About Bernard Pollack

Bernard Pollack

Bernard Pollack, an expert on local labor movements and communications, is currently traveling across the continent of Africa with his partner Danielle Nierenberg BorderJumpers.org, meeting with farmers, community organizers, labor activists/leaders, non-governmental organization (NGOs), the funding and donor communities, and others.

His travel writing from Africa has recently been featured in the Montreal Gazette, the NC News Observer, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Des Moines Register.

He holds an M.A. in Political Management from The George Washington University School of Political Management and a B.A. from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.


Latest Posts by Bernard Pollack

Land Acquisitions: Is There a Win-Win Solution?

August 8, 2010 by  

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This is the second in a series of articles on large-scale agricultural investments, or land-grabs.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in order to feed the anticipated 9.1 billion people in 2050, agricultural production worldwide needs to increase by 70 percent. Historically, the response to global hunger has focused on food aid and agricultural investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and increasingly, genetically engineered seeds. More recently, governments of wealthy countries lacking in fertile, arable land or abundant water supplies have begun to buy or lease large tracts of land in poorer countries for agricultural production and export.

The focus of many recent inter-governmental agency reports has been the fate of small-holders in the midst of large scale land acquisitions by foreign investors. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
While no-one knows the exact number of these controversial deals, hundreds have been reported in the media and in a slew of recent reports on the issue. Increasingly seen as a sound business investment or a means to enter the biofuels market (in addition to ensuring food security) investors are not only governments, but also agribusiness and financial companies. A clickable map created by the International Food Policy Research Institute illustrates a wide range of deals, like South Korea’s securing of 690,000 hectares in Sudan for wheat, to 2.8 million hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo for China’s ZTE International’s biofuel oil palm plantation.
In his opening remarks at the World Bank’s April Annual Bank Conference on Land Policy and Administration, Dr. Kanayo Nwanze, President of International Fund for Agricultural Development, showcased the conundrum for policy makers on this issue. He emphasized the importance of land sovereignty and investments in smallholder agriculture to food security and indigenous identity, but also spoke about how foreign deals could be a “win-win” solution for those involved. He highlighted the need for more community-investor partnerships which “don’t require large-scale transfer of land rights. What is important is that they should be long-term. That they should balance profit with social responsibility. And they should be supported by governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector, to ensure that they are mutually beneficial.”
Dr. Nwanze pointed to the collaborative example of the West Garo Hills Tea Factory in India, where local communities provided land, bricks and labor while a private company provided machinery, factory design and training. A government agency put up money for the processing machinery and the resulting processed tea is divided between the local community and a private tea company.
The tea company example is just one of many alternative business models promoted at the World Bank meeting , where session themes included discussion of the social, economic and environmental impacts of these deals. Others, like outgrower models and contract farming, offered mixed results. Many suggested these alternative approaches had potential – but only if certain other things were put in place, like securing land rights, giving local community members a role in negotiations, strengthening the integrity of contracts, and establishing robust monitoring mechanisms to oversee implementation of land policies and laws.
Michael Taylor, Program Manager at the International Land Coalition (ILC) outlined in a recent paper a number of inter-governmental and governmental agencies who have proposed their own sets of principles to make these land acquisitions more responsible, including:
To critics, voluntary guidelines and principles are just that: voluntary. At best, they present a mechanism to protect indigenous rights. But at worst they provide a smokescreen, behind which lies the exploitation of workers and their rights to food security and land tenure.
In an interview posted on ILC’s website last month, Taylor said the ILC “is actually trying to promote some sort of dialogue between these different proposals. We see the danger that some organizations might rush and put in place a global set of principles without consulting the most important stakeholders that is to say: the people who live on the land, women’s organizations, farmers’ organizations, indigenous communities, livestock keepers’ organizations. They need to be part of this debate.”
According to FAO’s Director-General Jacques Diouf, “Africa is rich in arable land, water and labour and with the implementation of appropriate policies could increase agricultural production, incomes and food security.” The question then, is how best to invest? Nourishing the Planet has been highlighting innovations that improve food security and farmers’ livelihoods while also protecting natural resources. These practices have a very different kind of potential for the continent’s small-holders than large-scale commercial agricultural production by foreign investors.
Cross posted from Borderjumpers.

Innovations in Access to Land: Land Grab or Agricultural Investment?

August 7, 2010 by  

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This is the first in a series of posts about the increasing prevalence of large-scale land acquisition, or “land grabs” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Background: There has been a documented trend in recent years of foreign governments and private firms investing and acquiring large tracts of land in other countries for the purpose of agricultural production and export.  While the trend is global, increasingly the countries where these deals are taking place are in largely under or undeveloped regions in Asia and Africa.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), cited in a 2009 article in The Economist, 37-49 million acres of farmland were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners, between 2006 and mid-2009 alone.

