A Nation of Food Mangtas?

By Nobel P. Loser

No Gossiping… It’s Getting Late!

Let’s start with two quotes. From two ex-Finance Ministers.

‘The crisis is not over. We are in the midst of the biggest restructuring of the global economy that has ever taken place…’

These are the latest words from Gordon Brown, ex-UK Chancellor/Prime Minister, and uttered a couple of days ago. Mr Brown is the author of ‘Beyond The Crash – Overcoming The First Crisis Of Globalisation’.

A fortnight ago, Rhundeersingh Bheenick, the BoM Governor, made these highly pertinent observations, not restricted to the banking sector, in front of an elite crowd whom we can conveniently call economic operators.

“Let us not just sit back and say well done the government, hurrah for our visionary Prime Minister and a pat on the back for the Minister of Finance. We need to snap out of our complacency. Above all we must escape our own hubris,” Bheenick said.

He also stated the following: “Looking back over the past year we have much cause for satisfaction; but aren’t we just perhaps overdoing it a little? Why this sense of smug self-satisfaction? Why this palpable air of complacency engulfing us? This reflects a syndrome which we must combat for our own good. We should not gloat on our success. What Graham Greene said of his own profession, writing, is equally applicable to the economic performance of countries: ‘…success is always temporary, success is only a delayed failure; and it is incomplete.’”

The Governor added: “Everybody tells us how well we are looking. Well done the government; well done the private sector; well done the workers; well done our bankers; well done the Press. Let us distribute satisfecits all round. I do not want to sound like a spoilsport but I want to raise the alarm. It does not suffice to be on the right track, as we undoubtedly are. We must also move fast, faster than the competition, if we are not to be run over…”

The Governor also quoted Jean Monnet, one of the fathers of the EU, who observed: “Man has a natural instinct to resist change until it becomes a necessity, and he won’t recognise necessity until he’s faced with a crisis.”

Let’s all hope and pray our country does not get engulfed in a real food and socio-economic crisis before we embark on the so-much-needed agricultural reform, more precisely food production. For then it might be too late. And Mauritians run the risk of ending up as food mangtas!

The above quotes from Brown and Bheenick are most relevant to today’s food security, an entire economic agenda all by itself. Brown warns of the danger that more is to be seen from the crisis affecting the world economy and which has not settled yet. And Bheenick rings the alarm bell as regards the danger of subsiding into complacency and unwarranted self-satisfactions as far as our achievements are concerned. He suggests there is more work to be done and that there is need to act fast. And both are right. And in clear terms, they tell us that we need to get the hard job done, not tomorrow but now, respectively, at the international level and at the national level.

A few reminders, as a warming up exercise, to borrow a Premier League jargon. In the mid-eighties and while standing in Parliament, Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, another ex-Minister of Finance, mentioned the words ‘Gentlemen Farmers’, to bring home his point where, according to him, agricultural reform should lead us.

The cruel truth

For all intents and purpose, let’s not shy away from the underlying most cruel truth. For all these long years, Mauritius has been lagging behind as far as agricultural reform is concerned, most particularly as far as food production is concerned.

For two main reasons – absence of political will and the negative and sometimes dishonest attitude of many, not limited to the sugar barons, owner of lands, who as a matter of fact always try to lobby to have the cake and eat it.

The resounding fatality with which an ex-Minister of Agriculture privately and sadly acquiesced what he diplomatically termed as “the uncooperative attitude” of the sugar estates on this issue is very telling.

Prior to the 80s, the FAO, in one of its kilometric literature pieces on food security, warned that neglecting agricultural reform and food production might harm the long-term interest of countries guilty of same.

Back home, we are not very far from this reality. In the latest and still classified report, our local experts write –

“Mauritius is categorized as a net food importing country. Indeed, 70 per cent of our net food requirements (direct consumption/raw materials for agro-processing) are imported. Between 2005 and 2007, the net food import bill rose from Rs 15.5 billion to Rs 22.7 billion, representing an increase of 46 per cent. Since the beginning of 2008, food import prices have skyrocketed and although we actually note a lull, yet it is expected that the food import bill would total Rs 26 billion by the end of 2008, a rise of 19 per cent over 2007.”

