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Regassa Feyissa speaks to Pambazuka News Feyissa in this interview talks about the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the fallacy of food aid, knowledge systems in relation to traditional versus scientific and the need to create alternatives to AGRA

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Dr. Regassa Feyissa is the co-founder and Director of the Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA) and expert delegate to various international negotiations (International Undertaking, Global Plan of Action and the Convention on Biological Diversity). EOSA is leading a program on Agro-bio diversity in Ethiopia - with the goal of restoring and preserving genetic diversity.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Lets jump straight into the Rockefeller-Bill Gates initiative – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). What impact will it have on the continent?

REGASSA FEYISSA: First of all, Africa is a very rich continent in terms of ecological systems, farming systems, and production systems. Culture and preferences also vary across the continent. It is not a continent to which you can apply a standardized application as has been done in Asia and even Europe.

I was surprised to read that AGRA has over 200 crop varieties ready to be used in Africa. But what varieties of crops are they going to bring to Africa? As Mexico provided maize to the world, Africa provided sorghum. Sorghum resisted destruction from the first green revolution because it is such an energetic crop. It adapts itself anywhere from 400 meters to 6,000 meters. The first green revolution and its standardized systems could not match sorghum. Sorghum is distributed across various ecological requirements. We have been talking for the last 50 or so years about rice, maize and to some extent wheat. Africa has had maize for 500 years introduced from Mexico. We have rice for more than 1,000 years, which is still more stable.

We have different root crops, and different cereals which are forgotten because of the colonial system of forcing its own wills and wishes – thereby destroying and pushing out African resources. But still some of the crops resisted and Africans are still living on them.

So what crops will AGRA bring in is what interests me and I am surprised about the 200 varieties. Why were African farmers not consulted? One has to consult the stakeholders who will be affected.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Proponents of the Green revolution (in the 1960’s) always talk about successes in Latin America and Asia – Have they been as successful as they say? Are the farmer suicides in India an anomaly in an otherwise good system?

REGASSA FEYISSA: At the early stages production doubled and tripled. But that production level was merely for demonstration and could not to be reproduced over time. Up and till now farmers in India are still committing suicide. We have seen the South East Asia and Asian soils salinized, and farmers left without any options.

We can see the end-results of the first the green revolution in Latin America, Asia and even to some extent Africa where the colonial systems until recently dominated.

So this is the package that AGRA is promoting – and I am surprised that after all these experiences and information we have at the global level, that one can still come up with such crazy ideas. Is Africa short of food? Africa has plenty food. Why is there no concern for facilitating the flow of food in Africa?

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: In one your presentations you spoke about how during the 1980’s famine the Southern part of Ethiopia had lots of food while the North starved – yet food and aid were seen as the answer as opposed to finding ways of distributing food that was already in the country.

REGASSA FEYISSA: When the famine in Ethiopia happened, in the Southern and Southern West parts of Ethiopia, food was being dumped. There were no mechanisms and infrastructure to bring food from the South to the North.

This is similar in African countries- there is no effort, there is no investment to try and improve Africa’s resource base to such an extent that it is of use to the people. This is unless it is market and profit, driven.

There is so much emphasis on tea, on coffee and cocoa –whereas major food-crops such as root-crops, and cereals of different types were not even considered by the architects of the first green revolution.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What role does food aid play in Western imagination? On the one hand you have philanthropists coming to aid Africa – but in practice you have harmful practices such as giving western farmers subsidies, which depress the world market for the African farmer.

REGASSA FEYISSA: I think as an Ethiopian, we have a lot of experience in food aid. There were a lot of people who came to help – and we still owe them gratitude.

But with that said some of the volunteers who came to help had never seen wheat, barley or sorghum growing and they made a mess of things. For example, we ended up planting winter wheat. Most of the aid workers were [supposedly] coming as experts, but I know one bus driver who was the head of a medical center.

The aid was to stop people from dying. The country’s policy back then was to hide food in the Southern parts while millions died in the North…

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Was this punitive?

REGASSA FEYISSA: I really cannot say that it was for punishing because when the moment this phenomenon occurred, the politicians claimed that all was under control – at the expense of millions. But after the famine, aid became a tradition to such an extent that it destroyed the psychology of the people in the rural areas. As the population increased, this indiscriminate flow of aid really destroyed the psychology of society.

What aid leaves behind, is it not so much lesser than what Africa gives to the world?

Structural Adjustments Programs are still affecting African governments. We were not allowed to have market boards. Market boards only exist in powerful countries. African countries were asked not subsidize agriculture, public services and so on.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can we talk about some African centered solutions? Using African traditions, and African grains such as sorghum etc.

REGASSA FEYISSA: I am very concerned about the term traditional…

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Because it juxtaposes tradition and science?

REGASSA FEYISSA: What is scientific and what is not scientific? The scientist observes knowledge that has already been created. There are those who created that knowledge - but the scientist who observes claims his understanding is scientific, and that the other traditional. Tradition is used to mean backwards. This is absolutely wrong.

There is nothing static in nature – everything is passing through a process. There is no static knowledge. Knowledge is the interaction of humans and their environment that is changing. This is how knowledge expands and develops. The views and perceptions of the so-called scientific are based on the existing practical and pragmatic knowledge.

But no one can deny that there is a need, as long as time and opportunities allow for us to enhance knowledge and the practices referenced to as traditional. What makes so-called traditional knowledge different is that it is wide-based, whereas scientific knowledge is narrow. It is a child of practical knowledge. It is denying its parents – that is the danger – it remains hanging in the air.

And this is the disaster that the first green revolution was built upon. The first green revolution killed itself, it committed suicide –we shall see about the second one - by denying its parents.

Both traditional and modern knowledge are integrated, and support one another. Knowledge is not static. Anything that is static is dead.

Particularly for Africans, we have to enlarge our world outlook, practices and knowledge, but not by neglecting the modern one because time is subsistence itself. You have to qualify information and practices so that they match your livelihood and environment into the future.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Are there Pan-African solutions?

REGASSA FEYISSA: The perception that AGRA is coming to swallow you is a kind of… for me… I have never surrendered this way. Many surrendered, just gave up, in the first green revolution. Right now from the very beginning many are surrendering in the name of farmers; but we cannot do this on their behalf.

We have to think about alternatives. It is not about polarizing, it is about the capacity to come up with better alternatives to AGRA that counts – to show and teach those who for good or bad are coming up with these things. There are better ways.

In Africa, there is a lot of experience, expertise, and information but they are not compiled or documented. This is I think is why it is very easy for us to be divided, or have conflicts created amongst us. We have to organize ourselves and open up our doors to those who are here to genuinely help.

There is the perception that Africa should switch to agra-ecology. This is the wrong approach. Africa is already practicing agra-ecology. This is why we are trying to stop AGRA. It is disrupting our agra-ecological approaches and practices. It is actually us who are recommending agra-ecological approaches to North America and Europe.

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