By Reihana Mohideen
MANILA — The Asian economic crisis has had a massive impact on the production, availability and accessibility of basic food products, leading to serious food shortages in south-east Asia.
In the Philippines, formerly an exporter of rice, food production dropped by a staggering 12.7% in the first half of 1998. In Malaysia, the volume of imported rice increased by 13.5% in the first quarter of 1998 compared to the same period last year.
In several ASEAN countries, in addition to this loss of production in agriculture, people have been hit with massive increases in food prices. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, the prices of basic food products in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines has increased by 10-20% this year.
The Vietnam-ASEAN Food Security Conference, held in Hanoi on November 3, was organised by the Vietnamese government to discuss the impact of the economic crisis on food security in the region and how to combat it.
Through the conference it became clear that Vietnam had weathered the crisis far better than its ASEAN neighbours, particularly in the area of agricultural production. It was also clear that the Vietnamese government was attempting to develop a regional plan to deal with the economic crisis and was keen to develop ASEAN as an alternative economic bloc to trading blocs such as APEC, which are dominated by the big imperialist powers.
According to Nguyen Tam Chien, Vietnam's deputy minister for foreign affairs, the economic crisis has led to a big reduction in investment in agriculture and food production, combined with an inability of many countries to import adequate food supplies because the international banks refuse to lend them money. He also warned that economic crises tend to lead to further ecological destruction which can harm agriculture and food production.
Nguyen criticised the one-sided economic development in the ASEAN countries: "While intensifying industrialisation, a number of countries paid little attention to agricultural production and rural development.
"In some countries, industrialisation ... has not gone hand in hand with industrialising agriculture, raising productivity and efficiency in agricultural production. [This is] the root cause of the present food insecurity in many ASEAN countries."
Nguyen also pointed out that while the elimination of poverty is the aim of food security, this is "also the means to obtain food security". In order to obtain food security, it is necessary to "strengthen the productive ability of poor households", to "enhance the physical infrastructure, such as irrigation, electrification and rural roads, for agricultural production" and to "develop the social infrastructure, such as education and health care, for the rural areas".
Another important theme at the conference was the need for comprehensive land reform. This was strongly emphasised by the Vietnamese delegates.
In Vietnam, the Law on Land prohibits the private ownership of land. As the 1996 national congress documents of the Communist Party of Vietnam stipulate, "Land is owned by the entire people; not to be privatised nor bought or sold". Hence the bulk of agricultural land in Vietnam is cultivated through a system of communes based on cooperative labour.
The reports presented at the conference by the Vietnamese delegates made it clear that if the governments of ASEAN were committed to improving the food security of the people, they had to implement comprehensive land reform in favour of the bulk of the peasantry and invest heavily in a massive program of public works and infrastructure building.
The Vietnamese delegates could speak with authority on the issue of food security. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vietnam was reeling from an acute economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the former Soviet Union (upon which Vietnam's economy was heavily dependent), drought, floods and a trade embargo imposed by the United States when Vietnam was still recovering from the devastation of the war waged by the US.
There were large scale food shortages and even starvation, at some points affecting up to 60% of households in some provinces.
Today Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of rice, next to Thailand, having recently displaced the US from this position. Unlike other former food-exporting countries in ASEAN which are now having to import basic foodstuffs, Vietnam is set to increase its food production.
An interesting feature of the conference was the conflicting views expressed amongst the Vietnamese delegates themselves. While the tendency of some government representatives was to present a more favourable picture, the mass organisations' delegates were more candid about the problems still afflicting the Vietnamese people.
For example, while a ministry of agriculture representative declared that Vietnam has achieved food security, the chairperson of the Vietnam Peasant Association (VPA), Nguyen Duc Trieu, (also a member of the central committee of the party) declared that, while Vietnam has become an exporter of rice, "it hasn't obtained food security yet because 17% of households still suffer from hunger". Much has yet to be done to achieve real food security, he said.
