Information Asymmetry in the Informal Waste Ecosystem


SELLING IN THE DARK


kabadiwalla connect

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 7)

As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.
– Benjamin Disraeli

LEARNING FROM THE EXPERIENCES OF THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR

What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.

Consider these statistics: according to a report published by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 2013, the average monthly income of an agricultural household is INR 6426. Dr Rahul Singh, from the Birla Institute of Management Technology, estimates that Indian rag-pickers earn anything between Rs. 45 to 80 in a day – an average of Rs. 1875 each month. In both sectors, however, the final product accrues much more value at the higher end of the supply chain, and is traded for much higher prices than what farmers and rag-pickers receive.

There are many reasons attributed to the unequal distribution of profits, especially at the lower end of the supply chain; one important factor is the unequal access to crucial information relating to the market.

In technical terms, this is referred to as ‘information asymmetry’ – a market economy which has ‘imperfect information’ between all the players. Information asymmetry can be defined as a situation where some party in a transaction benefits from having preferential access to information, leading to power imbalances in transactions.

Information asymmetry can exist across different industries and verticals. In India, it is particularly prevalent in the agriculture sector. A recent report describes the disconnect that exists between the industry’s multiple activities – including planning production, growing, harvesting, packing and transport, among others – which can lead to increased transaction costs, market friction and a situation in which particular stakeholders wield more power than others.

SELLING IN THE DARK | COMMONALITIES BETWEEN THE WASTE AND AGRICULTURAL MARKETS

In the agricultural sector, this asymmetry manifests itself in a variety of ways. In terms of structure, the industry comprises of farmers who produce crops, traders and middlemen who aggregate, wholesalers who bid for the produce aggregated by the traders, and eventually, consumers. Buying and selling of produce takes place at specified neighborhood markets, or ‘mandis’ and these are largely dominated by traders.

In general, farmers at the bottom of the supply chain are completely dependent on these traders to push their wares to consumers. They are particularly disadvantaged because of fewer opportunities of what is called ‘spatial arbitrage’; since they are not mobile, they cannot collect cumulative information on current prices and patterns of demand across different markets. This is an expensive operation that is far beyond their capability and as a result, they are unable to make decisions that would maximise their profits

This situation is clearly illustrated in the survey conducted by the NSSO. According to this data, farming households are relatively unaware of government procurement options for crops and crop insurance schemes. They are also far removed from new technologies and guidance from state-run research institutes.

On the other hand, large traders have the capacity to collect this information from different markets, which gives them better bargaining power over the farmers. It also gives them an understanding of how to hike the prices of produce, significantly increasing their mark-up. Besides this, large traders have the advantage of temporal arbitrage; that is, those who have the capital to store large quantities of produce for longer periods of time can also affect market prices in specific localities by doing so. The end result is fairly straightforward: while consumers pay competitive prices for produce, farmers receive only a fraction of the income.

Interestingly, Kabadiwalla Connect’s primary research has shown similar cases of information asymmetry in the waste space. Much like the structuring of the agricultural sector, the informal waste space includes a variety of buyers and sellers along a complicated chain. At the bottom-most level are mobile rag-pickers, who source waste manually from street dumps, landfills and homes. Waste is then passed on to itinerant buyers (who have the added benefit of a vehicle) and stationary scrap-dealers of varying capacities and scales. Finally, waste is routed to recyclers who upcycle it to a product of a much higher value.

THE INFORMAL WASTE ECOSYSTEM | LACK OF INFORMATION HITS THE BOTTOM OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN HARDER

Predictably, it’s the rag-pickers and itinerant buyers who are most disadvantaged because of the lack of information. While they source and salvage waste, they do not have the knowledge or ability to add value to it in any way. On the other hand, scrap-dealers (especially those at the higher end of the chain), are much better equipped to do so. They purchase waste at extraordinarily low prices from rag-pickers and then align their management process to better meet industry demands. As you travel up the waste chain, they sort waste into increasingly specialized categories and aggregate it to the extent that will make them maximum profit. They also know to transport waste to geographies where demand is highest.

