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Right to food: Common on lips, absent in the laws

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Save for those being breast-fed, the word food seems to be the song sung by all and sundry. In-between the lines, words such as right to food and food security are thrown. Just what constitutes the right to food and food security? RICHARD CHIROMBO explores these and other issues in a three-part series on the right to food and food security in Malawi.

Even with 50 years in her bag, and six biological children and one orphaned child under her care, Lida Mkwaila remains a statistic— mere statistic— in Ministry of Agriculture’s records.

“I think policy-makers don’t, really, care about people like me. One does not need to look further than our lop-sided policies to understand this. For example, instead of giving farmers like me crops such as sorghum— which does not require fertilisers-we are given maize seed. This spells trouble for us because we have to source fertiliser and, when there is drought, we suffer from food shortages,” says Mkwaila.

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Mkwaila may be a typical villager but, at least, she knows some things that are often overlooked in the corridors of influence at Capital Hill.

Take, for instance, the issue of conservation agriculture.

“Agriculture officials are preaching about ulimi wa mlera nthaka [conservation agriculture] and are encouraging farmers to adopt this kind of farming. Yet experience has taught me that conservation agriculture does not work in dambos [wetlands]; it works very well in high lands. Therefore, those of us who have adopted it [conservation agriculture] in wetlands have reaped disappointment,” observes Mkwaila.

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While a number of studies have been carried out on the issue of conservation agriculture, and recommendations made, it seems that the ‘observation’ that conservation agriculture does not work very well has escaped researchers’ attention.

One of the studies conducted on conservation agriculture is titled ‘Factors Affecting Adoption of Conservation Agriculture in Malawi (A Case Study of Salima District)’ and was carried out by University of Malawi graduate, James Lewanika Mlamba, in a thesis submitted to University College Dublin in November 2010.

The thesis observes, among other things, that the agriculture sector in Malawi faces a horde of environmental challenges such as soil erosion, low soil organic matter, nutrient deficiency and water shortage caused by drought.

Among its findings, the researcher reports that “…farmer trainings were found to have significant impact on adoption and continued use of CA [conservation agriculture] technology. Level of income and first CA inputs acquisition method were found to have significant impact on the retention [sic] the CA practice as those who had higher income and made personal investment in the initial inputs were more likely to continue with the CA technology than their counterparts who solely depended on grants. Weed management, access to farm inputs and crop residue management were the main challenges farmers were facing in the implementation of CA”.

But nowhere in the fine print of the thesis is it pointed out that conservation agriculture does not produce the desired results in dambos.

Still, because policy makers and civil society organisations are advocating it, Mkwaila has no choice but to hold on to conservation agriculture.

Not that, on her own, she has given up on the tramp card, namely conservation agriculture. She has tried, and tries— often with disastrous results. It is almost as if courting farming is courting trouble for her.

“In the end, it is like we are into farming just to ensure that we get the six recommended groups of food. To become self-sufficient, I do a number of things, including making manure, planting trees, attending food nutrition classes.

“This is my third year since adopting conservation agriculture and, while I can say that there is a slight improvement in terms of farm produce, there is a marked difference between those who practice it in dambos and those who practice it on dry lands. I have only harvested five bags of maize this year while my friends have harvested double the quantity on the same size of land,” adds Mkwaila.

As one of the 45 members of Chiwale Scheme in Machinga, Mkwaila can find solace in crops such as ground nuts, pigeon peas, cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, vegetables, among other crops, cultivated by scheme members.

While Mkwaila can still count herself lucky, others are not so fortunate. 41-year-old Cosmas Fire from Mawirika Village in T/A Nkula observes that Malawi cannot attain the status of a food-secure nation if the rights of some of her marginalised citizens are not respected.

“For example, the right of elderly people to access food is being violated in a number of ways. In most projects, the physically challenged are given livestock, instead of food crops. When it comes to coupons, they are often sidelined and, yet, we are made to believe that the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) is one way of ensuring food security,” observes Fire.

