From the field


Farmers in Madagascar taking on climate changes & land grabs

It was 8am, the coffee was strong and welcome, the small cakes, some savoury and some sweet, made of rice flour, tasty, similar to the vitumbua that are common in Tanzania. I was in the small town of Mahitsy, about 30 kms from Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo. 

Richard Rabetrano was showing me around, giving me some idea of the life and work of farmers in this part of Madagascar. We had started at the market: the essential place for farmers to sell their produce, for the exchange of goods, for meeting, for learning and of course for eating.

At the market a wide range of fresh vegetables and fruit are available as well as other food. There are also shops and traders selling farm inputs, like seeds, equipment, tools and pesticides. 

The coffee stall we stopped at is on the side of the cobbled road running through the centre of Mahitsy. We leaned on the counter and watched the busses, oxcarts, cars and above all pedestrians passing in the crowded road, many bringing goods to and from the market and the surrounding shops.

The coffee, grown, roasted, ground, sold and drunk in Madagascar was great and only cost 200 Ariary (about 6c/5p) a cup, the small cakes 50 Ariary (about 1.5c/1.17p) each. 

Photos - Top left: Marc has coffee in Mahitsy market – it costs just 6c/5p.  Top right: Fresh vegetables at the market. Middle: A husband and wife work in their field of green beans. Bottom left: Rabetrano stands in his field where both he and his neighbouring farmers have to rely on a mere trickle of water to irrigate their fields  Bottom right: It is the dry season. In this valley we can see the irrigated fields and the dry land around.

Rabetrano is a local farmer who is part of the leadership of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum. He and his national farmers’ confederation (Confédération des Agriculteurs Malagas) organised to get the government to allocate land and build better infrastructure for the market we were at.

Oxfam has for years supported ESAFF in its work to link up farmers from across the region, enabling the sharing of experiences and knowledge with each other and also joint advocacy for their essential interests. ESAFF has advocated for farmers, often alongside Oxfam, on issues like trade policy, climate change and land grabs.

Land grabs that in some cases have taken the land that the ESAFF members depend on for their prosperity. Rabetrano and the other farmers I met can work hard, produce crops and set up local markets, but there are policy and other decisions that can undermine all their work. 

After the market we visited farms. It is the dry season and crops are only growing in the river valleys where there is enough water. We talked to a husband and wife who were picking green beans in their field.

With carefully constructed irrigation channels these and other farmers are producing beans, peas and other legumes as well as some potatoes, tomatoes and green vegetables. The same fields will be planted with rice once the rain comes.

Rabetrano’s own fields were dry; the clay rich soil hard and empty, aside from some stalks of rice plants left from last season. “There is just not enough water this year,” he explained and showed me the trickle of water he and other neighbouring farmers have to rely on.

“Last year we had good rain and I was able to plant some land throughout the year,” Rabetrano said. Now he is waiting for the rain before ploughing and planting, rain that has become unpredictable over the last years.

Five days before there was a little rainfall and Richard had hired someone with oxen to plough land higher up the hill, but since then there has been no more rain and the soil is dry and dusty; there is no point in planting yet.

Despite the lack of water Rabetrano manages, with careful use of his 5 hectares of land, to produce food for the market and home, supporting himself and his family.

He combines different crops on the same land, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes by rotating crops, to replenish soil fertility and minimise the need for fertiliser. He farms with little environmental impact or carbon footprint.

In another village we found a vibrant cattle market, hundreds of men (yes, it was almost all men) gathered to sell and buy cows.  Alongside the field where the market was a line of small buildings contained eating houses (mostly run by women), where a busy trade was being done.

Other businesses were also there to take advantage of the market opportunities. I bought a handmade sisal rope; just in case I bought a cow and needed to lead it home. I had to explain to some of the sellers that getting a cow on the plane was going to be hard. The cattle are used for meat and milk as well as for ploughing and transport.

At Rabetrano’s neat two-floor house we had a tasty and nutritious lunch of rice (from Richard’s fields of course) and spinach with a just a few small morsels of beef mixed in. The meat a small part of this meal, just adding a bit of protein and flavour as meat has done in the diets of many throughout history.