The knowledge of these dynamics is what allows scrap-dealers and wholesalers to push up their revenue while simultaneously paying their suppliers a bare minimum. What results is that players at the base level of the supply chain are highly underpaid – in countries like Nicaragua for example, waste-pickers earn between $1.50 to $2 per day, while in Mexico, the average is around $7 a day. In his paper ‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’, Martin Medina writes about how waste-pickers in Colombian, Indian and Mexican cities receive only 5 percent of what the recycling industry eventually pays for waste they supply.

LEARNING FROM OUR PRIMARY RESEARCH

One of the scrap-dealers whom we interviewed is based in MMDA Colony. Most of his competitors work out of rented or makeshift locations and purchase several categories of waste in small quantities. However, he has utilized his financial capability and knowledge to build a more successful enterprise. He invested in a 2400 square foot yard to aggregate material, and chose to specialize in only one category: paper. Rather than source his material from several stakeholders, he worked out contracts with a few printing presses in the city. These presses not only produce vast amounts of waste paper, ensuring a steady supply, but also shred it before handing it over to him, cutting down on the processing procedures he has to implement in his yard. Once the paper is brought to his yard, his staff sort it into super-specialized categories and bale it to save space. The scrap paper is aggregated until it can be sold for the highest price. His monthly revenue is over INR 1,00,000 – several times what an average kabadiwalla would make.

On the other hand, another scrap-dealer whom we spoke to in Kotturpuram had a very different model. He deals with 13 categories of waste, running the gamut from plastic and paper to metals like copper and aluminium. His suppliers are varied and operate in an ad hoc manner, and he has no understanding of the volume game, neglecting to aggregate his waste before selling it. He makes less than INR 10,000 every month.

TECHNOLOGY INTERVENTIONS | OPPORTUNITIES AND CAVEATS

There have been various attempts at tackling the information asymmetry in the agricultural sector. An interesting model sought to make market information available on a mobile platform, since cellphones are easily accessible in rural parts of the country. However, there are a few factors that limit the efficiency of these systems. For instance, many farmers are unable to bear the cost of using an online or mobile platform, which means that the service has to be free in order to have a wide reach; but on the flipside, services that are not economically self-sustaining also tend to lose support in the long run. Moreover, these systems are not always created and implemented with a good enough understanding of the needs of the farmers.

There doesn’t seem to have been any highly successful technological interventions tackling information asymmetry in the waste space. However, governments that have lent support to informal waste networks by regularising their functioning have, to an extent, managed to facilitate the free flow of information. In Brazil, for instance, the informal waste sector has been provided with institutional support and organised into unions and cooperatives, making it easier for rag-pickers and scrap-dealers to access information collectively. In India, while there are instances of self-organisation within the informal waste sector, we still have a long way to go until there is no exploitation within the ecosystem.


– Written by Siddharth Hande and Kavya Balaraman: Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina
‘Role of AMIS in Resolving Information Asymmetries in Agricultural Markets: Guidelines for AMIS Design’ – Laxmi Gunupudi and Rahul De, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
‘Socio-Economic Issues in Waste Management By Informal Sector in India’ – Dr Rahul Singh, Birla Institute of Management Technology


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Whose land is it?

Kaelvi Kadhai (part of Iniyavai Indru) is an eight minute Tamil series with animation and narration anchored by Malavika PC, written and directed by Samyuktha PC for a Tamil cultural television channel called Puthuyugam TV in 2013. The animation was done by Trotsky Marudu’s team of animators. This particular episode furthers our conversation on land use, land ownership and land rights.The purpose of producing this show was to explore everyday concepts as stories and discover the individual’s relationship with the same.

