of a statement attributed to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that when one man dies it’s a tragedy, but when a million die it’s a statistic. “Khashoggi’s killing,” Rosenberg observes, “has reverberated around the world in a way that 17,000 Yemeni casualties did not.” If this war continues for three more months, warns Lise Grande of the United Nations, 12 to 13 million Yemeni civilians are in danger of starvation.

Statistics do matter and they are easily ignored. Most of the media still refer to the number of casualties in this war at 10,000, an estimate made by the UN over two years ago, but the true figure is much higher and no doubt far more than 50,000. The number of Yemenis facing starvation is almost half of the total population and the greatest burden will fall on children. This is not a new story. Reports from over two years ago pointed out how the war was harming Yemen’s children. If you can stomach the images of such suffering, just write “Yemen dead child” in Google search and look for yourself at the images too graphic for the mainstream Western news media. The majority of children have been killed by bombs dropped from Saudi coalition planes. The bomb that killed 40 school children last August was made in America.

For much of the war in Yemen the press has been silent, only occasionally mentioning it and hardly ever as a major story unless there is an obvious American connection that cannot be hidden. Western journalists have had a hard time getting access to the war zone, but that is only part of the problem. The Saudis hired PR firms that make it extremely difficult for journalists to report the atrocities in the war. It is telling that the selling of MBS as the great reformer has been pushed in American grocery stores by a glossy magazine, The New Kingdom, from the makers of the National Enquirer. This tired rag is one of the few media outlets that loves Trump. There is no mention in the MBS love fest of the suffering caused by the war against Yemen, a country that is simply branded as an Iranian terrorist threat.

The death of a journalist, especially in a war zone, is an attempt to suppress the truth about brutality. The murder of Kashoggi should warrant media attention, but what about the Yemeni journalists who have lost their lives due to all sides in the war? Since the violence started in 2014, at least 27 Yemeni journalists have been killed and many others imprisoned or forced to flee. Are the lives of Yemeni journalists less important than that of a journalist based in America? Recently ten journalists, nine of them Afghani, were killed in a bomb blast in Kabul, but where was the international outcry? Overall there are confirmed reports of 1323 journalists killed worldwide since 1992, but there are no doubt many more cases that do not make the list.

The present danger to journalism is the age-old maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword (an apt metaphor for Saudi Arabia’s capital punishment by cutting off heads). Perhaps this saying should be upgraded with the addition that tyrants still use the sword (or any other lethal weapon) to silence those who wield the pen. Rulers who are unable to literally get away with murder are keen to make the press into the enemy. No one today is more vocal about this than President Trump, who considers any negative news about him “fake news” and routinely refers to journalists as enemies. “Truth is not the only casualty in Trump’s media wars,” warns Simon Tisdall in The Guardian.Certainly Russia’s Putin and Philippines President Dutarte appreciate Trumps’ war on the media as they repress the very idea of a free press. North Korea’s Kim Jung-On is no doubt pleased to have an ally when North Korea is ranked dead last in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index. If there is any lasting lesson to be learned from the death of Koshoggi, it is the urgent need to counter the politically motivated war on journalism by unmasking all the attempts to deny oppression that suppresses the free press.

Featured Image by Samer, showing a starving Yemen pleading for the attention of the world.

Saudi: The Banana Republic with very few Bananas https://www.juancole.com/2018/10/banana-republic-bananas.html Tue, 02 Oct 2018 04:47:39 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=179068 Stockholm ( MENA Tidningen) – The Saudis are feeling offended that another country might criticize their dismal record of human rights. Last August Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted that a Canadian citizen, Raif Badawi, and his sister Samar should be released from a Saudi prison. Their arrest was due to their promotion of human rights, a clear wrong in the Wahhabi mindset of the royal clan, but something that even the United Nations condemns. So last week the Saudi foreign minister (not a woman, to be sure) retorted “What are we, a banana republic?”

In fact there is a Saudi Banana Republic with stores in Jeddah, Dhahran and Riyadh, but I suspect Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir does not buy his robes there. And, yes, the Saudis do grow some bananas. In 2005 the Mexican government offered to assist the kingdom in growing better bananas. They may have made a faux-pas in noting that the bananas in the New World originally came from Yemen. It seems that Saudis love bananas, as they consumed 40-50 million cartons worth about 200 million euros in 2016. That year the price of imported bananas rose by 40% in Saudi Arabia. The only Middle East country that imports more bananas is the United Arab Emirates. Thus, the two leaders of the Saudi-led coalition waging war on Yemen are high on bananas, while the people of Yemen approach famine.

I have to agree with the Saudi Foreign Minister that Saudi Arabia could not possibly be a Banana Republic. First of all, it is not a republic, but a kingdom with a royal family that controls all the resources and lops off the heads of anyone who opposes them. Secondly, they produce very few bananas but a lot of dates. Until there is a revolution that brings a real republic, they cannot even be called a Date Republic.

Let’s be clear. In Saudi Arabia a call for human rights, especially women’s rights, is considered terrorism, alongside the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Here is the assessment of Human Rights Watch:

“Saudi authorities in 2018 continued to arbitrarily arrest, try, and convict peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities systematically discriminate against women and religious minorities.”

Amnesty International agrees:

“The authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many human rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shi’a activists were executed, and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common. Despite limited reforms, women faced systemic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions. The Saudi-led coalition continued to commit serious violations of international law in Yemen.”

Much attention was given to Crown Prince Bin Salman’s benevolent “reform” allowing Saudi women to drive cars. I suspect it made all the Saudi car salesmen happy. But at the same time Saudi women who dared voice an opinion about the need for women’s rights in this patriarchal Xanadu were silenced or arrested. One of these was Professor Hatoon Al-Fassi, a former colleague of mine when I taught at Qatar University. As noted in a September, 2018 letter from the American Historical Association to Saudi King Salman, there is no information on her whereabouts, current status or charges against her.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. This is 2018 and Saudi Arabia maintains a medieval kingdom backed by an oil wealth that allows them to buy billions of dollars worth of weapons and positive publicity, not to mention bananas from real republics. Over the years they have exported an intolerant, fundamentalist, sectarian version of Islam that has torn apart the Islamic world and fostered a political maelstrom regarding who speaks for Islam: the Saudi Kings or the Iranian Ayatollahs. President Trump, easily impressed by tyrants, chose Saudi Arabia as the first Middle Eastern country to visit. And much of the rest of the world is either too afraid to speak out or complicit in supporting this inhumane regime.

Comparing Saudi Arabia to a Banana Republic demeans what it means to be a Banana Republic. Peel back the rhetoric of Saudi spokesmen and all that you find inside will be rotten.

Reprinted with author’s permission from MENA Tidningen