February 2012

The latest “Food for 9 Billion” feature, on the connection between farmland investment and displacement in Ethiopia, airs tonight on PBS NewsHour. It was produced and reported by Cassandra Herrman and Beth Hoffman and edited by Cassandra and David Ritsher at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Saudi-owned company Saudi Star plans to create Africa’s largest rice farm in Ethiopia and export the rice to the Middle East. Photo: Dallas McNamara

In recent months, both Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute have released reports critical of the Ethiopian government’s “villagization” program, which moves isolated farm families into permanent settlements.

The Human Rights Watch report documents the removal of tens of thousands of members of the minority Anuak tribe from their farms in the Gambella region. It includes satellite maps showing patterns of displacement.

The Oakland Institute’s investigations look at various land deals in Ethiopia and their impact on local populations.

Both organizations have questioned whether donor money is facilitating the forced relocation of Ethiopian farmers. Ethiopia receives more than $1 billion a year in US aid. The Ethiopian government denies that the villagization program is connected to its policy of leasing prime farmland to foreign corporations.

I hope you get to listen to the latest “Food for 9 Billion” piece on Marketplace today, about Bangladesh’s attempts to cope with climate change. It shows how, in the absence of major funding from greenhouse gas-emitting nations, the government, NGOs, scientists, communities, and farmers are scrambling to adapt to a new climate reality. You can see a slideshow on the Marketplace story page.

Muhammad Sekendar Ali on his farm on Gabura Island in southern Bangladesh. Photo: Jon Miller

Early in the story I visit a 62-year-old man named Muhammad Sekendar Ali. He’s a rice farmer on an island in the Bay of Bengal whose one-room shack was destroyed by a storm six months earlier. The whole area was flooded by seawater (he showed me the high water mark halfway up a palm tree); with nowhere to live and no way to make a living, he fled with his family to the mainland, where he and his sons found occasional work as laborers.

When I met him he had recently returned to the island to try to begin farming again, but the soil was still too salty. So he and his son, Salauddin, were expanding the earthen platform they had built to elevate their new house. It was a job made for a wheelbarrow, but they didn’t have one, so they carried wedges of mud in bowls on their heads. In that vast landscape of devastation, their effort seemed somehow heroic. But there was little reason to believe that they would be any more prepared for the next storm than they were for the last one.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Poverty makes people vulnerable to climate calamities, and climate calamities make it extremely difficult for people to get out of poverty. This is true for families and communities, and it’s also true for countries.

I lived in the Philippines for eight years and had the chance to experience the terrifying power of more typhoons and tropical storms than I care to remember. Luckily for me, I got to watch them from a sturdy concrete house with a well-attached roof and a backup electrical system. After the storms would pass, I’d turn on the radio and hear about the dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who had lost their lives in floods or mudslides or capsized ferries.

Which brings me back to Bangladesh. It’s flat and wet and prone to flooding. It has 500 miles of coastline and sits on a major cyclone path (cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are all the same thing). Because the land is made mainly of silt from the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, there are virtually no stones with which to build levees, seawalls or dikes. In a world of rising sea levels, stronger storms, melting glaciers, and increasingly erratic rainfall, Bangladesh is a disaster waiting to happen. Or, as I found during my visit, a disaster that’s already happening.

If the sea level rises one meter by 2100, more than 15 million Bangladeshis may be displaced. Photo: Jon Miller

But what puts Bangladesh so high on the lists of vulnerable countries is not geography, but economics and demographics. More than half the population (an astounding 160 million, squeezed into a land area the size of Iowa) is involved in agriculture or fishing. There has been impressive economic growth in recent years (Bangladesh has become the world’s leading exporter of ready-made garments), but one in three Bangladeshis still lives on less than $1.25 per day. All of which means that the weather is a matter of life or death for an enormous number of people, most of whom produce food for a living, and this puts the entire population at risk.

I don’t want to downplay the physical dangers of climate change in Bangladesh or other front-line countries. They are deadly serious, and require action. But the dangers of poverty may be even more urgent.

One last thing. In my story I say that many of the people I met in Bangladesh were pessimistic about the country’s ability to stay ahead of climate change. Their pessimism may be justified. But it’s worth noting how effective Bangladesh has been at facing other challenges. My last visit was 20 years ago, shortly after a cyclone killed 138,000 people. Since then, the country has built thousands of cyclone shelters (including one about a hundred yards from Muhammad Sekendar Ali’s house) and established a nationwide early warning system that relies on community participation. In 2007, a cyclone almost identical in size and strength to the 1991 storm took fewer than 3,000 lives. Still a horrible toll, but an unmistakable sign of progress. And achieved, by rich-country standards, on a shoestring.


It was great to see National Catholic Reporter blogger Jamie Manson‘s thoughtful response to Sam Eaton’s PBS NewsHour story about food and family planning in the Philippines. It’s worth taking a look at the comments, too, full of passion and information.

Like the Manson essay, many of the comments on Sam’s radio piece on the Marketplace website focus on the role of the Catholic church in blocking access to free or low-cost contraceptives. Which makes sense, since the Church is clearly the main impediment to publicly funded family planning services in the Philippines. But Church opposition is not the only thing keeping poor people in the Philippines from limiting the size of their families, nor is it the main cause for stubbornly high population growth in poor countries worldwide.

Poverty, insecurity, lack of education (especially for girls), gender inequality, lack of social safety nets, inadequate public health systems, and a host of other factors conspire to keep parents from stopping at the “replacement level” of two kids (actually 2.1 or 2.3, depending on the place). At the same time, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and nutrition have allowed more children to survive to child-bearing age. There’s a lag time as the birth rate adjusts to the death rate, and that imbalance leads to some pretty serious growth. If you want to see how radically different the last 50 years have been from the rest of human history, take a look at the little graph on any of the population entries on the “Food for 9 Billion” project’s World Food Timeline.

It’s interesting to look at the role of food in all this. We often hear how the dramatic increase in food production since the 1960s has allowed the world to stay a step ahead of mass starvation. The late Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning wheat breeder and father of the Green Revolution, is widely credited with saving more lives than anyone in human history. But some people argue that the surge in agricultural output has actually contributed to the surge in population, in line with the basic ecological principle that the population of any species will rise to meet the food supply. The argument only goes so far, as the most food-secure countries tend to be the ones with the lowest birth rates. But certainly starvation and malnutrition take fewer lives today than they did 50 years ago, and that translates into many more mouths to feed.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that world population growth has been slowing impressively in the last decade or two, and not just because people in wealthy countries have stopped reproducing. According to the UN and other bodies, the global population should level off by about 2100. Unfortunately, this has led many of us to think that “the population problem” will take care of itself. But the projections are very inexact, and the markedly different birth rates in different countries show that public policy can be every bit as important as parents’ “natural” inclination to have fewer children as their living standards improve.

As Sam Eaton reported, one more child per family today can mean billions more people 100 years from now. As it is, the global population is growing by about 200,000 per day. Anything that can be done to reduce that number is likely to bring major benefits to children, families, nations, and the planet. And given the way the math works, the sooner we act, the better.