Mali, a Country in Search of Food Sovereignty

Africa is also peace and social organization. In an interview to the Brazilian newspaper Brasil de Fato, one of the Malian organizers of the World Forum for Food Sovereignty, Mamadou Goïta, who is a member of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Development Alternatives (Irpad, in French), speaks on his country’s agriculture production and exposes an organized Africa in search of its own democracy, countering an image built by the corporate media of a continent not mobilized and forever involved in conflicts and civil wars.

Brasil de Fato – The media spreads the idea that Africa cannot produce food because it has no natural resources and too many wars…

Mamadou Goïta – That is a big mistake. People have a lot of prejudices, and talk about things with no objectivity. Africa is a very right continent in terms of biodiversity, and it has a vast agriculture potential, cotton and fishing being two examples. In the case of Mali, which is similar to many other countries in the continent, we have a territory of 1.2 million kilometers, and the third largest river in Africa, the Niger. There are many dams on it, and our rice production potential is vast, just by using simple technologies that people already use around here. That alone would allow us to respond to 50% of the rice demand on West Africa. It gives you an idea of the country’s potential. We are self-sufficient in food production, except when there are extended droughts. This year, for instance, we had a production surplus that can even be used for local trading. Mali, among others, also invests a lot on cotton production. We were the largest producer two years ago, making more than 500 tons a year. But production has a high cost, and we do not have the technology to process cotton industrially. Thus, one of the problems is how to locally transform our own primary goods? In other words, how to master the industrialization process? So when they say that Africa is war, Africa is drought, it is not true because, first, there are many Africas, there are countries, each with its own specificities. Now we are trying to solve the existing conflicts. In countries like Liberia, which spent years in war, the issue now is how to rebuild a nation that, in terms of agriculture, also has a lot of potential. To me, Africa is also peace, it also means social movements fighting for their rights and building democracy in their countries. In Mali, for instance, we were the third largest gold producer. But now we are benefiting of just 20% of the revenue generated by that trading because there are corporations that come here and take that money from the Mali’s population to take it to Canada, the United States, and Europe.

BF – Mali’s president, Alpha Oumar Konaré, signed a law of food sovereignty, and has been here, to the Forum, yesterday. What is the political situation in the country today?

Goïta – Politically, we have peace, and democracy is following its way, although it is not perfect. We know that civil society goes toward promoting democracy, so we can build it, of course taking into consideration our local traditions. The problem now is, how can public policies respond to the population’s needs? In most African countries, the debate is about establishing policies that are consistent with our necessities – and not with external necessities.

BF – How is the dialogue between social movements and the government taking place?

Goïta – There is dialogue between decision makers and the civil society, and social movements, which is very important, because progress can only happen if there is space for that dialogue. That happens because our agriculture orientation, our agriculture policies, are new since August 2006, as a result of the social movements struggle. Thanks to our action and the involvement of some decision makers we managed to establish that law, through a very participative process involving small farmers. Of course there are other issues, such as the need for agriculture research. We still have to discuss which kinds of research, and what resources are available to do it.

When we look at urban areas, we are now in the struggle against transgenic products. Our worry is about how to establish a policy for the cities that will respect the population. The law [of food sovereignty] is very important because it was the first time in the continent that a government recognized the problem and incorporated the issue into legislation. If we start pushing the envelope on a regional level, maybe we can take this to a continental level.

BF – In Brazil, we have social movements formed by families harmed by the building of dams. You mentioned that there are many dams here. Do you have similar problems here?

Goïta – We faced that problem in the past, but no more, because social movements have closely followed that issue. When a dam is built, it is the result of a demand by the local population, and it benefits the local population. Yesterday, the president launched a new dam built at the community demand. There are instances where local farmers cannot afford to pay a fee for the use of the dam, so they leave the land and other families take over. It is not corporations that take their place, but other Malians. What happens is that sometimes the farmer does not have the money to pay due to technical problems, so he produces below what is expected. In some cases, the government did not finance the debt, and expelled people from the land, but the movements sued and we won. So people went back to their lands. Sometimes the courts are on our side, against the government. It was a very important victory.

BF – What else is produced in Mali? Is production limited to areas along the Niger River?

Goïta – The region around the river produces most of our cotton, rice, potatoes, fruits (banana, papaya, orange, apple) and vegetables (various kinds of manioc, eggplant, carrot, cabbage). From here, production is sent to other areas of the country.

BF – How are corporations responding to Mali’s efforts to build food sovereignty?

Goïta – There are aggressions from the corporations, mainly from Monsanto and Syngenta, who have interest in our cotton – interest in supplying the transgenic variety. They have been trying to bribe and finance researchers to make them accept the modified cotton. We are stimulating a national debate about this issue. These corporations have an office here that has been lobbying to vacate the law that prohibits the production of transgenic cotton. It is clear for them that Mali is one of the doors to the African continent, so we have to keep fighting. At the end of last year, we organized a large march to make it clear that we know who they are and we know exactly what they want.