Camden Conference: Global food and water and politics

Posted Tuesday, February 25, 2014 in Culture

Camden Conference: Global food and water and politics

by Gina Hamilton

CAMDEN -- Last weekend was the Camden Conference, which focused this year on the global politics of food and water.

My impression was that everyone was being entirely too polite.

Yes, it was a conference, and conferences should be civil, and they should be places where ideas are exchanged even when the ideas being exchanged are not altogether fantastic things for the planet, or the living things thereon.

But there is such a thing as false equivalence.  And it's a false equivalence to say that Bechtel, for example, should have an equal voice in whether peasants in South America get access to their own water without paying a huge multinational corporation through the nose for the privilege, as the peasants themselves do.

Bechtel would likely tell us that the water the villagers were drinking was not good for them. It was probably causing deadly diarrhea in babies and was leading to contamination of farm soils.  They would probably say that they were doing the villagers a favor by providing clean, bottled water.

And in a perfect world, they might even be right.

But that's not the situation in Bolivia, or many other places, where multinational corporations are trying to privatize vital resources. In Bolivia, Bechtel which had taken over the Cochabamba region’s water supply in 1999. The company raised rates by 300 percent,cutting off service to people who could no longer afford water—and even prevented residents from collecting rainwater unless they obtained a legal permit. Bechtel’s oppressive policies prompted several months of massive riots, which dissuaded foreign investors from doing business in the country. Bechtel subsequently abandoned their Cochabamban operation in 2000, surrendering control of the water supply back to the people, but the struggle against water privatization continues in Bolivia and other South American nations.

Nor is South America alone. In the US, including in Maine, Nestle is polarizing communities and illegally extracting water from aquifers for its bottled water business.  In India, Coca-Cola has drained aquifers to make its beverages, leaving farmers unable to irrigate their crops, and in Mexico, privatization of water resources has led not only to massive rate increases, but also compromised water quality.  One of the companies, United Water, is responsible for numerous water quality issues in the U.S. as well.

A scientist from Monsanto appeared at one of the panel discussions, on Saturday afternoon. In the genial discussion that followed his opening remarks, no mention was made of nicotinoid pesticides and their effect on the world's honeybee populations, or the fact that Europe has banned several of Monsanto's GMOs and most of its pesticides, or the fact that Monsanto is lobbying heavily against right to know legislation that would tell you whether the apple or tomato you are buying has a salmon's DNA in it, or whether the corn you are buying might cause tumors in you, as it does in laboratory animals.

These are some of the most pressing issues of our day, and a conference was called to discuss them, and no one wanted to talk about them with a person who very well might have had at least some of the answers.

There are tactful ways you can ask difficult questions of people who volunteer to be present at a conference where the majority of speakers — and attendees — don’t buy what the volunteer is selling. That wasn’t done, at least in the case of the gentleman from Monsanto, and it was disappointing.

Some things ought to transcend politics, and perhaps even the studied politeness that exists in the rarified atmosphere of an event like the Camden Conference. Whether the planet will be able to support 15 billion souls by the end of the century qualifies as one of those things.

Case in point: 24,000 people die of hunger-related causes in Africa every single day. Millions more — some 24 percent of the continent’s population — are chronically undernourished. But Africa has taken the lead in export farming of cocoa beans and coffee beans, in the very regions where chronic hunger is worst. Landowners are being assisted by Nestle to convert domestic food farmland into cocoa and coffee plantations, which will make them quite wealthy.

Another issue. Monsanto offers seed to farmers in the developing world that cannot be saved from year to year. Once the farmers start using the seed, they must go back to Monsanto every year to purchase new, a major departure from subsistance agriculture since time immemorial. If farmers cross-fertilize their crops with a neighbor’s non-Monsanto product and end up with fertile seed, and use it, Monsanto can and will sue them.

And the jury is still way, way out on whether genetically modified organisms are safe. Many countries have banned them; others require labeling of GMOs. The United States has done neither, despite the fact that most food products, from cans and packaged goods to frozen foods, to dairy products, are required to be labeled.

As a snapshot of where we are in terms of how we think about the use of our common resources — food and water — the conference was a success. But there was no real attempt to find consensus or even have an honest conversation about what we will all have to do if we don’t want to witness mass famine in our lifetimes.

It was frankly astounding.  And unfortunately, ultimately, disappointing.

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