September 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news, Washington Post,
column: As trade negotiators were gathering
for this week's meeting of the World Trade Organization
in Cancun, I had a chance to talk with several dozen
activists from around the world who are finding innovative
ways to help poor farmers join the global economy.
It's lucky these folks are pushing so hard in their
villages back home. Because if they wait for the wealthy
countries that dominate the WTO to agree on ways to
alleviate rural poverty, their crops will turn to dust.
Sadly, rich farmers in Europe and America seem determined
to hold on to their subsidies, even if that adds to
the misery of poor farmers in India, Kenya or Brazil.
The activists were in Switzerland to receive awards
as "social entrepreneurs" from a foundation
created by Klaus Schwab, the major-domo of the annual
World Economic Forum in Davos. Since the world seems
short on good news these days, I want to share the stories
of several people I met. Their creativity and commitment
in fighting poverty was inspiring -- there's no other
Take Joe Madiath, who for the past 24 years has run
a rural development program called Gram Vikas in the
Indian state of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. The area
is one of the poorest in the country, with more than
40 percent of its people living below the poverty line.
Madiath posits a formula for dealing with rural poverty:
To keep people on the land, you must improve their health,
which means improving their water supply, which means
improving their waste disposal, which means building
So Madiath has built toilets for about 12,000 families
in 120 villages. His goal is to stretch that to 100,000
families and 1,000 villages by the time he retires in
2010. His project works, he says, because he insists
that villagers share the cost by contributing about
$20 per family and that no family in the village be
excluded because they're from the wrong tribe or caste.
"We are not building toilets, we are building
dignity," Madiath told me. He said that since his
group organized the 120 villages, not one family has
migrated to the city.
A similar self-help philosophy guides Ismael Ferreira,
who runs the Small Farmers Association in his home region
of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. The area is so dry
that the only crop that grows easily there is a cactus-like
plant called sisal, whose fibers can make rope or thread.
Ferreira, whose father was a sisal farmer, decided
to make do with what they had. He started a carpet factory
to weave sisal thread into products that could be sold
in global markets. The operation now has annual revenues
of about $7 million and employs about 650 families.
"I want to prove that it is possible to live in
this region," he told me through an interpreter.
Farmers can stay on their land only if they make money,
notes Martin Fisher, co-founder of a group in East Africa
called ApproTEC. A Stanford-trained PhD in engineering,
he went to Africa in the 1980s and decided that the
best way to fight rural poverty was to build simple,
cheap machines -- "appropriate technology"
-- that could help people earn some cash.
Fisher showed me several of the sturdy, hand-powered
machines his group has designed: a $38 pump that can
irrigate a small, one-acre plot, allowing a farmer to
plant several cash crops and make an annual profit of
$1,200; a $490 block press that can make building blocks
from soil and a bit of cement and earn someone about
$10 a day; a $510 hay baler that will allow farmers
to feed livestock through the dry season and can earn
them a profit of up to $50 a day.
"The thing that's important to a poor person anywhere
in the world is money," Fisher says. As the global
economy accelerates, the old ways of subsistence farming
have become a kind of slow death.
To make money, people need loans so they can start
small businesses. Gisele Yitamben says she started her
Association for the Support of Women Entrepreneurs in
Cameroon in 1989 after she concluded that women in Africa
had no access to credit. In the years since, she has
worked with more than 5,000 women, opened a four-story
resource center in the city of Douala and is about to
start a radio station that will provide information
about health and education.
What these activists have in common is that they are
working, village by village, to connect some of the
world's poorest people to the global economy. I suspect
that the argument made by protesters in Cancun that
globalization is the enemy would strike most of these
poor villagers as ludicrous. What they want is a piece
of the action.