This is not consuming meat in the way the rich of the world now increasingly do with huge environmental and sustainability repercussions.  

Rabetrano lives upstairs in the house with his wife and younger daughter (his older children have left home). His sister lives downstairs with her children. On the desk at one end of the combined living and dining room where we were sitting is a computer, the internet modem working via the cell-phone network.

The connection may be a bit slow and expensive, but Rabetrano can be in touch with fellow farmers in different parts of the world and his daughter, who is doing clothes design, can follow international fashion trends. Rabetrano also uses his smart phone to get online and Facebook has been the main way I communicate with him since returning home to Tanzania.

I had come to Madagascar to attend an Africa Forum of the International Land Coalition, which Oxfam is a member of. The Forum brought together organisations working on land rights and land governance issues across Africa to share experiences and develop approaches to ensure good land governance for sustainable development in Africa.

Over the last decades there have been improvements in land policy in many African countries. In 2009 the heads of state of all African countries, meeting in the summit of the African Union agreed on a Framework and Guidelines for Land Policy in Africa. This serves to encourage and guide countries to “Strengthen Land Rights, Enhance Productivity and Secure Livelihoods.” 

Such agreements can seem like a lot of talk with little action. Indeed there are real challenges in getting implementation of policies to make real difference in people’s lives. At the same time, however, we are seeing progress and all the organisations gathered at the Forum in Madagascar are working to make the policy commitments known to communities and to people in poverty and pushing to ensure there is implementation.

Rabetrano, like many other farmers in Madagascar, has a document from the local authority confirming his inheritance of land from his parents, but the legal strength of such documents is questionable. There are others who have no documentation at all to show their rights to the land that they depend on and need to invest in for their livelihoods.

Community practice and knowledge of which land belongs to whom continues to be important for people’s sense of tenure security, whether people have documents or not, but this can be hard to defend when there are large government or private investments.

Land reforms in 2005 aimed to give citizens in Madagascar stronger rights over their land and set up a more affordable process for those with land rights to get a proper certificate documenting that right. This has increased the sense of security on their land, for those who have got the certificate.

There are challenges, however, with only a limited number of the certificates issued. Rabetrano has not got one yet, and most of those issued have gone to relatively wealthy people. Although the law calls for gender equality, men are still seen as the owners of land with the result that over 80% of land held by couples has been certified in the name of the man alone.

Large-scale land grabs are a real threat that increases the need for secure land rights and strong organisation of people aware of and able to defend their rights. One land grab in Madagascar involved over a million hectares of land, but was eventually cancelled after protests.

So strong where people’s objections that the deal contributed to the overthrow of the president. Other land grabs continue and as investors seek to profit from the rich natural resources of the country they are too often threatening not only the livelihoods of farmers, like Rabetrano, but also the vibrant markets and other local economic activities that the local agriculture is a central part of.

The area I visited with Rabetrano is in the wealthier highlands of the country, close to the capital city, which means market opportunities and easier access. Not all farmers are as well situated; indeed Madagascar is ranked 155 on the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index and does have extreme poverty.

What has been good to see is what farmers like Rabetrano can do when the conditions are right. Rabetrano is creating a good quality of life for his family and contributing to the economy. His children have got an education and are having greater choices about what kind of future they want.

This cannot be taken for granted though; the right conditions need to be extended to other farming areas and also defended from the real threats posed by climate change, bad trade deals and land grabs.

Marc Wegerif is a South African, currently based in Tanzania, who has worked on development and human rights issues in a range of organisations for over 25 years and has a Masters in Land and Agrarian Studies from the University of the Western Cape. Marc has focused on land rights issues for much of his professional life and is currently Food and Land Rights Advisor with Oxfam Ireland. In this role Marc is involved with international advocacy and running several multi-country projects. He is married with two daughters. This blog is a personal reflection and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Oxfam. 



