Food Rebellions: Mozambicans Know Which Way the Wind Blows

[A version of this article appear’s in The Observer, Sunday September 5, 2010.]

It has been a summer of record temperatures – Japan had its hottest summer on record.[1] Same with South Florida and New York.[2] Meanwhile, Pakistan and Niger are flooded, and the Eastern US is mopping up after Hurricane Earl. As any climatologist will tell you, none of these individual events can definitively be attributed to global warming. But to see how climate change will play out in the twenty-first century, you needn’t look to the Met Office. Look instead to the deaths and burning tyres in Mozambique’s ‘food riots’ to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust social and economic systems.

The immediate causes of the protests and in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, and Chimoio about 500 miles north, are a 30-percent price increase for bread, compounding a recent double-digit increase for water and energy.[3] When nearly three quarters of the household budget is spent on food, that’s a hike few Mozambicans can afford. So far, the death toll hovers around ten, including two children. The police claim that they had to use live ammunition against protesters because ‘they ran out of rubber bullets’.[4]

Deeper reasons for Mozambique’s price hike can be found a continent away. Wheat prices have soared on global markets over the summer in large part because Russia, the world’s third largest exporter, has suffered catastrophic fires in its main production areas. These blazes, in turn, find their origin both in poor fire-fighting infrastructure and Russia’s worst heatwave in over a century.[5] On Thursday, Vladimir Putin extended an export ban in response to a new wave of wildfires in its grain belt, sending further signals to the markets that Russian wheat wouldn’t be available outside the country.[6] With Mozambique importing over 60% of the wheat its people needs, the country has been held hostage by international markets.[7]

This may sound familiar. In 2008, the prices of oil, wheat, corn and rice peaked on international markets – corn prices almost tripled between 2005-8.[8] In the process, dozens of food-importing countries experienced food riots, one of which claimed the political scalp of Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.[9]

Behind the 2008 protests were, first, natural events that looked like an excerpt from the meteorological section of the Book of Revelations–drought in Australia, crop disease in central Asia, floods in South East Asia. These were compounded by the social systems through which their effects were felt. Oil prices were sky high, which meant higher transport costs and fossil-fuel-based fertilizer prices. Biofuel policy, particularly in the US, shifted land and crops from food into ethanol production, diverting food from stomachs to fuel tanks. Longer term trends in population growth and meat consumption in developing countries also added to the stress. Financial speculators piled into food commodities, driving prices yet further beyond the reach of the poor. Finally, some retailers used the opportunity to raise prices still further, and while commodity prices have fallen back to pre-crisis levels, most of us have yet to see the savings at the checkout.

So, is this 2008 all over again? The weather has gone wild, meat prices have hit a 20 year high, groceries are being looted, and heads of state are urging calm. The general view from commodities desks, however, is that we’re not in quite as dire straits as two years ago. Fuel is relatively cheap and grain stores well stocked. We’re still on track for the third-highest wheat crop ever, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO),[10] so even without Russian wheat, there’s no need to panic.

While all this is true, it misses the point: for most hungry people 2008 isn’t over. The events of 2007-8 tipped over 100 million people into hunger, and the global recession has meant that they have stayed there. In 2006, the number of undernourished people was 854 million.[11] In 2009, it was 1.02 billion – the highest levels since records began. The hungry aren’t simply in Africa. According to one survey, over Christmas 2009 in the United States, 57 million Americans weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from.[12] Among those hardest hit by these price rises, in the US and around the world, were female-headed households.[13] The relations and structures of power that produce gender aren’t exempt from the weather, after all.[14] That’s why 60% of those going hungry are women or girls.[15]

Not only are the hungry still around, but food riots have continued. In India, double-digit food price inflation was met by violent street protests at the end of 2009. The price rises were, again, the result of both extreme and unpredictable monsoons in 2009, and an increasingly faulty social safety net to prevent hunger.[16] There have been frequent public protests about the price of wheat in Egypt this year, and both Serbia and Pakistan have seen protests too.

Although commodity prices fell after 2008, the food system’s architecture has remained largely the same over the past two decades. Bill Clinton has recently offered several mea culpas for the international trade and development policies that spawned the food crisis. Earlier this year, he blamed himself for Haiti’s vulnerability to international price fluctuations. “I did that,” he said in testimony to the US Senate. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”[17] More generally, Clinton suggested in 2008 that “food is not a commodity like others… it is crazy for us to think we can develop a lot of these countries [by] treating food like it was a color television set.”[18]

Yet global commodity speculators continue to treat food as if it were the same as television sets, with little end in sight to what the World Development Movement has called “gambling on hunger in financial markets.” The recent US Wall Street Reform Act contained some measures that might curb these speculative activities, but their full scope has yet to be clarified. Europe doesn’t have a mechanism to regulate these kinds of speculative trades at all.[19] Agriculture in the Global South is still subject to the ‘Washington Consensus’ model, driven by markets and with governments taking a back seat to the private sector. And the only reason biofuels aren’t more prominent is that the oil they’re designed to replace is currently cheap.