Please watch, share and write to us on your experiences and observations with land use patterns around the world. For instance, what kind of a role does the State have in relation to land? What legislations are present or afloat to protect or grab land? What kind of power is in the hand of the people from the land? Add questions, thoughts, images and anything else. Comment below or send us the longer replies to chaikadai@gmail.com

Tamil, 8 mins 30 s

Our Family

“People should realize who an Aravani is. People should know that we too have a life. They should learn to respect our feelings. Society should also accept us. If we’re accepted, everything is fine.”
– Seetha, a dancer

Tamil (with English subtitles), 55 mins 20 s

Maybe you remember Urvashi Butalia ask whether an organ, some hormones, a choice or an obligation makes one a mother. Let’s ask, what makes a family?

The School of Media and Cultural Studies in Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai have their very own Youtube channel, where every week they release a film from their archives. Our Family (2007) directed by Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayashankar, weaves together the story of a family of three generations of trans-genders, Aasha, Seetha and Dhana, with excerpts of  Nirvanam, a one person performance, by Pritham K. Chakravarthy. Watch, share and subscribe to the SMCS channel.

Chennai March against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto, an international grassroots organisation, has announced that marches are being planned on six continents, in 52 countries, totaling events in over 400 cities on Saturday. Find the march nearest to you here.

Here are the flyers (in English and Tamil) for the march happening in Chennai from the Labour Statue to Gandhi Statue at 3 p.m. Please download, print and send it around.

click to view full size flyer

click to view full size flyer

March against Monsanto flyers (Tamil)

click to view full size flyer

 

‘Even if they don’t let us settle here…’

by Javed Iqbal

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Conflict and displacement in Bastar leads to deprivation and forest loss in neighbouring Khammam.

Around 43 families from the villages of Millampalli, Simalpenta, Raygudem, Darba and Singaram in Dantewada District, lost their makeshift homes for the second time in three months in the Mothe Reserve Forest of Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh on the 26th of March, 2012, when the Forest Department, mandated to protect the forests, would evict them using force.

A large number of families are Internally Displaced Persons who’ve escaped the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict of Dantewada and have lived in Khammam as informal labour.

Most originated from Millampalli, that was burnt down by the Salwa Judum in 2006 and Maoists have killed at least three people – Sodi Dola, Komaram Muthaiya and Madkam Jogaiya in the past ten years. Another resident of Millampalli, Dusaru Sodi, used to be a member of the Maoist Sangam but would eventually become a Special Police Officer who witnesses from Tadmentla and Morpalli alleged was present during the burnings of the villages or Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram in March of 2011 by security forces. His name again re-appeared in testimonies by victims of rape, submitted to the National Commission of Women and the Supreme Court by Anthropologist Nandini Sundar.

Madvi Samaiya and Madvi Muthaiya from the village of Raygudem were also killed by the Maoists.

In Simalpenta, the Sarpanch’s brother Kurra Anda was killed by the Maoists in 2006.

In Singaram, an alleged encounter that took place on the 9th of January of 2009, where 19 adivasis were killed by security forces as alleged Maoists.

In Khammam, most of the IDPs/migrants have worked as informal labour during the mircchi cutting season, earning around Rs.100 per day and live off their savings in the summer season when there is no work, and little access to water to a majority of the settlements. The Muria from Chhattisgarh, or the Gotti Koya as they are known in Andhra along with Koyas from Chhattisgarh, have been in a struggle to appropriate the Reserve Forest land of Khammam for podu cultivation, often leading the Forest Department to evict them, aware that the entire forest cover is turning into a ‘honeycomb,’ as described by the DFO Shafiullah, who pointed out to satellite imagery of a pockmarked forest in Khammam, in 2010 itself.

The influx of migrants and Displaced persons has even led to conflicts with local adivasi Koya tribes over land and resources, sometimes leading to deadly clashes, such as an incident in Mamallivaye in Aswapuram Mandal where the local Koya burned down the homes of the Gotti Koya, or in Kamantome settlement in 2009where one man would be killed as a Maoist by the police after an erroneous tip-off from the neighbouring village of migrants who had settled before the civil war.