Hunger and conflict pushing South Sudan to the brink of famine

As humanitarian crises in the Middle East dominate news headlines and the world rallies to tackle the ebola outbreak, hunger and conflict have combined to push South Sudan – the world’s newest country – to the very brink of famine.
The recent Scottish referendum is a stark reminder that even in times of peace and democracy, the path to independence can divide a nation. In Ireland, we know too well the enduring struggles the journey towards independence can bring.
South Sudan became the newest country in the world in 2011 following two decades of civil war in what was then part of Sudan. A green country not unlike our own where the River Nile flows, independence brought optimism for a brighter future.
But the high hopes of just three years ago now lie in tatters. At least 10,000 people have lost their lives and over one million have fled their homes. Around four million people (more than the population of Leinster and Munster combined) are struggling to find enough to eat.
In a report titled ‘From Crisis to Catastrophe’, Oxfam Ireland and other aid agencies including Christian Aid, Concern, Goal, Trócaire, Tearfund and World Vision have warned that the number of people facing dangerous levels of hunger is expected to increase by 1 million between January and March next year.
They are not the victims of nature, but of a disaster which is the result of a political dispute between two leaders that has escalated into a conflict rooted in the unresolved tensions of the Sudan civil war combined with the proliferation of arms and the lack of development in what is one of the poorest countries in the world.
There are fears among those working on the ground that efforts so far this year to prevent the crisis from deteriorating will falter as rival sides are regrouping ready to resume violence once the rainy seasons end this month. The threat of famine is very real.
Despite this, the sheer number and scale of crises worldwide – Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, the Central African Republic and now the ebola virus among them – means the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Sudan has slipped off the news agenda.
The UN has declared South Sudan the world’s worst food crisis. But if we wait for an official declaration of famine to put South Sudan in the global spotlight, it will be too late. By the time famine was declared in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in July 2011, more than 125,000 people, half of the famine’s victims, had already died.
Since the violence broke out in December, men, women and children have been targeted because of their ethnicity and many have lost the people they love most in the world. They are scared and hungry.
Many have had to leave behind their possessions, crops and livestock or sell their assets to escape and have no means to buy food, water and other essentials. The conflict has meant that people were not able to plant crops. Camps are becoming overcrowded and poor sanitation is increasing the risk of disease.
Gwada Joseph (27) walks through open sewers in the Malakal camp for internally displaced people in the Upper Nile province, where heavy rains are making life intolerable for civilians. Gwada fled her home in Malakal town during the second rebel attack on her town in February 2014. Her husband was unable to escape and died in the fighting, while Gwada, her mother and four children made it to the safety of the UN camp.
Above: Gwada Joseph, 27, with son Mark, 1, in the Malakal IDP camp, South Sudan, where recent rains are making life intolerable for civilians. Photo: Simon Rawles/ Oxfam
Her home in the camp routinely floods in the rains, making life unbearable for her and her children. The rains in Malakal mean flooding is a regular occurrence and it is common to see people having to wade through water and mud that’s knee deep with little escape from mosquitoes, sewage and disease.
International aid – including Ireland’s contribution – has had a significant and positive impact on Gwada and her people’s lives. Food distributions make the difference in people eating even one meal a day and clean water has prevented more serious outbreaks of disease, while the distribution of solar lamps is helping keep girls and women safe.
Yet a massive funding gap remains (the UN World Food Programme estimates that $78 million is needed each month to deliver assistance) and the outlook for 2015 is of great concern, with news that 2.5 million people are projected to be in crisis or emergency from January to March 2015.
Sadly, this is not a crisis that will be ended simply with more aid. There needs to be political pressure to end this conflict. If the international community really wants to avert a famine then it must take a stronger stance towards the leaders of South Sudan increasing diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
The UN Security Council must impose an embargo on the arms and ammunition that are sustaining the conflict and ensure that it is rigorously enforced. Every political negotiation should focus on the most important priorities; overcoming the obstacles that South Sudan’s people face in reaching aid; ending the violence immediately; and searching for a sustainable political solution.
The world must protect South Sudan’s people from violence; without ending the violence, the threat of famine will never be far away. With more vigorous diplomacy and swift action to convene a political solution inclusive of all people in South Sudan, the world has a chance to prevent that.
Otherwise 50,000 children will die from malnutrition unless we wake the world up and act now.
Because declaring a famine is like declaring a car crash – once it happens, it’s too late.

