On the 16 October 2008 former President Clinton announced at a United Nations’ conference “we all blew it, even me.” This statement was acknowledging the major role that the west played in causing the 2006-2008 global food crisis, largely by their treatment of crops “like color TVs” rather than realizing their worth as a vital commodity for the world’s poor and thus differentiating them from material export/import goods.
Perhaps what is most surprising about this massive misjudgment of agricultural policies is that it was heavily promoted by a number of the institutions that we tend, or at least hope, to think are working for poverty eradication and not against it.
Amongst others, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) used the influential lure of significant amounts of foreign aid to pressure farmers in developing countries, mainly Africa, to abandon self-sufficient and multi-crop farming methods in favor of single crop farms growing products that the country in question was not short of but the affluent West was, otherwise known as ‘cash crops’. Both directly and indirectly these policies promoted an increase in agricultural exports and as a result food imports. This in turn led to agricultural instability and eventually an unprecedented price increase of certain crops, especially wheat, which caused just a minor disruption to western consumers but major social unrest and lethal food shortages in a number of regions of Africa.
This picture of agricultural production for export is not unfamiliar to anyone at least remotely interested in the world of agriculture trade and its effects, and Bill Clinton was not the only person that went on to conclude that “food is not a commodity like others… We should go back to a policy of maximum food self sufficiency. It is crazy to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.” A number of developing countries, including Bolivia, introduced export and import restrictions or taxes in order to try and reduce their vulnerability to future global fluctuations in food prices.
Therefore when I found Chilean stickers on the kiwis that I bought at my local market in La Paz last week, I logically started to think in more detail about Bolivia´s policies toward food security and exactly how it is or isn´t planning to exploit its huge agriculture potential. It turns out that 40 percent of Bolivia´s work force is in agriculture yet farming accounts for less than 11 percent of the country´s Gross Domestic product (GDP).
Where is Bolivia going wrong? There are two major contributing factors toward this unimpressive agricultural labor and GDP relationship. Firstly, many Bolivian agricultural families have farms of between two and five hectares, which, on a good year, is ample to feed a small family but does not leave many products left over for trading; In fact only 30 percent of the highlands’ agriculture output is sold. Secondly, most Bolivian farmers have low production rates as they do not have access to agricultural tools and technology and/or they lack infrastructure in their region, meaning that there is little to no point in producing more than the household or community can consume.
Personal food self sufficiency and living off the land sounds romantic to many in the west, but unfortunately statistics show that this romanticism is badly misplaced. According to a recent survey using the Vulnerability Assessment and Mapping (VAM) index, 53 percent of Bolivians rate their food security status as highly or very vulnerable and in 2010 the World Bank found that 32 percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition.
How can this be the case in a country with so much agriculture potential and such a large work force dedicated to it? One major reason is geography. About 60 percent of Bolivian farmers live in the mountainous western part of the country where conditions are less than ideal for many types of farming. Due to cold weather and a high altitude—the average altitude of the Altiplano is 4000m—the land there is suitable for the cultivation of dry agriculture but not for many fruits or vegetables. The main crops grown are potatoes, wheat, corn, quinoa, habas (broad beans) alfalfa and oca (a tuber), thus providing a diet that is very high in carbohydrates, but extremely poor in fruits and vegetables. The remaining 40 percent of Bolivian farmers are based in the valleys and lowlands, which are more fertile than the highlands and have a climate that often allows for two crop yields per year. Santa Cruz, an agricultural state in the lowlands, has benefited from fertile land and disproportionate amounts of financial investment compared to its neighbors, and, as a result, it is the agricultural hub of Bolivia that produces enough rice to meet the country’s demand and cultivates the majority of the cash crops that make up Bolivia’s agricultural exports. Las Yungas, which is located in the La Paz province, also enjoys fertile lands and as a result cultivates a diverse range of fruits and vegetables as well as the majority of the country’s coca—the controversial leaf that is the foundation of cocaine but also chewed throughout Bolivia in its raw form for tradition and for its famous medicinal qualities. However, it has never received the same infrastructure investments as Santa Cruz and in many places Las Yungas’ farmers are left more isolated than highland farmers. In particular, it suffers during the October-April rainy seasons when fields receive excess rain and many roads are blocked due to landslides.
Thus, when Bolivia’s current indigenous president Evo Morales followed suit by rushing to introduce export and import reforms after the 2007-2008 world food price crisis he may have been missing the point. Bolivia has a small but healthy agricultural export industry that accounts for a minute portion of its GDP, which if anything needs to be encouraged and not repressed. What Bolivia does not have is roads.
Roads facilitate the movement of food products and without an increased movement of food products the rural highland population will continue to eat a diet that is very low in fruit and veg, the Las Yungas population will remain deprived of the nutritionally rich highland products and almost every Bolivian farmer will continue to waste the economic potential of his/her resources. In Bolivia it is the lack of basic infrastructure, not too many exports and imports, that makes specific food types unavailable or unaffordable in certain areas, and that ultimately leaves over half the rural Bolivian population with serious food insecurity problems and nearly a third of the total population suffering from chronic malnutrition. Morales should therefore think twice about efforts to improve Bolivia´s food security status by increasing the agricultural self-sufficiency of the country and start focusing on creating an efficient infrastructure to connect farmers not only with the cities but with each other.
How do you thing Bolivia should tackle its food insecurity problems?
Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London.
Like this article? Be sure to sign up at the top of this page to recieve future articles directly to your inbox.