Man-made food crisis grips Southern Africa

Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are on the verge of a famine exacerbated by poor management and corruption.

A few pumpkin leaves and a small bowl of peanuts are all Josam Tsumba could find or beg from neighbors. So once again he, his wife, and his five children will spend the day with empty bellies.

This should be a time of plenty in Malawi, when the year's ripened corn has been plucked and is laid out to dry for storage during the Southern Hemisphere's winter. But there are many here, like Mr. Tsumba, who had no crop to harvest this year.

At least six Southern African countries are experiencing severe food shortages brought on in part by a combination of flood and drought over the past several years. The United Nations estimates that some 5 million people regionally will require food aid.

But the severity of this crisis, particularly in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, which are suffering their worst food crises in decades despite only minor weather changes, is due less to Mother Nature than to bad governance. Therein, say experts, lies both the tragedy and the hope for solution.

Locals are calling this the season of "Chinkukuzi," which means "everyone is dying."

"I call it the drought plus factor," says Michael Glantz, a political scientist who studies famine and food security issues in Africa for the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "It's usually drought plus some other major factor, like war. But climate gets the blame, because then it's 'God' doing it."

The situation in Zimbabwe, once one of Southern Africa's breadbaskets, better fits the classic model of a food crisis. There, the seizure of white-owned commercial farms has devastated agricultural production, and bad fiscal policy has caused a foreign-currency shortage that has made it difficult for the country to make up the shortfall.

In Malawi, the situation is more complicated. Although one of the world's least developed countries, this is not Ethiopia or Sudan, where crops yearly must be coaxed from barren, desert soil. It is lush and green, crisscrossed by rivers and bordered on the east by the spectacular Lake Malawi.

And yet, during the past several months, thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – have died of hunger. With cornmeal, the staple food here, at sky-high prices, many people have resorted to foraging to survive, some even diving into crocodile-infested rivers to dig out water-lily bulbs.

Others, like Stafford Mpingu, have sold everything they own. In desperation, Mr. Mpingu even sold the roof of his home as firewood, making enough money for only a handful of corn.

Complicated causes

The immediate causes of Malawi's current food crisis are a complicated tangle of government mismanagement, well-intentioned international advice gone wrong, and the failure of just about everyone to realize the extent of the problem until too late.

"One problem is that this has been a slow onset disaster. It doesn't have the photogenic aspect of the flood in Mozambique or famine in Ethiopia," says Tom McCormack, the deputy field office director for Save the Children US. "Malawi is a green, fertile place.... But that doesn't mean that people aren't starving."

One major cause of the current crisis is simply that last year many farmers had no seeds and fertilizer.

"I have a little piece of land and I tried to plant, but there was nothing to reap," says Mr. Tsumba, explaining how his corn withered and died. He says he could not afford fertilizer last year, without which corn will not grow on his dry and overused land.

Over the past several years, the international community has been pressuring the Malawian government to reduce agricultural subsidies in hopes of stimulating competition and a private market. But with a 56 percent interest rate, few here can afford to buy fertilizer or seeds on the private market.

At the same time, on the advice of international donors, the government cut by two-thirds a free seeds and fertilizer program that in 1998 reached every Malawian household.

"The weather part is very small, because the floods and dry spells were localized," says Ellard Malindi, Malawi's secretary for agriculture and irrigation. "Most of it was due to the lack of inputs [of fertilizer and seeds]." Corn production during that period, from 1998 to 2001, fell to 1.4 million metric tons from 2.4 million.

But the international community does not bear all the blame. The safety net that was supposed to protect Malawi against famine – the National Strategic Grain Reserves – has disappeared.

International donors had suggested the country cut the reserves to between 30 and 60 thousand metric tons from 167 thousand, enough to see the country through a couple of months. In theory, this would allow enough time for emergency food to be imported.

But by the end of last year, when the government and international community first recognized the looming food crisis, there was nothing left of the grain reserves, and the government has been unable to account for where much of the grain, – and the money from its sale – has gone.

Financial experts also say the sale of the grain artificially deflated corn prices last year, reducing the profits of farmers, which in turn made it more difficult for them to purchase seeds and fertilizer.

AIDS a factor

In many ways, however, the current crisis has deeper roots. Poverty, overpopulation, and the increasing ravages of HIV/AIDS are making it increasingly difficult for the Malawian people to deal with even minor climactic changes. The social safety net, say international aid workers, has collapsed.

"We're finding that the ability of people to cope is less and less," says Mr. McCormack, whose organization is working with the World Food Program (WFP) to distribute food aid to high risk families, particularly those hit by HIV/AIDS.

The WFP is currently feeding 2.6 million people in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland are also in critical shape.

In the short term, the government and international donors are trying to import enough food – an estimated 600,000 metric tons – to meet projected shortfalls, and is encouraging farmers to plant winter crops, something that hasn't been done here for many years.

Cycle of dependence

In the long term, however, experts say Malawi must find a way to break the cycle of dependence on international aid and subsidies. It must lower interest rates and build a commercial market for seeds and corn.

Observers here say that Malawi hasn't rejected the free-market model, but that the timing of its implementation was poor.

Agricultural experts say the country must find ways to renew the soil and increase production through better seeds, crop diversification, and a decrease in dependence on soil-leeching corn.

The Malawian government hopes to encourage the planting of alternative crops such as cassava, rice, beans, and sweet potatoes, which are less taxing on the land.

Additionally, since most Malawian farmers grow only white corn, food donors are encouraged to give yellow corn so as to not depress market prices.

In June, Southern African governments and aid agencies will meet in South Africa to assess the situation and to work toward solutions. Improving Africa's infrastructure and quickly moving aid to where it's needed is a priority of aid agencies.

For the time being, however, most Malawians are thinking more about tomorrow than next year.

"The main problem here is hunger," says Tsumba, looking at his family's meager meal which is set out in baskets in front of their mud hut. "Our need is very great."

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