Recently the Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Forest and Environment, published a controversial report that almost exonerates mining and land acquisition yet claimed that over 367 square kilometres of forest has been lost since 2009, pushing Khammam district to one of the worst affected districts where 182 square kilometres of forest cover have been lost.

In a recorded conversation between an activist and Home Minister P.Chidambaram during the first months of Operation Green Hunt in late 2009, when repeated combing operations in Dantewada/Bijapur led to further influx’s of IDPs into Andhra Pradesh, the activist Himanshu Kumar had urged P.Chidambaram to look into the plight of the IDPs and the migrants yet his claims were refuted by the Home Minister as an exaggeration.

Yet there have been many recent reports of IDPs from the previously independently estimated 203 settlements who have returned back to their villages owing to a decline in the frequency of combing operations and violent actions in their villages in Chhattisgarh and further difficulty to settle in Andhra Pradesh. After the villages of Nendra, Lingagiri and Basaguda block were rehabilitated with the help of NGOs and activists using Supreme Court orders, many others have simply moved back to their villages on their own accord, including those of Kistaram, Uskowaya, Kanaiguda, Mullempanda, Gompad and Gaganpalli, to mention a few. Both Gompad, and Gaganpalli have faced a large number of killings – nine people were killed in Gompad on the 1st of October, 2009 by security forces, and in the village of Gaganpalli, from where one of the leaders of the Salwa Judum originates, ten people were killed in 2006 during the burning of the village by the Salwa Judum.

While the Forest Survey of India Report 2011 has put the blame on leftwing extremists for massive deforestation in Khammam, the villages of Millampalli repeatedly exhorted and listed all the violent actions by the Maoists in their villages in Chhattisgarh. In fact, one of the most educated villagers of the settlement, Komaram Rajesh, is the brother of a Special Police Officer and has repeatedly claimed that the Salwa Judum didn’t oppress his people, often denying that his village was burnt down by the Salwa Judum, when the rest of his neighbours said it was indeed the Salwa Judum.

Beyond conflict with the Forest Department, other tribes, the Salwa Judum and the Maoists, another conflict takes place within settlements themselves where a growing tendency to cut down a large number of the forests for podu cultivation, has brought individuals in conflict with their own villagers who feel there should be more moderate felling of trees. Certain settlments cultivate rice without cutting larger trees while others have destroyed acres of forests.

‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’ A man from Kamantome once exhorted during a summer season when there was little access to food, or water for the settlement.

Ironically, in Millampalli, one of the men killed by the Maoists, Kumaram Muthaiya, was killed in 2002 because he refused to share his 70 acres of land with other villagers.

A Shrinking Space

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Land alienation for all the adivasi tribes of Khammam isn’t a new phenomena, and was adequately studied by late civil servant J. M. Girglani, who had commented in his report that, ‘The most atrocious violation of the LTR (Land Transfer Regulation) and regulation 1 of 70 is that all the lands in Bhadrachalam Municipal town and the peripheral urbanized and urbanizable area is occupied by non-tribals with commercial buildings, hotels, residential buildings, colleges including an engineering college. The market value of this land on an average is Rs.4,000/- per square yard. This was confirmed to me not only by local enquiry but also by responsible District officers. This would work out to about 5,000 crores worth of land, which should have been the property of the tribals. It is now the property of the non-tribals and is commercially used by them.’

Just two kilometres away from land that was meant to belong to the adivasis, is the latest Koya settlement that was destroyed by the Forest Department.

‘They (the Forest Department) destroyed our homes in January, and in February, and they came in March and even took away all the wood we used to make our homes. Now, we will rebuild our homes and if they come again and destroy them, we will rebuild them again.’ Said Komaram Rajesh of the village of Millampalli.