The vice-chairperson of the 11 million-strong Vietnam Women's Union, Truong Thi Khue, highlighted the problems faced by women agricultural workers. "Working conditions are still poor [for women] ... Only 9% of them have been trained ... Their health status is very bad; 50-60% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia, 40% of women within maternity age suffer from chronic energy deficiency, while public welfare services are becoming worse."
From the leaders of the mass organisations it became apparent that a major mobilisation of the peasantry (which make up 80% of the population) was a key feature of Vietnam's agricultural policy. According to Nguyen, "the VPA ... has organised thousands of training courses, transferring scientific and technological progress to millions of peasant households ... Thousands of on-the-spot seminars [and] conferences have been held ...
"The VPA has drawn the peasant into the movement for constructing rural infrastructure ... mobilised more than 47 million labour days in the building of ... irrigation, transportation, clean water and rural electricity supply", thus contributing to rural industrialisation and modernisation of Vietnam.
Today, 93% of communes have access roads, 70% have electricity, 98% have primary schools, 92% have health-care centres and nearly 40% of rural dwellers have access to clean water.
During a visit to one of the poorer communes I was told by one of the women labourers that she visits the local health-care centre every month to monitor her children's nutritional levels. Each child had an individual health chart and the mother is advised on what dietary adjustments to make to ensure each has a balanced vitamin intake. This basic health care is provided free by the state.
While the bureaucrats from the UN sneered at the "conflicting" evidence presented by the Vietnamese delegates, to more astute observers it became apparent that there was a genuine discussion and debate in the government and the party about how to move forward.
The debate seems to centre around the level of state control versus the degree to which market mechanisms should be introduced in the implementation of the program of economic renewal, referred to as doi moi.
For example, according to the deputy minister for trade: "Free trade in agricultural products plays an essential role in maintaining food security ... the birth of the World Trade Organisation and the finalisation of the Agreement of Agricultural Trade [within the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade] have [had a] positive impact on food security."
Somewhat naively, he echoed the "level playing field" argument propagated by the imperialist proponents of the WTO and claimed that this would result in a reduction of all tariff and non-tariff barriers to agricultural trade, thus providing Vietnam with more agricultural product export opportunities.
However, imperialist countries such as the US and Australia are also big food producers, with the US being the world's largest exporter of agricultural products. The imperialist countries' main advantage is the very high level of productivity resulting from industrialisation of agricultural production. The transnational food monopolies use this advantage to drive out small farmers and corner the markets of less competitive Third World countries.
Reports presented by delegates from Vietnam's Ministry of Labour and the government's pricing committee argued for the maintenance and increase of government subsidies in agriculture.
These included calls for the expansion of the Bank for the Poor, which had provided low-interest loans to 60% of poor households, so that 90-95% of all poor households could access them.
The pricing committee delegate also pointed to the crucial role of government subsidies in stabilising the price of basic foodstuffs. The government has set up a price stabilising fund to support food production when prices fluctuate. Food products are bought from farmers at a given price so that they don't suffer when there is a decrease in market prices.
But the backbone of the gains made in agriculture rest on comprehensive land reform, a direct result of the revolution which enabled the workers and peasants of Vietnam to take political power.
Under pressure from the Vietnamese delegates eager for information about the state of land reform in other countries in the region, the Philippines government delegate blustered on for several minutes without mentioning the crucial fact that some 80% of land in the Philippines is owned and controlled by the country's landed capitalist class, backed by the state and privately funded vigilante gangs.
Meanwhile, the price of rice, sugar and cooking oil had increased and the Philippines government has left the poor to suffer the vagaries of market forces.
I cannot predict the path that Vietnam will follow in the future, but I was thoroughly convinced by what I saw and heard in Vietnam that when the toiling masses take power, and with it control of society's valuable resources, even in a country as poor as Vietnam it benefits the people enormously.