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Interview with Devinder Sharma

You Have to Decide: the Tree or the GDP?
The "Green Chomsky" doesn't spare words
alerting about the hidden hunger crisis.

Interview by Eduardo Aguiar de Almeida
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Clear and sharp in his opinions, Devinder Sharma is the kind of interviewee that puts the editor in trouble. To choose the most important among so many crucial statements becomes a technical challenge.

Devinder Sharma writes for several newspapers in India, and has columns in at least six major newspapers in different languages and is often demanded for discussion events on different continents and in interviews, including by America's CNN. He keeps the influential Ground Reality -
- Understanding the Politics of Food, Agriculture and Hunger BlogSpot, visited by dozens of thousands of readers, especially opinion molders, around the world.

Sharma lives in New Delhi where he chairs the independent Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. He defines himself as an analyst on trade and food policies, besides being a journalist. He has agronomic training and is a recognized researcher and thinker on development, sustainability and hunger. He has published books on all these themes. Green Chomsky was a nickname put on him by the popular Indian magazine The Week for his similar profile, of wise and deep analysis, to Noam Chomsky, the famous American linguistic and thinker. Sharma still finds time to visit and debate with rural communities in his country.

In times of world financial crisis and global emergencies, Sharma denounces the increase of hunger and calls for people's chief role in overcoming the crisis, recalling Mahatma Gandhi, "he told us that what is needed is a production system by the masses and not for the masses." He blasts in a row: present development models, "the 'growth economics' that emergent economies follow are in reality nothing but violent economics"; -- the deifying of GDP
(Gross Domestic product), "a smokescreen for the rich to exploit the poor"; -- Wall Street capitalism, "The stock market will lead the world towards the extinction of the human race"; -- neoliberal democracy; the UN; and also, typical economists and academics.

Introduced to Eduardo Almeida by a discussion group common colleague, Sharma conceded this interview by internet. Eduardo is a free lance Brazilian journalist who investigates development and agrarian issues.

Eduardo Almeida: Mozambique witnessed food riots in the first week of September (2010). Seven people were killed when protestors became angry over bread price increases of 30 percent. Do you think they are likely to trigger a repeat of the global food crisis of 2007-08?

Devinder Sharma: Food riots in Mozambique, and the rising anger in Pakistan, Egypt and Siberia over spiraling food prices show how vulnerable is the world to food crisis. Although the UN FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) has expressed concern, it does not fear a repeat of the global food crisis of 2007-08. There is no effort to remove the imbalances in the food management system that are responsible for the crisis. Agribusiness giants have in the past made a killing from growing hunger. When the world was witnessing food riots in 37 countries, the stocks of multinational grain trading and agribusiness companies skyrocketed.

There is no lesson drawn from the food debacle of 2007-08. In fact, the G-20 is encouraging more of the same. It is directing member countries to remove all impediments in allowing foreign direct investments in food retail, and, at the same time, aggressively pushing developing countries to remove all trade barriers under Free Trade Agreements and other regional treaties. Developing countries are therefore increasingly becoming food importing countries. The more there is dependence on food imports, the more there is vulnerability to food crisis. After all, Mozambique witnessed food riots when Russia imposed a ban on wheat export for another year following the severe drought and wildfires.  

What happened to Mozambique in September is a story that can be repeated anywhere in the coming years. Unless the world encourages developing and least-developing countries to become self-sufficient in food grains, the threat of impending food riots will remain hanging over nations like the sword of Damocles. But, since it hurts the commercial interests of the agribusiness giants, the G-20 is looking the other way.

Eduardo Almeida: Recently you spent seven days in Brazil. This country has been in evidence of contradictory themes: both the fight against hunger and large-scale agribusiness with a big appetite for deforestation and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). What has drawn your attention most in Brazil?

Devinder Sharma: I went to Brazil at the invitation of AS-PTA (a Brazilian agroecology NGO) to participate in and speak at an international conference on GM foods/crops in Rio de Janeiro. The conference brought together activists, experts, NGOs, government officials, and representatives of farmers’ organizations from India, Brazil, and South Africa, the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) countries, besides other countries. In a way, it was aimed at strengthening the GM movement in Brazil. Knowing that Brazil is fast adopting GM crops, and it has now replaced Argentina as the country with the largest area under GM crops in Latin America, it was important to have a firsthand understanding of the reasons behind the increasing spread of GM crops, and at the same time to know of the people's struggles against these crops.

