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KARACHI, Oct 16: Farmers, fishermen, non-governmental organisations and researchers gathered  at a hotel on Tuesday to debate over the matter of the nation’s food insecurity and produce from land and sea at a conference held on the occasion of the World Food Day.

“Food for the people directly involved in growing it comes first, followed by its supply to the market with trade as the third option,” said Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) chairman Mohammad Ali Shah during the first session looking at land, agriculture and food sovereignty.

“The government should come up with a policy to protect farmers’ rights as they are entitled to the food they produce first. But we learn that they are the ones going without food,” he observed.

On the occasion, he read out the seven-point charter of demands for land reforms presented by the civil society for the government to consider. “There should be a distribution of state land to bona fide haris. The Sindh government should do this starting with the landless haris with priority given to the released bonded labourers and flood-affected people including women. The haris should be given the right of shelter and housing. The Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 should be reviewed, updated and amended to bring it in line with the prevailing conditions and requirements of haris. All labour laws, inclusive of the Industrial Relations Act, ESSI, EOBI be also extended to haris. The land reforms should be as per the 1977 Bill and, finally, the Sindh government should take steps to allocate land and provide incentives to the haris to form agriculture cooperatives.”

Throwing more light on the issues that were threatening Pakistan’s agriculture, Dr Niaz Shaikh of the SZABIST said that if you look back in history food had been the cause of migration and even war in the world. “The people of North and West Europe came down to South when it became too cold to grow food. Food storage is also an important issue. The Egyptians can be hailed for their food storage facilities. Your produce is most important as it is the cash crop. Its accessibility process, how it reaches the people should also be a major concern and it should be affordable, too,” he pointed out.

Nadeem Mirbahar of the IUCN in his presentation concentrated on the opportunities and significance of mangrove ecosystems. He said that the mangroves had great coastal and marine resource potential. Over 20,000 people here were dependant on mangroves for their food. “Deforestation, hyper salinity, encroachment, pollution, natural and climatic disasters are the main drivers of mangrove ecosystem degradation,” he said.

Ismail Khumber of the Sindh Agriculture University Jamshoro said that too much pesticide and artificial fertiliser was taking a toll on agriculture. “The farmers believe that they need these for better and more produce but it will hurt them in the long run,” he warned.

Giving his view on the discussion, Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, who was chairing the first session of the conference, said that the children in rural Sindh were suffering from malnutrition. “What are we doing degrading our new generation? It will ruin our future. We don’t struggle for our rights any longer. And until we do that we will carry on suffering,” he said.

“We had started the Sindh Land Reform Movement with big expectations. We had thought that we will share information about our farmers’ problems and work on how we could go around solving their various issues. But we haven’t even met for the next meeting even after six months of making the charter,” he said.

“How can we end food insecurity and begin land reforms without sharing the problems of the common people. Why isn’t the common man’s issues a priority for us? You can’t go about starting a successful movement without including the common man and his issues. Why isn’t our action connected to our plans? We really need a serious movement for land reforms. If we don’t do anything now after even knowing what’s wrong in our farmers’ lives, then we should seriously look for structural problems among ourselves rather than speaking of the drawbacks in the structure of government organisations,” he said.The second session of the conference concentrated on fisheries and food sovereignty. The session was chaired by PFF vice president Mustafa Mirani.

Dr Ely Ercelan, who is associated with both the PFF and Piler, said that it was about time the farmers and fishermen of Sindh became self-sufficient.

He said that even after giving some land to the poor farmers, there would be enough left for the feudal.

He also spoke of collective rights to manage community-based assets. “Like, the owner of five acres may not be able to afford a tractor but he could always borrow it from another farmer who can afford a tractor.”.

PFF’s senior vice chairperson Tahira Ali Shah spoke of the rights of women fisherfolk. “Our men get arrested at sea by the Indian government. They are not terrorists, only fishermen. Where are the human rights to get us back our breadwinners?” she inquired, while pointing towards a little girl in the audience, the daughter of a fisherman serving a sentence in India after being caught by their coast guards in 1999.

“The girl, Nazia, is 13 today. She hasn’t known her father as she was still in her mother’s womb when her father Usman was arrested at sea. Her uncle Nawaz Ali Mohammad just returned in a casket from India. We have no idea about her father’s fate now,” she said.

Questioning the need of the sum of Rs1,000 per month given to the rural women through the Benazir Bhutto Income Support Programme, Ms Shah said: “It would have been better to open a centre or vocational training institute for women from that money instead”.