Villagers alleged that Forest Guards held them down and beat them on the soles of their feet, asking them why they had settled in the forest, and who had pointed them out to this patch of the forest. One man embarassing recollected in humour as his neighbours laughed, that one of the Gaurds threathened him saying, ‘ghaand mein mirrchi ghussa doonga.’

Officials would arrive a day later to convince all the Koyas, to leave the Reserve Forest but the residents protested. When the tractor arrived to carry away all the timber that was being used to make their homes, the adivasis willingly piled the timber onto the seat of the tractor, threathening to burn it down but refrained.

‘Even if they don’t let us settle here, we will manage somehow,’ continued Komaram Rajesh.

***

The author is a 27 year old freelance journalist, who has worked as an investigative reporter for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011. This article has been reprinted from his blog ‘moon chasing, which appeared in Daily News & Analysis on May 4, 2012 as ‘The unending struggle of Bastar adivasis.’

Other posts by Javed Iqbal:

+ Last of the Asbestos Miners of Roro. Jan 23. 2012.

+ The War Dogma. Oct 19. 2011.

+ Where Individuality Means Waging War Against the State. Oct 11. 2011.

This Gene is Your Gene

Kembrew McLeod is an independent documentary filmmaker and a media studies scholar at the University of Iowa whose work focuses on both popular music and the cultural impact of intellectual property law. This Gene is Your Gene is the first chapter of Kembrew’s book ‘Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property’. An abridged version has been published here acknowledging its Creative Commons License. You can buy a print of the book or read it online

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fencing off the folk and genetic commons

by Kembrew McLeod*

“This gene is your gene,” sang Francis Collins, playfully reworking an old Woody Guthrie song, with electric guitar in hand. “This gene is my gene,” he continued, backed up by the lumbering roar of a middle-aged rock band. This was no ordinary club gig; he was singing at a post–press conference party for scientists. Collins was the man who headed up the Human Genome Project (HGP), funded by the National Institutes of Health, and he was trying to make an ethical and political point. Since the mid-1990s, Collins’s HGP had raced against a private effort to map the human genome in order to make our genetic information freely accessible, not privately owned and patented by a handful of corporations. Any scientist could examine HGP’s genome map for free—unlike the Celera Genomics’ privately owned draft, which was published with strings attached. Over the din, Collins chided his competitors in song by genetically modifying Guthrie’s lyrics:

This draft is your draft, this draft is my draft,

And it’s a free draft, no charge to see draft.

It’s our instruction book, so come on, have a look,

This draft was made for you and me.

Dr. Francis Collins reworked “This Land Is Your Land” to argue that genetic information should be freely available to the scientific community. However, his use of that Woody Guthrie song was sadly ironic, on multiple levels. “This Land Is Your Land” is a song written by an unabashed socialist as a paean to communal property…. The folk-song tradition from which Guthrie emerged valued the open borrowing of lyrics and melodies; culture was meant to be freely created and recreated in a democratic, participatory way.

If this was so, then why was Collins’s use of “This Land Is Your Land” painfully ironic? Even though it was written over sixty years ago, the song is, to quote Woody Guthrie himself, still “private property.” Guthrie based the melody of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Carter Family’s 1928 recording “Little Darlin’ Pal of Mine,” which in turn was derived from a nineteenth-century gospel song, “Oh, My Loving Brother.” This means that, in the twenty-first century, the publishing company that owns the late Guthrie’s music can earn money from a song about communal property, which was itself based on a tune that is over a century old. Far more disturbing, Guthrie’s publishing company prevents musicians from releasing altered, updated lyrical versions of that song. We won’t be hearing Collins’s mutated “This Gene Is Your Gene” anytime soon.