Between 2006 and mid-2009 alone, there were a reported 37-49 million acres of farmland that were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The investments are spurred by concerns over food security and growing populations, as well as the expanding market for bio-fuels. Governments and private investors alike are brokering deals for large swaths of fertile land, sometimes in exchange for promises of investments in infrastructure or education, and sometimes for what amounts to pennies.
In either case, land and water rights, food sovereignty and food security are all at stake.
There are two predominant schools of thought when it comes to these land deals: one is a “win-win” view, typically encouraged by the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, where poor countries receive some combination of money, infrastructure and resources, and investing countries increase their food security.
The second, usually supported by numerous farmers’ groups and non-profit organizations like La Via Campesina, the Oakland InstituteGRAIN and Food First, believe that these land grabs are exploitative and colonialist, kicking people off of their land and decreasing food security for “host” countries.
Documentation of this increasing phenomenon has been critical in understanding both the extent – and the consequences – of such investments:
  • The seminal report published by Spanish NGO GRAINSeized! The 2008 land grab for food and financial security, highlighted 100 cases of both government and private companies in food-importing countries like China, Japan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia making large deals for farms or otherwise non-cultivated land in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. GRAIN has since kept an online archive, updated daily, of hundreds of articles from around the world reporting any such deal.
  • Finally, the World Bank itself has been promising to release its own report on more than 389 deals in 80 countries – the largest such report to date – but has delayed publication already three times in the last six months. GRAIN believes the delay is due to unfavorable findings.
Future posts in this series will identify specific deals and explore both sides of the argument in more depth. We’ll also be highlighting more on the topic of land acquisition in the upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Andrew Rice, author of The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, will author a chapter addressing innovations that improve access to land.
Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. Cross Posted from Borderjumpers.

This is the first in a series of posts about the increasing prevalence of large-scale land acquisition, or “land grabs” in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Background: There has been a documented trend in recent years of foreign governments and private firms investing and acquiring large tracts of land in other countries for the purpose of agricultural production and export.  While the trend is global, increasingly the countries where these deals are taking place are in largely under or undeveloped regions in Asia and Africa.

Between 2006 and mid-2009 alone, there were a reported 37-49 million acres of farmland that were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), cited in a 2009 article in The Economist, 37-49 million acres of farmland were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners, between 2006 and mid-2009 alone.
The investments are spurred by concerns over food security and growing populations, as well as the expanding market for bio-fuels. Governments and private investors alike are brokering deals for large swaths of fertile land, sometimes in exchange for promises of investments in infrastructure or education, and sometimes for what amounts to pennies.
In either case, land and water rights, food sovereignty and food security are all at stake.
There are two predominant schools of thought when it comes to these land deals: one is a “win-win” view, typically encouraged by the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, where poor countries receive some combination of money, infrastructure and resources, and investing countries increase their food security.
The second, usually supported by numerous farmers’ groups and non-profit organizations like La Via Campesina, the Oakland InstituteGRAIN and Food First, believe that these land grabs are exploitative and colonialist, kicking people off of their land and decreasing food security for “host” countries.
Documentation of this increasing phenomenon has been critical in understanding both the extent – and the consequences – of such investments:
  • The seminal report published by Spanish NGO GRAINSeized! The 2008 land grab for food and financial security, highlighted 100 cases of both government and private companies in food-importing countries like China, Japan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia making large deals for farms or otherwise non-cultivated land in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. GRAIN has since kept an online archive, updated daily, of hundreds of articles from around the world reporting any such deal.
  • Finally, the World Bank itself has been promising to release its own report on more than 389 deals in 80 countries – the largest such report to date – but has delayed publication already three times in the last six months. GRAIN believes the delay is due to unfavorable findings.
Future posts in this series will identify specific deals and explore both sides of the argument in more depth. We’ll also be highlighting more on the topic of land acquisition in the upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Andrew Rice, author of The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget,will author a chapter addressing innovations that improve access to land.
Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Sanitation Too Often Overlooked in Developing Nations

August 6, 2010 by  

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Check out today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger to read Nourishing the Planet’s newest op-ed. We highlight innovative organizations and individuals that are working to improve conditions created by human waste contamination – especially in crowded cities. Products like the Peepoo bag and Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL)’s dry toilets have the potential to help the one billion people living in the slums of Africa, Asia, and Latin America gain the access to sanitation they deserve.

To read more about organizations working to improve sanitation and hygiene see: Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call.

