A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Almost one in seven people worldwide is chronically undernourished. After decades of slow decline, global hunger began to rise in the mid-1990s and soared during the 2008 food price crisis. Had the previous trend of slow progress been maintained, 413 million fewer people would be hungry today.
While the number of hungry people has thankfully dropped back from its 2008 high point of one billion, it remains higher than at any time before the crisis, and may well climb again in 2011 (see Figure 16).
Perhaps counter-intuitively, around 80 percent of hungry people are thought to live in rural areas, where most of them work as small-scale food producers: farmers, herders, fishers, or labourers.68 (See Figure 17) They are surrounded by the means to produce food, and yet they go without.
If geographically, hunger is concentrated in rural areas, within families, it is concentrated among women. When food is scarce, women are usually the first to do without. The consequences for maternal and child mortality rates are serious.70 In many countries women play key roles in food production, yet cultural traditions and unjust social structures make them second-class consumers. These same factors conspire against them as producers, restricting their access to land, irrigation, credit, knowledge, and extension services.
Such discrimination is a violation of fundamental human rights. But it is also crazy to marginalize a major proportion of food producers. Estimates suggest that, by providing women with the same level of access to resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 per cent, in turn reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 per cent.71
Access to land
Perhaps nothing illustrates the inequity at the heart of the food system more clearly than the case of land – the most basic resource of all. In the USA, 4 per cent of farm owners account between them for nearly half of all farm land.72 In Guatemala (see Box 4) less than 8 per cent of agricultural producers hold almost 80 per cent of land – a figure that is not atypical for Central America as a whole.73 In Brazil, one per cent of the population owns nearly half of all land.
If governments fail to provide secure access to land for their populations, then powerful local elites and investors are able to ride roughshod over local communities. In recent cases of large-scale land purchases, expropriations are the rule; the principle of free, prior, and informed consent is routinely ignored; and compensation is usually too low, if paid at all. Initial promises of development and jobs often evaporate: the land may remain idle, or the investment is highly mechanized, offering a few jobs to highly skilled males only.74 A major World Bank study found that investors were targeting precisely the countries in which institutions were weakest.75
Box 4: Guatemala tries and fails: the struggle for rural development
The 2008 food price crisis wrought havoc among Guatemala’s poor and hungry majority. Thanks to extreme inequalities – in income, access to land, and state support – even before the crisis 50 per cent of all children under five were malnourished, rising to 70 per cent among indigenous children.69 A tiny elite makes its money from cash crops for export and by imposing punitive terms of trade on small producers.
The sudden rise in food prices presented the government with an opportunity to begin reform. Old legislation requiring landowners to allocate 10 per cent of their arable land to planting basic grains for national consumption was reintroduced. It lasted three days before being quashed.
Government and civil society groups then turned to a promising new law to promote food production and give small producers a better deal in supply chains. But the elites used media scare-mongering and backdoor pressure to paralyze the legislative process, and the proposed law was dropped.
Women’s access to land
In those developing countries for which data are available, women account for only 10–20 per cent of landowners.76 They may be responsible for most food production, yet they face systematic discrimination in land tenure, which may be as overt as prohibitions against women being named as owners of land, as in Swaziland, or inheriting land.77 Women are therefore more likely to rely on marginal tracts not registered as in production, and to which titles have not been granted – precisely the ones currently identified by governments and investors as ‘available’ for large-scale land acquisition.
For the same historical and cultural reasons that women lack access to land, they are also routinely denied access to other basic resources – including finance and education. Ultimately, overcoming systemic and corrosive discrimination against women remains the real task for governments, companies, and societies.