What’s the connection, you might be wondering, between folk music and genetic research? Although obviously very different endeavors, the practitioners of both used to value the open sharing of information (i.e., melodies or scientific data). In these communities, “texts” were often considered common property, but today this concept has been fundamentally altered by the process of privatization, that is, the belief that shared public resources—sometimes referred to by economists and social scientists as the commons—can be better managed by private industries. And in recent years, there’s been a significant erosion of both the cultural commons and the genetic commons, resulting in a shrinking of the public domain. The fact that folk melodies and lyrics are now privately owned rather than shared resources is a depressing example of how our cultural commons is being fenced off. As for the genetic commons, the patenting of human and plant genes is but the furthest logical extension of privatization—taken at times to illogical lengths.

***

Continue reading

Women Farmers Feed the World

by Christa Hillstrom

In West Africa, women’s resistance to the new Green Revolution shows that the question of agricultural sustainability is also a question of equality.

Fatou Batta, Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa. Photo Courtesy Groundswell International

posted on October 22, 2011 in YES! Magazine

It’s harvest season in Burkina Faso. Throughout the West African nation’s rural regions, small farmers—mostly women—are harvesting millet, rice, and sorghum to feed large families. After a full day gathering grains, each wife will continue the work, tending her own small garden to feed her children.

The harvest marks the end of the “lean season,” the dangerous months after the year’s food supply has dwindled and the next crops have not yet arrived—a time that leaves many women foraging for their children.

West Africa—and much of the rest of the world—is facing a food crisis. Nearly one billion people are hungry, according to the World Hunger Education Service, and farmers throughout the Global South are experiencing escalating anxiety over the appropriation and control of land, seeds, and farming techniques by foreign governments and corporations—manifested in “land-grabbing,” seed monopolization, genetic modification, and the imposition of high-tech, water-, chemical-, and energy-intensive monocrops.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a Gates Foundation-funded initiative based in Nairobi and spearheaded by Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N. It’s a multimillion-dollar project that seeks to increase food production in Africa by implementing vigorous Western-style agricultural techniques, promising high-yield results for food-insecure populations.

According to the Gates Foundation and other supporters, it’s an African-led endeavor, modeled on the previous Green Revolutions of Latin America and the Indian sub-continent but placed in the hands of Africans. It sounds like a good idea.

But a growing movement of local farmers—largely led by women—argue that the surest path to food security is securing food sovereignty. It’s a concept that was put forward in the early 90’s by Via Campesina, an international alliance of peasant, indigenous, and women’s organizations that advocates for communities’ control over how food is produced, and who gets to eat it.

The original Green Revolution, beginning in the 1940’s, pushed widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment whose expense was out of reach for most peasant farmers. Critics point out that years of water-intensive farming has depleted water tables, while increased use of chemicals has severely damaged soil in some areas. And while new seeds and tools may bring higher production in the short term, many Africans fear the consolidated control corporations exercise over the food supply, the precarious dependence on large amounts of water and energy inputs, and the environmental toll such methods may eventually take.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), sponsored by the U.N. and published in 2009, found that the adoption of agrochemicals and monocropping, among other technologies, have harmed more than the land. They’ve also hurt local communities and economies, benefiting transnational corporations with “near-total control” of food production.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, lead author of the IAASTD report, emphasizes instead the importance of agroecological farming, an approach that supports localized farming and draws on traditional agricultural knowledge. It not only considers productivity, sustainability, and resilience, but also equity.

This is good news for women. Women, according to Ishii-Eiteman, make up a huge percentage of the world’s small food producers (who, she says, together grow about 70 percent of the food supply). They do the most to get food on the table, and they’re usually the last to eat it.

Fatou Batta works with Groundswell International, an organization that partners with small-farmer groups across the world, including in Burkina Faso. She’s helping to lead a broad grassroots alliance that shows that small farmers‚ and especially women, can feed the world if we give them the resources to control their food, and the right to eat it too.


Christa Hillstrom: Let’s talk about food sovereignty. How do people in West Africa understand this concept?

Fatou Batta: In our context, it is related to the type of food we want to eat and produce, and having the ability to produce what we eat. It seems that in the U.S., food justice is much better understood than food sovereignty.  But in our context, controlling the production of what we eat is key—not just get something that is imposed.

