The G20’s missing voice

Sue Branford
25 March 2009

It's hard to feel enthusiasm about the prospects for the G20 meeting to be held in London on 2 April 2009, even before the world leaders make their further contribution to global warming by flying into Heathrow airport. That is in part because the summit's three official goals - to "stabilise financial markets", "reform and strengthen the global financial and economic system", and "put the global economy on track for sustainable growth" - seem so wearyingly familiar. The very blandness and predictability of the words seem to declare the absence of any new vision.Sue Branford is co-editor of Seedling and manages the publications of the agricultural-diversity NGO, GRAIN (though she writes here in her personal capacity).

She reports regularly from Latin America for the BBC and the Guardian.

She is co-author (with Jan Rocha), of Cutting the Wire: the Story of the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (Latin America Bureau, 2002) and (with Hugh O'Shaughnessy) of Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Fumigation (Latin America Bureau, 2005)

Also by Sue Branford in openDemocracy:

"Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

"Brazil's historic test" (18 June 2006)

"Brazil's Amazonian choice" (19 May 2008)

"The world food summit: a lost opportunity" (10 June 2008)

This is the real point: that the pre-emptive pessimism has more to do with the mismatch between the gravity of the current global situation and the limited awareness among world leaders of how much needs to be done. For the "London summit" is being held at a moment when the intimate connection between the economic crisis and the even more serious long-term climate crisis has never been clearer.  Only an integrated and radical approach to reverse many current trends and build a sustainable economy can begin to serve the needs of the planet and its people. There is very little sign of movement in this direction from within the G20.

The land-climate vice 

Indeed, it would be very difficult for the representatives of leading world governments and financial institutions gathering in London to break with the orthodoxy of the last decades - even though it has now brought the world to the most severe crisis since the great depression.

Since the 1970s, the world's financial masters have been imposing economic policies on the global south that seriously jeopardise the future of the planet. To obtain loans, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has told developing countries to follow a formula: dismantle trade barriers, privatise key sectors of the economy, reduce the role of the state, remove all exchange restrictions and adopt an export-led model of development. The results have included hundreds of thousands of peasant families, practising environmentally and socially sustainable mixed farming, being driven off the land. Some, like Mexico's peasants, have been unable to compete with cheap imports from the United States of industrially produced maize. Others, like Argentina's and Paraguay's small farmers, have been forced to make way for huge soya plantations.

More recently, in the wake of the global food crisis in 2007-08, some rich countries that are dependent on food imports have started to buy or lease land in Africa and Asia to grow food crops. For instance, Saudi investors in 2008 invested $1.3bn in land in Indonesia, largely for rice monocropping. They are also looking for similar deals in Pakistan, Sudan and Ethiopia. There is something profoundly shocking in seeing very poor developing countries, which are failing adequately to feed their own people, allowing in rich foreigners to produce food for export.

It is not solely a moral issue, but also a question of the type of farming they are undertaking. The replacement model, industrial agriculture, is heavily dependent on fertilisers, pesticides and farm machinery, and does far more damage to the local ecosystem and to the global climate than the traditional farming systems it is displacing. The Stern report on global climate change, published in October 2006, estimates that agriculture and changing land-use (mostly deforestation) are responsible for (respectively) 14% and 10% of greenhouse-gas emissions. Transport, much of which is employed to carry food across the globe, causes another 14% of the emissions. Although comparatively little attention is paid to it, modern farming is the most important single factor behind global warming.

