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World Food Day: Political Ecology is still needed
by Rene Wadlow
2007-10-16 10:03:27
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16 October is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s World Food Day — a yearly reminder that there are people who are constantly hungry due to poor agricultural methods, inadequate distribution and conflict. There are both natural disasters, such as the current floods in Africa — ironically in areas with low production because of droughts. There are also political causes, such as those in Zimbabwe or North Korea. Often, there is a combination of natural and political causes for hunger.

Rene Dumont was a person who saw the relation between natural constraints on agriculture and the political setting. Dumont was known in the general public for his prophetic 1962 L’Afrique Noire est Mal Partie (False Start in Africa) often republished for a decade in up-dated editions. He denounced the short-sighted agricultural and social policies of the newly independent African states — policies which have continued and which have led to a constant decline in agricultural production. Dumont was a prolific writer helped in his later life by a series of skilled co-authors. He would alternate a book on specific agricultural questions with a more general, usually polemical book. His book titles were often a political program in themselves such as A vous de choisir, l’ecologie ou la mort (The choice is yours, ecology or death). He was a dynamic speaker. In his public, political lectures, his style was cutting and his examples telling but without subtlety, but when he was speaking of agricultural development to students, his analysis was much more nuanced. Unlike some agronomists who neglected the socio-cultural context in which farming takes place, Dumont had a sociologists concern for the values and attitudes of rural populations.

Dumont was well aware of the world domination of agricultural production and distribution. He called attention to the negative effects of “globalization” well before the term became popular. His analysis of agriculture in China, Albania, Cuba, Algeria, and Poland was extremely detailed, cause the French communists to keep up a steady barrage of attacks against Dumont and a refusal of visas to a good number of communist countries. Dumont was preoccupied all his life with hunger and the dangers of famine in the world. He summed up his views in a 1997 monograph Famines, le retour (Famines, their return). He thus stressed the need to increase food production and was criticised by some in the ecological movement who feared that intense agricultural production was destructive of ecological balance.

Rene Dumont was a fellow world citizen and co-worker in the African rural development field although he was 30 years older than I and much better known through his scientific monographs on African agriculture and then his popular books on African rural development. Yet when we would meet there was always a feeling of togetherness in a battle for a better life for African farmers — a battle against heavy odds.

When Dumont died in June 2001 at the age of 97, he was remembered as the father of French political ecology, but he had no direct intellectual heirs. His 1974 campaign for the French presidency was the first time Les Verts (The Greens) had entered politics at the national level. Dumont was able to federate around his personality and his reputation as an agronomist specializing in African and Asian development a wide range of people who felt that the traditional French political parties were not dealing with the crucial questions of humanity’s future. His energetic campaign and strong personality in television presentations created the groundwork on which Les Verts could build a political movement. In France, all candidates for the presidency have equal time on government-owned television and are able to produce their own, government –financed, spots. Dumont, with his red sweater and a glass of water to recall the dangers of water pollution, was a marked contrast with the more formal candidates. Dumont received only one percent of the popular vote, but he put Les Verts on the political map and set out the issues which would continue to be the political ecology framework.

Dumont was 70 when he ran for president and after the campaign he remained more of a “father figure” than an organizer in structuring the political ecology movement, done largely by a younger generation. Dumont was not a “team player” and often expressed his views in a very direct way. He was particularly direct in his dislike of autos and the need for higher gas prices — not popular themes among the French electorate at the time. He always stressed that the conditions in the Third World were intolerable and would lead sooner rather than later to armed revolts. In a speech to the staff of the World Bank in Washington, he advised them to set up their guns on the Potomac as the poor were coming.

As we note World Food Day and the persistence of hunger, it is useful to keep in mind the two convictions of Rene Dumont: the need for world reform and for new, transformed North-South relations and at the same time, the usefulness of taking small steps if they are in the right direction.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-10-16 11:27:18
It seems to me that there is an assumption in that wise advice of Rene Dumont to the Washington World Bank operatives: if you don’t get busy working for distributive justice then forget peace and prepare for war. But that is only the prognosis of the problem and to begin with that is like putting the cart before the horse. The diagnosis can be found in an even deeper assumption and it is this: if you have the know-how and technology and the means to feed the world and yet do precious little, it may well mean that you have failed to recognize your own humanity. No know-how or technological push button prowess can fix that. For that you need to ask less hows and more whys. When dehumanization goes undetected and untreated for a long time in a civilization, that civilization has sown the seeds of its own destruction and will eventually reap the whirlwind.

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