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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Let me begin by identifying the justifiable areas of pragmatic action we may undertake under the ægis of FAO to address the issue. But before we can make our first move, we run into two very thorny problems. First, achieving a more or less common notion of poverty, and the second, what are the actual poverty-inducing mechanisms one may justifiably associate with climate change in our target area?

In many a discussion on this forum and elsewhere, I have emphasized the obvious unjustifiability of using any economic yardstick to measure poverty, for it is based on unstated assumption the human beings are mere numbers devoid of needs common to all people of flesh and blood. I have tried to bring about the awareness that all economic activities and value tokens like money have no value in vacuo, but they acquire a value commensurate with their instrumentality in enabling man to satisfy any one of his six fundamental needs.

Let me offer an extreme example. Imagine a man with sacks of gold coins marooned on a lush tropical island whose inhabitants have a superfluity of food and know nothing about gold coins, and are peaceful but not at all generous to strangers. On this mythical tropical paradise, our visitor will most likely perish of starvation, just like any other penniless waif in a big city during a harsh winter.

Why do not we consider the common cause of suffering and death of both, thwarted ability to satisfy the need for nutrition as a justifiable indicator of poverty? Clearly, having money alone could not have alleviated poverty in both cases. This may be rejected as based on an artificial example, but the assumption, having means to procure food ensures one an adequate nutrition is simply illogical. In addition to having the financial means, food will have to be available for purchase, and the purchaser will have to have the dietary and culinary competence needed to prepare it before one can address one’s need for nutrition.

Just a few more words on our remaining fundamental needs. They are health, education and security in their real general sense, procreation, and a set of non-material needs. The latter are so called, because their satisfaction does not involve any material gain whatsoever; æstetic enjoyment, taking part in games and sports, etc., are some of the means used to meet this need. Their importance to life is not equal in degree, but they all make a contribution to one’s quality of life as a human being.

Many navigators during the great era of exploration, and naturalists and anthropologists (Cook, Dampier, Malinowski, Bougainville, etc., etc.) have left us vivid descriptions of life on islands in the Pacific, while some mediaeval Islamic travelers like Ibn Battuta has given us a picture of life on the Maldives. Allowing for their individual bias (Malinowski was free of it); one cannot help but notice that those islanders enjoyed a higher quality of life during those pre-monetary days than they do now.

I postulate that this is because they cannot now satisfy those six needs as adequately as they did earlier, and it has nothing to do with economic wealth per se. Therefore, it is reasonable to postulate that poverty is one’s state of life when one is unable to adequately satisfy any one or more of our six fundamental needs. After all, many of us agree that there is such a thing as cultural poverty, not an uncommon state of affairs in many an affluent country.

However, FAO has a limited capacity to address all six manifestations of poverty, even though there is a complex link among them. For instance, lack of appropriate agricultural competence (derived from suitable education and training) may induce hunger induced poverty even when other necessary conditions to overcome it obtains. Likewise, a lack of proper health facilities may reduce both one’s ability to produce and/or procure an adequate supply of food. Hence, I will confine myself to poverty alleviation with respect to nutrition, particularly as it is affected by adverse climate change.

After narrowing down our efforts to the most relevant area of a possible way forward, let us look at some of the most important criteria any appropriate and successful action should meet. These criteria fall into two categories, viz., those that apply to non-producers of food, and those that their counterpart should meet. The former group includes politicians, administrators, traders, consumers as well as the food producers, while the second group only includes those who either produce or harvest (fishermen) food. Thus, the consumers overlap the producers, but the latter remains distinct.

From this it should be evident that unless both groups act in unison to achieve our common objective, use of no technological improvement in food production/harvesting per se could ever make a significant improvement in poverty manifesting as hunger or some form of malnutrition. And it will also be evident that appropriate action each group should undertake is distinct and different; while the first group undertakes enabling action, the latter ought to engage itself in actual food production.