The report also underlines this fact:

“The significant increase of commodity prices has had a dramatic incidence on the purchasing power of local consumers and has largely contributed to the high food inflation. According to the Central Statistics Office, the weight of food commodities in the consumer’s basket averaged 36 per cent in June 2008 against 10 per cent for US consumers. Although a decline has been noted in the world commodity prices over the last two months, due to an increasing production of the main commodities, yet the FAO predicts that prices are likely to remain well above the last decade’s level in the short to medium term.”

And now the much appalling truth – “Local production of foodstuffs… has been well below expectations and has in fact stagnated or even declined over the years as evidenced by the growing dependency of the country on imported food commodities.”

No blame game

At this crucial hour, in this still uncertain century, it’s better we all avoid to get entangled in a much undesirable blame game exercise. For the good of our country and its population, for the good of our socio-economic development and stability, it’s high time our decision makers, from both public and private sector, take on their job seriously. And the media as well, for that matter.

We need to bring one fact to light. In the early 70s, in their fight for survival, planters could ill afford to rise to the status of gentlemen farmers. Mauritian families use to grow food for their own consumption, and any remaining excess production, that is very little, would be put on sale at the local bazaar.

Today, food growers are rare; consumers are many, including the hotel and restaurant and leisure industry, and production techniques have improved. But land is becoming scarcer; as IRS and RES projects and commercial malls and greedy land and real estate speculators are outnumbering the potential number of food growers in the country.

As regards this vital land issue, all successive governments since the beginning of the century till now have lamentably failed to prevent the scandalous land erosion in the face of intense private lobbying, political “coquetterie” and money politics.

To engineer a movement for change to favour food production, we do not need any further committee of experts or any additional report. Existing classified and public reports already contain the facts and figures, our strengths and need-to-do things.

What is needed first and foremost is the political will. Second, we will need one or two no-nonsense managers or project managers or executive managers to whom a well-defined “feuille de route” should be entrusted, with clear terms of reference and deadlines outlined. He/She, assisted by a skeleton team of supporting staff, will have to design and coordinate project implementation, including the power to knock down all barriers, administrative, financial or technical. And he/she should work under the umbrella of the PMO, while working in close tandem with existing public/private institutions. Experts may advise whether the setting up of a company can be most desirable to achieve all goals set.

Start here and now

As far as money and investment is concerned, experts may advise whether funds can be drawn from the latest Rs 6 billion made available by the European Union as part of the accompanying measures for the sugar sector reform programme.

An anecdote. At the beginning of this century, one minister paid an official visit to Reunion Island where he visited the plantations, the state-of-the-art infrastructure and discussed with well organised food growers in the south of the island. This visit was supposed to kickstart a win-win collaboration between our countries in terms of exchange and sharing of knowledge and expertise. Nothing got started.

So, to put it mildly and to avoid any Reunion-style unkept promises, we should stop gossiping around this important issue of food production and food security. It’s getting very late and time is running out.

For the time being and for the short term, we need to put aside our long-rehearsed dreams about Madagascar and Mozambique. Towards the end of the 20th century, some in the private sector were lobbying government to drop all control on the prices on a few food products, and simultaneously they lobbied for government to sign bilateral agreements with friendly countries where, as per the agreements, they would be allowed to grow and to export food products to Mauritius. Unless these conditions are met, they then argued, they would not venture abroad.

As regards Madagascar and Mozambique, both are friendly countries and both have a share in our human history. And we hold the populations in high esteem, and no doubt Mauritius wants to support and participate in their socio-economic development in a win-win formula. But in matters related to business and investment, we in Mauritius have learned the hard lesson.

No business and no investment would grow on even the most fertile land where political instability, political uncertainty, unnecessary layers of bureaucratic red tape, absence of an independent judiciary and free press and social tension are the order of the day. If Mauritius still fares quite well in business and investment despite our own shortcomings, it is only because of our democratic set-up where the rule of law reins supreme.

So to set the ball rolling, let us start right here and now. Of course, without losing sight of the potential of Rodrigues.

Lastly, when we talk of food production and food security at this defining moment, we include every other related issue, including infrastructure for storage, cleaning, sizing, processing, marketing and sale, amongst others.

* Published in print edition on 17 December 2010

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