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At Sustainable Development Summit, Africans Criticize Western Subsidies

By Samson Mulugeta
NEWSDAY -- JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

With a large tract of rolling farmland, a hired tractor and sacks of corn seed, Zambian farmer Alexandrina Wonani is exceptional in a nation where thousands of poor farmers live hand-to-mouth.

For African governments, fledgling large-scale farmers such as Wonani are key to becoming self-sufficient in food and breaking the cycles of droughts and famine that plague the continent.

But their success depends partly on decisions made in Washington, D.C., and in Brussels, Belgium, seat of the European Union. Farmers in developing nations not only have to battle drought and floods, but also the fat budgets of Western countries that subsidize their farmers to the tune of $1 billion a day.

As the World Summit on Sustainable Development begins in Johannesburg Sunday, delegations are expected to debate sharply the link between rich nations’ agricultural subsidies and developing countries’ food shortages.

“We want an even playing field,” said Peter Rammatula, president of South Africa’s main farmers union, who hopes to lobby U.S. officials during the summit. “How can a farmer in Africa compete against the deep pockets of the U.S. government?”

More than 100 heads of state are expected at the summit, scheduled to run through Sept. 4, but President Bush will not be among them. Recalling the Earth Summit a decade ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Bush’s father was criticized by environmentalists, conservatives urged the president to stay away. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will represent the United States.

Various governments and activist groups have vowed to bring up the issue of farm subsidies. As Western countries -- and their powerful surrogates, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- preach globalization and press developing countries to open their markets, the rich nations’ refusal to curtail farm subsidies has left them open to charges of double standard and hypocrisy.

“The only way Africans can ultimately become food sufficient is if they rely on large-scale commercial farming mixed in with small-scale farming,” said Randolph Clark, who retired recently as an agricultural consultant in Africa for the World Bank. “But the way the system works now, there is no way African commercial farmers can compete with Western farmers who are heavily subsidized.”

U.S., European, and Japanese farmers get billions of dollars in farm subsidies, and then dump their crops in the world market where it depresses the prices of crops produced in poor countries, said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a D.C. think tank.