Food for thought

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Academicians, NGO representative and grassroots communities came together to articulate a Malaysian response in the face of the global food price crisis, reports Jojo M Fung, SJ.

The global food crisis forum, held on 15 November 2008, was aimed at creating an occasion and opportunity to listen to the voices of the grassroots, as to what kind of impact the global-local food price crisis has had on their livelihoods A related second aim was to “funnel-up” their demands for sustainable livelihood and dignity to the authorities, in particular, the Members of Parliament who were apparently sitting till early December 2008.

The forum was organised by a group of concerned citizens involved with the grassroots, ‘under the flagship of Aliran’, supported by the Food Coalition and the Centre for Public Policies Studies (CPPS), and funded by the UN Country Team (UN-CT) for Malaysia.

About 120 people participated in the forum held in Shah’s Motel in Petaling Jaya. Many NGO representatives and concerned members of civil society were present. Most importantly, almost one half of the participants came from grassroots groups such as  Komuniti, Jaring, the Inshore Fishermen’s Welfare Association (Pifwa), Muafakat Warga Desa from the north; Gabungan Asli Selatan from the south, SPNS, Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semanjung (JKOAS), and Jalal from BB. Several migrant workers and single parents who did not belong to any particular organisation were also present. The occasion was graced by three participants from Pacos-Sabah and two from Panggan-Sarawak.

The forum comprised three central components:
•    a keynote address by Dr Subramanian Pillay that offered a framework for understanding the current food price crisis;
•    a session involving several people from the grassroots who spoke about how they and their communities were affected by the food price crisis; and
•    small group sessions involving all the participants who drew from their experiences as well as the points raised in the first two parts of the forum to discuss effective measures that ought to be taken to overcome the problems.  These groups also articulated the demands they sought from government. The major points from these group sessions were then presented to the entire assembly of participants.

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Following this, all participants turned their attention towards drafting a final statement that would capture and highlight the major issues raised as well as the demands sought. Academicians Khoo Kay Jin, Francis Loh and Subramaniam made some critical input at this juncture which helped the assembly to sharpen their focus.

Bahasa Malaysia was used throughout the forum, with occasional explanations in English, to facilitate better communication between the grassroots and the other participants.

Susah-ridden narratives

Some of the participants appreciated the forum as a space for bringing the minorities of Malaysia together in order to assert our democratic rights to a discursive assembly and speech. It was all part of the the struggle for the fundamental rights of all Malaysians, especially the grassroots, to sustainable livelihood and human dignity.

Others mentioned that it was a great occasion for learning by listening to what is happening at the grassroots amidst such crises. We could learn how the marginal communities negotiate the impact of the current global crises, what works and fails, and how else to maneuver one’s self to avoid the onslaught of the failure of global capitalism.

Indeed, this failure of neo-liberal capitalism has resulted in the global food, financial and ecological crises which are indeed interrelated. The few young intellectuals appreciated the “new” dynamics in this forum simply because the grassroots came together and vocalised their cries and concerns in the hope that the government will heed their concerted demands, which the many organisations of civil society endorsed at the end of the one-day forum.

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I was enthused by the dynamics of the forum. The interactive seminar was a rare and unique occasion in that it was participatory and multicultural. The forum facilitated mutual learning so that academicians and members of most of the city-based NGOs could be further enriched and informed by grassroots communities and energised by their everyday struggle and negotiation amidst the different crises of our times.

Their susah-ridden narratives not only “im-passionate” us to “funnel up” their concerns but also empower us to work to translate their concerns into policies that are pro-marginals. We need to come up with policies that alleviate their burden in the light of the  global crisis of price hikes of the basic commodities of life which constitute their fundamental right to sustenance.

Passionate struggle

In this passionate struggle in solidarity with the grassroots communities, the promotion of sustainable livelihood and dignity for them becomes all the more pertinent. Livelihood amongst the grassroots is only sustainable when they live with the fullest of human dignity with their rights honoured. What are these rights? The right to nutritious sustenance for families, a sufficient budget for the education of children and to set aside for a rainy day, and arable land for the indigenous peoples to cultivate and for producers to generate sufficient revenue.

On the whole, the forum proved to us that participatory and multicultural discourses are necessary and should be ongoing whenever global-local crises impact our lives and deprive grassroots communities of sustainable livelihood and dignity as equal citizens of Malaysia.

In the aftermath of the forum on the crisis of food price, a new team will be constituted to monitor the process of urging the MPs to bring up the demands of the forum in their parliamentary sessions. A press conference will be held on 27 November 2008 at Parliament. The team hopes that some of the MPs will take the occasion to articulate the demands of the grassroots. The monitoring team will continue to respond to the more urgent needs of the grassroots in terms of capacity-building such as setting up cooperatives and becoming more informed of the causes of the global crises.

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The team will step up efforts to initiate several community-based fora in 2009 – in one Malay village and three native villages where the forum will be held in the longhouse – in Sarawak. These would involve the marginalised and rural native and Malay communities, especially encouraging greater participation of the women in those communities. Special invitations to participate in one of the fora in Sarawak will also be extended to the native representatives of Sabah. The voices of the marginal communities will be “funnelled-up” so that their fundamental rights to arable land, sustainable livelihood and dignity will be respected by the relevant authorities and the state governments of Sarawak and Sabah.

Jojo M Fung SJ, a Sabahan, is a Jesuit priest. He also holds a PhD in anthropology and has conducted much research among the Orang Asal. Among his publications is his book Ripples on the Water: Believers in the Orang Asli’s Struggle for a Homeland of Equal Citizens (2003).

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Willetta Betcher

Hi! While some people residing in industrial nations take water and sanitation as a given, a projected 884 million people lack access to safe waters and a total of more than 2.6 billion folks don’t have accessibility to basic sanitation. Each year, greater than two million people die because of a not enough normal water and diseases due to contaminated water. Diarrhea, mainly caused by drinking infected water, is the second biggest root cause of the death of children below age of five.