Development: Walking the long route

Published September 4, 2016
Women, men and children moving with the caravan at the Kotri Barrage, Jamshoro -Photos by the writer
Women, men and children moving with the caravan at the Kotri Barrage, Jamshoro -Photos by the writer

On a warm March afternoon outside Umerkot Press Club, one could hear the faint sound of Sindhi music getting louder as a navy blue truck, loaded with two huge speakers, four large megaphones and blue flags of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) arrives.

The PFF’s co-chairperson Muhammad Ali Shah, surrounded by the organisation’s members, follows closely behind. They are gathered here on an important mission: to create awareness among indigenous communities about food sovereignty and climate justice.

Shah, along with a few members, stood holding a white cloth banner with the words ‘Sindh Awami Caravan’ — Sindh People’s Caravan — written across it. The words underneath read: ‘Demanding food, sovereignty and climate justice’.

Amongst all this, a chant ensues: Hui jaagya! Jaagya! Haari jaagya! — Wake up! Wake up! Peasants, wake up!

The PFF had begun its 14-day journey through the Indus Delta in the form of a caravan of three buses and 50 people. Men, women and children, farmers, fishermen and indigenous activists were travelling from Karachi to Badin and Thatta, then east to Umerkot and north around the banks of the Indus River. On the way they were joined by hundreds more. The procession was to culminate at Kotri Barrage between Jamshoro and Hyderabad.

The writer accompanies a peasant movement that seeks to fight food insecurity by creating awareness among indigenous communities

The need for such awareness creating campaigns is ever present, and the organisers of the Sindh Awami caravan would ideally want to hold it on an annual basis. However, due to logistical problems and security issues they are not able to do so. The past two caravans happened after a gap of a year or two — one in 2011 and the other in 2013.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Pakistan has missed its ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDG) on eliminating hunger. In fact, hunger has risen in the country.

According to reports, 61 million Pakistanis are food insecure, which means they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Sindh has the highest level of food insecurity with over 71 per cent households being food insecure.

The PFF has a clear plan to address this issue. “It [PFF] began as an international peasant movement under the umbrella of La Via Campesina or the International Peasant’s Movement,” explains Shah.

Shah, who co-founded the PFF back in 1998, explains that the La Via Campesina has two components. The first is to transfer the ownership of food production sources directly to farmers. This includes ownership of land, water and seed. The second component is to enact environmentally and ecologically friendly farming practices. This is coupled with a fast-paced phasing out of ecologically unstable and environmentally unfriendly ‘capitalistic modes’ of industrial farming.

La Via considers policymaking to be a part of the first component concerning ownership. The FAO has not yet adopted this idea, but peasant movements and fishing communities worldwide have begun advocating for policy reform under the UN agency’s purview.

Sounds simple enough: equally distribute the land, rein in industrial modes of farming, and adopt safer practices for the land and the environment. But, can this shift in paradigm also fulfil our increasing demand for food?

Shah believes it can. He cites the example of Cuba. The Cuban food crisis of the 1990s pushed its incumbent government to implement land reforms. They converted state-owned agricultural land to farming cooperatives, and encouraged citizens to farm rural lands and set up urban gardens using traditional methods. The result: Cuba became one of the 38 countries that managed to meet their anti-hunger MDG targets for 2015.

Pakistan, too, had employed traditional and organic methods of farming earlier — until the 1960s ‘green revolution’. Shah dismisses the idea that cutting down on fertilisers will not generate enough yields. “Yes, there will be a reduction in cash crops and biofuels,” he says, “But food sovereignty is a direct resistance to capitalist modes of agriculture.”

Such modes of production seek to use land for profit, rather than for fulfilling basic needs like food. The shift in ownership and farming practices, therefore, will go hand-in-hand with rethinking how we view land and capital; using them to produce food crops rather than cash crops.

Local activists and leaders dance to the tunes of the PFF anthem -Photos by the writer
Local activists and leaders dance to the tunes of the PFF anthem -Photos by the writer

But unlike countries like Cuba, Pakistan does not have a strong peasant movement. “Land reforms are not easy in a country where they have been labelled anti-Islamic,” Shah says, referring to the Qazalbash Waqf case and the subsequent declaration by the Federal Shariat Court in 1990.

“The country needs a social movement comprising peasants and fisher-folk, backed by civil society,” Shah says. At the same time, political parties need to include land reforms under their respective manifestos. The biggest obstacle, he feels, is feudalism. Once the feudal system is dismantled, Pakistan can move to land reforms and slowly achieve food security, ushering in a real, people-led democracy.