Clearly, neither grain speculation, nor forcing countries to rely on international markets for food, nor encouraging the use of agricultural resources for fuel instead of nourishment are natural phenomena. These are eminently political decisions, taken and enforced not only by Bill Clinton, but legions of largely unaccountable international development professionals. The consequences of these decisions are ones with which people in the Global South live everyday. Which brings us back to Mozambique.

Recall that Mozambique’s street protests coincided not only with a rise in the price of bread, but with electricity and water price hikes too. In an interview with Portugal’s Lusa News, Alice Mabota of the Mozambican League of Human Rights didn’t use the term ‘food riots’. The protests are far more subtle and politically nuanced. In her words, “The government … can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand that this is a protest against the higher cost of living.” The action on the streets isn’t simply a protest about food, but a wider and more political act of rebellion. Half of Mozambique’s poor already suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the FAO.[20] The extreme weather behind the grain fires in Russia transformed a political context in which citizens were increasingly angry and frustrated with their own governments. Although it’s hard to read it outside the country, that’s a story well known within countries experiencing these food rebellions.

Yesterday, I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the Coordinator of the União Nacional de Camponeses Moçambique – the Mozambican National Peasants Union. “These protests are going to end,” he told me. “But they will always come back. This is the gift that the development model we are following has to offer.” Like many Mozambicans, he knows full well which way the wind blows.

[UPDATE FROM Mozambique: The protesters have scored a victory. The government has agreed to reel back the increases on bread and water, though the electricity price hikes remain in force, and the government will have to make cuts ‘elsewhere’. ]

[3] AFP puts it at 17% – Guardian at 30%, as do most other news sources.
[5] and
[7] My calculations using FAOSTAT for 2007 suggests Mozambique imports 64.4%, but the Independent has the figure at 70%.

8 Replies to “Food Rebellions: Mozambicans Know Which Way the Wind Blows”

  1. This is sad and infuriating. Mozambique’s problems are largely political, as are most of Africa’s problems. Zimbabwe fed both itself and many people in other countries in Africa before Mugabe threw the expert farmers out and gave their farms to his mates.

    One of Mozambique’s problems is the lack of proper infrastructure, most of which was destroyed in the civil war from 1977 to 1992 and has not yet been restored. Improved infrastructure would allow food to be transported to the areas where it is needed. It would also encourage farmers to grow more food than they currently do because they would know that there was a market for their products. As it is, I am sure that most of the small farmers grow only as much as they need themselves plus a little more that they can sell in their immediate area. What’s the point of growing more if you can’t sell it?

    Another problem (as I see it anyway) is that land cannot be sold. However, it can be passed on to direct descendants. This means that larger farms cannot develop, indeed they will tend to get smaller as land is divided up to give to the offspring. This means that it is not economical for the farmers to invest in expensive machinery which would make growing crops cheaper and more efficient. I’m not suggesting that large corporations should be allowed to take over the land. What I am saying is that it would be beneficial to allow those people who wish to give up farming to sell their land to their neighbours. Everyone would benefit. The seller gets money, which he can use to do what he wants. The buyer gets more land which he can use to produce crops more efficiently. And the country benefits from more and cheaper food.

    We know from history that periods of plenty are often followed by periods of scarcity. The Bible tells us of Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, when he interpreted the Pharoah’s dream, saying that there would be seven years of great harvests followed by seven years of very poor harvests. Things turned out how he predicted. Similar things have happened many times since and they will happen again in the future. We should prepare ourselves and adapt, just like Joseph did on behalf of the Pharoah. (I’m not a religious person but this is a very useful story). It is foolish to waste billions, perhaps trillions of dollars on ways to stop climate change. We cannot stop climate change. The climate has changed constantly for millions of years and will continue to do so. We should adapt.

    What do you suggest that Mozambique and all the other poor countries should do to improve their situations?

  2. Excellent article; however, it neglects the issue of population growth. While the numbers of hungry are growing, there are over 75 million people added to the planet’s population every year – most in poor countries where people cannot afford or do not have access to birth control. The triple effect of climate change, peak oil and population growth can only lead to more misery on the planet. In order to live sustainably we need to lower both consumption and conception and develop alternative techologies.

  3. I just read this book about an African boy who builds a small windturbine with scrap material.
    The book tell’s about the preceding famine.
    The reason for this was a bad rain season that year combined with the fact that the world bank made the government sell the stocks before giving new loans.

