If the government is serious about food security, laws relating to food, land and water cannot remain fragmented and dispersed nor is it sufficient to revise the Agricultural marketing Board Act
By Prof Sheila Bunwaree
The Government Programme 2015-2019 mentions the word land 6 times, food 3 times and security 13 times but food security as such is never mentioned. The Government Programme 2020-2024 has zero mention of food; security is mentioned 7 times but again not in connection with food. Land is mentioned 9 times. These two consecutive MSM-led Government Programmes have largely ignored the food security question and yet so important for a small, highly vulnerable and dependent economy like ours. Value of food imports has reached an estimated Rs 40.1 billion, representing almost 83% of the country’s food requirement in 2019 (L’express, 29 April 2020).
Food security is land security – Photo – res.cloudinary.com
In the midst of all the gloom, Covid-19 has the merit of creating a ‘food security consciousness.’ The recent and ongoing parliamentary debates bear testimony to this. But whether the budgetary measures proposed will enable the nation become ‘food secure’ is a question worth posing, considering ‘the Politics of Land’ in this country. The question becomes even more pertinent at this critical juncture. On the one hand, fellow citizens/squatters, struggling to eke out a living, cruelly thrown out from their ‘illegal’ shelter into the wintry open, and on the other two major scandals: the St Louis Gate and state land privileges for the politically connected. These highlight how our lands are being disposed of in a cavalier manner with huge implications for Land Justice and Social Cohesion, let alone food security.
The first explicit acknowledgment of the importance of food security was made at the World Food Conference in Rome in 1974. The report emanating out of this conference notes: ‘Every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop fully and maintain their physical and mental faculties… Accordingly, the eradication of hunger is a common objective of all the countries of the international community…’ The concept has not stopped evolving since. The World Food Summit 1996 notes: ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences…’
Amartya Sen’s book ‘Poverty and Famines’, broadened the definition, making the point that the starving are often denied access to food rather than suffering because food is unavailable. In so doing, Sen introduced the idea of ‘entitlements to food.’ With the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting supply chains, blocking freights, increasing the risk of food becoming unavailable, ‘food entitlement’ takes a new significance, and makes food security even more complex.
Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN World Food Programme tells us that the numbers of ‘food insecure’ people would rise from 130 million to nearly 300 million people due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are perhaps lucky in that we are a small nation with only some 1.2 million people to feed. But our rapidly depreciating rupee, rising debt level and endemic corruption with land often at the heart of it, leads to some serious concern.
Distributing food packs to the poor and needy in times of great difficulty shows solidarity and is laudatory, but this should not become a regular long-term feature of our society, enabling a segment of the political elite to continually chant their own praise of how caring they are and appease their conscience while the poor remain oppressed. What is most needed at this point is an economic and ecological strategy which can create jobs for the greatest number and not one which kills jobs as the 2020-2021 budget does.
Budgetary and government programme debates
The Government Programme 2015-2019 states that: ‘A New Strategic Land Use Planning Framework’ will be developed to achieve major social and development objectives…’. During the debates, the then Minister of Agro Industry noted:
‘… D’un côté, il ya des entrepreneurs et cultivateurs qui cherchent désespérément des terres pour des projets agricoles et, de l’autre côté, des grandes superficies de terres sont à l’abandon. Donc mon ministère va accélérer la création d’une Land Bank pour enregistrer les terres abandonnées et les allouer aux agriculteurs intéressés.’ The so-called ‘accélération’ has not only slowed down but seems to have resulted in some kind of natural death.
A Strategic Plan for the non sugar sector was developed with the overall objective of reducing dependence on food imports. Instead, locally produced food crop declined from 121,106 tons in 2012 to 93,736 in 2019, hectares of land under crop cultivation dropped from 8124 to 7334. Seed production has fallen from 4.5 tons in 2013 to 2.2 tons in 2019.
Referring to cattle and milk production, the former minister notes that “…en dépit des fonds substantiels disponibles pour le Food Security Fund et des projets mis en oeuvre… la production du lait et la viande a régressé…” But some six years later, the situation has hardly improved, with some Rs5 billion being spent on imported dairy products. (Défi Quotidien, 22 April, 2020)
Paragraph 72 of Budget 2016-2017 notes:
‘…First we must put agricultural land to modern and productive use. In that context, the MCIA will set up an Agricultural Land Management System to bring unutilised abandoned land of small farmers to productive use.’
Has the idea of the Land Bank shifted to a Land Management System? Total confusion!
Budget 2017-2018 speaks of the introduction of drone technology in agriculture and macadamia plantations as a new export niche. No one seems to know what happened to these? And Para 86 refers to the introduction of a national biosecurity plan for notifiable animal diseases… and again the fate of this plan is unknown to most.
Responding to Xavier Duval’s comments during the Debates, regarding the decline in food crop output over the last few years, the former Minister of Agro Industry argues that the output produced under the ‘sheltered farming’ scheme has not been computed by Statistics Mauritius, implying that the said scheme constituted some kind of game changer. However, ‘sheltered farming’ is nowhere to be found in the 2020-21 budget although claims are made about ‘…continuation of work’ by the current Agro-Industry Minister. The latter tells us: ‘…there is continuation in the work which has been started by mon illustre prédécesseur, Honourable Seeruttun’. What does this ‘continuation of work’ imply? Wait for yet another report since he himself informs us that the Ministry is expecting a Report from the African Development Bank regarding the non sugar sector. Why go to the ADB when there is so much talent and expertise at UOM’s Faculty of Agriculture?
The 2020-21 budget comes up with a long list of measures for the agricultural sector, amongst which we read at para 48: ‘A centralised digital Land Bank of State and Private Agricultural Land will be set up under Landscope Mauritius Ltd…’ And at Para 50: ‘Upon approval of Landscope Mauritius Ltd, a small planter, having up to 10 acres of agricultural land will be allowed to convert up to 10 percent of his land for residential or commercial purpose.’
With such measures and heavy emphasis on the construction sector, more IRS/RES and other prestigious projects are likely to come up exacerbating the existing pressure on land. Coupled with the further opening up of the economy to foreigners, land speculation will inevitably arise, impacting negatively on our food security potential.
If the government is serious about food security, laws relating to food, land and water cannot remain fragmented and dispersed nor is it sufficient to revise the Agricultural marketing Board Act. It should come up with some new comprehensive legislation making it mandatory for landowners to engage in food production or lease their lands to government, opening up the way for modern technologically oriented agribusiness cooperatives absorbing the young unemployed men and women, instead of relegating the latter to growing crops in their back gardens.
* Published in print edition on 19 June 2020