In addition, in the week that I stayed in Brazil, I also looked into two other areas of my interest. One relates to the Zero Hunger Programme that President Lula launched sometime in 2003-04; and the other pertained to the remarkable turnaround that Brazil has made in developing the pure breeds of some of the Indian cattle breeds, emerging as a major exporter of these breeds to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These cattle breeds provide milk yields matching Jersey and Holstein Friesen, while their poor cousin in India is categorized as ‘unproductive’ with very poor milk production capacity.

Eduardo Almeida: Brazil's increasing official actions in other tropical countries, especially in Africa, including Mozambique, and Latin America are diffusing technologies for large scale "Green Revolution"-type grain and meat production in packages that frequently include GMOs, heavy chemistry, and little care for the environment. Do you think the so-called "success story of modern Brazilian agribusiness" is a good mirror for developing tropical countries?

Devinder Sharma: This is a cause for grave concern. Brazil's deliberate shift from sustainable agriculture, utilizing the vast storehouse of biodiversity and genetic wealth it has, to industrial agriculture, which is ecologically destructive and leads to global warming, is not only leading to the marginalization of the farming communities but is leaving behind a large ecological footprint the cost of which will be borne by the future generations. The ecological debt that Brazil has created in the process outweighs the short-term economic gain that it is looking for. Since there is no way to measure the ecological footprint in economic terms, Brazil seems completely unconcerned.

I am dismayed at the way agribusiness companies, including multinational giants, control the Brazilian economy. Agribusiness thrives on destruction of the pristine forests, poisoning the soils, mining groundwater, and contaminating the food chain. Recent studies show that small farmers are the worst hit, and are swarming into the cities. Regardless, the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as the Ministry of Commerce, appear to be simply facilitating the corporate takeover of agriculture, and are therefore pursuing farm and trade policies that do not project and protect the farming and livelihood interests not only of Brazil but also of the other developing countries.

Eduardo Almeida: What role do you expect democratic states like India and Brazil could play in building of a new world order, free from hunger and with sustainable agriculture, respect for biodiversity, social justice and fair commerce? Being your country is considered the world’s largest democracy, do you have you a critical approach to the Indian Government's unwillingness to prevent recurrent social oppression. What is the problem with democracy? Failing to assure real power to real people in so many countries, should democracy be deepened and redesigned?

Devinder Sharma: There was a time when Abraham Lincoln remarked that, "Democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people." Today, the so-called democracies across the globe, including India, Brazil and the United States, have turned this into "of the industry, by the industry, for the industry." Big democratic giants among the developing world -- Brazil, India, South Africa -- are therefore busy creating a new world order where corporate interests reign supreme. The governments in all these countries have lost touch with the masses, and are following an economic model that does not look beyond business, trade, and industry.

In India, which claims to be the world's largest democracy, there is no plausible justification as to why a third of the 1.2 billion people should be living in hunger. With nearly 47 per cent of the children below the age of six years malnourished, and with 55 per cent of the population classified as poverty-stricken by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), India is projecting itself to be the emerging superpower. In the past few years, ever since India ushered in economic liberalization, the economic disparities have only widened. The rich have become richer and the poor are being driven against the wall. The gradual takeover of the natural resources by industry has created a sense of despair among the tribal communities. Such is the deepening mistrust against the government policies in the poorest of the poor regions of the country, that almost a third of the country, predominantly the mineral-rich belt, is facing rebellion by Maoists.

I wonder how India can be a proud democracy if successive governments have failed to fulfill the aspirations of the majority of the population. How can hunger and poverty exist at such an alarming rate in a democracy? The projection of economic growth, claiming to be the second fastest growing economy, therefore, has little semblance with the realities. The governments have lost touch with the masses, and the real power is in the hands of the Corporate. So much so that a majority of the people's representatives who are elected to Parliament now are millionaires. You cannot win elections if you are not rich. The true essence of democracy has therefore been lost. Democracy has turned into Corporatocracy. I strongly believe that the time has come to have a re-look at what democracy means. Business as usual cannot be allowed to go for long.

Eduardo Almeida: You have said that stock markets are the main protagonists in the depleting of natural resources all over the planet, and in sustaining hunger and inequity. Neoliberalism, capitalism is still the big propeller for development and, indeed, emergent countries, like India, China and Brazil, have grown at high rates in part due to big capital inflows. Do you believe in alternative ways of development in benefit of the excluded majorities and minorities in socially and environmentally sustainable ways?