    As I can presume this has been common practice with the bankers, we will be seeing lots of similar cases in the following years every time crops are lost in a major producing area causing prices to jump on the global or local markets with accompanied food riots.

    solution : in stead of this yearly media carnaval on falling grain stocks and food riots : raise the stocks to a sound level and stop the world bank from forcing countries to sell their stocks !

    yet another solution : in case your country is continues dependent on food aid (Ethiopia), find a way to lower your population without war, famine nor refugees.

  4. please contact me by mail !

    i got a question for you !

    what do you recommand for the world?

    do we need a world government? a world parliament?

    what do we need????

    thanks Raj

  5. Mamadou, “what do you recommand for the world?

    do we need a world government? a world parliament?

    what do we need????”

    Shit, no! The worst thing in the world would be a world government. What we need is for countries to trade with each other fairly. For that, we need governments to step aside and let people get on with it. It is governments that cause death and famine far more than natural phenomena. Again, look at Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Mao’s China, where people were reduced to cannibalism in order to survive, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was political dogma that killed millions of people, not just a bad crop.

  6. I’d like to add one more thing to Neil’s insightful commentary, which is that Raj’s post here focuses on those who eat the food (i.e. all of us), and argues for controlling prices on the basis that none should go hungry.

    The cautionary flag I’d raise is that we must also think about those who produce the food. If prices are artificially kept too low for too long, then either farmers quit raising their crop (as it’s not sustainable for them to produce it at such low prices), or the government must subsidize the farmers to compensate for artificially lowering prices, and so provide them with enough money to grow next year’s crop. All these systems are interdependent, and it’s not as simple as saying “roll back prices by government decree.”

    Here’s another, related example: one of the best things we could do for African farmers is to open our borders to their exports. Because their cost of living is so low, they could sell to us at lower prices than we’re used to and likely find us a bunch of willing buyers. This would in turn incentivize the development of new infrastructure (sorely needed, as Neil noted) because farmers would need to reliably get their crop to market, and the governments could count on a growing and increasingly reliable source of tax revenue (farm receipts) if they spent money to pave roads.

    If we opened our borders to trade like that, it would be more valuable than all the foreign aid ever sent. And it would also decimate the North American and/or European farmer. Most trade deals have that effect: sellers get more customers; buyers see prices come down noticeably but probably not dramatically; and more expensive, local producers go bust. That’s what happened when in Canada we opened our textile industry to foreign competition: clothes got markedly cheaper, especially at the low end, but Canadian garment makers mostly went out of business. Trade deals tend to spread the benefits widely but thinly, while the consequences are confined to one or two groups but can be ruinous.

    Given that reality, what politician is going to say “Helping those African farmers is worth the risk of bankruptcy to our own.”? It’s tremendously hard to get someone to do that.

    I am very sympathetic to the plight of people in poor nations, and any of the choices I’ve outlined above is defensible, but we must make our decisions with eyes wide open, and be prepared to accept all the likely consequences of our actions, not just the happy ones.

  7. Chuck,

    You make some very important points. Socialists tend to think only about the distribution of goods and ignore production. They take production as a given, but, as you point out, production is not a given, it is vitally important to encourage it. How do we do that? We make it profitable for people to produce goods, whether that be food, raw materials or finished goods. If it is not profitable or if all the money that comes from producing the goods is taken and distributed equally to everyone (or if producers are forced to sell at low prices), where is the incentive to produce any more than you need for yourself? There is none. That is why socialist/communist countries inevitably collapse. Economics is as much about production as it is about distribution. You can’t have one without the other. A simple fact but one which idiotic lefties ignore. By idiotic lefties, I mean most politicians and governments in the western world.

  8. I think that three causes of the food riots in Mozambique are missing:
    1) the very low level of tariffs on cereals, including wheat and maIze – 2.5% – and the fact that wheat is imported from next door South Africa where the tariff is zero when we know that the world price of wheat – the US FOB price – is a highly dumped price because of the large subsidies to wheat. The same is true for the EU wheat exports.
    2) Which means that bread has become the cheapest food in large cities like Maputo and Chimoio to the detriment of the local cereals – maize, millet, sorghum -, which is to be combined with the lack of easy to prepare food from local cereals in comparison with bread or pasta. Thus Sub-Saharan Africa ignore maize tortillas or millet tortilla (bajra).
    3) A third reason, which would be much more sensible in the future, is the large land grabbing going on in Mozambique – 4.8 million ha being negotiated according to the media and 2.7 million having been trasferred from 2004 to 2008 according to the World Bank – when the actual cultivated land each year if of 4.75 million ha, even if the permaent meadows and pastures are of 44 million ha. And many of the new land already leased for at least 50 years is devoted to sugarcane to export sugar and ethanol dutyfree to the EU, Mozambique being a least developed country benefitting from the “Everything But Arms” decision of the EU.

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