The meeting of leading world scientists in Copenhagen on 10-12 March 2009 warned that greenhouse-gas emissions were rising much faster even than had been anticipated. They said that new research published after the Stern report indicated that existing climate-change scenarios had to be re-examined: with positive feedbacks having an impact, climate change was gaining momentum. Steven Sherwood of Yale University warned that unless drastic action was taken to reduce global emissions, the physiological limits of the human body would begin to render certain habitats places impossible to support human life. It was likely, he suggested, that parts of China, India and the eastern US would soon become too hot to live in during the summer months.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the global crises:

Robert Wade, "The financial crisis: burst bubble, frayed model" (1 October 2007)

Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn" (5 July 2008)

Ann Pettifor, "The G8 in a global mess: 1920s and 1980s lessons" (7 July 2008)

Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008)

Ann Pettifor, "The week that changed everything" (22 September 2008)

Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)

Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008)

Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (6 March 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "There is no zombie free lunch" (18 March 2009)

Moreover, British experts on climate change found that the Amazon rainforest was proving more vulnerable to climate change than they had previously thought. The loss of large parts of the forest was by now "irreversible"; up to 85% of it could be lost if spiralling greenhouse-gas emissions were not brought under control. Peter Cox, professor of climate-system dynamics at the University of Exeter, said the effects would be felt around the world: "The tropics are drivers of the world's weather systems and killing the Amazon is likely to change them forever".

After the Copenhagen meeting, the renowned Nasa scientist James Hanson decided to take part in a climate day of action on 19 March 2009 in the English city of Coventry to mourn the victims of climate change and highlight its impact on the world's poorest people. The world was facing an "emergency", he said, and he owed it to his grandchildren to add his voice to those pressing for urgent action.

The present world economic crisis is highlighting other failings in the Washington consensus, as the IMF orthodoxy came to be called. The sub-prime mortgage explosion in the United States involved speculators seeking to move into new areas in a relentless sales and investment spree. The investment in commodities futures, for example, rose from $5 billion in 2000 to $175 billion in 2007. This, combined with the US government's decision to divert a large part of its maize production into biofuels, led to a surge in food prices on the world markets in 2007-08. Because many poor developing countries had been forced to dismantle tariffs and other tools that they had previously used to protect local food production, they were far more heavily dependent on imported food than in the past. Millions of people went hungry as a result.

Many commodity prices have fallen in the early months of 2009, but local food prices in most sub-Saharan African countries are still higher today than a year ago. The situation is likely to worsen, partly because the lack of trade finance and other sources of credit make it hard for some developing countries to import goods. "The food crisis has not gone away. In fact, it is coming back", says Christopher Delgado, a policy adviser in agriculture at the World Bank. The World Bank believes that as many as 53 million more people will be sucked into poverty this year. Yet when developing countries turn to the IMF in search of debt relief, the fund still peddles its tired recipes. Among the many loan packages it has made during the crisis, for example, one in November 2008 for the Seychelles is conditional on economic reforms including the removal of all exchange restrictions and the floating of the rupee.

The left outside

There is no immutable law that determines that the rural exodus must continue. Indeed, there are still hundreds of thousands of families living in shanty-towns who would leap at the chance to return to the land, provided they received adequate financial and technical support. Their environmentally friendly way of mixed farming would help to cool the planet.

Some analysts believe that, together with more local food systems, a return to peasant farming could eliminate as much as 40% of all greenhouse gases. Another study by the Rodale Institute estimates that if the US converted to organic farming, it would reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 25%.

At these moments of great uncertainty and rapid change, old alliances and old antagonisms collapse. Whether from the developed or developing world, the leaders meeting in London on 2 April share a common commitment to the existing financial and economic order. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil for example, far from wishing to challenge the export-oriented model of development, wishes only to get a better deal for his country. He believes that Brazil, which is already a leading exporter of agricultural commodities, particularly soya and beef, could greatly increase its exports of ethanol, which it produces cheaply and efficiently from sugar-cane.

The downside to this strategy is the extraordinary environmental damage that such an expansion in sugar-cane production would cause, driving the country's agricultural frontier deeper into the Amazon basin. Such a trajectory, together with the battering that Amazonia is already receiving from global warming, would mean the end of the world's largest remaining tropical forest.

The desperate need is for fresh ideas and a new vision. It is not too late. There are many groups armed with such ideas and proposing an essential change of direction. They range from the global peasant organisation La Vía Campesina to environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Their voice is growing louder, but it is one that will be heard in the streets among the protestors rather than in the G20 meeting itself.


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