La Via Campesina at the CFS: “We can no longer wait”

Contribution by Ibrahim Coulibaly on the volatility of agricultural prices, CFS, 19 October 2011

Around 40 years ago, when I was young, we did not speak of volatility. I still remember how our government gave our parents ploughs, plough oxen, and fertilizer on credit. At the time, there was a public service, the OPAM, that bought food products from farming families at prices that were known beforehand.

Around 30 years ago, I was in secondary school and we were told that it was better to produce for external markets. We began hearing the phrase “deterioration of the terms of exchange” in the discourse of our male politicians. This was a true lament at the time, but it found no echo anywhere. What did it refer to? The prices of export agricultural products were collapsing on the international market. The governments of the time had made the fatal error of encouraging family farmers to produce more export products. When things went wrong, these farmers alone paid the heavy price.

The collapse of our economies and the growth of the public debt in the 1980’s led the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to subject our countries to structural adjustment.

We were told that the state was inefficient and that we needed to make more room for the private sector. At the same time, our states were forced to go even deeper into debt to restore macro-economic balances. We were told to cut all support to sustainable family farming, which was termed unsuccessful. Then the World Bank and its allies launched a true demolition campaign against this type of agriculture.

We were told to produce even more cash crops for export, such as cotton, coffee and peanuts, at very low prices that were set abroad. With these slogans we were told to buy rice from Asia, or flour and dried milk from Europe, all of which are now so volatile. The descent into hell had begun for farming families and for our over-indebted states that were incapable of paying.

Then we were told to become competitive according to the criteria of international financial institutions, and also that our states were no longer authorized to protect us. Our customs tariffs were dismantled and our markets, liberalized. Food products from elsewhere were unloaded onto our markets, making us even more vulnerable to price volatility. Eating habits changed in our cities; the food produced by farming families no longer sold. In West Africa this phenomenon was aggravated by the advent of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and its Common External Tariff, known as the lowest customs tariff in the world.

And yet none of these “solutions” imposed on us pulled us out of poverty. On the contrary, we became even more vulnerable. This is the context in which family farming is asked to be successful.

Today, we are subjected to new challenges that are falling from the skies. Climate change, financial speculation, unpredictable international markets, new policies by developed countries that grab our land to produce fuels. We no longer hear anything about all of these issues, even though they lie at the heart of the volatility that is currently being discussed.

Instead of addressing the causes of our poverty and of the volatility, we have seen complete catalogues of projects and programmes financed in the name of the rural sector. Billions of dollars are mobilized every year but the reality is that more than half of the farming families in most of our countries cannot find 1,000 dollars to pay for a plough, a couple of oxen, a cart or a donkey (see the study by the FAO on agricultural mechanization in Mali).

The high panel of experts should be commissioned to study the efficiency of what is mobilized in the name of the poor. When several hundreds of millions of dollars are mobilized, how much makes it to the fields of the poor and of the women, who are so often mentioned? You would be surprised by the results of such a study. Or maybe not. Considering how long they have been mobilizing all these millions in our name, we clearly should have all been rich by now.

In spite of all of this, and without any aid, any protection whatsoever, and with all the powerful of the world against it, sustainable family farming has not disappeared.

Unfortunately we had to suffer the current crisis for our governments to become once again aware of the necessity for food security based on food production at the national level. However, sustainable solutions are not yet in sight.

To solve the problem of price volatility, we the sustainable family farmers, with the support of other actors in civil society, believe that it is necessary:

← To give priority to our local markets and regional integration, rather than let our prices be dictated by remote and unpredictable international markets. This is the only solution that will enable us, family farmers, to feed ourselves, our communities and our cities.


← To halt all forms of competition between farmers and production modes with a very large disparity in productivity (the hoe against the tractor plus the subsidy is a tall order). One does not have the right to tell us that we will eat when we have become competitive.


← To stop the policies which are destabilizing our systems of sustainable family farming. In times of overproduction we suffer from dumping, in times of shortage we suffer from restrictions on the export of food we have been told to no longer produce.


← Our governments must aspire to policies that will pull us out of poverty and destitution, protect our systems of sustainable family farming from volatile markets, and support us so that we can invest to feed our populations.


← We know what needs doing. Instruments exist to stabilize prices: appropriate customs tariffs, strategic stocks at different levels, the management of offer and demand, and regulations against speculators. In the name of whom is the World Trade Organization forbidding us from doing this?


← Sustainable family farmers, women and vulnerable groups in rural areas must be granted real access to the funds mobilized in their name so they can buy agricultural equipment, fertilizers and seeds, and create value with their products so they can finally begin to live with dignity from their work.

To finish, I want to encourage each of you when we sit in front our plates of food this lunchtime, to meditate and recall that human beings are dying of hunger and malnutrition at this very moment because costly meetings are organized around their fate but without the actions that could save them being carried out. We can no longer wait.