Now I think this is our over-riding difficulty. Locally successful relevant projects are legion, but sadly, sustained nationally successful enabling efforts are hard to come by. Perhaps, FAO might begin to explore with greater vigour suitable ways of encouraging the national decision-makers to undertake sustained efforts to enable food producers to carry out their task with greater convenience and profit to themselves rather than to some middlemen.

After this necessary setting of the scene, let us get down to business, to be precise, dealing with the effects of adverse climate change on poverty that manifests itself as an inadequate ability to procure a varied and wholesome diet in a sustainable way. Here, we run into a bunch of variations. They fall into two distinct groups whose mutual dependence is somewhat one-sided. Let me explain this curious point.

While actions of the relevant decision-makers like politicians, administrators, etc., can easily have an enhancing or an adverse effect on mitigating the consequences of climate change on food production, even the most appropriate actions undertaken by the food producers or harvesters could alleviate poverty with respect to nutrition unless all the consumers in an island state are willing and able to act responsibly in unison. Also, it must be borne in mind that what constitute appropriate behavior on the part of general public shows a considerable variation. A non-exhaustive list of those will include the following reasons for this diversity:

Cultural variation; particularly with reference to food culture which can be ignored only at grave peril to the welfare of the inhabitants, for the bio-diversity on and around islands is highly vulnerable to the introduction of foreign species. This in turn, could only exacerbate the effects of climate change.

Water cycle that supplies its water and how it is retained is variable. For instance, Micronesia and Maldives depends on seasonal rains from a global weather system, which is retained in the ground by a stratum of lime stone. But islands like Tahiti and Pitcairn also receive water from rain through the interaction between mountains and moisture laden air resulting from the daily land and sea breeze.

In a considerable number of islands, fisheries are a vital source of food. But, the possibility of those edible fish living there depends on the health of the coral reefs on or around them. These have been criminally destroyed in several places through the use of Sodium Cyanide and dynamite, primarily to provide fish for markets in China and to a lesser extent, to aquaria in affluent homes in East and West.

Many fertile islands have been denuded of their trees turning them into semi-deserts, and when mountainous, rain water has carried away the top soil into the sea killing the corals around them. This has led to soil infertility on land and scarcity of fish on once rich waters. (examples: Madeira, Celebes now called Sulawesi, and all pacific islands where there are tourist hotels for Japanese now)

Danger of radio-active seepage from French and US nuclear tests, and still unremoved chemical weapons from the Second World War. Even though the focus of this threat is small, nobody can be certain of how living things will react to their long-term exposure even in small quantities.

Disproportionate non-native ownership of island property ostensibly to engage in activities to ‘boost’ the local economy. Unfortunately, many still believe in this modernish myth as GDP’s increase on glossy paper, while the local poor get poorer prey to alcohol, drugs, and lethargy losing the last of their possessions, viz., their dignity.

I hope that the foregoing will make it clear that it is difficult to recommend a simple set of best practices of universal applicability without doing more harm than good to our target groups. Obviously, this does not entitle us to remain inactive, and much can still be done. But, it is crucial to understand that our success depends on our willingness and ability to adopt a holistic approach that would embody simultaneous appropriate action by the various sub-groups in the two main groups, viz., the food consumers and producers.

Unfortunately for the islanders on some isles, it is not just the consumers on them who decide what they are able to do. International trade laws can often hamstring every suitable action towards greater resilience in food production and enhanced local nutrition. For instance, consider the case of Panguna copper mine on the island of Bougainville. A referendum is planned for 2019 to determine whether the island should become independent of Papua-New Guinea, and the inhabitants are now dependent on imported food purchased with money earned through the export of copper ore.

The rich flora and fauna on the island as described by the explorer after whom the island is named is no more. And gone are the traditional sources of food. So, nutritional dependence supported through ore export seems to be the only short-term solution. But, how adequate that nutrition would be, depends on international copper prices, and the willingness of the investors to put in money to the mine for the necessary maintenance and improvement. In view of the present politically unstable situation this remains dubious.

