Call for law on hunger

The National Right to Food Taskforce, which is coordinated by Church and Society, a project of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Blantyre Synod, are circulating a Human Right to Food Bill that seeks to create an independent authority to ensure food security.

The bill is based on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) under which countries are obliged to ensure that their citizens’ right to food is respected and protected. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors compliance with the treaty.

The Taskforce requested FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) a Germany-based NGO, and Rights & Democracy, a Canadian organisation, to analyse hunger in Malawi. Their report, ‘The Human Right to Food in Malawi’, recommended the creation of an authority able to investigate food rights violations and take action on behalf of the victims.

Food shortages are a recurring problem in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries. Half of all Malawian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Around 80 percent of the country’s workforce are subsistence farmers who depend on fertilisers to grow crops, but deteriorating soil fertility and lack of access to fertilisers have resulted in low agricultural output, while lack of infrastructure has left small-scale farmers vulnerable to drought and flooding, researchers found.

Malawi’s permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture, R.P. Mwadiwa, was dismissive of calls to legislate the right to food. “Rather than stress on legislation we must focus our attention on ensuring we have a system in place to ensure there is food security at all times,” he said.

The Taskforce launched its campaign for the bill in 2002, at the height of Malawi’s worst famine in 50 years, when at least three million people went hungry. Another prolonged dry spell in 2005 left at least 4.8 million Malawians in need of food aid. Erratic rain and poor management by government aggravated the situation on both occasions, the report said.

“As a church, we feel that food is one of the basic necessities and it is every citizen’s right,” said Daniel Gunya, general secretary of the CCAP Blantyre Synod. “Our problem is that the majority of our people are poor and illiterate. They do not know issues of freedoms and human rights . . . When people are hungry, politicians take advantage of the situation and manipulate them.”

Estere Bayeti, a subsistence farmer from Thyolo district in Malawi’s Southern region, commented, “I do not know anything about human rights ‘ I know I have the freedom to speak and join a political party of my choice.”
<BR> She is among thousands of Malawians unaware that food is a human right. “Thyolo is one of the districts in Malawi that every year experiences food shortage. We attribute the problem to poverty, since many people cannot afford to buy fertiliser and other farm inputs. The other problem in Thyolo is that many people do not have land on which they can grow (crops), because most of the land is occupied by tea estates.”

Besides the critical issue of agricultural inputs, a growing population and limited arable hectarage has compounded Malawi’s ability to produce food. The country’s inheritance patterns, which result in land being equally divided among surviving siblings, has led to an average arable landholding of .23ha per capita, and even less in the southern region, according to analysts.

This year, good rain and a successful government-sponsored fertiliser and seed distribution programme have boosted farmers’ yields. Last year the government introduced a coupon system giving small-scale farmers access to 147,000 mt of fertiliser at half the commercial price.

As a result, Malawi has recorded its biggest ever harvest of 2.6 million mt of maize, at least half-a-million more than its annual requirement of 2 million mt. The number of people in need of food aid is down to 980,000 this year.

October 2006
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