Hunger Pangs:  Local Pathways to Famine Reduction, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Aug

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I find by my calculations, which are according to revealed inspiration, that the sword of death is now approaching us, in the shape of pestilence, war more horrible than has been known in three lifetimes, and famine. Nostradamus

These past two weeks, under Egypt’s presidency, the UN Security Council has issued presidential statements (non-binding urgings) on various matters pertaining to international peace and security, including last Wednesday’s statement on the threat of famine now looming in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria. The statement follows an Arria-Formula meeting in June on the same subject hosted by the three, current African Security Council members – Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt.

In this week’s statement, the Council noted from the outset the “devastating impact on civilians of ongoing armed conflict and violence,” famine as a direct consequence of both the armed conflict itself and of the barriers imposed by state and non-state actors to “an effective humanitarian response in the short, medium and long term.”  The Council’s statement underscores that bombs and military barricades do, in fact, lead to famine and risks of famine, a term recently invoked by the UN in the context of South Sudan to describe conditions far beyond “food insecurity,” in this instance the very real threat of starvation by as many as 100,000 South Sudanese.

The Security Council ostensibly focused on these four geographic areas – and not others that could have easily been included – due to the frequency with which they appear on the Council’s agenda on top of the utter gravity of their current humanitarian situations.   And yet, however one assesses the degree to which any Council statement is actually binding in practice, this presidential statement bears no legal implication for states.  In this instance, the Council seemed to be reaching out with some urgency to the Secretary-General to use his good offices and other tools at his disposal to help bring an end to these four conflicts and open reliable humanitarian corridors.  The Council also, as it has done in the past, urged states with “influence” to help resolve the seemingly endless emergencies rendered by armed conflict and related impediments to humanitarian response.

While this statement was neither read out by Egypt’s Ambassador nor discussed in chambers, you could almost hear Russia and a few other Council members grousing about its content. Despite its own uneven (at best) performance in promoting peace and security, Russia has long lamented the expansion of the Council’s work into areas that it deems inconsistent with its mandate and for which there are relevant UN agencies already heavily vested with responsibilities for analysis and response.  That the statement made no mention of the UN’s FAO or WFP reinforced the concern of a Council moving on issues beyond its core mandate without several key UN partners.

All Council members can agree that famine properly understood is among the most devastating conditions that can befall human beings, especially children.   Given its thoroughly immobilizing impacts on families and communities, famine in and of itself is not a threat to international peace and security but rather the horrific aggregate of other threats: discriminatory political decisions and weak structures of governance; states that simultaneously lament human misery but double-down on its complicity through their copious weapons production and arms shipments; climate change about which some states are in denial while others have made tepid responses akin to denial in other garb, responses that neither address the threat directly nor promote resilient local communities to do so in their stead.

In these unsettled times, we would be wise to seek out (or perhaps merely be reminded of) other solutions, other directions, other visions.

Of all the writers within my own intellectual orbit, perhaps no one has been as sensitive to the multiple benefits of local knowledge of land and related environmental processes as Wendell Berry.  A poet and Kentucky farmer who just celebrated his 83rd birthday, Berry has written eloquently about our modernist inclinations to bureaucratic inertia, to media distractions public and private, to our apparent tolerance of, and even preference for “broken” economics such that many of us now “would prefer to own a neighbors farm than to have a neighbor.”

Berry has warned that, in more and more contexts worldwide, every natural landscape, every remaining parcel of arable land, now cries out metaphorically, “When?”   When will the speculators come?  When will the bulldozers appear over our horizons?  How long before the monoculturists with their heavy handed technologies and geo-engineering erode yet another functioning ecosystem under the false pretext of sustainable abundance?

And when will those who know and love those natural areas best, who can respond kindly and with discipline to their rhythms and seasons; those with the skills to “(re) build the earth under the dead leaves;” where will those people go who have learned to feed and nurture communities in the places to which bombs and landmines and climate-related drought have now so violently denied them access? And what happens to their communities once those with all of this local knowledge of natural rhythms and processes have no choice but to abandon the land they know intimately and love practically for land that is likely owned, managed and even exploited by others?

Addressing famine in our time has largely become a technical challenge; getting food from the places it is produced to the places where it used to be produced.  Such responses are largely in keeping with our heavily bureaucratic systems through which we attempt to address the vast devastation from famine but without being able to ensure its non-recurrence. Such a system makes honorable use of copious amounts of human planning, courage and decency; but it too often heaps dependency on top of misery, too often keeps people alive to behold the wreckage of once-vibrant communities that can now only be “saved” by some version of the technology that often encouraged the wreckage in the first instance.

The dimensions of “local life aware of itself” that have been so appealing to Berry have found their share of (perhaps unwitting) sympathizers.  Even those mega-environmental organizations that have been traditionally hostile to place-based learning and action have gotten religion on “local eco-awareness” in recent times.  And at the UN last week, it was comforting to hear “nerdy” statisticians under the guise of ECOSOC speak of the importance of land tenure and land rights to which many of those participants hoped their statistical work could contribute.

But if this hopeful movement is to restore the roots on which our future sustenance depends, we must simply and resolutely stop the bombing; we must take our climate responsibilities more seriously; and we must recover a real (not assumed) solidarity with the rhythms of life beyond our bureaucracies and arbitrary national barriers.  These are the duties of leadership for our times. Communities simply cannot cope, let alone thrive, given the impacts of armed violence, of abstracted social and economic policies, of agriculture graded on its volume not its quality or relevance to those who prepare and consume its bounty.  Such communities require a “truce” from the more toxic aspects of modernity and our leadership should do more to make that available.

But while addressing these demands, we must also pay closer attention to the connection between our livelihoods and those of succeeding generations, practicing skills that offer a more hopeful path to sustainability even as our planet bakes and explodes and fills with plastic waste.   One example of this concern, as Berry once noted with little changing since, is that we in the “developed” world have simultaneously dissociated eating from agriculture while solidifying the ties between eating and economics. How many of us any longer know how to grow edible things, let alone healthy edible things?  How many know (or care) about the origins (or impacts) of what we so eagerly stuff into our mouths?

Unless we can more effectively preserve access to the land by those who know and love it best; unless we can get some distance from the mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of little; unless we can create social policy that enhances rather than undermines the capacity of local communities to feed (and largely fend for) themselves, we will surely confront the desperation and humiliation of famine over and over again.

One key here is to jar our memories every day that eating matters much more than bombing; and that in a world with both populations and inequalities still on the rise, the land we have destroyed will somehow, some way, need to return to productive uses.   Only the hands of those who know a land, who know its needs, potentials and cycles, can make that happen.  Despite forces turning them into a bit of an endangered species, these planters and harvesters of local life probably represent our best hope for a sustainable future.

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