So, we need the real cooperation of consumer groups everywhere to help the islanders in two main directions. The reasons for this are very simple, for island climatic changes are mainly due to what happens elsewhere in the world. These events fall into two distinct categories; first, the natural cyclical changes in sun’s and earth’s movements, and fluctuations in solar activity, and secondly, human behavior throughout the globe.

Thus, nothing short of a coordinated and sincere global effort could halt the wide-spread suffering and degradation of island peoples, and help them on the way to regaining their dignity as human beings. Trade is certainly not the way there, for it has so far only led to exploitation and scarcely publicized cruelty and misery. It is not easy to remain unmoved if one is aware of the enormous injustices past and present, and how they are being glossed over even today. But, let us try to be objective lest we be labelled too unfashionable.

I will not go into the wide variety of measures each of us could take to improve our immediate environment, for they have been well publicized. But what we have failed to do is to mitigate some of the greatest hindrances to their wider application, which are beyond the power of the individual to overcome. After dealing with them in outline, I will try to make some general recommendations, which must be adapted to suit a given island’s climatic, geographic and food cultural norms. Under no circumstance should they be coloured by external trade considerations.

We are not born with even a trace of the knowledge and skills needed to enable us to live as civilized humans according to our cultural norms. These including those norms must be acquired through education in its inclusive sense as I have noted earlier in this discussion. At present, trend everywhere is to ‘tailor the individual’s education as dictated by trade and industry’.

This is called a ‘practical education’, but for whom it is most practical, obviously to the owners of industry and traders, is never emphasized. The poor student is made to believe that his interest and that of the trader or industrialist is the same, even though he is often no more than a mere hard-working automaton whose economic status is a far cry from that of his big boss. When you compare the proportional gains the two categories make, it is inevitable that the gap between the rich and poor will continue to increase even if other things remain equal.

But it is not in the mind set of traders and industrialists to keep the status quo. They are merely motivated by increasing their annual gains whether they are able to enjoy them within their life span or not. The principal tool used to achieve this desire for increasing gain is humourously called, “promoting economic growth” or “diversification of investment portfolios”, or even better, “re-location of production units”. The last wonder often leads to many job losses in the newly “de-located” country, and many a derelict factory.

Meanwhile, the country of ‘re-location’ (I will continue to use this semantic monstrosity, ‘re-location’ even though it needs only a vestigial intelligence to realise that one can only relocate something that has already been there and removed.) will begin to contribute even more to adverse climate change than the previous one for two reasons.

Building factories in otherwise virgin areas (country of re-location usually is.) leads to a greater imbalance in solar heat exchange between the ground and space than it did in the country of origin.

Owing to rather flexible standards of production often result in greater emissions of green-house gases and other toxic substances.

Recalling once more oft loudly supported ‘right to culture’, let us try to put into the test, for many a small island state, there seems to be no refuge from their current misery other than in reclaiming as much of their island norms as possible. Apart from a few unfortunate islands containing industrial raw materials like metal ore, petroleum, etc., there is no other practical choice. I wish to underline with greatest emphasis possible that turning them into artificial holiday resorts for the affluent foreigners is worse than the traditional colonialism. Turning islands into tourist camps of various kinds will make a few corrupt islanders, foreign food and drink suppliers, and foreign hotel owners rich, leaving the majority of the local people to work as minions for minimal wages to buy imported ‘food’. This horrid picture can be turned into impressive numbers showing economic boom! But for whom?

I hope that the discussion so far has made it amply clear that amelioration of adverse climate changes as they affects nutrition in small island states depends principally on the actions of the world outside, while some actions often undertaken by foreigners on them have a slightly less disruptive and land impoverishing effect. Let us now see what pragmatic actions might be carried out under FAO in order to mitigate them. These fall into two categories; first, the institutional endeavours that influence the various groups among the consumers, and secondly, field activities tailored to suit the conditions prevailing in specific locations.

Institutional changes:

Trade policies and legislation to halt further building of tourist facilities on small island states, particularly on beaches once covered by coconut palm, and encourage their gradual dismantling. Their effect on local solar heat exchange is dramatic, and its worst consequence is a greatly reduced monsoon rain fall on which islanders depend in many places. This change also affects sea temperature around coral reefs killing the coral with drastic results for local fisheries.

