A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
I’ve just taken over at Oxfam International as Head of Advocacy, Policy and Research for the GROW campaign. Getting to grips with the broad range of issues covered in the campaign – from land grabbing and sustainable agriculture to climate change and volatility of food prices – is a bit daunting. But on a trip to South Africa last week I was able to meet a group of women whose experiences show precisely why the GROW campaign’s wide agenda is so vital.
At a small church in the township of Evaton, about an hour outside of Johannesburg, my colleague Rashmi and I met Wendy and several women from their community to discuss how climate change is making it harder for them to feed their families. Amidst the songs that sustained communities like theirs across the country during the struggle to end apartheid, they explained how the hot days, scarce water and dry soils hindered their efforts to grow food in local vegetable gardens.
As we visited two such gardens with them later, it became clear how climate change is just one of many interconnected challenges they face.
At both gardens, we stood on land the women did not own. The first was leased from a local landowner, who had just forced them to leave by refusing to allow them to sell their produce at a fair price to a local retailer. The second was informal land owned by the national electricity giant Eskom. Most women in their community seek to make such informal land productive, but without being able to secure it with fences, their produce is often stolen. As many of the millions of women in communities like their across developing countries have told Oxfam, “our land is our life”.
Adapting to climate change
On this insecure land they are growing vegetables like beetroot, cabbage, spinach and pumpkins. For the past two years, harvests have been poor. They complain about the scorching heat that has withered the plants; the new pests that now attack them; and the lack of secure water supplies for irrigation. Water was only available from local homes to irrigate the second garden three days per week. They say the climate and the harvests did not used to be like this.
They want more information on how to improve their yields. They want to farm sustainably, using organic fertilizers, but they receive effectively no support from their government on what methods and approaches they should use to be most productive. They say that government extension officers – who should support small scale farmers across the country with expert advice and information – never come to see them.
Food prices and gender
The food they grow they aim to sell into the local market. To eat each day, they buy from the shops, where they complain of rising prices. Food prices in South Africa have doubled since 2006, with the increases linked by some researchers with observed periods of extreme violence in the country.
The men in their communities are mostly unemployed. The women explain that a failure to provide food for their families can often lead to domestic violence. That is the human story behind the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter’s recent report that showed how challenging pervasive discrimination, gender stereotypes and women’s low social standing is central to the fight against poverty and hunger.
Fighting for food justice
It is the experiences of these women that confirms why the broad agenda of the GROW campaign is so essential. Bringing an end to hunger for this and all future generations – food justice in our resource constrained world – is only possible if we challenge the injustice that afflicts the entire global food system, from farm to fork.
It’s that system that leaves women without secure land to farm; that prevents good investment in agriculture from reaching the people that need it most; that means runaway climate change is devastating agriculture; and that drives volatility in the price of food. In part 2 of this post I’ll give a quick overview of what the GROW campaign has helped to achieve on all these fronts since it was launched in June 2011. We’ve certainly made a start, and scored some big wins along the way. But as the women of Evaton remind us, this is a fight is far from over.