Linking poor farmers to a global economy

By David Ignatius

GENEVA, Switzerland, 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 word.

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 toilets.

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.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63095-2003Sep11.html