Christa Hillstrom: You talk about equity—economic equity, gender equity—as a key ingredient of sovereignty. I think a lot of people don’t think equity when they think about food security. They think of resilience, sustainability, and high yields. Why is it important to include equity in building long-term security in food production? How does that bring women into the picture?

Fatou Batta: First of all, it’s a question of rights. Women are key in producing food. They are working on the farm, they’re producing through labor, and when it comes to using food, they are the last ones to be able to eat it. It’s important to make sure those who contribute to producing the food also have access to eat equitably. In the family, usually males have the right to eat first. I think it’s unfair. It’s discrimination. So if we’re talking about the right to food, we have to be looking at the gender imbalance.

Christa Hillstrom: Could you give an idea of what it’s like to be a woman farmer in West Africa?

Fatou Batta: The way it works is, there is land for the whole family. On that land, it’s the head of household—the man—who manages it. But the labor is largely produced by the women and children. In many places in Burkina, the woman has a small plot of land with which to produce something like okra because she has the responsibility of feeding the family using extra ingredients. The whole family produces staples like millet and sorghum. But they still have to make some type of sauce—like a soup with vegetables. This is the responsibility of individual women.

Christa Hillstrom: So each wife is producing for her own children.

Fatou Batta: Yes. And usually her plot of land is completely depleted and will not yield much. During the rainy season, she will go in the morning and work with the husband and children [and other wives] on the large plot of land, the land for the whole family. She will spend almost the whole day there. The time for her own plot would be in the afternoon when the sun goes down. After the work on the large family land, she will go to her own land to work there before she goes back home, and—after collecting firewood—cook for the whole family. The work burden on her is large.

Seasons of Hunger

Christa Hillstrom: You mentioned the lean season, when women must often forage to feed their children because stores from the harvest have run out.

Fatou Batta: From the harvest, which occurs between October and November, until February or March, people usually have something to eat. But from March until the next planting period, this is the hardest part: The food is finished and it’s hard to feed everybody. This is the time we call the hunger season. It could last five, six, or seven months. One family may run out of food after just three months, meaning that for the next nine months they are food insecure.

Christa Hillstrom: So into this situation comes a new push toward an African Green Revolution. What do farmers think about this?

Fatou Batta: The Green Revolution requires using a lot of water. What will happen in case of a drought? Farmers believe it’s better for them to go from what they know, what they have been using for years. They still have in mind what happened in Asia and Latin America with the Green Revolutions there, and they see it as something they cannot control—they fear dependence on all of these pesticides, chemicals, and imports.

Traditionally, farmers control their own seeds—and share them. Women are the keepers of those seeds. But with AGRA, all of this is going to be out of the farmers’ control. This is why we are doing this whole campaign, saying, “We are the solution.” The solution cannot come from elsewhere. It’s already there.

Christa Hillstrom: Supporters of the Green Revolution technologies argue, you have these dangerous lean seasons, and these new seeds can produce more food to eliminate hunger. What do local people say to that?

Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it’s like you’re taking their soul away.

Fatou Batta: First of all, it’s not yet evident the new seed will produce. It’s dependent on fertilizer, pesticide, and new technologies. Plus, here people rely on the rainfall—there is no irrigation. If you cannot control the water, what will happen if you apply the chemical fertilizer and then there is no rain? You could lose everything. So even if these new seeds can double the yield, there are some necessary environmental conditions that are not always met.

Plus there’s the cost. Most small farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides because it’s very expensive. But farmers have a way of selecting traditional seeds to see which ones are really performing, knowledge that has come down through generations. They do their own selection of what seeds are really good for what context and what seeds can be resilient to drought.

So we all agree that it’s important to increase productivity, but there are some necessary conditions to make it environmentally sustainable.

Seed / Money

If you don’t have control of your life, it’s like you are lying on someone’s mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.

Christa Hillstrom: It seems like seeds are much more than just tools for food production. What role do they play in culture?