Institute policies and enforceable laws to ensure that the fishing fleets of technically advanced nations (especially Japan, China including Taiwan and Korea) adhere and respect the 200 Kn. Economic zones of the island states. Unfortunately sometimes, political corruption at home enables the technically but not ethically advanced nations to obtain permission to fish in those zones with the help of bribery. As far as I can see, continued media exposure seems to be the only way to elicit enough shame in the corrupting and corrupted nations to behave more responsibly.

World-wide checks and controls to ascertain and ensure that ‘re-located industries follow adequate guidelines on factory emissions especially when‘re-located’ in various categories of ‘developing countries’.

Instruments necessary to halt further global deforestation and initiate immediate environmental regeneration projects like planting native tree species in denuded areas, public spaces, along roads and highways, river banks; initiate research and development of roofing and external wall paint having similar thermal properties as grass or the tree canopy to achieve a solar heat exchange rate more or less similar to that of a natural habitat.

Encouragement of the use of appropriate technology that supports the full use of all renewable resources including human labour, and active discouragement of labour-saving methods for they benefit not the labour, but those who employ it. It is time the experts began to appreciate the simple fact that while labour-saving methods may boost the profits of the investors, it leaves fewer and fewer opportunities to the ever-growing global population for very few of them are able and willing to become experts or investors. Therefore, it would be wise to initiate family planning and economic devolution. One can make a start with some sound anti-trust legislation.

Empowerment of people everywhere through sound public education on the relationship between climate and our environment, and what each and every one of us could easily do.

Local actions to be adapted to suit specific needs:

Increase the local people’s awareness (especially among the younger generation) of how fragile is their environment owing to their limited natural biodiversity in flora and flora, and that of their marine resources despite its great diversity. Once this is understood, it would be easier for them to realise that some of the ‘old practices’ were based on sound scientific fact, and they were sustainable.

Refrain from introducing ‘improved strains’ for most islands (of course, there are some exceptions) has soil best suited for local cultivars that require no fertilisers, biocides etc. It is easier for the latter to be carried to the sea from islands causing great damage to fisheries.

Extensive replanting of local species of utility like coconut, sweet potato, yams, taro, some edible species of Pandanus (Papua New Guinea), etc.

Strict coast-line and coral reef protection and preservation for not only do the local fisheries, but also the safety of the coastal areas from marine erosion depend on them.

Use of the local building materials for housing and deprecating the use of corrugated iron and concrete for the purpose, for the latter entails the extra cost of cooling and the use of fossil fuel.

When a small island nation depends on mineral extraction as a main source of revenue as in Cyprus and Bougainville, it would be wise to establish some fund derived from the profits that may finance appropriate and sustainable agricultural projects with a view to the future.

I am sure that many other contributors will continue to offer many concrete projects while I have limited myself to the conditions they should meet, and to creating an atmosphere more receptive to what is good and sound in the past, and what is destructive and self-defeating in some of the highly advertised modern ways. Island youth might not know what price the affluent pay for their gleaming labour-saving machines and gadgets, but a short documentary on the incidence of obesity and consequent diseases, and money spent on ‘health studios’ and what they do there , should prove to be salutary.

I am afraid that I have been rather polemical here, but I am convinced that the plight of small island states is a problem they will never be able to address on their own, for it is a problem caused by the outsiders in the first place, and then, they were made dependent on outside powers. As most of them have little or no raw material needed by industry, this dependence is near total in some cases. On top of this, their environment is among the most fragile on earth, poor on land in diversity, but enormous in the surrounding seas.

So, one can only draw one logical conclusion; it is incumbent upon us to help, but not help to turn their shores into cheap tourist brochures while the once proud and independent islanders are left to perform menial tasks for tourists, but to help them to be independent from our interference, to make amends at least by supporting them to be once more free, and regain their dignity we deprived them for so long.