South Sudan: From the Other Side of the War


Eating and talking food rights in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Tuesday evening, the paper dosa arrived – a large sheet of crisp and thin folded pastry about 30cms high and longer – filling the large metal plate. In small containers on the plate were spicy dips and coconut to go with the dosa. 

My partner, Teresa, and 12-year-old daughter, Zora, were having dinner with two friends who are from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Swaad restaurant has good and reasonably priced food; it is three floors up on the roof of a building belonging to the Badminton Club and, yes, they do play badminton there. 

From our table we could look down on the end of Kisutu Street where most of the Hindu Temples in Dar es Salaam can be found. The food we were eating is another result of the community of Indian descent who have long been part of the society along the East African coast.

They have come as traders and later as labourers and administrators, especially when the British colonies in East Africa were administered from India. The lamb kadai and palak paneer were excellent, the Tanzanian rice typically tasty and we had to compete with Zora to get a piece of the garlic naan.

Our friends told us about the research they were doing on the sugar industry in Tanzania. It is an industry the Tanzanian government wants to expand and one involving a number of large companies like Illovo (one of the world’s biggest sugar producers) and numerous small farmers as well.

Sugar is one of the commercial crops in the controversial Southern Agricultural Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) public-private partnership scheme that Oxfam looked at in its research for the paper Moral Hazard: ‘Mega’ public-private partnerships in African agriculture.

Probably the biggest challenge this year has been the issuing of licences to import sugar into Tanzania. Now one finds sugar from India all over Dar es Salaam and local farmers who have increased their sugar production have not been able to sell their produce.  

The government of course wants to ensure that consumers can get sugar and at affordable prices, not least in the fast growing city of Dar es Salaam with its population of over 4 million people. On the other hand farmers, small and big, say that now they cannot sell their harvest, at least not at a price that covers their costs of production.

Without strong political and economic influence, it is the smaller farmers who are losing out more in access to limited processing capacity and markets.

During the day I had been at a popular tribunal-style event convened by the Tanzania Civil Society Forum on Climate Change (Forum CC) and Oxfam to hear community experiences of large land deals and the impact of climate change on their lives.


Photos: Top A schoolgirl addresses the crowd during the climate change march in Dar es Salaam. Bottom left: Eluka Kibona, Oxfam Economic Justice Campaign Manager in Tanzania, speaks to people at the climate change march. Bottom right: A woman joins the discussion at a tribunal-style event to hear community experiences of large land deals and the impact of climate change on their lives.

This was part of our Food and Climate Justice Campaign. A week earlier, while tens of thousands marched in New York and other parts of the world including Belfast and Dublin, young people also marched in Dar es Salaam to raise awareness of climate change in Tanzania and to add their voices to the global call for action on climate change.

The ‘tribunal’ was held in the historic Karimjee Hall in the centre of Dar es Salaam. This had been the seat of the first Parliament of Tanzania, back in the days of former leader Julius Nyerere when the tide of liberation from colonialism was sweeping across much of Africa. The hall with its parliamentary-style benches down each side and large seats for the presiding officers at the front created a fitting atmosphere to hear the serious stories that were shared. Judge Mizray of the land court led the panel hearing the cases. 

While the people’s tribunal was not a formal court and had no formal decision-making power, it was a rare opportunity for people from remote and impoverished communities to be heard and taken seriously. They reached not only the audience present in the hall, but also the public through the media – television, radio and newspapers – that covered the event.

Volunteers form ForumCC tweeted information (using #MahakamaYaWazi) from the tribunal and posted on Facebook. While they could not make binding orders, the judges were able to give advice to the communities on what they could do about their cases. 

We heard about local farmers who lost land they used to produce food on as a private school was built and expanded in their village. The school now controls over 500 acres of land. It was agreed that education is important, but if a school was needed people should be consulted and anyone who gives up land for the school should be compensated and receive alternative land.

None of this happened in this case and to make matters worse most of the land people have been removed from for the school is not currently being used.  

In another case a Dutch company acquired over 34,000 hectares with promises of community development and jobs. But the little support they started to provide, like school lunches in the local primary school, soon stopped and then the company ended all its operations, with the people who had gotten jobs losing them.