Devinder Sharma: There is no other innovation (if you don't like to use the word invention) in recent times that has not only influenced but hastened the process of unbridled consumption than the emergence of Wall Street. In fact, economists may refuse to accept it now, and for obvious reasons, but the stock market will lead the world towards the extinction of the human race, as Australian scientist Frank Fenner has warned us.

I am amazed at the way stock markets work. These markets have commodified everything. Much of the world's environmental ills are a direct fallout of the stock market. Stock markets will squeeze every drop of water (or other natural resources) out of the planet. There is a price for everything, including the air you breathe.

The 'growth economics' that emergent economies follow is in reality nothing but violent economics. It unleashes violence against natural resources, against the climate, against nature, and also against our fellow human beings. It shifts natural, physical as well as financial resources from the hands of the poor into the pockets of the rich and elite. We have been often told that 20 percent of the world's population, the haves, control and use the resources of the 80 percent, the have nots. Globalisation further strengthens that monopoly control and widens the already existing disparity. It takes away resources from the hands of the poor, to add on to the wealth of the rich.

Eduardo Almeida: Many socially-concerned thinkers and economists have been arguing that it is inevitable to first push up GDP by all means and only then implement income distribution policies. How do you devise development in the present international framework?

Devinder Sharma: The economists are a clever breed. They designed GDP as an indicator of growth. They crafted it so deftly that we accepted an indicator of personal wealth to be a pointer to national development. What an illusion of growth they created. They made everything, including global climate, look like a commodity to be sold and exploited. The more you exploit, the more GDP goes up. You can destroy a country in war, and then when you rebuild it, the GDP soars. This is what happened to Iraq.

GDP in layman's term means the amount of money that exchanges hands. If you buy a car, the GDP goes up. If you cut a tree, the GDP goes up. But if you preserve the tree, the GDP does not grow. Now you have to decide whether you need the tree or the GDP.

If you look at it globally, the increase in GDP has not led to all round development. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, hunger has broken the 14-year record. Today, one person in 10 in the U.S. is hungry. Unless we reverse this faulty prescription of economic growth, we will never have income being distributed fairly in any population. Let us remember, GDP is not the touchstone to development. It is a smokescreen for the rich to exploit the poor.

Eduardo Almeida: In the context of the present economic crisis and its impact on agriculture and food security, what guidelines and approaches, in your opinion, should be adopted by developing countries in order to prevent disasters and resume sustainable social development?

Devinder Sharma: The economic meltdown has brought in globally US $20 trillion as bailout packages. This package has actually gone to those banks and investment firms who in reality should have been penalized for bringing the world economy to the brink. Instead, they have been applauded and honored for the economic crime they indulged in with all impunity.

The question that needs to be asked is why did the world pump so much money into banks/investment firms? The answer is to keep the financial flow, which will allow governments to keep the pace of economic growth. I have often asked what is the underlying objective of this generosity. The answer I get is to ameliorate hunger and poverty by providing livelihoods, and income opportunities. Unless there is growth, there will not be opportunities for livelihood creation. This is certainly amusing, and smacks of intellectual arrogance bordering on stupidity.

What is being conveniently ducked is that the world needs just US $1 trillion to wipe out hunger, disease and poverty from the face of the planet. We don’t have money for that. But we have US $20 trillion for bailing out the corrupt and the crooks in business and industry.

Eduardo Almeida: To overcome political, economic and ideological structural barriers to social and sustainable development, including to zero hunger, is certainly not an easy task. How can we cope, in this struggle, with extra challenges represented by the so-called world emergencies, like global warming, climate change, biodiversity loss and energy crisis?

Devinder Sharma:The structural barriers to social and sustainable development, including fighting hunger, are actually woven into the faulty neoliberal economic policies. The extra challenges of climate change, global warming, loss of biodiversity and the ever-growing energy crisis are also the result of the growth paradigm.