Cotonou, Benin: Le Chant D’Oiseau

August 5, 2010 by  

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When in Cotonou, Benin, we chose Le Chant D’Oiseau because it was recommended in Lonely Planet and seemed like a good budget option for a couple of days in Cotonou, Benin. Big mistake! We’ve spent the eight last months staying at 54 budget hotels in 24 countries across Africa —and none have been worse value than Le Chant D’Oiseau.

For starters, the 50 dollar per night (for a double room, two people) rate is a really poor deal in a city where you can pay the same price and stay in the three star Hotel Benin Vickenfel. Nothing in our room (or in the rooms they tried to move us to) worked —not the advertised hot water, not the 8 dollar per day internet, and not the air conditioner we paid extra for. To boot, the toilet seat in the first room was not only broken it was split in half, ripped apart in a way that might hurt someone.

Also, the staff does absolutely nothing to accommodate their guests. No hospitality at this Catholic community owned hotel. Instead, they were the only hotel we’ve stayed at in Africa, that I would use the term “unfriendly,” downright hostile even. The staff at Le Chant D’Oiseau would rather argue with the guest about the non-working water or internet than try to help fix the problem.

Also, don’t expect any help here —not in finding a taxi, not in carrying your bags, not in getting directions, let alone a warm greeting or smile. In fact, your more like to be mocked, made fun of, yelled at, or laughed at than helped. It’s the only place we’ve had to check out early anywhere in West Africa and if you look at our other recommendations on borderjumpers.org, it is also one of the only bad reviews we’ve had to write anywhere on the continent. We strongly urge people NOT to stay here. The only positive thing is the location: across the street from a supermarket, near a tasty Chinese restaurant.

Triggering Development with Improved Education

August 5, 2010 by  

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Very few NGOs are working on farmers education,” according to Moussa Faye of Action Aid Senegal. But without basic education—including literacy skills—it’s hard for many farmers or farmers groups to raise crop yields, increase income, or improve food security. But “literacy work is a trigger for the development process,” says Faye, especially for women, giving them the opportunity to gain access to land, seeds, and markets.

Farmers need the tools to be able to read and understand budgets, ask questions, and follow up on what they need. In addition to basic literacy, Action Aid is working with farmers to build economic literacy. They’re training people at the local level to learn how to develop and “control” budgets for their associations and businesses. Farmers need the tools to be able to read and understand budgets, ask questions, and follow up on what they need.

Action Aid is also helping farmers gain access to life-long training, helping develop their knowledge, but also their capacity to expand their farms or add value to their crops. These initiatives also give youth entrepreneurial skills to help “give them real prospects” to stay on the farm.

(Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Getting to Market

August 4, 2010 by  

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Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

For many farmers, an abundant harvest is only the first step toward feeding their families and earning an income. Vegetables ripening in the field—or even harvested and stored nearby—are still a long way from the market where they can be sold for a profit.

One farmer in Sudan’s Kebkabyia province, Abdall Omer Saeedo, has to travel 10 kilometers twice a week to the nearest market to sell his vegetables and green fodder. Without a cart, truck, or other means of transporting a large amount of goods efficiently, he couldn’t make enough money to cover his production and packing costs, let alone the cost of seeds for the next season, education for his children, and other household needs. And after making it to market with his 10 sacks and five bags of produce on the back of his donkey, he was still at risk for loss if he wasn’t able to sell it all. Instead of dealing with the hassle of trying to pack it back home again, he would throw away whatever wasn’t sold.

Saeedo sought the help of Practical Action, a development non-profit that uses technology to help people gain access to basic services like clean water and sanitation in order to improve food production and incomes (see Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste). Working with local metal workers, the organization designed a donkey cart for him. Now, Saeedo is not only able to cart his produce to market twice a week, he can also easily bring back whatever he is unable to sell. His income has increased along with the quality and quantity of his product, which is no longer lost or destroyed by travel time and conditions.

Practical Action’s transportation innovations are helping to improve farmer livelihoods throughout sub-Saharan Africa and around the world. In Kenya, the organization introduced bicycle taxis as a way for people to earn a living, as well as an energy-efficient means to transport people from place to place. In Nepal, Practical Action’s bicycle ambulances help carry sick or injured people from remote areas to hospitals safely and comfortably. And in Sri Lanka, the group’s bicycle trailers—capable of carrying loads of up to 200 kilograms—are used to transport goods to market, people to hospitals, and even books to local communities.

To read more about innovations that help get crops to market, reduce post-harvest waste, and improve livelihoods see: Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste, It’s All About the ProcessInvesting in Better Food Storage, Reducing the Things They Carry, and In a World of Abundance, Food Waste is a Crime.