“All of these are interconnected,” Shah emphasises.

As the sun rises over the wheat fields, farmers in Allah Bachayo Mala make their way to tend their crops. At the heart of food sovereignty is a fundamental transformation: the end of mass-produced, specific technologies that are land intensive and unsustainable.

Hayat, a local schoolteacher, gives a brief account of how the land itself has changed and moulded itself to cope with the industrialisation of agriculture. Previous farming methods never used chemicals and fertilisers on their lands. But as demands for yield increased, farmers like Hayat began adopting modern methods.

As a result, the land has gotten used to the chemicals and fertilisers. “It is just like a drug addict whose body is used to drug abuse,” Hayat observes. In case of pest and insect attacks chemicals are used to solve the problem. Sometimes to increase the yield more chemical fertilisers are added, which may not be good for the top soil.

Moving forward, the caravan arrives at the Chotiari Wetlands in Sanghar District where it is greeted in typical Sindhi tradition of dance, ajrak presenting and a shower of rose petals.

The wetlands are part of the Bakar dam, which stores excess water during the flood season and replenishes the lower Nara canal during drier months. However, due to poor planning the project was delayed for five years before it was finally inaugurated in 2003.

Delays aside, the construction severely impacted the ecology and economy of the area. Indigenous fishermen and farmers living around the farmlands found their lands inundated by the dam; about 1,000 families were displaced, the riverine forest was submerged and destroyed, and with time 30,000 hectares of cultivable land around the reservoir became infertile due to seepage into underground tables.

We move on to Nawabshah — or Benazirabad, as it is now called. The caravan assembles outside the Nawabshah Press Club, undeterred from voicing their purpose:

Hui jaageerdaari nizaam, namanzoor!
Hui sarmaayadaari nizaam, namanzoor!

(We don’t want this feudal system!
We don’t accept this capitalist system!)

Without a land reform policy, Pakistan’s urbanisation and internal migration has hastened significantly. According to the UN’s World Urbanisation Prospects report, today, the country’s urbanisation rate stands at 2.77 per cent. At this rate, about half of the country’s population will reside in cities by 2025.

Essentially, this makes us one of the fastest urbanising countries in the region. Shah believes this rapid transformation of rural land to urban will spark another food crisis. “Where will we go to search for farmland?” he asks earnestly. “Are we going to redesign our irrigation network? Where will the water come from to source these new urban centres?”

Standing on the Kotri Barrage, I realise it is the International Day of Action for Rivers. The spillways are partially open and water from the Indus gushes out on the other side.

The caravan has finally arrived at its final destination. Aside from the leading group, people spanning from all over Sindh have come — Badin, Thatta, Karachi, Thar, Mithi, Sanghar.

In the consistent spirit of the caravan, they cheer and chant slogans under the afternoon sun.

Sindho darya ji bahaal karo!
Kalabagh dam! Bandh karo!
Athori dam! Bandh karo!
Basha dam! Bandh karo!

(Release the Indus River!
Stop the Kalabagh Dam!
Stop the Athori Dam!
Stop the Basha Dam!)

A strong and impassioned slogan encumbered with political ramifications and history. It stems from the idea of dams being an obstruction in the natural flow of the river, which cause a limited amount of water to reach the deltaic region of Sindh.

“The river is the artery of the land,” Shah says. “If you are going to arrest the flow upstream, its natural flow will end and cause the Indus delta to dry out at the confluence of the river and the sea. A lot of human lives are conjoined with this flow. So is the ecology. If you are going to build dams you will disturb the ecology and all lives associated with it,” he adds.

Shah sees a domino effect, whereby because of social and economic inequities people move to urban centres and the need for dams increases.

“But if the river is free, it will recharge the land.”

Instead of building more dams, Shah says we need to solve the problem of wastage. “It is cheaper to manage water and reduce leaks because it consumes fewer resources,” he advises. “We should also plant crops that use less water. Once that is done, you will not need to construct dams.”

He feels that dams are built in Pakistan only because of the lobby and industry backing them. From construction companies to international finance institutions which fund these megaprojects, to environment consultant companies — everyone wants dams built because it funds their existence.

At the barrage, Shah makes his final speech which includes a list of demands to the present incumbent governments.

A ceremony at the riverbanks follows, where all pay respect to their ‘mother’ — the land.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2016



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