Fatou Batta: Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it’s like you’re taking their soul away. Whatever improved seed you give them, they will still keep the traditional seed because it reflects their culture. They don’t want to get rid of it. Under the Green Revolution, it’s something that might no longer exist.

Christa Hillstrom: It sounds like this culture of commodity from outside is invading something on a spiritual level—companies come in and patent seeds, take ownership of them, and it kills something.

Fatou Batta: Yes, it kills something. In terms of culture, it kills something. In terms of local knowledge, it kills something. Putting farmers in debt because they depend on a corporation, in our culture, is like you lie down on the mat of someone. That’s a cultural image. If you don’t have control of your life, it’s like you are lying on someone’s mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.

Christa Hillstrom: You’ve said that women who are illiterate may feel like they don’t have much to teach, but these are also the women with the traditional knowledge and farming experience that we’ll need in coming times. What’s an example of that knowledge?

Fatou Batta: Because women are central to food security, they have developed strategies to feed their families in case of things like crop failure. They collect firewood, and they know what is in the bush, what types of species. They learn what can and cannot be consumed. When there is hardship, they will go back to the bush to collect what can be consumed—some leaves, some roots, some fruit.

The shea nut tree is a bank for women. It takes a long time to grow, and they use the nuts to make butter. Traditionally, that’s a main source of fat. The shea nut butter is also medicinal, and the nut can be sold for money. It is a coping mechanism during the lean season. When the rain starts, during planting time, the food in the family is usually gone. But in the bush the shea nut fruit is ready and they can eat it.

What we’ve observed happening now is that through all this technology imported with the Green Revolution, large areas of land are being converted to cash cropping. They cut down the trees and destroy vegetation. This means that women are losing their back-up sources of income and food. Some of the species don’t exist anymore in some parts of the country.

An Alliance for a Farmers’ Revolution in Africa

Christa Hillstrom: Traditional coping knowledge is critical to hang on to. How are local people—many of them illiterate—preserving and sharing strategies that go against the grain of agricultural principles of monocropping, genetic modification, and chemical farming, especially if they’re not writing it down?

Fatou Batta: What is being done is through exchange visits. Groups of women visit each other and share their knowledge about using natural resources and techniques. They bring ideas back and try them through experimentation. You visit one farmer who experiences similar problems and difficulties, and she has tried something that really succeeded. You bring it home and learn from it.

Christa Hillstrom: Sounds like “We are the Solution” could be a transformative campaign, if it can survive what it’s up against. What sort of support do you need to give the small farmer movement a real shot at flourishing?

Fatou Batta: I think it requires alliances—getting together and developing advocacy and also making pressure on our leaders. We need to say it’s important to invest more in sustainable technologies. Because of the activists nowadays, the debate is happening within the farmer network, and they’re trying to hold our leaders accountable.

Christa Hillstrom: So what gives you hope that it can really take root?

Fatou Batta: What is still working is the bond, the relation between people and communities—the solidarity.

Christa Hillstrom: Whose face do you see when you look at the big picture?

Fatou Batta:Many, many, many cases: A lady whose husband migrated and left her with six children to feed. But the land her husband’s family gave her was not good land. That’s normal—women get land that’s not good land, completely degraded. Then they work to improve it. She worked hard. She improved her land based on techniques she learned from one of Groundswell’s partners, a local organization that trained her on how to improve the land using some organic manure, etc. The first years were hard, but finally she was able to produce, and now she is completely self-sufficient.

Christa Hillstrom: What would you like to say to the powerful proponents of AGRA?

Fatou Batta: The willingness to feed the poor is good. But the strategy is not a good one. It’s completely the opposite of what can work. Just listen, really listen, to small-scale farmers—because they are the ones who feed the world.

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Christa Hillstrom interviewed Fatou Batta for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christa is web managing editor at YES!

Fatou Batta is the co-coordinator for West Africa for Groundswell International.

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