Giving Family Farmers a Bigger Voice and a Bigger Impact

August 3, 2010 by  

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Senegal, says Moussa Faye of Action Aid Senegal, is the “epicenter of the farmers movement in Africa.”  During the 1970s “rebel” farmers groups organized opposition to state owned cooperatives, starting their own autonomous movement of farmers in Northern Senegal. Eventually, their efforts led to the organization of the Senegalese Federation of NGOs (FONGs), which represents 32 farmers associations all over Senegal.  In addition to crop farmers, the group now represents fishers, agricultural workers, and pastoralists.

FONG’s model has been replicated in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, and Niger, helping give farmers all over Western Africa a bigger voice and a bigger impact. FONG is the biggest platform for farmers in the country—representing thousands of people. As a result, the group is able to engage the government on different policy issues, including support for securing land, extension, marketing, and the availability of agricultural inputs. “Family farming,” says Moussa Faye of Action Aid, “is central” to Senegal and FONG as a group is able to advocate for changes that support small farmers.

FONG’s model has been replicated in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, and Niger, helping give farmers all over Western Africa a bigger voice and a bigger impact.

Large Scale Land Investments do not Benefit Local Communities

August 2, 2010 by  

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Cross-posted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet. This is the third blog in a series about the increasing prevalence of large-scale land acquisitions, or land-grabs.

In April 2010, more than 120 farmers’ groups and non-governmental organizations all across the world signed a statement declaring their opposition to the guiding principles endorsed by the World Bank, the FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD on “responsible” land investments.

The campaign, spearheaded by NGOs GRAIN, FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), Land Research Action Network (LRAN) and La Via Campesina, calls for an immediate end to land grabbing, claiming that it “denies land for local communities, destroys livelihoods, reduces the political space for peasant oriented agricultural policies and distorts markets towards increasingly concentrated agribusiness interests and global trade rather than towards sustainable peasant/smallhold production for local and national markets.”

The groups also believe that land-grabbing will “accelerate eco-system destruction and the climate crisis” because many of the deals rely on industrial and “mono-culture oriented” production systems.

In an interview with Nourishing the Planet, writer and activist Raj Patel denounced land-grabs as “modern forms of colonialism, except with colonialism there was the argument that the colonizers were bringing civilization to the people they were colonizing. This time around, they don’t bother with that justification. There’s not even the pretense of bringing civilization – now it’s just about efficiency.”

Patel noted that when people tout these land deals as an effective means to end hunger, they often ignore the fact that many deals are not growing food at all, but instead pursuing the rapidly expanding biofuels market. “When you’re talking about turning arable land into zones of cultivation for jatropha, you’ve a hard time arguing that anyone’s belly is going to be fuller as a result,” he said.

A 2008 report by the FAO and the International Institute for Environment and Development documents the displacement of households due to this trend in particular. One example the report cites is a multimillion dollar British jatropha project in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania that “has been reported to involve acquiring 9,000 ha of land and the clearing of 11 villages which, according to the 2002 population census, are home to 11,277 people.”

The issue of capturing water in these deals is also often not discussed, but it was mentioned in the April statement, as an example of the many factors that need to be included when assessing the value of the land being leased or sold.

In numerous deals, land under negotiation is described as “idle” or “unused” – a glaring misrepresentation of the indigenous people (including many pastoralists) who in fact live on and have worked the land for years. In an interview with GRAIN, Nyikaw Ochalla, a member of the indigenous Anuak nation in Ethiopia describes the government’s complete disregard for his people’s livelihoods. “There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals,” he says. “The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands. And they have no place to voice their opposition. They are just being evicted without any proper consultation, any proper compensation.”

“There are 1.5 billion small-scale farmers in the world who live on less than 2 hectares of land,” according to Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of The Oakland Institute and member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group. “Secure and equitable access to and control over land allows these farmers to produce food, which is vital for their own food security as well as that of rural populations throughout the developing world.”

The signatories of the April statement (of which Patel was one), demand true agrarian reform, which includes investment in research and training programs for small-holder farmers, overhauling trade policies, supporting regional markets, enforcing strict regulations to foreign direct investment, and promoting “community-oriented food and farming systems hinged on local people’s control over land, water and biodiversity.”

When asked about alternative business models like contract farming, proposed by many intergovernmental agencies, Raj Patel concluded, “What we need is for people to decide what they want to do with the land. The alternative to contract farming on grabbed-land is if people were able to decide in a community forum, in which women had equal voice with men, what the fate of the land should be. That’s what food sovereignty is about. And anything less than that is really just crumbs from the table.”

To read the second half of the interview with Raj Patel, see Change is Possible in this Complex Food System. For examples of agricultural training programs in Africa, see Girl Up: Helping Girls around the Globe Help Each Other Working with the Root, and Improving African Women’s Access to Agriculture Training Programs.

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet and Border Jumpers.

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