Despite the operations having been stopped, the company still holds onto the land and the community want it back. They have taken their case with the Ministry of Land and the Tanzania Investment Centre for some years, but with no success so far.

These were just a few of the cases heard on day one of the tribunal and many involved land rights violations and land conflicts. Land conflicts will become more common and harder to resolve as climate change affects rainfall, water availability and people’s ability to produce on the land, as evidenced by a video compiled for previous hearings. 

In my input to the tribunal I shared information on some of the international laws and conventions that our governments have all agreed to. The right to food is recognised as a fundamental human right. The right to land is also confirmed in international conventions and the violation of land rights is known to lead to other human rights violations, like violating the right to food for people who depend on the land to feed themselves. 

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa has committed states to ensure they “provide women with access to clean drinking water, sources of domestic fuel, land, and the means of producing nutritious food” and “promote women’s access to and control over productive resources such as land”.

Yet many of the cases presented at the tribunal highlighted the way women suffer more from the impacts of land grabs and climate changes.

The United Nations Guiding principles on business and human rights confirm that states must protect people’s human rights and business must respect human rights (that is not violate any one’s rights) and further that there must be remedy for victims of any violations.

Sadly we heard how, far from protecting people’s rights, the Tanzanian government has too often collaborated with companies that for their part have not respected people’s rights. And for those who shared their stories at the tribunal, there has been no remedy. 

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, has argued that climate change is a human rights issue as it is violating people’s right to food. 

The challenge is making these rights real in people’s lives, as Judge Mziray says: “The decisions of the courts need to be respected, the courts hear cases and make orders to defend people’s rights, but too often they are not implemented.”

Back to the restaurant, my daughter Zora was getting tired and bored with talk of agriculture, land rights and food security. It was time to go home. My family, friends and I were lucky enough to be able to enjoy the good food we did that evening, not something any of us should take for granted. 

Marc Wegerif is a South African, currently based in Tanzania, who has worked on development and human rights issues in a range of organisations for over 25 years and has a Masters in Land and Agrarian Studies from the University of the Western Cape. Marc has focused on land rights issues for much of his professional life and is currently Food and Land Rights Advisor with Oxfam Ireland. In this role Marc is involved with international advocacy and running several multi-country projects. He is married with two daughters. This blog is a personal reflection and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Oxfam. 


Gap between rich and poor widening – and it’s not just us saying it

Inequality is rising – to the detriment of us all. You might expect an organisation like Oxfam to say that, but it’s not just us.

In the past year everyone from Barack Obama to Pope Francis, IMF chief Christine Lagarde to UN head Ban Ki-Moon have highlighted the dangers caused by extreme inequality and how it holds back billions of people from reaching their full potential and getting out of poverty.

We revealed earlier this year that 85 people in the world hold as much wealth as half of the entire population of the planet. Just this week, Credit Suisse reported the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population is getting wealthier, owning more than 48 per cent of global wealth, and warned growing inequality could be a trigger for recession.

There are those who argue that inequality is a good thing – it motivates people to work hard and those who are wealthy are simply enjoying the fruits of their labour.

The problem is the rules are rigged against the poorest and in fact against everyone except the wealthy, making equality of opportunity a myth. As writer and activist George Monbiot put it: “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

Inequality is not inevitable – it’s the result of years of deliberate policies and rules that have been rigged in favour of the few. But strategies to bring about economic recovery after the financial crisis have been skewed in favour of the wealthiest. In poor countries, rising inequality means the difference between children getting the chance to go to school and sick people getting life-saving medicines.

For prosperity to be sustained it must be shared more equally. To do that we need make the rules fair, rules like taxation, so that everyone pays a fair share and loopholes are closed. We campaign for basic healthcare and education to be provided for all – it’s a basic right and also means that everyone has a fighting chance in life. We need transparent and accountable government so that wealthy special interests can’t use their power to rig the rules. We know that these rules can be changed to benefit everyone, and that together, we can tackle inequality.

More and more people are joining Oxfam in talking about inequality and how we can tackle it for everyone’s benefit. Today is Global Blog Action Day when thousands of bloggers are joining the conversation on inequality to share ideas. Get involved here.

Follow #BAD14 on Twitter for more updates on Blog Action Day 2014.


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