He further observes that the issue of coupons is handled with a sense of bloated importance, a development that has turned the programme into a political tool. In the end, it is like there is no humanity – but only statistics— in Fisp as the most vulnerable members of society are left to fend for themselves.

Fire says Malawi can only talk of food security when individuals have food on their teeth and grains in their granaries.

Right to food

While Fire is of the view that the government – through initiatives such as Fisp— is in the forefront suppressing people’s right to food by advancing misplaced priorities, Brown Chirwa, Agriculture Extension Development Officer for the Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom) in Nankumba Extension Planning Area, Mangochi, holds a different view.

Chirwa observes that violations of the right to food start at household level.

“Very often, parents punish children who abscond from school or commit other petty ‘offences’ by denying them food. This is a common form of punishment in rural areas and serves as another form of violating the child’s right to food. This means violations of the right to food start early for some children,” says Chirwa.

Cadecom Programmes Coordinator, Yusuf Mkungula, says there is more to food security than public pronouncements.

“The bottom line is that the right to food is linked to human rights. There is need to ensure that people have enough food and money in their households. We have different rights, one of the most important being right to food,” says Mkungula.

He is speaking from experience. His organisation has been implementing a project titled ‘Increased food security and resilience to climate shocks of 1,250 households in Malawi’ since October 2014.

The only drawback in efforts aimed at promoting citizens’ right to food, as well as house hold and national food security may, ironically, be self-inflicted. Malawi simply has no legal framework to lean on.

Observes Mkungula: “We have no policy or law on right to food and food security. By food security we mean having access to the six food groups all-year round, and having food from January to December.”

And, in the absence of a favourable legal environment, all the likes of Mkungula can do is lobby and hope.

“We believe that, even without the necessary legal framework, we can still address the issue of violations of the right to food. Our hope is that we can work with the government to institute legal framework. We want to ensure we have climate justice in Malawi. By climate justice, we are talking of ensuring that communities are able to access food and enjoy the right to food,” says Mkungula.

Chairperson for the Agriculture Committee of Parliament, Felix Jumbe, says the right to food can only be realised if initiatives such as Fisp start targeting farmer clubs, instead of sticking to the current setup.

“Fisp is not benefitting the right people and has not increased maize production the way farmers’ clubs would. We need to explore the use of farmers’ clubs for us to improve food production levels in the country,” says Jumbe.

Worsening situation

In the absence of an enabling legal framework, the government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, can only rely on ministerial “mandates” to carry out food-related exercises such as the Agricultural Production Estimates Survey (Apes).

The survey is conducted in three rounds every year.

And the Apes results have not been very encouraging this year, with Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Minister, Allan Chiyembekeza, admitting in August this year that “…The results show that maize production has decreased from 3,978,123 metric tonnes realised in 2013/2014 agricultural season to 2,898,123 metric tonnes in the current agricultural season. This represents 27.7 percent decline in production”.

Chiyembekeza did not have good news for other crops as well.

“The results also show decreases in other major food crops such as rice (13.6 percent), millet (11.9 percent), cassava (1.1 percent), sorghum (9.3 percent).”

Production of cotton and groundnuts also decreased by 31.4 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively.

In January this year, President Peter Mutharika appointed an Inter-ministerial Committee on Hunger Situation in Malawi. Chief Secretary to the Government, George Mkondiwa, indicated that Mutharika had appointed Finance, Economic Planning and Development Minister, Goodall Gondwe, to chair the committee that has been tasked to “strategise on the looming hunger and propose strategies” to address impending hunger.

Other members of the committee are Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Minister, Allan Chiyembekeza, and Industry and Trade Minister Joseph Mwanamvekha.

It remains to be seen whether such committees are better than setting up a legal framework that would promote the right to food.

It remains to be seen, also, whether such committees may treat the likes of Mkwaila as human beings other than statistics.

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