Let me ask you a question. If the economic prescription for the global economy that the world has been following is so good, please tell me why has the world come to a tripping point? Why have the planet’s natural resources been polluted and plundered? Why are the rivers flowing dirty, and why are the freshwater sources all drying up? Why has biodiversity disappeared at an alarming rate, bringing the world closer to extinction? How come the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes, sponsored by the UN) has to warn that if we do not make radical change in the way the world is progressing, there is not enough time left to prevent the human population from collapsing? This is a clear indictment of the economic policies that the world has been made to follow. The emergencies that you talk about are the outcome of the grossly flawed economic thinking.

The answer lies in what Mahatma Gandhi had told us. He said that the earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not greed. He had also said that what is needed is a production system by the masses and not for the masses. This in essence is the foundation of the concept of food sovereignty that the civil society talks about. Instead of pushing free trade, using the WTO as the policemen, to basically provide a market for the highly-subsidized farm produce of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the world must revert back to attaining food self-sufficiency. Making countries dependent upon food imports is a recipe for disaster, but it certainly adds to GDP and what is not told is -- more the trade, more the global warming. Nevertheless, you will be surprised to know that in the past 30 years or so, ever since the World Bank/IMF began the structural adjustment program, 105 of the 149-odd Third World countries have already become food importers. If the Doha Development Round, the way it is being designed, comes to a conclusion soon, mark my words the remaining Third World countries will also become food importers in no time. And don’t forget, importing food is like importing unemployment. Food will then become the strongest political weapon.

Eduardo Almeida: How do you evaluate the role being played by the UN and its system (UNDP, FAO and others) in the effort to cope with humanity’s main problems? The UN established the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) to be accomplished by 2015. Will that work?

Devinder Sharma: The MDGs are not going to work. I remember when the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996 first declared that it is criminal to see that 24,000 people succumb to hunger every day, and the international leadership expressed urgency to address hunger, promising to remove 50 percent of the estimated 842 million people living then in hunger by the years 2015, I expressed shock and disgust. I said that this is a classic case of political dishonesty.

By the time the world promises to remove half the number of hungry, considering that 24,000 people die every day somewhere from hunger, 128 million people will have perished from hunger alone. How can this be called urgency? Isn’t this a crime against humanity?

The MDG’s have merely reiterated the WFS promise. And, as we now know, the number of hungry has actually increased -- from 842 million in 1996, to 1.1 billion in 2010. The UN can surely bask in the sun, be satisfied with the ‘great’ humanitarian task it is working towards. But the reality is that the UN is no better than the World Bank. The line between the UN and the World Bank has blurred over the years.

Eduardo Almeida: What are your views on South-South cooperation? Countries like India and Brazil share similar conditions in many aspects but still have relatively weak commercial relations and technical-scientific exchange. Old North-South links, structural live inheritances of colonialism, seem to collide with the perspective of Third World countries associating themselves to cope with common challenges. What do you think India and Brazil could do together to upgrade struggle against hunger and for sustainable development with other Third World countries?

Devinder Sharma: It sounds nice to hear of South-South cooperation. Academicians have used this as the answer to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I have always felt amused when I hear of South-South cooperation. I don’t know of any country in the South, which does not aim at emulating the North. Whatever the political leaders might say, they feel honored when invited to queue up for a photo session at G-20 summits. Academicians do the same; economists of course excel in this. If you look at the CVs, they proudly mention the universities in the North they have visited or worked with.

Even when President Lula and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talk of bilateral collaboration, it is more often than not to promote the same system they have borrowed from the Western countries. In reality, the South-South cooperation, if any, is built on the same principles of exploitation. The big brother does exactly the same to the smaller cousin that the U.S. does to India and Brazil.

It does not however mean that South-South cooperation is not possible. All it needs as the starting point is trust and respect. This is possible only if the leader of the big developing country exhibits political statesmanship and refrains from being the big fish that eats the smaller one. Let us hope someday someone shows political sagacity, and a new world order would be born.

Africa is launching an ambitious programme, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to increase agricultural production. Kofi Annan (ex-UN Secretary General) is heading this initiative. Unfortunately, this programme is based on industrial farming and encourages corporate takeover of agriculture. AGRA is not what Africa needs. It is here that Africa could have gone in South-South cooperation with countries of the developing world to look for sustainable farming systems that do not kill farmers. Africa needs to learn lessons from the debacle of the Green Revolution in India. Over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years in India, essentially because the Green Revolution equation has gone wrong. I am sure African leaders don’t want their farmers to die. Therefore Africa does not need AGRA, it needs SAGRA -- Sustainable Agriculture for Africa.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 24, 2010

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